As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Donie Yamamoto.
Vital Pet Life is a certified WBENC woman-owned business based in California featuring a curated line of clean and sustainable pet wellness products. Donie founded Vital Pet Life in 2017, after moving to the US from the Philippines six years earlier, and in 2019 was named a Tory Burch Foundation Fellow for outstanding entrepreneurship. Her mission is to build an environmentally conscious brand, help families and their pets thrive while giving back to rescue shelters in her neighborhood, throughout the US, and overseas.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Looking back on my journey as an entrepreneur, growing up in the Philippines taught me a helpful lesson that has helped me as a business leader. In our culture, it wasn’t acceptable for young women to become entrepreneurs at a young age. I had to defy a patriarchal society to pursue my dream of being an entrepreneur. With very little capital or family support, I went on to open my clothing store and pursue an accounting career. I learned at a young age that by working hard and believing in myself, I could overcome adversity and fulfill my dreams.
In 2009, I met my husband Kyle, and in 2011, we moved to Los Angeles. I had to make the difficult decision to close my business. Moving to the US and being in a new culture challenged me psychologically. I went from being financially independent and owning my own business to being what I saw as a nobody. I fell into a dark place, lost my drive and my sense of connection to my goals and dreams.
Fortunately, fate brought me to Tuxedo, a handsome, personality-filled terrier mix. Kyle and I noticed Tuxedo was struggling with itchy, rough, dry skin and a coarse coat. I tried products from big-name companies, but I couldn’t pronounce half of the ingredients. How could I trust using those products on Tux? I started researching my own sustainably sourced solutions. I’m sensitive to chemicals, so using only clean ingredients was critical. I began experimenting with Wild Alaskan salmon oil, hoping to soften his hair, relieve his itching and inflammation. He responded immediately. I started giving it to family and friends to see if it helped their pets. When their positive feedback flowed in, I followed my intuition and began building a pet wellness business combining my love for animals, sustainability, and entrepreneurship. In 2017 Vital Pet Life was born.
I began to take a few classes on how to successfully open an Amazon shop, not knowing that Vital Pet Life’s Wild Alaskan Salmon Oil would be a best-selling product on Amazon in three years. It’s now Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified 100% sustainable, ensuring it is wild, traceable, and sustainable. The renowned MSC blue fish label is applied only to wild salmon from fisheries certified by a science-based set of requirements for sustainable fishing. My goal is for sustainability to be mainstream in pet wellness, not a trend.
In 2019 I had the honor of being chosen as a Tory Burch Foundation Fellow for outstanding entrepreneurship. As there are not many self-funded female founders in the $99 Billion pet industry, the opportunity to brainstorm, collaborate and befriend other female founders was life-changing. Mentoring and lifting up other women is a big part of what drives me and motivated me to become a WBENC-certified woman-owned business. My brand ethos is bigger isn’t always better. I’m choosing to grow with intention.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
I opened my first business, a clothing store, in the lobby of a hotel at the height of the monsoon season in the Philippines. With the wild rainy weather, the hotel pool was closed. Ironically, I’m selling swimwear in the lobby of a hotel with no working pool. Undaunted, I told every potential customer to buy my swimwear and go to the Marriott Hotel pool, around the corner from my store. I was thinking outside the box and determined to turn a negative situation into a positive one.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My husband Kyle has always supported me. We built Vital Pet Life together. We’re a team and the nucleus of our business. While I’m more the visionary and research & development part of our brand, Kyle focuses on technology, infrastructure, and strategizing new ways to improve our business. Because our roles are complementary, we’re interconnected without overlapping. We’re both grateful to help relieve the stress of pet families when their fur babies need support. We’ve been through it with Tuxedo, and he inspires us every day.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Healing my dog Tuxedo’s skin issues planted the seed that Vital Pet Life’s mission is to heal animals with clean and mindfully formulated products while giving back and partnering with local animal rescue shelters. I’m an ardent believer that everyone should have access to affordable, clean, and trustworthy pet products. As someone who is sensitive to chemicals, one of my tenets is to ensure we create sustainable and consciously crafted products knowing that pets and their owners also have chemical sensitivities.
