As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Prabha Cheemalapati.
Prabha Cheemalapati is the CEO of nib mor, an organic chocolate brand on a mission to make guilt-free snacking chocolate the whole family can enjoy. With 20 years of industry experience, Cheemalapati has a passion for growing better-for-you consumer brands and leading her teams to success.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Thank you for the opportunity! A good place to start would be college, as I think a lot of people would relate to this. When I went to college I had no idea what my answer was to the classic “What do you want to be when you grow up?” question. So I studied things I was interested in at the University of Pennsylvania: environmental studies and international relations.
After school, I faced the big decision of either getting a Master’s and becoming a policy wonk or finding a job and decided I couldn’t write one more thesis paper. (Side note: As a result, I am very interested in reading up on international relations now.)
My first job was at an executive search firm, Egon Zehnder International, and that taught me about what people’s career paths looked like. The consultants — as they were called — running the firm had some pretty impressive careers in the industry and one of those folks saw my potential as a marketer. He invited me to join his marketing team and was so tough on me. I owe him a lot for giving me that opportunity.
I’ve been incredibly lucky throughout my career to get to work at great training grounds like Philips, Pepsi, and Danone, both in the US and in Europe. I spent a lot of my career as a marketer and learned I loved innovation, more specifically bringing better-for-you disruptive brands to market. In Europe, this was Light & Free, a brand my team and I launched in the U.K., which has now expanded to other geographies. And in the U.S., this was the launch of Two Good yogurt, which has also expanded to several markets, including Australia.
While I’ve been a marketer my whole career, folks who know the field well know there are different kinds of marketers. I’m a GM-style marketer, which means I love a good conversation about the P&L, an operations challenge, as much as I love talking about brand positioning. So, while being CEO wasn’t something I started my career thinking about, it feels like a great next step from where I’ve been.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Probably one of the more memorable moments from joining the team was meeting my VP of Sales in our office space, before the furniture arrived, sitting on borrowed pieces of furniture that had been left in the space. It wasn’t a glamorous start, but it was pretty great.
We built this team, the strategy for the brand, the relaunch plans, all of it, during COVID. Most of us didn’t get to meet in person until very recently. For those of us who were able to get to our office, we really craved getting to meet face to face, so we met safely — masks on — in our empty office! I don’t think I’ll forget how excited I was to actually get to see another person in the flesh, or now that we’re back in the office, to sit at a real desk!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I should start by saying I’m a fairly chatty person.
Early in my career, I had recurring calls with a team based in another location. I was very conscious of making the best use of time, feeling like we needed to focus conversations, so I would jump right into the project specifics as soon as we got on a call.
I was holding back my chatty side.
Months into my role, I got some fairly direct feedback that I wasn’t taking the time to get to know the team on the other end of the phone, and they thought it was rude. This was particularly noteworthy because I was working with a team that, culturally, prized a balanced personal and professional relationship.
I was so embarrassed. I thought that I was being so efficient and productive but really, I was coming across as disrespectful of the other team and their culture. I would have been happy to get to know them better, but I didn’t take the time to do that.
I learned a few things from this situation — first and foremost to check my assumptions. I hadn’t worked with this team before and should have sought out advice from them, my boss, and my peers before diving into project calls. Secondly, this made me really appreciate the importance of being mindful of cultural differences. These are not always easy to navigate but, in this case, it was an easy fix! We began starting each call with a bit of chatting and then got into the business.
This is something I’ve brought to my other teams. For one particularly widespread team, we had a weekly Friday team meeting where the only agenda item was to talk about how the week went and what everyone was looking forward to over the weekend.
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 about that?
I have a mentor that I’ve been lucky to know for over a decade who has been a fantastic sounding board for me. He was telling me to seek out a CEO role five years ago and encouraged me to take on a role like this because he saw the potential in me. I really value his input and feedback, and he’s done things like reviewing my resumé, helping me with networking, and has been really great about sharing the ups and downs of his career to help me learn from his experience. I really value this relationship and we remain close to this day. I trust his perspective, and his faith in me is a great reminder of the things he sees in me that maybe I don’t always see in myself.
