What does it take to get to the top -- without losing your center? Our “Making It Work” series profiles successful, dynamic women who are standouts in their fields, peeling back the "hows" of their work and their life, taking away lessons we can all apply to our own.
Liane Weintraub, 44, is the co-founder and CEO of Tasty Brand. Tasty, which saw more than $10 million in sales this year, sells its organic snack foods both domestically and internationally in stores as diverse as Whole Foods Markets, large supermarket chains, family-owned stores, and Costco. Weintraub's interest in what we eat came from her days as a journalist who reported on the impurities and complexities of our food chain. She says she became committed to improving the food supply, and left broadcast journalism to do precisely that, teaming up with long-time friend Shannan Swanson, an heir to -- of all things -- the Swanson Frozen Food Co.
Weintraub lives in Malibu, Calif. with her husband Richard -- a commercial real estate developer -- and their two children.
Why do you do the work you do?
I am passionate about food -- healthy, safe food. I was raised in a very food-conscious home. I’ve travelled a lot and have great respect for different cuisines and, especially, the way in which crops and other foods are cultivated. As a journalist I covered a lot of agricultural stories -- that was my first in-person experience with the vast differences between how organic produce is grown versus conventional. I can think of little else that matters more than the quality of the food, air and water our children take in.
Business partners Shannan Swanson and Liane Weintraub share a commitment to food purity.
My co-founder, Shannan Swanson -- yes, the granddaughter of the founder of TV dinners! -- and I are good friends. We had our kids about the same time and were both committed to starting a food line geared toward babies (and now older kids) that would be healthful. Motherhood is what gave us the impetus to start the business.
What work would you do if not this?
I came from a journalism background, believing that by telling stories I could effect change. At one point, I was reporting extensively on our potentially tainted food supply and I knew I wanted to be part of the solution. Basically, I'm telling the same story now and engaging people in that story. Now the story is a product. Our complicated agricultural business and the food system in the U.S. and the public's struggle to do right by themselves and their families -- that's the story. It's hard and confusing for people to know what is safe for them to eat; how basic is that?
This is what I was meant to do. If I wasn't providing healthful food choices, I would be delivering the same message in another form.
Who do you admire and consider a role model?
Barbara Walters. Her life and career really epitomize overcoming adversity by using intelligence, good instincts and incredible tenacity. Her success was never about “luck,” but rather about putting in the hours and persisting. We have so many consumers who look at Tasty Brand as an overnight sensation, but it’s been seven years of non-stop hard work, so I always question the notion of “good luck.”
Is there still a glass ceiling? Have you hit it?
The conventional grocery business is a largely male-dominated business. The natural food world is more inclusive. We work between the two channels, and there is a very different culture in each. It's not a glass ceiling per se, but absolutely I see a different treatment of women. We've gone into meetings where they've called us "the tasty girls." I don't take it as an insult. We are aware of what needs to change and just don't get distracted by comments like that.
Do women have a responsibility to help other women at work?
Yes. We are a small company with a staff of eight, which until recently was all women. Our last three hires have been men though. The infusion of a few men helps us get different perspectives. The office is where we strategize, and there is a lot of creative thinking that goes on there. When it was all women, I think the environment got a little too loose. But yes, absolutely, women have a responsibility to help one another.
What were you doing when you were 25? Where did you think you were headed?
When I was 25, I was in USC graduate school and married. I thought I was headed for a career in print journalism but got hired by a UPN affiliate and covered Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.
What advice do you have for your 25-year-old self?
The same advice I'd give any 25 year old: Go ahead and make a plan for your life, but just don't be so wed to it that you can't see other opportunities. Most life paths aren't proscribed at 25.
What advice would you give someone starting their own business?
Shannan and I really jumped in with two feet and let the passion be our guide. If I ever start another business (or if a would-be entrepreneur asked my advice), I would suggest that passion is only one ingredient -- a necessary one, to be sure, but it’s equally important to pace oneself for the long haul. At the start of a venture, it’s hard to imagine what the sacrifices might look like years down the line, so it’s important to remember to restrain the passion a bit in order to protect the other aspects of life. And be patient. Success doesn't happen overnight.
Speaking of success, how do you define it?
