Leslie Danford is a driven and passionate team and business leader combining her interests with her formal business training to launch the first scale brand in children’s functional food and beverage: Vitaminis. Previously she served in strategic growth roles and general management roles at Softbank-backed OYO Hotels and global spirits company Beam Suntory (makers of Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark). She began her career as a Management Consultant at Bain & Company and earned her MBA from Harvard University and BA from the University of Chicago, with honors.
Check out more interviews with entrepreneurs here.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO GET FEATURED?
All interviews are 100% FREE OF CHARGE
Table of Contents
Let’s start with a brief introduction first. Introduce yourself to our readers.
Leslie Danford: I’m Leslie Danford, a mom of four and the founder and CEO of Vitaminis, the first scale brand in functional food and beverages for families. Our first product is an Immune Support drink, rich in Vitamin C, Zinc, and Magnesium in a sip-sized 2.5-ounce serving, which launched in July 2021.
Before founding Vitaminis, I had a traditional corporate career in hospitality, management consulting, and consumer products. When I lost my corporate role as a result of the pandemic, I decided to combine my passion for children’s nutrition and my formal training in consumer products by launching my own business. My mission is to provide better, more nutritious snacks and beverages for families, that address common health concerns and always taste delicious, without added sugar or mystery ingredients.
Our audience is interested to know about how you got started in the first place. Did you always want to become a CEO or was it something you were led to? Our readers would love to know your story!
Leslie Danford: My mother reminded me that when I was seven years old, I wrote and illustrated a short story, asked to borrow money from her to make copies of it, and then sold it on the corner outside the local drug store for 5 cents apiece. I guess you could say the entrepreneurial spirit started early! In high school, I told my dad I wanted to be a CEO, and in college, I founded a club called the Chicago Entrepreneurial Group (where I ended up meeting my husband!), so although the decision to start my own company seemed risky and a huge change from the corporate career I had been in for many years, it almost seems destined in retrospect.
“Selfmade” is a myth. We all received help, no doubt you love to show appreciation to those who supported you when the going got tough, who has been your most important professional inspiration?
Leslie Danford: Some very inspirational self-made female entrepreneurs come to mind, such as Oprah Winfrey, Sara Blakely of Spanx, and Kara Goldin of Hint Water, that I think are incredible role models! I’m very thankful that these women dared to set out on their entrepreneurial journeys so long ago. But on a more personal note, I am grateful to a few key bosses that I’ve had in my career at Bain & Company, Winona Capital, and Beam Suntory.
These men and women had the perfect combination of faith in me and what I could do plus the commitment to give me the hard feedback I needed to hear to learn how to be better. Without this coaching and sponsorship, I would not have the skills and experiences I lean on today.
How did your journey lead you to become a CEO? What difficulties did you face along the way and what did you learn from them?
Leslie Danford: Getting laid off as a result of the pandemic was a key factor that pushed me to start my own company. Although I’d always thought of being an entrepreneur, I never dared to take the first step to get started. Getting laid off at a time when finding another role was next to impossible was just the push I needed. I started tinkering with my idea while job searching, and before I knew it, I had done enough to make it feasible to go after my dream full time. This experience taught me that every negative experience or setback has a silver lining, as hard as it might be to see or embrace at the time. Sometimes these setbacks are life’s way of nudging us in the right direction.
Tell us about your company. What does your business do and what are your responsibilities as a CEO?
Leslie Danford: Vitaminis is a functional food and beverage brand for families. Our first SKU is an Immune Support 2.5-ounce drink that’s rich in Vitamin C, Zinc, and Magnesium. As the sole founder of the company, I find that I’m focusing on a wide variety of activities, from production and product quality to marketing and social media throughout the day. Because I’m trying to build awareness at this stage, I’m spending a lot of time on sampling opportunities as well as networking with influencers, and building our social media presence and email list.
What does CEO stand for? Beyond the dictionary definition, how would you define it?
Leslie Danford: Chief Everything Officer!
