Women in Business Q&A: Lara Merriken, Founder, Larabar

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Larabar

Denver-native, Lara Merriken had an idea to make a convenient, whole food bar that tasted delicious. As a former junk-food nut, she desired something that was indulgent but wholesome. After scouring the aisles of grocery stores and noting popular flavors of ice cream and cookies, she delved into her own product development. With friends and family serving as focus groups, she tinkered with recipes. The next step was to launch a company that would initially be five delicious Larabar flavors: Cherry Pie, Apple Pie, Cashew Cookie, Banana Cookie, and Chocolate Coconut Chew. She also assembled a sophisticated manufacturing arm... what amounted to be a Cuisinart and a rolling pin. Today, millions of Larabar bars are sold each year. Lara lives in Denver with her husband and son.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
As the founder of Larabar, I'm still very involved with the brand. Maintaining the product integrity and heritage is important, and I continue to advise on the brand strategy, vision and how we are communicating our brand attributes to consumers.

I've always been the type of person that likes to try new things that are outside of my comfort zone. This is the best way to learn and grow. Starting as a walk-on for the USC women's volleyball team in college, to becoming a social worker and working with at-risk kids, to having an idea while on a hike to start a food business, all of these challenges/ experiences shaped me into who I am today. I've learned that dreams are created through hard work, tenacity and believing that anything is possible.

How has your previous employment experience aided your journey to create Larabar?
Nearly a decade after graduating from USC with a psychology degree --not an MBA, mind you--the inspiration for Larabar Original Fruit & Nut Bars struck. I went on a hike, when a light bulb went off to create something convenient and real, whole food. I spent three years doing research and development, putting together ideas and working at a local grocery store earning $10/hour so that I could learn the business from the ground up. I learned that you can never know all of the answers, and not to be afraid to just go for it.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Larabar?
From the moment that the idea for Larabar struck on that celebrated hike, to putting my company together and seeing it become something that people love, it all has been extremely gratifying. Hard work, but fulfilling. Another big highlight was the decision to sell Larabar to General Mills. I'm proud of the way we've grown the business, and equally proud that General Mills recognized the magic of Larabar and, through its tremendous resources, is taking it to a higher level and a greater reach that we could have never achieved on our own. The world will be better for it.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Trust your instincts and follow your passions - and most importantly, enjoy each step of the process. When I came up with the idea for Larabar, many people thought I was out of my mind. Here I was, 30 years old with a college degree, working in a grocery store and earning $10 an hour while putting together a company in what appeared to be my spare time.

Thankfully, I didn't let the naysayers push me off-track. I stayed true to my idea and persevered, asked questions and surrounded myself with people who supported my dream. They helped make each step of the process enjoyable. Early on, it never occurred to me that I would build something that competed against multimillion-dollar businesses, let alone that it would be bought by one.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Looking back, the best lessons are to always listen to your intuition and follow your passions in life. Success and building a meaningful business are marathons, and not sprints. Don't be afraid to be different and innovate. Try new things even if you don't know what you are doing! Be sure to have fun and surround yourself with people who support your dreams.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Maintaining a healthy work/life balance can be very challenging. Through the years, I've found it helpful to approach it like a business and to identify what is most important to me both in my personal life and work life. Once I've identified these priorities, I try to be mindful and commit to the things that support what is really meaningful to me and lead to true fulfillment. I find great happiness in being a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend and an entrepreneur.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Recognizing their true value and asking for what they want and need.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My mentors have helped me gain broader perspective and step outside of myself to see the bigger picture. They have also helped me stay focused on what is truly important.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I have always admired Maria Shriver, Oprah Winfrey and Diane von Furstenberg. They are all women who show vulnerability, work hard, dream, challenge the norm and most importantly, share their experiences so they can help others better themselves.

What do you want Larabar to accomplish in the next year?
This is a big year for Larabar. We aired our first TV commercial in January 2016 and kicked-off a campaign titled "Food Made from Food" to help tell our simple ingredient story and my founding mission to help make real food accessible to all. We want to empower a conversation around something as personal and inextricably linked to our lives as food and food ingredients. To live this mission, we are partnering with Feeding America and asking our community to raise awareness about food insecurity by posting using #sharerealfood. Together, we hope help alleviate hunger and make wholesome, nutritious food available to communities in need.