Most of the time life doesn't go the way you plan -- and yet it often works out better than you could have dreamed.
That's definitely true for Doug Rauch, the founder of Daily Table, a not-for-profit venture that prepares and packages food at deeply discounted prices to make healthy eating more affordable. (Before that he was the President of Trader Joe's.)
And that's why Doug is another in my series of interviews related to the Strayer University Readdress Success program, an initiative intended to redefine success as "happiness derived from good relationships and achieving personal goals." (Strayer has launched a petition through Change.org to change the Merriam-Webster definition. Sign the petition, and Strayer will donate 50 cents to Dress for Success, a nonprofit that promotes the economic independence of disadvantaged women.)
You've had an incredible career in groceries and retail, but that wasn't your initial goal.
When I graduated from college I had a buddy working in the food industry. He was the general manager for the first national food wholesaler in America.
He said, "I need some help down in the warehouse, come on down and help me." I said, "Whoa, I didn't go to college to go work in a warehouse." I was twenty-one years old, and what did I know?
He said, "No, No, just come on down and help out." So I did, and I found myself with this group of really young and idealistic people. I had fun and before I knew it I became General Manager and Vice President of the company.
Then the company got sold and I went to work for a little company that very few people knew about in Southern California called Trader Joe's. It was founded by and run at that time by Joe Coulombe.
Joe was an amazing person to work for. I really enjoyed working with him. He was an incredibly bright and creative entrepreneur, a real renaissance man. One day, about twelve years into it, I woke up and thought, "Oh my gosh, I'm a grocer."
That's my career. I never knew it was going to happen.
How did you find Trader Joes? Or did they find you?
Trader Joe's was a very small company. I think there were nine Trader Joe's in Los Angeles.
When you walked into a Trader Joe's it was very much like a convenient store except it had a great private label line section. When I started we had Wonder bread, Hostess cupcakes, Coke, Pepsi, cigarettes, and Campbell soup. The average person would think, "Oh my gosh, you're kidding."
My job was to figure out how to create a private label food program. I was lucky to be there at a pivotal moment -- I had the opportunity to work with a great team of people and help redefine the way America thinks about private label and the food industry in general.
Was there a specific moment when you knew the company was about to take off?
Joe Coulombe retired from Trader Joe's in 1989. He had a buddy, John Shields, who came on board as CEO. John had helped grow Mervyn's, a big department store chain. At at that time Trader Joe's was growing by one store a year. He took a close look and said, "Gee, is there any reason why this great model can't grow by more than one or two stores a year?"
That was at the same time I realized I better go get a business education because I could see that there was an opportunity: I wanted to make sure that I could do my best to help the company and get called on when the chance came to grow in my career.
John Shields saying, "This is a great concept, why are we not sharing this with more people in the world?" was a pivotal moment.
What was your biggest takeaway from your time at Trader Joes?
After thirty-one years, my takeaway from Trader Joe's is that a great concept isn't enough. Ideas aren't enough. You need to have great execution.
Trader Joe's was and is a company that has a maniacal focus on the customer.
That's my second takeaway: if you are truly taking care of your customers, they will take care of you.
You recently launched Daily Table, an innovative non-profit solution to the issue of "food waste." What is the premise behind the company?
We have this absolutely unbelievable paradox: we are one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world in terms of food production... and yet one out of six Americans are food insecure. They don't eat properly simply for economic reasons.
We have all the food we need to feed our population a good diet. What's wrong with this picture?
I did a two year fellowship at Harvard at their Advanced Leadership Initiative and hatched the idea of Daily Table out of that. The first step was really understanding the problem because if you're not careful you'll try to solve the wrong problem.
That almost happened to me. My first thought was, "One in six Americans are hungry, so let's get them something to eat. We'll collect bread from supermarkets and bring it down to the food banks and they will distribute it."
Well, not so fast. Hunger is not a shortage of calories for most of the forty-nine million Americans involved. It's a shortage of nutrients. So the solution isn't a full stomach. It's a healthy meal. That is far more difficult to deliver.
Another big awakening for for me happened when I talked with Vicki Escarra, who was the CEO and President of Feeding America. She said the number one problem they faced in getting people to use their services was maintaining dignity. People didn't want a hand-out. They felt ashamed. They felt embarrassed.
I started thinking about how true that is that one of the fundamental needs we have as human beings is a feeling of dignity and self respect. It turns out most Americans are more starving for dignity more than for food.
That's why Daily Table was designed around delivering affordable nutrition in a manner that engenders dignity and self respect.
Startups are never easy to launch. Were there any challenges you overcame that made the business stronger?
Not to take a potshot at an easy target... but the IRS.
It took almost two and a half years to get our 501c3 approved because they just didn't like the idea that we were going to collect food and bring it into a retail setting. They didn't like that we were going to collect food and then sell it, even if it's for pennies on the dollar.
We thought the 501c3 filing would be easy. Our lawyers said, "Oh yeah, you're clearly a non profit." We really are. We are a hunger relief health agency masquerading as a retail store. We don't carry anything that doesn't meet strict nutritional guidelines, hence you won't find any soda in our store. You won't find any candy bars. You won't find any high sodium chips, products, etc.
That was a tough one.
The other thing that was hard was getting the rest of the hunger relief agencies to understand we were not trying to compete with them. We are trying to reach a sector of the population they are not reaching because they're really hard to reach: working people that are economically challenged but simply won't use a soup kitchen or approved pantry, etc. They want to maintain their dignity yet they can't afford to eat what they should be eating.
Since you are technically "retired," is this you intend to spend the rest of your years?
I believe in lifelong learning. I think when you're done learning, you're not living.
I don't know what the rest of my life will look like. What I do know is that I'm not that different from most people in that meaning and purpose comes when from being engaged in something larger than yourself.
Many people chase happiness, but it's better to chase purpose and meaning because happiness comes from leading a meaningful, purposeful life. Happiness is hard to sustain without it being grounded in a feeling you are living a meaningful and purposeful life.
Looking back, what do you wish you could tell the 25 or 30 year-old you?
First of all, "Stay true to your core values." I like to think I have, but I would still remind myself.
Next is, "Culture eats strategy for lunch." Peter Drucker said that, and I didn't embrace it as early as I'd like to. Culture really matters. It's the DNA of every company and is so critical.
Make sure you're aligning with, and growing cultures that are full of trust because without trust, you can't take risk, and without risk, you won't innovate... and if you're not innovating, you're going to die because the marketplace is changing constantly.
You're either adapting or you're dying. If you don't have a culture of trust and a culture of caring, then you're in trouble.
How do you define success?
Success is not a destination. It's a process or a path.
Do your values and your actions align? Is your purpose lived out in a manner that fully benefits yourself and the world?
If so, you're successful.