Lourdes Ahn comes from a multicultural, mixed-race family. Her dad’s side is Korean; her mom’s is Mexican. While the cultures may seem worlds apart, there is something that ties her diverse backgrounds—as well as almost every culture on earth—together: fruits and vegetables.
“I remember my Korean and Mexican grandparents sitting together eating mangoes, laughing and having a great time,” Ahn says. “No one in this group spoke a word of English, so they couldn’t communicate, but back then, mangoes were hard to find. Enjoying this juicy, sweet fruit was a huge treat for them. While some cultures eat more meat or more beans or more chicken than others, the one idea everyone has in common is: Get as many fruits and vegetables as you can. That’s kind of where we all start, and we build from there.”
The cross-cultural food group was the best place to start when it came to opening a business, she thought. As she sees it, fruits and veggies are simple. Universal. Transformational. “They should be the cornerstone of everyone’s diet,” she says. And yet, a staggering 90 percent of American adults are not consuming their recommended five daily servings of fruits and vegetables.
That statistic was part of what compelled Ahn to take action, leading her to accept the position of CEO at a purpose-driven startup called Upshoot, a company “on a mission to make plant-powered nutrition accessible to all,” Ahn says.
Upshoot combines scientficially curated healthy lifestyle programs with a complete line of Phytopúr nutrition products, each of which delivers between one and three full servings of fruits and vegetables.
Ahn’s new journey with Upshoot has been the culmination of an intriguing fast-paced career, one that has always focused on people first.
Since the beginning, Ahn was attracted to tasks she now realizes fall under the umbrella of human resources: talent acquisition and recruitment, interpersonal conflict (even harassment), refining and improving workplace culture, management, coaching, performance and mentoring.
Ahn is not your typical business leader looking to rise up the corporate ladder with ease. “In more established companies without a lot going on, I didn’t see myself fitting in,” she says. “I’ve always been drawn to companies in a transition phase, where I can add value.”
For years, Ahn has helped businesses define their brand and culture, then develop systems to formalize that so employees feel free enough to operate autonomously within the designed system—then she’d repeat and refine her process at the next company in need. She was given a huge challenge of people-centered work through Arbonne, the clean beauty and skincare brand that, like Upshoot, utilizes multi-level marketing. Ahn joined Arbonne at the beginning of a period of extraordinary triple-digit growth.
“At first, there were so few people there,” she explains, “and my job was to hire everybody, to put all the systems in place. The CEO was focused on culture. Because we were multi-level marketing, we had a large group of distributors. He instilled in me: ‘We are here to support these people. We make personal promises to them: great products, great compensation plan, ship on time.’ And it was my job to make sure we brought on people who understood that.”
Today, Ahn is motivated—professionally—by her desire to create workplaces where companies thrive. “HR is not about administration and paperwork,” she says. “Rather, we help build and create companies—whether that’s transforming a company, merging companies together, or transforming the culture and the way ‘we do’ business.”
Ahn says HR should play a strategic role in a company’s mission by establishing and defining systems that reiterate who and what a company stands for. “There can’t be separate HR processes, and then everything else,” she explains. “It’s about this: How does the whole company tie together?”
Ahn is not the only person to realize the importance of implementing human resources with the decision-makers in the C-suite: Over the last three years, heavyweights Viacom, Lyft and Tesla have all named their first Chief People Officers—executive-level strategists who help companies design their organizations, oversee coaching and development, and implement learning programs.
Ahn leads with a strategy she calls “talent first.” She adds: “It’s about understanding the business, what we’re trying to accomplish, and what systems we would put in place to help support the people there. The systems of a company drive people’s behaviors. If systems align with culture, you’re going to get the same results. That allows people to work on their own the most.”
She continues, “Regardless of the product you sell, it’s people that are going to do the work. That’s really going to set the tone, the decisions that are made. And unless you want to tell everyone what to do, you have to trust people to make their own decisions. The way you do that is through common values.”
For Ahn, communication of values starts even before employees are hired: with the recruitment process. “It all starts with trust and respect. If you try to trick people when you are interviewing them, they’re going to figure it out when they get hired,” she says. “Your hiring process has to reflect your culture. Be up front about salaries, bonuses, mission, difficulties. About everything.”
The genius of Upshoot’s philosophy—and the cornerstone of its brand—lies in the ubiquity of produce. “What does every culture, every person, in the world have in common?” asks John Laun, Vice President of Sales & Marketing at Upshoot. “Fruits and vegetables. Most of our parents tell us, ‘You have to eat your fruits and veggies.’ But it’s also the hardest: It’s hard to get fresh; how do you eat them? What do you eat?”
“And six of the top 10 foods people throw away are fruits and vegetables,” he adds. “No matter how much we may want to consume them, there are barriers like time, convenience, knowledge and education, or simply knowing what to make and how to make it. That’s why all those ultra-processed foods in the middle of the grocery store are so popular. We want to remove those obstacles to access so people can get the nutrition their health demands, with the convenience their lifestyle demands.”
“Exactly,” Ahn quickly adds. “That’s why we deliver a simple message: clean eating that’s convenient, affordable, reliable, and enjoyable.”
Upshoot’s mission is powered by independent Ambassadors around the country who help more people up their fruit and veggie game by sharing the company’s Phytopúr products and programs. And unlike a lot of fad products and zeitgeisty brands, there is no target age group, gender, even political preference, for produce. Taking into account the 90% of Americans not getting the recommended daily serving of fruits and vegetables, “it’s clear this market is ripe,” Ahn says. A common first customer for many Upshoot Ambassadors is … parents. Those same parents who once told them to eat their fruits and veggies, are learning a thing or two themselves.
The future? While Upshoot has already sold over 30,000 servings since its inception in Nov. 2019, it has a lofty five-year goal: “to help five million people live happier, healthier lives,” Ahn says. “It’s about bringing power and energy to people’s bodies. Everyone deserves that.”
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(Photo ID: Lourdes Ahn of Upshoot)