Daniel Lubetzky, the founder and CEO of KIND Snacks, remembers exactly how he felt earlier this year when he was tapped by the White House to be a Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship (PAGE).
“I’m not particularly partisan,” Lubetzky tells Fast Company. “I agree with President Obama on many fronts, though I also disagree with him on some issues. But when you’re invited to the Oval Office, you become like Silly Putty. You’re just overwhelmed by the office of the president, and you want to do your part to help your country.”
President Obama has been a keen proponent of entrepreneurship since he came into office. He started with his own administration: Last month, Fast Company published a cover story about Obama’s efforts to recruit top tech talent from companies like Google and Facebook to reboot the government, applying the principles of a lean startup to make it more efficient and technologically advanced.
In the private sector, he’s created several initiatives to stimulate creativity in business. In April 2014, Obama launched the PAGE program and tapped top entrepreneurs, like Lubetzky, fashion designer Tory Burch, and Airbnb founder Brian Chesky, to collaborate with the White House, the Department of Commerce, and the Department of State. The idea of the program is for these successful businesspeople to inspire other entrepreneurs around the world by giving talks and workshops. More practically, the hope is that these leaders with expand networks and increase deal-flow between investors and entrepreneurs.
With Demo Day, which is taking place across the country today, he’s hoping to tap into the entrepreneurial spirit of average Americans, particularly minorities who are not connected to mentors and networks of capital that could help them take their business ideas off the ground. The White House blog points out that 87% of U.S. venture capital-backed business founders are white, 12% are Asian, and less than 1% are African American, while less than 3% of companies that receive venture capital funding have a woman CEO.
Obama’s Demo Day plays on the idea of corporate demo days in which big companies showcase their technology to potential investors. The White House Demo Day is far more democratic; it involves innovators from around the country “demoing” their success stories and inviting everyday Americans with bright business ideas to gain access to resources that might help them. There will be events in Washington, D.C., to bring established entrepreneurs into contact with people just starting out. But around the country, other companies, foundations, and accelerators will be hosting similar events.
Lubetzky, for instance, is doing his part on Demo Day by investing $3 million in three small women-led startups—GimMe Health Foods, 479 Degrees, and EatPops—that are also trying to innovate in the healthier snack-food space, an industry in which he has had some success. Besides providing funding, he’ll work closely with them to help them succeed in a competitive market.
Lubetzky started KIND in 2004 with five people, and reached $1 million in sales in his first year. The company makes fruit and nut bars that are a healthier alternative to junk food or processed granola bars. Today, sales exceed $120 million, the products are available in 150,000 stores, and KIND’s staff is currently up to 450.
The success of the brand, Lubetzky says, is a product of earlier stumbles, and he wants to share his experiences with this new crop of entrepreneurs. Before KIND, he had a company called PeaceWorks that sold Mediterranean food items made by Arabs and Israelis together, in an effort to promote peace in the Middle East. It was a grand idea, but Lubetzky says his focus was all wrong. “I was trying to get as many products on the shelves as I possibly could,” he explains. “We weren’t obsessing about the quality of the product, and this disappointed our customers.”
With KIND, Lubetzky focused entirely on product innovation and quality. He then invited customers and stores to sample his product, hoping that the taste and the premium ingredients would speak for themselves. This strategy worked, and before long, retailers were coming to him, rather than the other way around.
For small emerging brands, receiving funding and advice from a successful player in the space can be the difference between taking off and falling flat. Sophie Milrom, the founder of EatPops, says being a woman in the crowded health-food market made things even harder. She launched her line of chemical-free frozen desserts made of juices by going from store to store pitching her product, meeting with only moderate success. “At a certain point, this industry really felt like a boy’s club,” Milrom says. “There were times when the buyer of one store knew the owner of the brokerage company who knew the president of the sales and marketing company. As an outsider, I couldn’t get a meeting with any of them.”
In his role as an entrepreneurship ambassador, Lubetzky felt that it was important to help entrepreneurs like Milrom. He learned about EatPops through a fellow parent at his child’s daycare center; he took an immediate interest in her company, since it seemed similar to his own. On Demo Day, he is announcing his partnership with EatPops, as well as the two other snack companies, contributing to the flurry of White House-sanctioned entrepreneurship events happening around the country.
But Lubetzky particularly wants to help minorities who tend to have a difficult time breaking into what often feel like closed business networks. He was born in Mexico as the son of a Holocaust survivor; he was the first in his family to complete college. “I don’t ever forget where I came from,” Lubetzky says. “I’m an immigrant who had great opportunities in this country. I want to place a particular focus on helping underrepresented entrepreneurs. And it just so happens that this is central to the White House’s Demo Day initiative.”