I had the pleasure of interviewing Helena Lumme. Helena Lumme is the President and co-founder of Nothing But Real, Inc, and the creator of the new plant-based brand Hälsa. With its promise of 100% clean all organic ingredients, clean manufacturing process and clean label, Hälsa sets a new standard in the dairy-free and plant-based space. Helena is the co-inventor of a new 100% clean and natural manufacturing process for plant-based milks, beverages and yogurts. Unlike the existing processes that are based on enzymatic hydrolysis, Helena’s innovation keeps all the beneficial nutrients intact without the need to add emulsifiers, stabilizers or binders.
Thank you so much for joining us! 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?
I was born and raised in Finland. As a kid I was interested in just about everything, and I started working as a freelance journalist at just 15. I majored in cultural history and worked at an art gallery. My first real job was a Creative Director at a global ad agency, where I learned the ropes of global branding.
In 1995, after I had met my husband-to-be Mika Manninen who was an advertising photographer at the time, we decided to make the big leap and move to Los Angeles. We didn’t know anybody, nor did we have any job prospects lined up. My son was 12 at the time. We thought that if we could make it in one of the most competitive metropolitan cities in the world, we could make it anywhere.
Mika and I are both film-lovers. Three months after we had moved to Los Angeles I presented my idea to the Writers Guild of America: let’s elevate the status of screenwriters by making a portrait book and a touring exhibit featuring 50 leading American screenwriters. So in the following two years I found myself talking to all those people that had written the movies I had loved: Billy Wilder, Oliver Stone, William Goldman and many others. The exhibit toured Cannes and Berlin film festivals, and all of a sudden it became super hot to be a screenwriter. The President of the Writers Guild wrote, “With their work Helena and Mika have done a unique service not only to writers, but to American film history in general.”
The work earned me the ‘extraordinary ability’ green card, and later we became US citizens. We started a production company in LA and shot hundreds of ad campaigns for Fortune 500 companies.
In 2008, we felt we needed a change of course. During my advertising years, I worked with a lot of food clients, and after moving to the US we were struck by how many harmful chemicals were used in the food here — so we decided to take action. I called up some Scandinavian food scientists, and my journey to “clean up” the US food industry started.
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?
Mika and I have always worked the same way: I’m the one who comes up with the ideas, the concepts and the strategy, and Mika handles the sales. We both run the startup equally, but because Mika travels a lot, I end up writing about 50% of his emails. I noticed early on that whenever I presented an argument or a new idea through Mika’s email, those emails were much better received than if I wrote the exact same argument from my own.
So, I learned to use Mika’s email whenever I needed to make a point or argue something, because as a woman, assertiveness is not as well received. The food and beverage industry is still very much male-dominated, unfortunately. Perhaps not so funny, but it was a lesson I learned quickly when we started the business and a double standard I continue to work against as a female leader in the space hoping to pave the way for other women.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I authored a book called Great Women of Film for which I interviewed 30 female filmmakers and asked them to share their stories and advice on how to succeed in a male-dominated industry. Great work ethic, willingness to volunteer for all kinds of jobs, and readiness to step in as soon as an opportunity presents itself were common traits among the most successful female filmmakers. And resilience. “Just don’t go away,” was the advice from four-time Academy Award nominee for best art direction, Jeannine Oppewall.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Hälsa is Swedish for health and stands for healthier people and healthier planet. This is our third food startup, and because we know by now how much work and effort it takes to launch a new brand, I laid down my terms from the start: the only way I would commit to spending the next 5 years on this was that I would never be asked to compromise the quality of the product. Hälsa would only make products that I would buy myself, products that I know are 100% clean, organic and naturally nourishing. If I wasn’t able to do this, this company would not be worth my time.
What consumers may not be aware of is that most oat milks on the market are made with an old technology called enzymatic hydrolysis — a chemical-heavy process that alters the composition of the grain by turning oat starch to sugar, in a process that resembles the making of high-fructose corn syrup. Mika and I knew there had to be a better way, so in order to create a 100% clean product, we invented an entirely new and innovative process for manufacturing plant-based milks.
Our second principle was that every step from the farm to the consumer had to be sustainable. Our oats are grown with zero water footprint, and thanks to our process innovation, our products are manufactured with 80% smaller carbon footprint than our competitors.
This dual purpose of working for better human health as well as our planet drives our business every day. We believe that Hälsa is the future of plant-based, a future in which we will look back and wonder how people could consumer additive filled options that burdened Mother Nature.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I have three principles:
1. Create concepts that are win-win-win. The time for the “in order to win, you need to lose” mentality is over. If you cannot come up with a business idea that will help the people, the planet and yourself at the same time, you haven’t dug deep enough.