I reevaluate it almost daily. One day's success is getting one of my kids out of a bind. Another day, supporting my husband is a triumph. Another day it's a victory with the business. The ultimate definition of success is balancing all of those things.
According to that definition, are you successful?
Yes, so far. The balance isn't about giving equal time to everything. The proportion scales are widely out of balance at all times. It's about the ability to focus and give 100 percent to what's in front of me at any given moment and knowing what that moment's priority ought to be. It's more a ratio than a balance.
Define the word happiness -- and are you happy?
Happiness is linked to balance. When I feel like I'm doing right by all the people in my life and myself, I have it. And yes, I would say I am happy!
Are those the same definitions of success and happiness you had when you started your business?
Please! We were utterly and totally unprepared when we started. I had no idea how big a toll the company would take on my personal life and time. We were so passionate about the mission behind the products and were so dedicated to what we were trying to do --we still are, but we have figured things out a lot better now.
What parts of your business are the most stressful and interfere with your ability to keep your life in balance?
The travel is the most stressful. We attend endless trade shows to sell our products -- at least two trade shows a month and during certain times of the year, the shows are clustered and more frequent. We sell our products better than anyone, so it's important that we do this part of the business ourselves. We do all the manual labor of schlepping the displays, setting things up, breaking them down -- ourselves. It's exhausting -- like when I spend a day traveling on three Southwest flights to get home, waiting around airports, rushing to meet planes.
But my partner, Shannan, has the same deal with kids at home. So we know what the other one is experiencing and can support one another. My husband Richard has also really stepped up. He is a full-time dad. We have help in the form of babysitters but Richard has definitely risen to the occasion and shoulders much of the load.
Has the "big meeting" ever collided with the school play, or some version thereof? What did you do?
If the meeting is THAT important, I go to it. The beauty of having a business partner in the same situation -- another mom -- is that we understand each other's struggles. We are there are each other.
Liane Weintraub with her husband Richard and their two children.
Do you keep your phone next to your bed?
I do, but it's off when I sleep. Yes, I check it in the morning before I get out of bed and yes, before I brush my teeth!
I think technology is a beautiful thing. It allows me a lot of personal freedom. I can work from anywhere, including my home. When I travel, I can stay on top of things in the office. It also allows me to have just a small number of people in my office but a large number of people who touch my brand. But we have to set limits on how technology oversteps into our personal lives and stops being good for us. The grocery business, by the way, is antiquated in a lot of ways. A lot of our orders still come in via fax.
Do you get enough sleep? Exercise?
No, I don't. I get six hours of sleep a night but would love eight. And no, I don't get enough exercise but I can't blame the job for that!
Does your mother understand why you work the way you do?
My mother passed away when I was just 16. She had a career until she had children. She was an art dealer, although she would hate that description. She hated the idea of mixing art with commerce, but she ran an art gallery. The fact that she didn't have a career after my brother and I were born is what propelled me to have one. I never knew what my Mom did all day. My kids know exactly what I'm doing and why it's important to me.
Do you have a work persona and a non-work persona?
I've tried hard to cultivate one persona. It's easy to have a split personality. I've tried to be the authentic me across all parts of my life. When I worked in TV news, I had to look presentable -- you know, dress professionally for the camera. That felt unauthentic to me.
Liane Weintraub in her office.
What would you title your autobiography?
"My Unexpected Story." I would never have planned for the life I lead. I lost both my parents when I was very young. I was 16 when my Mom died and 21 when my father died. Both had cancer. I have a brother who I'm very close to. But I think that losing my parents so young propelled me to start a grownup life early. I was 23 when I married Richard. We met on a blind date and fell in love.
Do you ever think of quitting?
I would never quit. At some point, maybe we will sell the business but I would want to stay involved. I feel like my brand is my third child.
So, we have to ask: Your partner in an organic foods business is a Swanson -- isn't that a little ironic?
Swanson Frozen Foods was started by Shannan's grandfather and his brother. The company was sold when her father was 14; she wasn't even alive when her family owned the company. Swanson's TV dinners were made in a different era and based on convenience and speed. We are all about health and making the right choices. The message is totally different.
But yes, the Swanson connection is a good conversation starter. When we check in for a flight and she says her name, invariably the airline clerk says "as in the TV dinners?" We just smile.