As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Meryl Kennedy.
Meryl Kennedy is the CEO of Kennedy Rice Mill, LLC and the founder of 4Sisters Rice. She was recently appointed Vice Chairman of the USA Rice Miller’s Board and is the first woman to ever hold the prestigious position.
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 youngest of four daughters, I was born and raised in a small rural village in North East Louisiana called Mer Rouge. After completing my degree in International Affairs from the University of Georgia, I had planned on attending graduate school in London. However, my father with some very “smooth” negotiation skills convinced me to return home and assist him with the family rice business. Our family agribusiness includes rice drying, grain storage, grain marketing, land management, real estate and rice milling. From the very beginning, I was put into a swim or sink situation. My father was older and, in his words, “You are going to make it, or we are going to sell the business.” This put extreme pressure on me not only to succeed but to continue his legacy, and ultimately found my company, 4Sisters Rice.
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?
About two years into my career, we started banking with Chase Bank. Jamie Dimon was slated to speak in New Orleans and my father was invited to the event. He was not able to make the luncheon, so he sent me instead. I was so nervous about what I looked like for the event. I even went to the salon before at the hotel and had my hair and nails done. I realized that nail tech was taking forever, and I was going to be late if I didn’t leave. I rushed out with only one set of nails done only to be the last one to arrive right before they shut the doors. It was then that I realized that I was sitting not just at the head table with him but to his left. I was not only late to an event with more than 500 people…I was late and sitting right beside Jamie! I was speechless…not to mention I think Jamie was a little speechless as to why this young woman was sitting at his head table and late. To make matters worse, I forgot to turn off my phone which started ringing during his speech. Biggest takeaway: be prepared and be on time. You never know when you will be sitting beside Jamie Diamond or for that matter anyone that might change your life forever.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I love to read, and some of my favorite books include Be Fearless by Jean Case, Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, Blitzscaling by Reid Hoffman, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, and The Cheat Code by Brian Wong. I also love Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. I am currently listening to Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss which is a great read.
Cheat Code was probably the most influential book to me when I first started my career. I loved that it was written by a very young entrepreneur. Probably the best piece of advice in the book is to know your superpower! Wong writes, “No matter who you are or what you do in life, you have a superpower-by that I mean something you do far better than most people. If you are not using it, you are crazy.”
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Many people do not realize that the US farmers are arguably the most sustainable and environmentally friendly in the world! As a daughter of a farmer, it was my mission when starting 4Sisters to not only provide consumers with the tastiest rice available, but also reshape the consumer’s perception of what a modern farmer looks like and give them a face for the people behind the food that they buy to feed their families.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
As the CEO of Kennedy Rice Mill and Founder of 4Sisters Rice, I always tell myself never stop running….
One of my favorite sayings behind that concept is, “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you better start running.”
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?
I have two young children, a 5-year-old son in Kindergarten and a 23-month-old daughter. I would be lying if I said it was easy to manage — of course, it has been extremely difficult to juggle my son’s homework with my work schedule. I finally broke down and gave him my tablet after his Zoom meetings started merging with my Zoom meetings! Honestly, my son has struggled the most out of the family. He is sad often and misses his grandmother terribly. We have used FaceTime almost nightly and he loves it! I am more than thankful for the technology that most of us had been taking for granted. I believe that staying connected to his teachers and loved ones through video conference, social media, and FaceTime has made a major difference in his life over the last sixty days.
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?
Managing an essential business committed to producing, milling, and distributing rice during a pandemic has come with all kinds of challenges. From providing certain employees with the resources they need to work from home to figuring out how we keep our front-line plant-workers safe, we face each day with a problem-solving mentality.
However, the hardest work-related challenge has been determining how to communicate with staff and keep everyone informed on important issues. We recognized that while there was a lot of seamless communication on the executive team via conference calls, important updates weren’t necessarily getting to our staff in the plants leading the charge. Since many of our factory employees do not have company emails, we had to get creative on ways to communicate. We have started social media pages to keep employees engaged and communicating together, including a YouTube channel which has allowed us to reach more of our employees when we need to make important announcements quickly. For some employees, we are using text platforms to update everyone on a more immediate basis.
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?
I wish I had a magic recipe or pill to calm the fear, uncertainty, and loneliness that has come from this pandemic. However, I believe this is a personal journey and everyone has a different story and situation that they are trying to manage. I can tell you that personally, I have leaned into faith and my relationship with God. I have also meditated, played games, exercised, and cleaned about every corner in my house twice. I have hugged my children and cried secretly afterwards for the ability to still hug those that I love deeply. However, in the end, the best advice that I give is to stop focusing on inward thinking and indulging in self-centered pity and instead practice gratitude. I tell my son that life is full of joy everywhere, we must learn to find the joy even in the small moments of life. It is only with a life of gratitude that we can truly become satisfied.
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?
I believe that post-Covid, people will become more aware of where their food comes from and supportive of the American farmer. Many people understand the importance of a secure supply chain, but this is easy to forget when food is readily available everywhere you turn. I believe that the biggest opportunity for our company is changing consumer habits. It is our goal to introduce more people to rice that have not eaten it regularly before this pandemic. I think we have a unique opportunity to change people’s diet forever and my goal is for 4Sisters Rice to be on every plate in America.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I believe that there will be a host of changes to our daily life, including how we interact with others at home and at work. Where we choose to live (rural boom?), what and where we eat, and how we spend our dollars.
However, I think the biggest change will be around how we travel and why we travel. I believe that we will use technology more to conduct business and many people will continue to use Zoom meetings instead of traveling across the country for an hour-long conversation. I also believe that many people will continue to work from home or have flexible hours/schedules in the office.
Most of all though, it is my hope that it changes our behaviors towards those that serve us whether they be our farmers, nurses, the garbage man, or a grocery store clerk. These are the people that make the world as we know it turn.
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?
I do not think there is any doubt that the post-Covid global economy will be challenging for all of us to navigate. At 4Sisters Rice, we are focusing on bringing more people to the rice category not just for this short time, but forever. We are spending our dollars on marketing, new methods of communication to our employees and customers, and social outreach programs.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I would encourage others to think about how they could grow and create new revenue streams that use technology or new methods of marketing. Think about how to engage customers in new and exciting ways. People want to feel connected more than ever!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination along are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has soles and always will solve the problems of the human race.” –Calvin Collidge
The ability to never stop running, never give up, never stop no matter how bad it hurts. This is the story of my life. Since I was a child, I was never the best athlete on the team. In fact, in many cases, I was truly the worst, but in almost every situation the coach would use me to encourage the strongest athletes. I can hear them still, “she is not quitting so you can’t either.” I was named team captain of the Varsity girls’ basketball team and I never played a full quarter. At one time, the fans would even chant “Press On” which has been my slogan since high school.
I am by far not the smartest person at our company, nor the funniest, nor the most educated or most well liked. However, it is my shear perseverance that has kept me moving through some of the hardest trials in my life. If I can motivate people to reach their top performance, than I know that we can go places as a company almost unimaginable to most.
How can our readers further follow your work?