As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Bergstein.
Sara Bergstein is an entrepreneur with over twelve years of experience managing businesses, most recently as the CEO of blk., a fulvic acid-infused functional beverage company. Bergstein began her career in the restaurant business in 2002, and has since diversified her skills across several different industries including food and beverage, real estate, rehabilitation and more. Bergstein is focused on growing the blk. brand’s national presence and cementing it as a leader in the health and wellness beverage space.
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?
I began my career in the restaurant business in 2002, and have since worked across several different industries including food and beverage, real estate, rehabilitation and more. I have always been passionate about health and wellness and in 2017, I was introduced to the founders of blk., Jacqueline and Louise Wilkie, by an acquaintance in the flavor business. They developed the brand in 2011, in response to their mother having breast cancer and being told she had a year to live. While researching various “miracle” health aides, they found a few worthwhile products — one of them was fulvic acid. The fulvic acid compound has been used in Asian and Hindu cultures for thousands of years to heal many afflictions of mind, body and spirit. In recent decades, hundreds of accredited scientific and medical organizations have performed independent studies, which have validated that fulvic acid provides a powerful boost to one’s gut health, hydration, immune system and overall health. Since getting to understand the product’s history and all its potential health benefits, I immediately recognized blk.’s potential and felt strongly about getting on board.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
During the pandemic, we had no choice but to quickly pivot because we started to see that our distributors were not able to fulfill orders, and we slowly becoming out of stock on shelves. Therefore, within two weeks, we made the decision to turn to ecommerce. This was completely new for us, as we were only available in brick-and-mortar and our Amazon storefront, but we got our website up and running, and shockingly enough, we began blowing through products so quickly! The demand was so high that it gave us the momentum and energy to propel the company forward, especially in such unprecedented times.
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?
Starting out as the CEO of blk. I had to wear many different hats and was willing to do anything I could to get the product in the hands of customers. One day I thought it would be a good idea to take out the blk. truck and deliver a case of water to our neighbors in Calabasas. I took one employee with me and we delivered blk. to about 500 local doors over twelve hours in the boiling heat. Looking back, I thought it was such a good idea to let everyone in our local community know about the brand, but today I can say that it was not the most effective marketing tactic and use of my time. My employee and I still joke about it, but the experience has given me such a huge appreciation for the delivery people that bring products to us every day!
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’m not a big risk taker when it comes to business, so it’s helpful to surround yourself with people who think differently than you. My friend Diana is a huge risk taker and she really helped to inspire me be more courageous with my decision-making and really get out of my comfort zone. At the end of the day, we’re all going to make mistakes and that’s okay. To this day, I continue to surround myself with courageous women so we can all support each other in our risk-taking.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Every day I start out with coffee and then I meditate and take a gratitude walk — it’s a walk done in solitude. Sometimes I can forget to celebrate the small wins, which results in losing sight of what success really looks like. To make sure I sustain my momentum, I practice regular gratitude and release any stress from the day in a healthy manner. My practices includes mindfulness via remaining thankful for everyone around me, especially those on my team, and for the everyday accomplishments we have achieved, as well as consistently meditating and reflecting in solitude, even if it’s just for 10 minutes.
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?
I refer to our whole team as a tribe because when you have a diverse team you have a larger understanding of customer needs as a whole. Studies show that adding further diversity to the workplace increases morale and team bonding. You also have a bigger pool of skillsets and different perspectives. Everything comes from our backgrounds, histories, and cultures, so when you have people who were brought up differently than yourself, you have a wider range of creativity and new ideas.
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.
From a CEO’s perspective, I would say to listen, learn and understand without judgment. This helps to build stronger systems comprised of diversity and collaboration. From the start of building this company, I made a decision to build out a diverse team because, as previously stated, the more representation and inclusion we have, the wider the creativity pool becomes, which ultimately creates a stronger and more valuable company. It is important that I spearhead meaningful changes in the workplace and create an environment that allows all talent to thrive and prosper.
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?
