If you ask Kelechi Okere, his career path has been, well, fun. Once he graduated from college, he spent a few years working with various companies in different industries as a strategy consultant. During this short stint, he quickly realized what he loved: helping consumer-focused brands grow.
So when his close friend and former college teammate, Victor Davanzo, told him about the company he’d recently founded—RSP Nutrition—he as instantly intrigued. Knowing their skillsets matched fairly well, he became involved as a partner early on. While in start-up mode, he played a back-office role to start handling finance, accounting and operations. As the business has boomed over the past decade, he’s taken on a more significant role as the Executive Vice President of Business Development.
Okere took some time to chat with The Ladders about trends within his industry, balancing work and life, and what he’s experienced as a person of color:
What are the trends you see within your industry currently?
We’re seeing a real shift towards convenience, cleaner, easier to understand products and a huge emphasis on e-commerce. Many of these trends have been growing in the last few years—but, COVID-19 has really pushed some of these to the next level. Though it’s certainly been a challenging year in this country, we’re fortunate to be growing and have some great innovative products launching this summer.
How would you describe your company culture?
I’d say that we’re an energetic, entrepreneurial and data-driven bunch. We’re a bootstrapped company in our 11th year, so we’ve always had to be lean and rigorous in our decision making. We like to move fast and encourage our employees at all levels to share new ideas, no matter how large or small. With that approach, we also expect folks to share their hypotheses, plans and results throughout the process.
Since we’re in the food and wellness space, we always find ways to have fun, even in the quarantine/social distancing world. Before COVID, we hosted some enjoyable quarterly outings—from paintball to ax throwing and escape room events. Recently, we’ve done socially distanced yoga and fitness challenges. It might sound crazy or cheesy, but I honestly look forward to seeing and interacting with the crew on our weekly Zoom meetings!
What can a job applicant do to catch your attention? What stands out the most to you?
We hire for capability more than specific experience. So, we aren’t necessarily only looking for people who’ve had long careers in the food or supplement industry. At the same time, we do value folks who have a passion for wellness and fitness. Candidates with great academic backgrounds and leadership experience also tend to catch our attention. As a growing company, we are always looking for people who are comfortable taking on new challenges, so we love to interview people who have delivered results in a wide range of roles.
What’s the most challenging part of being a leader/manager? What’s the best part?
The most challenging part is definitely leading while simultaneously learning a new aspect of our business. Our industry is fast-paced with an ever-changing landscape, so I’m often learning alongside the employees who report to me. Sometimes it’s hard to give clear direction when things are new or uncertain.
The best part is working with so many talented and passionate people. The level of determination and focus that our employees have exhibited this year is truly inspiring. As a leader, I’m motivated daily because I get to work with such an awesome group.
What’s your advice for tackling big projects at a company-wide level?
One of the first key steps is to get buy-in and participation at each level of the organization. Some companies fall into the trap of merely giving direction on a big change or initiative without sharing the context and underlying motivations. We find that it’s important to share ‘the why’ behind big projects and also encourage employees throughout the organization to play an active role in big projects. We’ve learned over time—through successes and failures—that this approach produces the best results and a healthy work environment for our employees.
How do you keep your staff motivated? How do you motivate yourself?
Recognizing that every employee is unique, we try to tailor our approach to each individual. Sure, some things are relatively standardized (e.g., compensation, title changes, etc.), but we also try to learn enough about our employees to partner with them in their professional development. We find that when we give employees an opportunity to work on a passion project or develop in a new area, everyone benefits.
I’m easy to motivate! Kidding… to be honest, entrepreneurship can feel like a grind like many other careers. One great source of motivation is hearing customers’ stories. From time to time, I’ll read and reflect on customers’ reviews, social media comments and email messages. These are a great reminder that what we do has a positive impact and always gives me a boost.
How do you find a balance between work and life demands?
Routines are pretty important when it comes to work-life balance. Work is exciting and demanding, so you can always take another phone call, review another report or send one final email. Having scheduled family and personal time helps. With family, we have scheduled storytime with our 5-year-old, eat meals together, have movie nights, and ‘attend’ church remotely on Sundays. Personally, I try to make time for regular exercise and pleasure reading—not always easy—but those things help as well.
What are some of the challenges you have faced as a POC in this industry?
As I think we’ve seen discussed quite a bit recently, bias and discrimination in corporate America often lies beneath the surface and can be difficult to detect. I’m conscious that, as a Black man, my actions—good or bad—can be perceived as representative of my race. It’s a unique part of the experience for any POC, especially in industries like food and wellness, where there are few POC in leadership positions.
Though it’s not unique to food and wellness, I’d say the last month or so has been challenging as a leader, parent and individual. On the professional front, it’s been difficult to find the right way to communicate our feelings and intended actions on racial injustice publicly. This hasn’t been super easy—considering the everyday challenges of running a business in COVID, raising two Black children and reflecting on my own wounds from dealing with racism. I’m thankful to be running the company with a friend of almost 20 years. I think that friendship made it easier to be authentic, open and productive during this difficult time.
How do you feel about the current climate in America right now in regards to race? Is it changing your work culture?
I think it’s great that there is a dialogue across the country and world regarding America’s present and historic challenges with race. I’ve also been pleased to see several organizations—from schools and universities to governments and corporations—develop concrete racial justice plans. Naturally, it will be critical for these organizations to review and measure results at regular intervals to ensure they’re making progress. I’ve been encouraged by what I’ve seen thus far.
Again, I’m fortunate to have an awesome partner and a talented and diverse team at RSP. I wouldn’t say that the current climate is changing our work culture, but we have used it to look closer at our approach to inclusion in the workplace. In recent weeks, we conducted training on implicit bias that fostered some great dialogue among our staff. From that session, we’ve started working on some initiatives to better tie our business goals to serving under-resourced communities, including, but not limited to, the Black community. It’s something we’ve always aimed to do informally, but we feel there’s more we can do in this area.