On that topic, I really believe in the value of mentorship. Making the time to mentor is something I consciously prioritize, personally. And I’m so thankful to the mentors who made time for me. Getting an outside perspective can be so helpful. Seeking out mentorship is something I’d definitely advise someone early in their career to consider.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
This is an issue that’s very close to my heart. As an Indian American born and raised in the United States with siblings and parents born in India, I see myself as a beneficiary of the work civil rights leaders did to open up our country and culture to immigrants and diverse perspectives.
Rather than provide a list of why we should encourage diversity, I think it’s telling to consider the question in the reverse: Why wouldn’t we want diverse perspectives in our business decisions when we inherently believe in the value of teams? Why wouldn’t we want to hear how a community that is different from our own makes a purchase decision, what they seek out in brands, or what they value in a business? Why wouldn’t we want to encourage participation by all members of our community in building our society?
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
This is a big question and, respectfully, I think acknowledging how much work we need to do as a society is a critical first step. I firmly believe that, as individuals, we have deep respect for one another, so I have faith that over time we will find a way to create an inclusive, equitable, and representative society.
Practically, as individual business leaders, to achieve this goal I have some thoughts, but I also acknowledge I’m on the same journey as many other leaders. We’re all doing our best, but I think these five things speak to what I find to be invaluable during this process.
- Respect: Respect for each individual on our teams and their values, beliefs, and needs. Respect is critical in building authentic relationships in all environments, especially in work settings.
- Understanding: This is hugely important to me. Asking open questions and leaving room for people to share their perspectives leads to better understanding across the team, which is invaluable.
- Valuing nuance: While a member of a team may be a Caucasian man or woman and identify as such, that doesn’t mean that this is the sum total of their experience. We must work to understand the nuances present in each individual and not make assumptions about someone based on a simplistic view.
- Vulnerability: For my team to be vulnerable enough to share their truths with me, I need to be willing to offer that same openness to them, and I try to do that every day.
- Continued learning: Learning daily about what works and doesn’t work to build the culture we’re seeking to foster is deeply important. Because it’s an ongoing process, and it’s important to not lose sight of that fact.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
There are a lot of great sports comparisons that can be made about the role of executives on a leadership team: the quarterback, the coach, the umpire, and on and on. While those are sometimes apt, these metaphors probably add to the confusion, too.
Simply, to me, the CEO helps define the vision for the company and then outlines a set of priorities for the team, and the business, to help achieve that vision. Ultimately, the buck stops with the CEO in my point of view. So ownership of the outcome is central to the position.
Executives on a leadership team, and often the CEO, spend a lot of their time thinking about how to best allocate finite resources like people and budgets. From a skills perspective, this means executives need to be able to:
- Determine what resources are needed to achieve an objective (time, resources, budget, talent)
- Assess resource gaps, using this to help guide allocation of resources
- Prioritize which deliverables are business-critical and which would be nice to have
- Make decisions under pressure, often with incomplete information
- Balance short-term and long-term needs
- Take accountability when things don’t quite go as planned, without making excuses or pointing fingers
- Make the team feel valued, heard, and like they’re a priority (as they are)
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
A CEO’s job doesn’t come with the list of job responsibilities that one might expect.
Being the CEO of a small business or start-up means that you are often pitching in wherever help is needed to keep things moving forward. This can mean getting involved in projects that sit right in your wheelhouse or digging into a detailed task that you might have done in your very first job and not thought about since. I’ve packed boxes with samples for customers and influencers, I’ve created UPCs, moved furniture, and I let the delivery man into the office every day. That doesn’t seem glamorous, and it most certainly isn’t, but it’s sometimes necessary. The reasons to dig in are long but, at a minimum, it demonstrates to your team, to yourself, and to your investors, that you are committed to reaching your goals and will do whatever it takes.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Building that culture takes time and for me, I really value taking a trip outside of the office. There’s some theory about sweat, dirt, and food (and wine where possible) as key components of team building that I really buy into.