A CEO has to make quick, on-the-spot decisions, since they have a lot of people coming to them for advice and answers. You can’t spend your time worrying about the small things. You need to be decisive for your team, so they can continue to keep doing their job. Sometimes you don’t have time to meet and consider, you just have to go and make a decision in the moment. If you make a mistake, you learn to own that mistake, and just keep going.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth would be that CEO’s are super-humans. People believe that we always have the answers or that we always have the bandwidth to juggle it all. However, in reality, we are all just normal, hard-working individuals like everyone else. We too, learn as we go and make mistakes along the way.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Juggling is very different for us as women, especially those who are moms, because we are expected to do it all: be an executive, pick up the kids, come home, cook dinner, and help the kids with homework. We have a lot on our plates at all times. Every day I have to leave the office at 4:30 to go pick my kids up from the bus, drop them off at their activity, and come back and finish any work for the night. Moms are fantastic multi-taskers and time organizers. They are taking over the world!
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The decision making factor plays a major role in my actual job. It is less about the day-to-day tasks, and more about offering my point of view and expertise to make sure we, as a company, are keeping the forward momentum going and remaining on track to achieve our long-term goals.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
There are many types of leaders, but there are two different kinds of people — people who need to be told what to do and people who need to delegate and guide others. You need to be courageous and you need to be able to take a risk in order to be a leader, and that’s something I’ve had to learn along the way. I’ve been a leader at other companies, but never without a team under me giving me feedback. Now, I have to make these quick decisions without that feedback. If you are someone who has trouble making decisions in your life, you might not enjoy an executive position.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Lead with love, kindness, acceptance and surrender. As soon as we surrender and accept what is, we’re much more powerful. Because we have a different make up, we are able to connect on a different level. I have such a bond with my tribe and I deeply care about them and their success. Women have a way of connecting everyone together in a tribe, instead of keeping people in separate silos. We’re all doing this together and women have a beautiful way of bringing people together with love and acceptance. Everybody has problems, of course, but women are understanding and loving, and we make people feel like an extension of our family.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
We have a department that is just focused on charitable donations and we’ve donated $20,000 to Elmhurst Hospital Center in New York, as well as supplied 6,000 blk. bottles to the frontline workers caring for COVID patients. From the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we have donated to every hospital around blk. headquarters, including the UCLA Medical Center, USC Medical Center, Kaiser Permanente, Tarzana Medical Center and more. We also made it a priority to donate to the fire departments, since we have so many fires here in California. We are dedicated to looking for opportunities to give back and give to people in need and are excited to continue this mission in 2022 and beyond!
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. When you’re CEO you have to have the ability to make quick, on-the-spot decision because everyone comes to you for answers.
2. The level of competition in the beverage industry is mind-blowing. I’m all about positivity and kindness and I want everyone to succeed, and I hope I reflect that, but that’s not the case with all brands. It’s a saturated (literally and figuratively) industry and having to put my shield on and have thick skin is something new for me.
3. Learn to pivot! During the pandemic, I had to make the quick decision to turn to ecommerce, and hope that people were willing to buy our product in such dark and unprecedented times. Luckily, our customers were willing to pay for the product and it showed that we do have a loyal customer base, which really gave us the energy to keep going, and making sure we are getting the product into the hands of the people that love it.
4. There is still a learning curve for those in an executive position. I’ve had to learn how to manage a growing company, and then learn how to shift my focus from delegating everyday tasks to leading the way for larger business goals and strategies. In tandem, I’ve also had to find a way to address the needs of my employees because the needs of a team of 5 is very different than the needs of a team of 60.
5. Clearly define your goals so the entire tribe is working for the same result. It is important to meet your short-term goals and objectives for each week in order to achieve the ultimate long-term goals of the company.
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’ve started directing my team to focus on initiatives that help children. Our focus going into 2022, is supporting afterschool programs to encourage kids to learn a skill, play a sport and be part of a community in the hopes that they will be less likely to fall into bad habits or poor social environments.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Fail to prepare and prepare to fail. –Benjamin Franklin” That’s my number one thing that I tell everyone, including my children, is that if you’re not prepared, you will fail. You have to put in the time, the research, and even do the personal meditation to get in the right headspace, so you can go out there and crush it.
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
OPRAH! I’ve been watching Oprah since I was a little girl. I would watch it every day and then my friends and I would talk about it. Oprah does so much for the whole world and brings everyone together. She’s an amazing businesswoman, she gives back and cares, and is making a huge impact on others’ lives. I would love to meet her someday.