2. Never believe that there’s only one choice. However dire the business situation you happen to be in, there are always options. There are people who like to push you into a corner and force you to do things their way. These people are often very successful and admired in their field, but they are stuck in one formula that happened to work for them or somebody else, but may not be the right one for you.
You are not in this world to copy everybody else. You are in this world to create something new and unique and exhilarating, something this world hasn’t seen before. The world needs fresh thinking — today more than ever — and the world needs your point of view. Be brave, and demand attention.
When we started our journey to 100% clean plant-based food, we ran into hundreds of people saying “it won’t work” or “what’s the harm in using a little bit of a flavor masker.” Food scientists are so used to taking shortcuts, and the thought of not using artificial emulsifiers, binders or flavors didn’t even cross their mind.
3. Only you can determine what success means to you. For me, success is to see my creations spread health and wellbeing as much as possible. Even if there’s only one person out there who, by choosing my product doesn’t develop allergies or digestive problems, but is instead able to build great immunity, my efforts have been worthwhile. Obviously, I would like people all over the world to have the access to my products, that’s the dream.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with them any personal or family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The natural and organic food business is dominated by two large national distributors, and right now both have decided to leave the small brands behind and only support the large players. Our biggest challenge has been to get our distributors to realize that, now more than ever, people need to have healthy food options available to them. The distributors are filling their trucks with comfort food and Big Food products while refusing to deliver ours, which is not right.
Our immune system plays a vital part in fighting viruses, and 80% of our immunity is built in our digestive system. Hälsa’s 100% clean and organic oatmilk yogurt is one of the best vehicles to deliver the daily dose of probiotics to the body. For probiotics to benefit our bodies, they have to get past the acidic environment in our stomach, and that’s why many supplements and soft-drinks that contain probiotics go completely wasted. Our yogurts contain whole grain oats that neutralize the stomach and help our bodies to utilize the probiotics to the fullest.
Once again, we are facing new challenges. We refuse to go away, we refuse to hand our business to big players. We will come up with ways to demand attention and get our healthy products out there.
One thing we came up with is a Buy One Get Two Free sales idea: If a store buys a case of Hälsa organic oatgurt, we will give one case to their store employees as a thank you for the work they do every day. The second case is donated to a food bank. That way the store who buys our product can create a win-win-win solution.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Anxiety is part of our collective consciousness right now and impossible to escape. What we all can do, however, is to try to shift our thinking, because dwelling in a bad situation never helps.
A positive outcome may be that as a result of this, people become more open to new ideas. That’s because a situation like this forces us to rethink everything we do. This situation also forces companies and institutions to re-evaluate their models. As a result we will come up with better, smarter ways to do things. And with all this rethinking we are training our brains to come up with better solutions faster in the future.
At this time we want to shift people’s thinking to something positive. That’s why we launched the Hälsa Summer 2020 Love Contest, to get people thinking about what truly matters in their lives. Music is one of the most therapeutic and best ways to spread love to those near and far. We’re thrilled to deepen our mission through this challenge and connect with consumers to spread love — for each other, for our bodies and for our planet.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that it will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We see this time as an opportunity to fix what is broken. America is importing hundreds of exotic ingredients from all over the world, and as ports close due to Covid, the flow of ingredients has stopped. Why not support American farmers instead, and grow crops here in the US? This is something we’ve already started with the Hälsa Farm Project in which we offer organic dairy farmers the option to start growing organic oats Scandinavian style. Our oats are grown with zero water footprint, and we are sharing our knowledge to grow premium organic oats and building our own source here in the US. In the post-COVID era it will be more important than ever to continue to support American workers nationwide, including our farmers.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Hälsa was created to be the future of plant-based food, for the time that people are growing more critical about how plant-based foods are made and will demand them to be 100% clean and natural. However, we feel that the timeline was just expedited, because when faced with catastrophic events like COVID-19, things that are real and honest will rise to the top, while superficial and “I win, you lose” things will fall.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid era?
In the post-Covid era, we will continue to grow and foster our farm project. Working with dairy farmers to teach them how to grow a cleaner, more sustainable crop will have major implications not just on our business, but on the US food industry as a whole. It’s another win-win-win situation, a win for us, for farmers and for consumers nationwide looking for a 100% clean product that is domestically grown and manufactured.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
We encourage others to take similar action in bringing business to the US, fostering further growth and supporting American workers. On a more personal note, for me, guided mediations and listening to audio books by spiritual thinkers and visionaries helps to center the mind and focus on the work ahead.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The one who has fallen from the rainbow has been on a rainbow.” This is my own translation from the Finnish poet Lars Hulden. Following one’s dream is not crazy, because who knows, you just might end up on a rainbow.
How can our readers further follow your work?