IC’s Director of Entrepreneur Programs, Renata Hron Gomez, recently sat down with #FundedbyIC entrepreneur, Tyler Gage, the co-founder of RUNA, to learn more about the company’s impact, growth, goals, and lessons learned over the past nine years.
RUNA is a Brooklyn, NY and Quito, Ecuador-based beverage social enterprise that aims to create sustainable livings for thousands of rainforest farmers and their families while preserving the natural environment. RUNA was the first company to commercialize guayusa, a plant native to the Western Amazon whose leaves have been a staple of the region’s indigenous populations for thousands of years. RUNA has grown into one of the 500 Fastest Growing Companies in the US according to Inc. Magazine. Gage has been named a Forbes “30 Under 30 Entrepreneur” and has won both the Big Apple Entrepreneur of the Year Award and the Specialty Food Association’s Citizen Leader of the Year Award. He has also been featured by ABC Nightline, National Geographic, and in Richard Branson’s book for his unique and powerful approach to building businesses and creating social good.
Renata: What led you to create RUNA?
Tyler: During my first year at Brown University, I enrolled in a class called “Religion Gone Wild, Spirituality and the Natural Environment” where there was a strong emphasis on indigenous populations relating to the natural world. I was then invited by my professor to spend the summer in the Amazon helping conduct research. This summer invitation turned into two years, where I traveled throughout Latin America, learning from indigenous communities and the intersection between people and the rainforest. There was an incredibly sophisticated relationship between native communities and their environment that I was honored to witness, yet I also saw the reality of people needing to make money. Their path towards making money was cutting trees – essentially the resource that could sustain them. Upon my return to college, my best friend Dan and I took an entrepreneurship class where we created a business plan for what eventually became RUNA. We won Rhode Island’s business plan competition and instead of pursuing more “traditional” careers, we moved to the Amazon two days after graduation to launch the company.
Renata: What is RUNA’s mission, and how do you measure impact?
Tyler: RUNA is a Kichwa term that translates to “fully alive human being.” For the Kichwa people, it is a term of immense cultural importance. As a company, RUNA is committed to sharing the Kichwa’s rich cultural heritage with the global community and our company’s mission is to improve livelihoods for small scale, indigenous farmers. We measure impact through actual income increases both through guayusa production and from secondary markets that have developed as a result of this plant being introduced to the world. We are the first company to commercialize this leaf, and our broader goal is to build a sustainable value chain that can help transform how the economic system has historically functioned in the Amazon.
Renata: Runa was founded in 2009. How has the company evolved since then?
Tyler: We are improving the livelihoods for 3,000 indigenous farming families in Ecuador, providing $100,000 of direct income for our farmer partners annually. We have 70 employees and our brand can be found in 15,000 stores throughout the U.S. and Canada. RUNA has grown into one of the 500 fastest growing companies in the US according to Inc. Magazine. Our affiliated non-profit Foundation funds the largest reforestation program in the Ecuadorian Amazon. We are now leveraging our experience to create other opportunities which is the most exciting for me.
Renata: What kind of culture are you building at Runa?
Tyler: Both Dan and I have transitioned from daily management of the company, but we both remain on the Board of Directors. That said, our culture reflected the nature of what we were trying to do with RUNA – building bridges between different people and places. We lived that internally, hiring staff that valued diversity of perspectives and authenticity. We wanted critical thinking, an exchange of ideas, and a thoughtful approach to decision-making.
Renata: When you were still managing the daily operations of the business, how did you build that culture?
Tyler: Culture, like brand, is what people say about you. We always encouraged open lines of communication and were transparent about financial results and challenges. This allowed for everyone to contribute their perspectives. In addition, employees received a trip to Ecuador after their first year with the company; we felt that this was a great way for our people to better understand and live the manifestation of the mission.
Renata: What advice would you give an entrepreneur with a new business who wants to create a specific culture from the beginning?
Tyler: For early-stage start-ups, how you operate as an individual IS your culture. I also think it’s really important to find capital partners and investors with integrity and who will honor that culture.
Renata: How do you balance key stakeholders’ priorities with sustainable growth goals?
Tyler: The notion of balance proved to be a challenge. We initially received a lot of advice that while helpful, but at times, it also proved to be confusing. For example, we had a clear vision and values that we knew we wanted to maintain, but we got a lot of “you need to go big” guidance. It was difficult to reconcile this approach given that the nature of our work is very holistic which inherently takes time. We are dealing with plants and people and it was important for us to keep this top of mind at all times. Initially, I think we tried to do too much at once, rushing through distribution. As a result, we probably weren’t as efficient. Ultimately, though, we never compromised how we structured things; we maintained high standards in our supply chain and remembered “farmers’ first.” This helped us try to balance priorities and growth, but it was definitely difficult.
Renata: What’s next for RUNA?
Tyler: We hope to continue to grow our brand and product line in the energy drink space so that we can get closer to realizing our goal of supporting small scale farmers and transforming the economic system in the Amazon.
Renata: If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently? What would stay the same?
Tyler: So many of our “mistakes” were a result of timing and rhythm. We were going too hard and too fast when the rhythm just wasn’t there. I believe in companies going full speed ahead to get something to market and learn from it, but the rhythm needs to support that. For RUNA, we learned it was more efficient to test our product rigorously in a small scale to better understand the nuance in a controlled environment. Then we could go bigger. It took us a while to truly know when to go fast and when to slow down and evaluate.
I definitely would not change our commitment to mission. I have a core belief that the mission thrives when it’s integral to the business. In our case, the entire business creates impact; it’s not an after-thought nor is it cause marketing. Our business and mission are tightly woven. Another signature of our success has been the multi-stakeholder approach we took. Initially, we had the support and funding from the Ecuadorian and U.S. governments to test the viability of commercializing guayusa. We set defined, targeted milestones that we could prove which led to support from more mainstream investors and also gained the interest from a few well-known celebrities, including Channing Tatum, who invested in the brand. We never took our eyes off making sure that we had money in the bank and I was hyper-focused on making sure we could raise money as needed.
Renata: What advice would you give to impact investors?
Tyler: Just like I co-created this business based on my values, I suggest investors make investments based on their values. That said, values cannot be the only factor taken into consideration when making decisions. I appreciated that our investors were supportive of our passion, innovation and drive. However, as I reflect back on our early years, I’m surprised that the fact we didn’t have anyone on our team with serious beverage knowledge didn’t raise red flags for investors. My advice is to find companies that are balancing mission and drive with domain-specific experience on the team (or help them secure that).