When the Pima Indians asked Steve May for help, his passion for public affairs rose to the occasion.
If it hadn't been for tax codes, Steve May might not have known that his neighbors, the Pima Indians, were dying of diabetes. A former two-term Republican representative in the Arizona House, he served as chairman of its ways and means committee during his second term. When the Pimas came to him complaining of unfair taxation, he decided to take those complaints to the House. There he met with even more egregious behavior.
"I couldn't believe the things I heard people saying about the Indians, right out loud in the legislature. Flat-out bigoted comments, and I wasn't about to sit around and let them go," he recounts.
May sponsored a bill to bring tax relief to Native Americans. It didn't pass, but in the process he became a passionate advocate for local tribes. He left government at the end of 2002, after serving four years as an openly gay, pro-choice, fiscal conservative -- and he took his advocacy of Indians with him.
"Steve has all kinds of energy, gets lots of things done."
The former representative was in a unique position to help. Twenty-one years earlier, his father, Jim, had founded a small herbal products company now called Wisdom Herbs. Steve, 31, had joined the company in l995, after a stint in the Army's First Infantry Division that followed graduation from Claremont McKenna College in California. He whipped the herbal company into shape, kick-starting the transformation of a three-employee operation with an annual revenue of about $350,000 into a company that now employs 28 full-time workers, plus 60 independent sales reps, and last year sold just under $4 million worth of herbal products. "Steve has all kinds of energy, gets lots of things done," his father says, adding, "I'm now taking the role of Colonel Sanders. I know the herbs and I understand them."
One of the herbs Jim May brought back from his first trip to Paraguay in l982 is called stevia, a nice coincidence of name. Stevia is a noncaloric sweet plant that can be used as a sugar substitute (in l995 Congress declared that stevia could be used as a dietary supplement).
The plant, Steve May figured, could be used to ameliorate one of the biggest problems the Pimas face. According to the World Health Organization, this tribe has the highest incidence of adult-onset diabetes in the world, brought on by a dependence on junk food and inadequate health care. Steve and his father have donated $50,000 worth of stevia to the Gila River Indian Community. Well-known nutritionist and author Ann Louise Gittleman raves about the Mays, calling stevia "a winner" and "truly healthful."
May hopes that stevia, part of the company's best-selling Sweet Leaf line, will not only aid the Pimas in conquering diabetes but will become, in his words, "one of the great consumer brands of the world." He also plans to build Wisdom Herbs into a $40 million company. And then what? The former high school class president, the kid who used to carry a copy of the Bill of Rights in his backpack, has a ready answer. "Then," he says, "I can go back to politics."