One of my favorite team activities was a trip to Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture. It’s a gorgeous location with noble ambitions — one of them being to foster sustainable farming practices. My team and I took a tour of the grounds, worked up a sweat, got a bit dirty visiting the farm and the animals there. After the tour, we had lunch at their market and got to know one another. I had the team collect a few unbelievable facts about themselves and we had a great time guessing who each fact belonged to. It wasn’t overly produced, just an afternoon together sharing stories and enjoying nature. We walked away with a stronger sense of team and had some inspiration from the farm that we could then take back into our work.
I have been lucky to be a part of some really phenomenal teams. They leave me with a sense that they brought out something better in me, and they’re teams I wish I could be part of again. I hope to leave my teams with that same feeling.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
#1: There’s not a moment when you wake up and feel like, “Okay, I’m the CEO now.” There are moments in your career where you feel like you have a sense of accomplishment and are comfortable in your skin in your particular role. What’s neat about being a CEO in start-ups is that I’m the CEO while also being CMO while also being someone in charge of figuring out what is going on with our product fulfillment. Not having that feeling of being the CEO deep in your bones is something I wish someone would have told me earlier on because we spend a lot of our careers chasing that feeling of being secure in our role. There is no button you press that makes you feel like a CEO, though I wish there were some days!
#2: Yes, I’m a CEO, but I’m also a minority, female CEO in an industry that is largely male. A big challenge was just recognizing this was possible. I wish someone said it was doable long before I reached the chair. I’m really proud of it, but it is something that is far rarer than it should be.
#3: Culture. Defining the culture, that doesn’t come from me as the CEO but it’s my job to foster and reward the kind of culture we want to have as an organization. Trust, respect, seeking understanding, valuing learning, fun, being willing to fail, celebrating wins (of all sizes) are all components of the culture I’m seeking to build.
#4 People talk about CEOs as if you are the boss, but CEOs have bosses, too. You have a board and investors and shareholders, you still have these people you need to be accountable to. In the best possible way, I don’t feel like I am on my own, I feel supported by the board and investors I work with as well as by my network which includes other start-up CEOs (the best cheerleaders). These are other people that can be your sounding board to tackle complicated situations that arise.
#5 Maintaining perspective is incredibly important. I’ve heard people say “if someone is not going to the hospital, you shouldn’t stress about it.” That’s a bit extreme, but I agree with the idea of not taking responsibilities too seriously and focusing on why we are doing the things we are doing. Even in the better-for-you categories, we are still hoping to delight consumers and bring a smile to their faces. There are a lot of more challenging things people have to face in a day, so it’s important to encourage people to look at their work with perspective, and to find some fun and entertainment inside of it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think it’s important for people to realize that every family looks different. Eldercare is something that is very important to me personally, and it’s a need that people face, especially women, who are often left with the responsibility of taking care of parents as they age. My mom, who passed away in October 2020, grappled with a difficult illness for a long time. Finding a way to be there for her and the rest of my family, while finding time for work and myself was a huge challenge. I know I’m not alone in this.
It is an incredibly demanding circumstance, and I am lucky to have a privileged background where I have been able to afford to take time away and look after my family, and for my sister to do more of the same. I’d like to work to have our society think about ways to make this very real need something we can deal with sustainably, especially as our older population continues to grow. The way we handle these things just isn’t sufficient, and I’d like to see that change.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
This is such a great question. I would love to meet with Michelle Obama to discuss how she navigated being a woman of color in a leadership position. She speaks often about her role as a partner to an inspirational President. She was his mentor, which means that she was a leader at her firm when they met. Reflecting back, I now see the biases I faced in my career as a female leader, and it would be so interesting to discuss how she sees decisions made in those moments as shaping where she is today.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
- IG: @nibmor
- FB: https://www.facebook.com/NibMor/
- Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/nibmorchocolate/
- Prabha’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/prabha-cheemalapati-a679b23