From the Desks of the Executive Directors

March 14th 2019

by Vicki Reich and Abigail Harris

As Abigail and I were planning out this quarter’s e-Journal, we were trying to decide who would write the letter from the ED or would we each write one.  There were drawbacks to both of those choice so we chatted about it a little longer and came up with a third choice we were both excited about; we would interviewed each other!

Vicki: What excites you most about stepping into the role of ED?
Abigail: I’m enthusiastic about working with all the dynamic members of Provender Alliance. In the Provender Ends Statement posted on the website, there is a phrase that I love: “Provender members are motivated, influential, passionate leaders.” I want to support the growth and visibility of our members as the leaders they truly are in this community and bring that inspiration to the natural products world.

At Provender, I see that all parts of the industry are gathered to create a vibrant tapestry of diverse members. There are independent retailers, manufacturers, farmers, co-operatives, brokers, and distributors. I’m inspired by many of the shared values I see woven among the membership: economic justice, fair trade, organic/regenerative farming, and more.

I’m also excited to develop new programs and benefits to provide throughout the year, so that our members get even more out of being part of Provender Alliance. We’ll start rolling some of these out in the coming months–keep an eye open. I see stepping into the role as incoming Executive Director as a wonderful opportunity to bring my business and marketing experience to an organization and community whose work I believe in.

Abigail: What have you enjoyed most about being ED at Provender?
Vicki: If I had to pick one thing, I’d have to say putting together the conference. I like finding the workshops and presenters that attendees will enjoy and learn from.  I’ve really enjoyed working with all the volunteers and coordinating with the hotel to make sure the experience is seamless. And then I love it when all the planning pays off and everyone has a great time.

Abigail: How is it different from your 8 years on the board?
Vicki: The work I did on the board was much more big picture thinking.  Why does Provender exist? What makes us different? How do we govern ourselves and supervise the ED.

The job of the ED is much more about implementing the ideas that the board comes up with and keeping up with the day-to-day work of the organization and, of course, planning the conference.  That said, I think I wasn’t great about separating myself from the board while acting as the ED. I was right in there with discussions about Strategic Planning and pushing the board to think about the big picture of where Provender fits in to the future of the natural products community.

Vicki: This is your first job in the Natural Products community, where does your passion for natural foods and products originate?
Abigail: My passion began with a backpacking trip I took with a friend of mine the summer I was 15 years old. On the drive from San Francisco to Yosemite, I had some Dr. Bronner’s in my pack because I’d been told to use biodegradable soap when washing near mountain streams and lakes. That was my first introduction to the connection between the products we use and the wellbeing of the natural environment surrounding us. Ever since then, natural products have been a staple in my life, and natural foods stores and farmers markets a touchstone.

Vicki: Since most of our members don’t know what you did before you started working for Provender, can you tell us what you are most proud of accomplishing in your past work?
Abigail: I’ve been an entrepreneur for the last 20+ years, first co-founding and running a wholesale gemstone business, and more recently as a marketing strategist helping values-driven businesses with increasing both their impact and income.

In my own gemstone company’s history, there was a critical point in our business where we hit a “wall” in terms of declining income and customers. Sales sagged, and the customers we had weren’t ordering in the numbers we needed to sustain the business, much less grow it and thrive.

The urgency to create a turnaround required us to get creative in ways we hadn’t done before. Our company was known for innovative products in the gem industry, but we needed that bold thinking applied to our whole business, not just our products.

The reversal required strategic thinking to identify the changing needs of our customers. It revealed what was necessary to revise within our company to meet those needs. This lead to actions that successfully overcame the challenges we were facing.

Abigail: You told me that you attended your first conference in 1995, how has your experience with Provender for the last 23 years changed you or influenced you?
Vicki: I think it has had a huge influence in my life.  I think I am a better manager, a smarter business owner, and a more productive member of my local community because of all the things I’ve learned by being a part of Provender.  There are so many times when I do something in my day-to-day life where I can point directly to a Provender experience or a workshop or a board meeting for the germ of the idea or behavior I’m exhibiting.  A perfect example is the conversation you and I had the other day. I prefaced the conversation with a discussion about how it might be an uncomfortable conversation to have. I learned that technique from a workshop with Carolee Colter at a conference years ago.

