The Path to Social Entrepreneurship: Hard Work and Honest Tea | Net Impact

The Path to Social Entrepreneurship: Hard Work and Honest Tea

Seth Goldman, President & Tea-EO, Honest Tea

Seth presides over one of the greenest (and most successful) beverage companies in the world, Honest Tea. The Huffington Post recently ranked his company as one of the leading “Eight Revolutionary Socially Responsible Companies.” The funny thing is that Seth began his career as a nonprofit activist, never envisioning that he would run a major for-profit consumer products company – green or otherwise.

The lead-up

Although he’d always had an entrepreneurial spirit, Seth spent the early part of his career developing his gift for communications. He spent time in government as deputy press secretary for Texas senator Lloyd Bentsen and later worked in the nonprofit field with AmeriCorps.

However, when Seth paused to attend the Yale School of Management, he started exploring ways to bring his nonprofit ethos into the business world. He did some initial research with his professor Barry Nalebuff on creating a not-too-sweet beverage company – something that could make a better drink while embracing a social mission. Yet it wasn’t until after business school, when he was managing marketing and sales for the Calvert Group, that Seth finally decided to go after the idea.

From nonprofit activist to socially responsible businessman

Seth couldn’t let it go. The idea of Honest Tea (a name coined by Barry) was just too enticing. “The way tea is grown, the role it plays in communities in terms of employment, but also as a medium through which friendships are established,” Seth opines. “It became a really wonderful connection.”

And so in 1998 Seth took a huge leap. He reconnected with Barry. He quit his job at Calvert, dumbfounding his employer. He started experimenting with tea recipes in his kitchen, using real tea leaves, not the low-quality “dust” used in most mainstream tea drinks. Once he got the formula right, he repurposed Snapple bottles to hold his concoctions and, with enormous chutzpah, walked in and pitched the folks at Whole Foods.

When asked how he was able to take such a big risk, Seth is surprisingly calm. “We just had to believe it was going to work,” he says matter-of-factly. “It was more an act of faith and persistence. There was a lot of work and challenge, especially in the early years. It certainly didn’t take off overnight.”

Hard-won success

Success took time. But over the next several years, Honest Tea started showing up on more and more shelves. It helps that Seth’s product was delicious and that his marketing chops were finely tuned. By March 2011, Honest Tea was a hugely desired brand and was acquired by Coca-Cola, massively expanding its distribution reach. Yet Seth made it a point to maintain the company’s mission and values. This means the continuation of Fair Trade policies, community-based partnerships, and marketing partnerships with organizations such as City Year and RecycleBank.

Seth's advice

We asked Seth for some perspective on mission-driven entrepreneurship, especially for people who are at the beginning of their careers.

Trial-by-fire is a great proving ground: While formal training and mentorship programs at mission-driven start-ups are not common, the broad exposure to roles and responsibilities, faster pace, and more intense dynamic will prepare you for the rest of your career in ways that more traditional organizations won’t.

Offer up your skills to gain experience: Take on projects that require you to work directly with a company, such as writing a business plan. You’ll build relationships with great people, meet mentors, and also become familiar with how a company actually works.

Build your network through dialogue: Go to events like the Net Impact Conference and attend the smaller panels. Asking a thoughtful question and engaging in candid small group discussion is a powerful way to become part of a community.

Don’t just interview: Take a look around. Check out what the physical workplace of a potential employer is actually like. Visit at a time when you can see people interact during the course of their workday. Is it noisy and social? Is it all cubicles? It’s also a good idea to seek out someone who’s in a similar role to the one you’re interviewing for, and reach out to them. What do they really do all day?

Seth’s biggest advice is to stay focused on what inspires you. Remaining true to yourself might raise the stakes, but the reward is so much more fulfilling.