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 Dr. Gavin Armstrong. He is a committed impact entrepreneur. He is currently serving as the Founder and CEO of Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise®, a social enterprise dedicated to alleviating iron deficiency around the world using simple health innovations.
Gavin was a Fulbright scholar at Auburn University and was awarded the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 in the Social Entrepreneur category in 2016. In 2017, he received the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award and was named ‘Social Entrepreneur of the Year’ by EY Canada. In 2018 he successfully pitched his company Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise on CBC’s Dragons Den where he was able to secure a deal with two dragons. In 2019 he was named LGBT Small Business Leader of the Year by the Canadian Gay Lesbian Chamber of Commerce.
A long-term advocate and activist against hunger and malnutrition, Gavin is the first Canadian to receive the William J. Clinton Award for international work against hunger and is the inaugural recipient of the international Michaelle Jean Emergency Hunger Relief Award.In 2015 Conscious Company Magazine featured Gavin as one of the seventeen ‘Rising Social Entrepreneurs’ of the year. In 2021, he was included on the Globe & Mail Report on Business Changemakers list.
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?
The path that I’m currently on is one that I hadn’t even fathomed when I was younger. In high school, I was severely bullied and I had teachers who did not believe I could ever get into a good university. So when I got into the University of Guelph, I wanted to be a banker because I was very driven by the need to prove all those critics wrong.
However, a field trip to Botswana, where I was so removed from my everyday life, helped me realize that the trajectory I was on was devoid of any passion or meaning.
Fast forward to completing my PhD in biomedical science focused on reducing anemia rates in rural Cambodia using the Lucky Iron Fish, I knew that bringing this innovation to communities around the world is what I wanted to do. I’ve always been interested in business and now my passion is using business as a force for good.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
A continuous lesson that entrepreneurship teaches you is the importance of being adaptable.
For me, this happened very early on. After designing a product that was effective at improving iron intake naturally, we were ready to take it to market. We developed a door-to-door sales strategy to reach more Cambodian families. We even had our own TukTuk and a jingle along with a Fish mascot!
However, our approach did not translate to meaningful revenue in Cambodia. Meanwhile, when we would present our innovative product at conferences around the world, there was an immense demand from individuals and organizations alike to purchase the Lucky Iron Fish.
So after four months of failed attempts at penetrating the Cambodian market, we expanded our horizons and started building a global e-commerce business that had social impact weaved into the business model.
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?
It is absolutely essential to align yourself with people who are passionate about achieving what you are setting out to do. My goal was — and continues to be — to eradicate iron deficiency using innovation.
When I set out on this journey, that goal certainly seemed like pie in the sky. Thankfully, Tania Framst, the first employee at Lucky Iron Fish Enterprise, helped build the necessary foundation. She was the ying to my yang. I was always trying to aggressively grow the business and she would bring me back to reality and focus on what could be accomplished with the resources we had.
Entrepreneurship is not an easy path. But having a pragmatic and disciplined person by your side can certainly help.
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?
Yes, there is an increasing desire for purpose-driven companies not only by consumers but also by employees. For Lucky Iron Fish, what started the journey was finding an innovative and clinically-proven way to improve the health and wellness of an undernourished community. When we commercialized the concept, we knew we wanted to be rooted in science but build on values like giving back, empowering the marginalized, and weaving social impact into the fabric of our business model. We are committed to doing well by doing good.
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?
When you have to tackle unexpected external factors, it is important to overinvest in internal communication.
Like many businesses, we faced some logistical challenges because of the pandemic. Furthermore, we also had to abandon our efforts to pursue institutional sales and pivot to an e-commerce only growth strategy. Having more frequent internal communications allowed us to be aligned as a team and have full transparency to the ever-changing landscape of this pandemic.
Furthermore, it is also important to acknowledge the toll this past year has had on people’s mental health. I am committed to one-on-one check-ins and creating a safe space for each individual to share what is on their mind. At Lucky Iron Fish, mental health is an important topic that is not only discussed but also addressed. Whether it is in the form of additional resources, time off, or just someone to vent to, creating open channels of communication helps us all maintain some sense of sanity during these challenging times.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Absolutely! Not taking failure personally is an arduous task. I have always been overly critical of myself, which in one way fuels me to achieve more, but at the same time can be very burdensome. There is also added pressure being a social enterprise, because not only is it important to ensure the business thrives and the staff are supported, but I also strongly believe that our product can help improve the lives of women and children around the world. So it can be disheartening when it seems that a particular barrier could prevent this global impact.
Thankfully, I have a group of mentors who I can be open with and who help me find perspective. What sustains my drive is shifting the focus and looking back at all of the adversity we have overcome. Our commitment to social impact also motivates me to get over my moments of self doubt and find the necessary solution!
