Lessons from Amazonian Culture and Ecology for Talent Management

Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie are the founders of one of my favorite startups ever, Runa. We drink the tea in our home all the time.  Runa is a wonderful example of a B-Corp, doing well and doing good.  Their business model is unique and there are so many lessons for our businesses and organizations from their story.  Tyler shares their story about talent with us.  Go buy some Runa Tea, enjoy, and learn.  Thank you, Tyler.


I studied indigenous Amazonian languages and Ethnobotany in college and managed to avoid taking any math, science or business courses (yes, I went to Brown University).  Starting a business, let alone a beverage company, as an undergraduate was not something I had planned on doing.   As ill prepared as I was, my passion for creative communication and intercultural exchange gave me a unique basis for becoming a manager and running what is now a 70 person organization in only 3 years.

Runa is a now vertically integrated beverage company that creates livelihoods for indigenous Amazonian farmers. We produce beverages made with guayusa ("gwhy-you-sa"), a “Super Leaf” from Ecuador that has as much caffeine as coffee and double the antioxidants of green tea. We’ve built our entire supply chain from the ground up and are the first to introduce guayusa to international markets.  We sell our bottled beverages and tea boxes in over 3,500 of the top retail accounts in the US from Whole Foods to Vitamin Shoppe and are generating over $100,000 / year of direct income for 2,000 indigenous farming families in Ecuador.

My business partner, Dan MacCombie, studied Marine Biology, so he was equally inexperienced in the art of management (unless we decided to employ invertebrates).  We knew early on that building a strong team and bringing in key leaders would be essential for our growth.

More specifically, we decided to model our staffing approach from two examples: one cultural and one environmental.  Traditionally, indigenous communities wake up together before dawn to drink guayusa. They sit around the communal fire drinking gourds full of guayusa until sunrise. During this time, the community members recount dreams, tell myths, and discuss hunting techniques, politics, and weather patterns. Every time I used to get up and drink guayusa with the Kichwa communities in this way, I was struck by a seemingly simple realization: the foundation of this entire culture that has thrived for thousands of years stands on this simple cornerstone: waking up, drinking tea, and sharing with each other. My theory may sound reductionist, but witnessing the strength it builds in these families and communities is what convinced me of this tradition’s power. 

As we began envisioning our business, we thought that if we could get a community of different partners from managers to farmers to government officials to consumers to collaborate, we could build a thriving organization. This spirit or exchange, respect, and transparency became essential to our strategy for building partnerships and learning from industry “elders” who had walked the path before us.

The second example that reinforced this strategy for us was our understanding of Amazonian ecology. The average sugar, corn, or tea farm is very weak ecologically – in being dominated by one specifies, the flow of nutrients is stifled, natural water flows are hindered, and soil structure becomes degraded, requiring heavy inputs of fertilizers and pesticides.  In a forest ecosystem, no intervention is needed. The diversity of species naturally cycles nutrients, protects the soil, and manages insect populations.  Thinking about how this might relate to our organization, we saw that a team of Tylers and Dans would be tremendously weak.  This analogy for me is the most concrete rationale for the true value of diversity I’ve encountered.

Our first hire in Ecuador was a great man named Fausto. We met Fausto through a friend of a friend of a friend. He was an experienced forestry engineer who had managed a number of different cacao and coffee projects in the region. A driven man who had a natural ability to lead, Fausto gained our confidence. We decided to empower him as our Regional Manager, and give him the freedom to be entrepreneurial in building his team. We let him pick the communities we were going to work with, hire his staff, partner with other local organizations, and develop his own research programs.  Fausto helped us grow from nothing into a team of 15 people and about 500 farmers, at which point Fausto’s leadership started to falter. What I learned in working with Fausto was that Entrepreneurship, Management, and Leadership are three very different things that often get lumped together. Fausto was an inspiring leader, a creative entrepreneur, but a poor manager.  His contribution early in our growth allowed us to take the first step, but as our focus shifted and we began thinking about how to scale, tight management became more of a priority.

After he built his team and was more responsible for reporting, planning, and overseeing a team, he outgrew his job and we had to replace him with some one who was less creative but much more diligent, personable, and attentive to details. When thinking about new job descriptions and interviewing candidates for positions, we use this lens of “Entrepreneur, Leader, Manger” to assess our real needs and where an applicant’s skills truly are. 

One level below Fausto, we hired a team of “técnicos,” field staff who directly recruit, train, and coordinate farmers. These técnicos are a key lifeline of our organization, because they are the direct point of contact between Runa and the farmers that grow the guayusa.  Early on we found 3 técnicos who were charismatic and natural leaders in their communities. They leveraged their relationships and reputations to recruit farmers to commit their time and productive resources to grow a crop they had never commercially sold to some young gringos who had no local credibility. Their ability to inspire farmers and know what they cared most about is what made them successful.

Over time, the intimacy of their relationships with farmers came to be a weakness, in a way, for the institutional capacity of Runa.  Once we caught a técnico driving his company motorcycle while drunk and fired him immediately. This meant that we lost our direct connection to 100 farmers whose homes in the jungle we could barely locate.  We recognized the need to value, but not overly depend on, the técnicos’s relationships. As our reputation as a legitimate organization grew, farmers knew us as “Runa” and less as “that organization that Fernando works for that we sell guayusa to.”  We’ve instituted a system where técnicos rotate into different areas and take detailed GIS coordinates of all the farms.

Recruiting new técnicos has been a further bottleneck to scaling. We adopted a tactic I learned from Andrew Youn, Founder of One Acre Fund, to counteract this pinch.  One Acre puts dozens of farmers through a multi-week training course to become field staff, even though they only have a few job openings at a time. The genius of the model is not that they get to pick from a large pool of candidates and analyze their capability over an extended period. The real value is in the aspiring applicants that don’t get the job, and return to their communities with a substantial amount of knowledge (that they then share with the rest of the community) and an even deeper connection to the organization. This training program has worked well for Runa and helped us scale more rapidly.

We’ve now copy-pasted this strategy in the US with our internship programs. This summer we’ll have over 20 interns. We have a great track record of hiring interns for new job opening (which is part of the reason we receive so many applications), but most don’t get jobs. The ones we hire will have been vetted for 3 months and already trained by our staff, while the ones we don’t hire will continue to be our biggest advocates and promoters at their universities and in their local communities. 

Transitioning from being a scrappy start-up to a more stable organization, while not losing our personality, is a major challenge.  In Ecuador, we’ve developed very strict rules and very high standards for our team and our suppliers, working against the tendency of people to see us as just another NGO that is “here to help” (aka doesn’t take our work seriously).  If anything, being “mission-driven” weakened our ability to be respected and listened to early on.

Keeping the inspiration alive becomes the next challenge, especially when most of our staff in the US spends their time negotiating promotions in supermarkets. To keep everyone engaged, we frequently have Skype calls between farmers and our sales reps in the US, field staff and our Board of Directors, and consumers and our regional managers.  Every other month we send detailed updates between each one of our entities (non-profits and for-profits), keeping every staff member aware of the progress we’re making and the challenges we face.  We’ve also committed to sending all of our team members in the US who have been with us for more than 1 year to Ecuador to visit the farmers and experience our work on the ground.

In retrospect, studying anthropology and linguistics might not have been the worst way to enter business (though the language of Balance Sheets and Cash Flow Statements is still fairly lost on me).

Learning from the communities that we aim to support as mission-driven businesses can not only inspire us to do good work, but even influence our business models and talent management strategies.