Kickstarter campaigns are a dime a dozen, but Health Warrior, a small Richmond, VA-based natural foods startup, is in the final stretch of a crowdfunding effort that deserves a shout-out.
The maker of mostly chia-based protein bars has launched a campaign to raise at least $40,000 to support a farm restoration project in Mexico's drought-ravaged Copper Canyons, the home of the Tarahumara Indian tribe. Their legendary marathon runners, fueled by chia seeds, inspired the company's founders to start their business in the first place.
Of course, it's not unusual for companies to test the waters on new products through a crowdfunding campaign. But in this case, the campaign, which rewards participants with their new cayenne-spiked Mexican chocolate chia bar, among other perks, is really about making good on the cofounders' longstanding promise to help the Tarahumara.
In essence, it boils down to staying true to your mission, cofounder and CEO Shane Emmett, 38, tells me. "When the company launched with Whole Foods in 2012, one of our first thought was how to give back to the Tarahumara who inspired us as much with their lifestyle as their food," he says.
Flash back to six years ago, when attorney Emmett had just left the administration of outgoing Gov. Tim Kaine (the Democrat who would later become Hillary Rodham Clinton's running mate) and was looking for a new meaningful direction for his life. Emmett and two college buddies, Nick Morris and Daniel Gluck--all three of them "aging college athletes"-- decided to start a healthy snack food business. The cofounders were motivated by two books: "The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan, an exploration of Americans' often dubious food choices, and "Born to Run," by Christopher McDougall, chronicling the story of the Tarahumara whose astounding long-distance running skills put other mere marathoners to shame.
The Tarahumara runners can traverse hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain at a time, either running barefoot or in simple homemade sandals.The community eats a mostly plant-based diet, with an occasional goat roast for a special occasion, like the visit from Emmett and other members of the Health Warrior team to celebrate the harvest.
The Copper Canyons, home of the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico. Photo courtesy of Health Warrior.
The company has come a long way since its inception, when Emmett was stashing 25,000 pounds of chia seeds in his baby daughter Ella's bedroom and selling their protein bars and bags of chia seeds exclusively online.
"We started small and grew rapidly," Emmett says. After the Wall Street Journal got wind of how NFL players were using the bars as part of their training diet, sales skyrocketed on Amazon. Then came national distribution through Whole Foods. While the company hasn't released its 2016 numbers yet, Emmett tells me that revenue grew about 40% last year, and the company is on target to sell 22 million protein bars in 2017. There are 35 full-time employees and 60-70 part time employees. The company' is presently rolling out a new line of bars made with pumpkin seeds in Wegman's supermarkets.
Health Warrior execs learned just how badly the drought was affecting the Tarahumara's traditional lifestyle last year during an event sponsored by the company at the Boston Marathon, which was attended by Harvard researchers who work with the tribe and one of the Tarahumara athletes.
The company figured it could apply startup knowhow to create Farm & Run, testing out their concept with just one seven-acre farm. Health Warrior picked up the tab for fertilizer and soil restoration, weeding, basic irrigation equipment and seeds. "We did this very quietly. It was an experiment, we wanted to make sure it helped them and that it worked."
And it did. Emmet and his crew went down for the December harvest. The farm employed 10-12 people for six months, meaning an entire family got fed. "The farm came back to life," he says.
Health Warrior is launching a new chocolate chia bar to help fund its Farm & Run project to help the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico. Photo courtesy of Health Warrior.
Now that they're scaling up, the goal is to help replenish more moribund farms and build up seed stocks, allowing the Tarhumara to farm sustainably and to begin to supply the company with some chia seeds for the new chocolate chia bar.
"Operation Farm and Run allowed us to not only bring more meaning to the brand, but truly help an inspirational culture we can all learn about," says Emmett.
Long-term, the goal is to help the Tarahumara reinvigorate their agriculture, preserve their culture and lifestyle and provide an income stream from commercial farming. The plan is to restore at least two more farms this year.
As a mission-driven company that preaches the virtues of better health for a stronger society, the Farm & Run campaign was a natural fit, Emmett tells me. What he didn't expect was an offer from Whole Foods to launch their new chocolate chia bar nationally. Health Warrior plans to donate 10% of the proceeds from the product to fund Farm & Run.
Health Warrior because of its investments in rapid expansion, still hasn't turned a profit. (That's coming soon, Emmett assures me. ) But that hasn't stopped Emmett from pursuing his social goals while working long-term to reward the company's loyal investors, who range from numerous friends and family to professional athletes to VMG Partners, a private equity fund.
"I think it's awesome that a private-equity backed, high-growth CPG [consumer packaged goods] company can create incredible value not only by innovating with good-for-you food but also tilt at windmills for important missions like our current adventures in the Canyons," Emmett says.
The Farm & Run campaigns ends on March 15 at 6:30 p.m. EDT. They've already surpassed their goal, albeit a modest one,but a final sprint could yield even greater returns, by raising more funds and publicizing the mission.
"I like to tell the troops that while we have come far and fast, it is still early. Before sunrise. We are just getting started," Emmett says.