Abigail: Which contribution are you most proud of in your years with Provender?
Vicki: You’re making me pick one thing again!  I’d have to say coming up with the One Person Can Make a Difference Scholarship.  When Craig Winters died, I really wanted the board to do something to honor him and the amazing work he had done to label GMOs.  The scholarship was the way I believed we could help his legacy live on.

Vicki: Craig Winters was a hero to me, so who’s your natural products hero or who would you most like to meet?
Abigail: I would pick master herbalist Dr. Richard Schulze. He’s an old-school “health revolutionary” who makes potent herbal formulas for cleansing and healing. He speaks out against Big Pharma, and focuses on pure, clean ingredients. He’s brash and outspoken, and deeply committed to people healing themselves naturally. My medicine cabinet is full of his products.

Some other folks that interest me are the four original brothers from Lundberg Rice. I like the story of how they started their company, selling directly to the public to differentiate their organic rice from conventionally grown.  My spouse and I sometimes play a game when we’ve got a package of Lundberg rice cakes on the kitchen table: We try to remember the names of the four brothers without looking at the package. All their names are from a bygone era, and it’s fun trying to remember. It’s kind of corny, and we have a great time. I’m curious if anyone else in the Provender community can guess the brothers’ names. Here’s a hint: One starts with an “E”, another starts with a “W”, and the last two start with an “H”. Let me know if you can guess them all.

Vicki: Here’s a tough one: what do you think people admire most about you?
Abigail: This feels awkward to answer because it feels like I’m tooting my own horn! But since you asked, feedback that I hear from friends is that they feel “fully seen” by me in their wholeness, affirming of them in their own uniqueness.

Abigail: Now it’s your turn.  What do you think people admire most about you?
Vicki: I’ve been told I’m a generous person.  I do like to share and I like to share not just financially but intellectually and emotionally. I really enjoy sharing my love of knitting with others.  I sat next to a perfect stranger on a plane recently. She pulled out some knitting and I asked her about it. She was a new knitter and I immediately offered to help her if she ran into problems during the flight.  I watched her knit for a while then asked if she’d like me to teach her a faster way to knit. I spent the rest of the flight giving an impromptu knitting lesson instead of reading the book I was totally engrossed in.

Abigail: Enough of the serious questions, what’s your Superpower?
Vicki: Computer problems fix themselves in my presence.  I know that sounds weird but I can’t tell you how many times people will call me over to a computer that isn’t working correctly and as soon as I look at it and try to reproduce the problem, it works just fine.  It drives them nuts.

Abigail: Not that I think anyone else will find mine interesting. But I do find YOUR superpower interesting. I know people who, when they stand near electronic devices, their energy does the opposite — it MESSES UP the computers, phones, sound equipment, etc.

My superpower is the ability to detect a hidden accent when a person is speaking English. Although no one else hears any subtle nuances, I often can, even if the speaker was 5 years old when they came to America. I’m usually able to tell whether they were originally  from Eastern Europe, South America, Asia, etc. Sometimes even the exact country.

Vicki: I think that is a very cool superpower.  I’m a bit tone deaf when it comes to accents, I can’t tell where people are from even when I’m in that country.

Abigail: Okay, last question: What are your future plans when you leave Provender?
 I really haven’t let myself think about it too seriously.  The board has asked me to stay on and train you through this year’s conference.  October seems like too far away to start thinking about next steps. That said, I have been entertaining the idea of writing a book on left-handed knitting and possibly helping to open either a non-profit or cooperatively run yarn store in Sandpoint.  I’m definitely going to spend more time working on the beer store my husband and I own. I’m also going to try and leave some space in my life for something new to arise. I have a habit of over-committing myself and I’d like to have a stress-free breather for at least a week or two.

Abigail: Only a week or two? That’s madness! You should definitely give yourself enough time to unwind for a fresh perspective on what comes next.

Vicki, doing this interview together has been great for transitioning into the role of Executive Director–thanks!  I appreciate you making this first letter from the “Desk of the Executive Director”  both fun and informative.