Season 2 - Ep. 6 | From Gillette to Jamba Juice: How to Lead Iconic Brands with Empathy, Purpose & Integrity

Redefiners Podcast
Hosted By:
April 13, 2022 | 31 min
Our guest
James D. White | Former chair, CEO, and president of Jamba Juice

“As I think about the future of work and leadership, I actually believe anti-racist leadership and understanding that set of capabilities is going to be a requirement.”

James D. White, former chair, president and CEO of Jamba Juice, helped transform a small smoothie shop into a global lifestyle brand in just three years—during the Great Recession, no less. But that feat is especially impressive when you learn about where he started. James went from being the first member of his family to graduate college to being an operating executive at some of the world’s most iconic brands (not only Jamba Juice, but also Gillette, Safeway, Coca-Cola and Nestle) and a board member or chair of 17 boards including The Honest Company.

In this episode, James shares his philosophy on creating a people-first culture, his experience in the early years of the organic and natural foods industries, his commitment to lifelong learning, and his firsthand experience seeing companies accelerate their growth and innovation through more diverse teams. James’ recent book, Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Culture in a Race-Conscious World, which he co-authored with his daughter Krista, focuses on anti-racist leadership and DE&I from both a C-suite and Board perspective as well as a millennial one.

Here’s a taste of what you’ll hear from James in this episode, in his words (edited for length and clarity):

James’s Redefiner Moment: Learning empathy and action from his earliest mentor

In some ways my most fantastic coach/mentor/leader was actually my mom. When I was in fourth grade, I was in a chaotic classroom. We never had a permanent teacher, we had four or five substitutes over the year. I watched my mom intervene and it really changed my entire life. I ended up in the slower track class in the fifth grade because I was an introverted student. But I watched my mom's empathy and care and involvement, and that shaped everything else that happened after that moment in time. It shaped me as a leader: not to underestimate other human beings, and to try to unlock the full potential in everybody that I work with.

On becoming CEO of Jamba Juice during a recession

If I take you back to 2008, I was a first time CEO in the middle of the Great Recession. Many of my friends said, James, we knew you wanted to be CEO, but why did you pick this one? But here's what my thought process was: Jamba has always been a beloved and continues to be a beloved brand. So I knew that if I could figure out the early moments and keep the company afloat, that we'd be able to really have a successful run.

The pitch I made to the board as I interviewed for the job is that I’d build a strategy rooted in people first as a critical component of the work that we do. We worked on really changing the menu, accelerating innovation, and focusing on operational excellence. It ended up working well. We turned around the company and had a fantastic run.

On how personal experience has affected his leadership style

People have a tendency to ask black executives to prove it again. I've had challenges across my career where there would be natural opportunities for promotion or progression, at least in my own mind, where I literally needed to prove it again. I needed to have the resiliency to be determined, to continue to learn and grow, and to be persistent enough not to give up in the face of an initial challenge. The other thing that I have experienced really over my career, is I’ve never been promoted based on potential.

And as I've grown in my career and can affect that environment for others, that's one of the things that has really moved me passionately down this path of trying to create a more equitable environment. It's made me more resolved to take that experience into consideration as I look at the talents of other people, to promote all people based on an investment in their careers and on potential, so they don’t have to prove it again.

On how diverse teams accelerate success

If I look back on my entire career and think about diversity in all its dimensions, it's about creating an environment where everybody can bring their best capabilities to the table. More specifically, when I look at critical projects and innovation, more diverse teams can be more challenging to start as you're bringing people from different backgrounds, but as you move forward, you're going to have better ideas from more diverse places and you're going to innovate faster.

One of the big unlocks for me around diversity was during my time at Nestle Purina. We started to reorient the organization to be more cross-functional. If we just think about the diversity of different functional leaders, and how someone from commercial sales thinks about the world differently than someone in marketing and someone in IT, in operations— the language is different, how people make decisions is different. Transitioning was really difficult, but we built a powerhouse of a company once the cross-functional teams really worked. And then you overlay gender and ethnic diversity on that, and you've got an accelerator.



James D. White is the former chair, CEO, and president of Jamba Juice; a Board Director, and author of Anti-Racist Leadership: How to Transform Culture in a Race-Conscious World.

James has more than 30-years-experience revitalizing some of the world’s leading brands. In talks, he shares personal insights on how to build strong bridges between the boardroom and the shop floor and why investing in your workforce is key. A passionate champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion, he takes audiences on his journey as a Black executive who “never had one promotion based on potential”— beginning with learning the ins and outs of effective leadership at Coca-Cola before moving into executive roles at Safeway, Gillette, and Nestle-Purina Petcare, and then taking on his most ambitious challenge: refreshing Jamba Juice from smoothie shop into global lifestyle brand in just three years.

James draws from his time spearheading successful turnarounds and growth at top companies to provide real-life examples of how effective leaders overcome challenges, engage their employees, and instill a sense of purpose and belonging in their people to create winning cultures.

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If you like this episode, you may also enjoy our conversation with former NFL player and current Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent.

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