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Transparency and understanding. One of the scariest things that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic was the constant feeling of uncertainty. The impact was so unprecedented that no one really knew what to expect. I feel it is important to remember that everyone is going through this together but may be feeling like they are struggling alone. I did not want to add to the ongoing uncertainty so I felt it was very important to remain transparent with everyone. I sent regular updates whenever there was a new development (and I made sure everything was focused on fact and science, not rumor). I knew the company needed to pivot to adapt to the new reality and I made sure all of the team members were involved in the decision making process by holding multiple strategic thinking sessions where we analyzed the problems and came up with solutions together. Our company has become stronger because of the current situation and the entire team played a role in making that happen
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?
One of my fears with the shift to working remotely is that we would lose our sense of community. Even though we held our meetings over Zoom, the experience still wasn’t the same. To keep morale up (and to have social interaction) we organize virtual social events like trivia nights or cooking classes. We’ve even had a virtual baby shower for one of our team members. One of the ways to ensure there is variety is by having different team members organize the events. I obviously can’t wait to see everyone in person again but I do really look forward to these events.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Whether it is a full blown crisis or something inconvenient like a shipping delay, the communication strategy is always to be transparent. It is important for a company to acknowledge the issue and then share what steps will be taken to address it.
Consumers are very understanding once they are given the necessary information. Our commitment to transparency continues through this crisis and I have been so appreciative of how supportive our customers have been.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
It is always helpful to pay close attention to industry trends/ consumer trends (depending on the nature of the business). Alongside this, it is also important to be hyper aware of your company’s competencies and its mission or “north star”. This helps one better understand the landscape in which they are operating in.
With that foundation in place, a good leader should make informed decisions but also be willing to adapt when necessary.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Adaptability is the key to navigating turbulent times.
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?
- Mistake #1: Retreat marketing spend
While it is understandable that a company would seek ways to cut costs during difficult times, drastically reducing marketing spend can be short-sighted. At Lucky Iron Fish, we actually doubled down on our marketing efforts after settling on an e-commerce based growth strategy, and we have seen success thanks to it.
2. Mistake #2: Forget about your mentors
We can all benefit from having an outside perspective — both in life and in business. During difficult times, it can seem overwhelming to do anything outside of the bare necessities as we maneuver unprecedented times. However, it is absolutely essential to come up for air and seek advice from a mentor. This can be someone you personally know or even a thought leader you admire.
3. Mistake #3: Being stubborn
Sometimes during a crisis you feel the need to stay the course and weather the storm. This can be difficult especially when you don’t know how long the issue will last. When COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic we knew there would be an impact on our business, but we did not know for how long. We decided that the best approach for us was to pivot and focus on the areas on the business that were the strongest (therefore most resilient) and pull back/pause issues that would use a lot of resources without generating a return for the foreseeable future. Never be afraid to pivot.
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?
A difficult economy can actually be a great opportunity to establish your presence in the market. First step is identifying which customer base to serve (and which ones are too expensive to serve during that time). Next, increase investment in reaching that customer base.
In our case, we identified that we needed to pause our pursuit of institutional sales and instead double down on e-commerce channels. We not only increased our marketing and advertising spend on this channel, we also expanded into new markets (China) during the pandemic!
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.
- Listen to your audience. An example that comes to mind is when we were expanding the Lucky Iron Fish to India. While the shape of our product was well-received in other countries, with vegetarianism being more common in India, we found that the families were not comfortable using a cooking tool that was shaped like a fish, even if it was vegetarian. So we redesigned the product as a Leaf. Sure enough, the Lucky Iron Leaf is now loved by not only consumers in India but also by plant-lovers around the world.
- Seek knowledge. During uncertain times, it is especially critical to rely on a community of experienced individuals. This advice can also come from someone you may not personally know, such as a prominent thought leader in your industry.
- Be vulnerable. As a leader, it may seem that putting on a brave face in front of your team or clients is the natural thing to do. However, vulnerability can go a long way. It shows that you are human, and that they are not alone in experiencing the highs and lows of the turbulent times.
- Be transparent. Uncertain times often lead to unplanned outcomes. For us, there were unexpected delays in shipments over the holidays. While this is a stressful time for people, we were able to address their disappointments by being transparent about the limitations we were facing on the back end.
- Prioritize mental health. Working from home has been a challenge for us all — some are juggling parenting, tutoring, and working, while many have been completely alone. Mental health is important at all times, but especially during turbulent times. A good leader should create an environment where it is encouraged for people to take the necessary steps for their well being.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Learn from your mistakes. Failures are vital life lessons to help you improve and do better”
This quote not only encapsulates what it is like to be an entrepreneur, but it has also rung true for me in other facets of life as well. Just because you haven’t figured out a solution yet doesn’t make you helpless. Keep going.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Absolutely! Please follow @LuckyIronFish on all social platforms