As a child growing up in the Philippines, I often saw stray, homeless animals on the street. My heart ached to see them roaming with no hope of being rescued. Throughout my life, I’ve adopted rescue dogs, donated and volunteered at many animal rescue shelters. At Vital Pet Life, we’re partnering with local non-profit organizations that share a common mission of animal welfare, outreach and compassion. This enables us to continue my long-standing mission of helping homeless animals find homes forever while providing these shelters and the adopting families with our products.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
During the first few weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown, I felt as though we were walking on quicksand, not knowing if the lockdown was temporary or a long-term situation, all while wrapping our head around the concept of a global pandemic. Our team continued to work remotely and communicate via Slack. I constantly checked in with each team member, listening and encouraging them to take any time to help family or friends in need. Our team, usually optimistic, tried to cheer each other up with anecdotes about our pets’ antics or funny lockdown stories. Because this time was so unprecedented and often frightening, kindness, empathy, and compassion were my go-to skills to lead my team.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
No, giving up is never an option. It’s not who I am. I enjoy the process, both in prosperous and challenging times. We were fortunate to be named an “essential” business at the beginning of the lockdown of 2020. With everyone working from home with their pets, our orders continued to rise. We had to ride the wave of supply chain and shipping issues while communicating daily with our impacted customers. I found solace in these communications both with suppliers and customers, as reaching out during that stressful time gave me a sense of connectedness and humanity. I looked to Tuxedo every day as a reminder of what I am doing and my purpose.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
I believe maintaining my role as Chief Vision Officer during these tumultuous times was essential. Remaining calm, supportive and optimistic enabled me to continue envisioning the day-to-day and infinite path of our brand. That said, our path during 2020 was anything but linear, and it needed alignment as we went.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Looking back on 2020 seems surreal. I’m always thinking of ways to inspire and connect with my team. I feel fortunate to have such a dynamic, talented and engaged group. I lead my team by instinct, being authentic and present when sharing my experiences both personally and work-related. I’m an inherently empathetic and optimistic person, so I’ve made a concerted effort to be available for any needs or concerns from my team members. I started a company tradition during our weekly Monday Slack meeting where we post a photo of something fun from that past week. During the lockdown, it became a flurry of adorable pet pics, which we all loved!
Our company has a Slack #Review channel, a constant thread of new 5-Star customer reviews. Employees scroll it like one might Instagram to see adorable pet pix and read joy-filled stories of how our products transform their fur babies. We all know how tough it was out there and felt grateful to be focused and engaged. It reminds us not only that Vital Pet Life is an integral part of supporting and nurturing families with pets but that pets are an essential part of how we’re coping with grief and loneliness during quarantine & WFH.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I will always reach out personally if I have to convey difficult information. I spent much of 2020 in direct communication with our customers about order delays or cancellations. The silver lining was being able to connect on a deeper level than an order.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
2020 was supposed to be the year we launched two new products…that didn’t happen. What did happen was supply chain issues and increased time on daily customer service. Against all odds, we had our best year yet in 2020. I believe that the adversity I faced as a young woman has helped me navigate these challenging times. I tapped into my belief that with obstacles come opportunities.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
My mantra is, “Keep moving forward.” I am a fan of Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game, where he compares the finite and the infinite mindsets. The broader, larger vision resonates rather than being mired in the minutiae of the moment. No matter how many times we had a production, supply, or shipping setback, we kept our focus on moving forward.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
As a leader, I made a concerted effort to ramp up my self-care and stress relief during the onset of the COVID-19 lockdown. I could feel the anxiety washing over me, and I knew that would be counterproductive in leading my team. Leaders need to be aware of their well-being to be centered and calm to lead their team. If a business doesn’t put a team’s morale and trust as a priority during tough times, that’s a problem. In this landscape, staying flexible and nimble is critical, so when difficult times arise, the question is which new path to take, not the frustration of being rigid and lacking options due to your lack of innovation and resilience in our ever-changing world.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Our primary strategy during these turbulent times has been to focus on infrastructure while trying to maintain flexibility so that we can make any quick pivots when necessary.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Continue moving forward. I’m a believer in Simon Sinek’s mindset of the Infinite Game where there aren’t any winners or losers; there is only ahead and behind. This philosophy has been advantageous during 2020 when we just had to keep going forward, despite delays with suppliers, product launches, or shipping.
- Care for your community. I think of my customers, suppliers, formulators, and employees as one tight-knit Vital Pet Life community. During COVID-19, much of my time was spent reaching out, checking in, taking deep breaths, and most importantly, listening to everyone in our community. Specifically, supporting our team members’ mental and physical well-being remains crucial for Kyle and me and helps us build connections during stressful times.
- Remain optimistic against all odds. In my case, this meant embracing our ability to pivot without losing customers and sales and turning obstacles into opportunities. Having empathy right now is essential. We know that our suppliers are struggling and our customers, and being able to listen actively and problem solve are instrumental in leading during this time and going forward.
- Continue creating, despite obstacles. Despite last year’s fluid timelines, I remained dogged about our product development. I wasn’t able to launch two new products in 2020 as planned. Still, I continued my focus on r & d, communication with my formulator and production team to ensure that the integrity of these products remained. Looking back, I know that we benefited from the additional time.
- Take care of yourself. A little self-care goes a long way. I often think of when you fly, and the flight attendant tells the parents first to put their mask on, and then their child’s. I believe this is true for business leaders too. If we aren’t taking time to soothe our anxiety and find our serenity, how can we be the empathetic and thoughtful leader we strive to be? I’m hopeful about the future, even in this uncertain time. I’ve started 2021 with a sense of calm from my dedicated meditation and gratitude practices, both of which helped me find my way through the tumultuous year of 2020.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love Terrence Mckenna’s quote, “Nature loves courage. You make the commitment, and nature will respond to that commitment by removing impossible obstacles. Dream the impossible dream, and the world will not grind you under, it will lift you up. This is the trick. This is what all these teachers and philosophers who really counted, who really touched the alchemical gold, this is what they understood. This is the shamanic dance in the waterfall. This is how magic is done. By hurling yourself into the abyss and discovering it’s a feather bed.” This quote sums up my life. I always try to be courageous in living my life, dreaming the impossible, and just committing.
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