When you first became a CEO, how was it different from what you expected? What surprised you?
Leslie Danford: Although I’d been warned, I was surprised by the ambiguity and associated emotional ups and downs that come with running an early-stage company. When you’re not seeing the traction you expected, it’s easy to think that your product or business idea is wrong, when it might be a matter of adjusting your approach. Networking with fellow entrepreneurs to maintain perspective has been so helpful in dealing with this!
There are many schools of thought as to what a CEO’s core roles and responsibilities are. Based on your experience, what are the main things a CEO should focus on? Explain and please share examples or stories to illustrate your vision.
Leslie Danford: The most important role of a CEO is embodying the brand values. Does the brand value diversity? Making the right decisions no matter the cost? Protecting the environment? The CEO demonstrates these values (or doesn’t) with every decision or action he or she takes. The second most important role of the CEO is to be a champion of his or her employees by providing them with opportunities to grow and add value to the company. If the CEO can attract and retain great talent, the company will excel.
Share with us one of the most difficult decisions you had to make for your company that benefited your employees or customers. What made this decision so difficult and what were the positive impacts?
Leslie Danford: I have gotten preliminary feedback on the taste of my product, and while it would be easy to focus on the positive and continue with the formulation as is, I’m investing to reformulate and improve the flavor in the next production run. I hope that this will be positively received by consumers!
How would you define success? Does it mean generating a certain amount of wealth, gaining a certain level of popularity, or helping a certain number of people?
Leslie Danford: I started this company because I was disappointed in the convenient snacks and beverages I saw in the market. All of the options were full of sugar and void of nutritional value. Meanwhile, there were few natural food and beverage options to address minor health concerns, forcing families to look to pills and powders. I would consider it a huge success if Vitaminis can reach consumers and help them to improve their health, nutrition, and eating habits easily and enjoyably. I would love to become a trusted brand in snacks and drinks for families.
Some leadership skills are innate while others can be learned. What leadership skills do you possess innately and what skills have you cultivated over the years as a CEO?
Leslie Danford: I’ve always been a natural at multi-tasking and getting things done, which is certainly something I do today. I have had to learn how to prioritize ruthlessly over the years, focusing on the 20% of tasks that will achieve 80% of the value, ignoring all other distractions. Sometimes this means fighting my urge to tackle tasks that are relatively easy just to check them off my list because they are not the most important in driving results.
How did your role as a CEO help your business overcome challenges caused by the pandemic? Explain with practical examples.
Leslie Danford: Vitaminis was born of the pandemic, so I guess that’s one way! One way I leveraged the pandemic in starting Vitaminis was in keeping the focus 100% online, for sales as well as sampling. For example, we solicited customer emails and addresses with a popup on our website if they would like to try Vitaminis, and then we sent them some. By focusing on digital channels for selling and communicating with customers, Vitaminis was able to get a good foundation online (email addresses and engaged customers), even while the world remained quarantined for much of 2020.
Do you have any advice for aspiring CEOs and future leaders? What advice would you give a CEO that is just starting on their journey?
Leslie Danford: Starting your own business can certainly be daunting. I would offer two pieces of advice to conquer this fear. First, think about the small concrete steps that you would need to get started, such as interviewing a potential customer or purchasing a web domain. Breaking things into small steps feels more manageable, and these small things can add up to big things. Second, keep in mind that entrepreneurship is a learning process. You don’t need perfection right off the bat perfection can be the enemy of progress. Do the best you can and remember that the process will bring learnings that you can use to continuously improve. Nothing is set in stone!
Thank you for sharing some of your knowledge with our readers! They would also like to know, what is one skill that you’ve always wanted to acquire but never really could?
Leslie Danford: I’ve always wanted to be fluent in another language. Although I studied French all through high school and college, I didn’t have the opportunities to practice it enough to become fluent. I’ve always admired those that grow up bilingual!
Before we finish things off, we have one final question for you. If you wrote a book about your life today, what would the title be?
Leslie Danford: ‘Juggling Destiny’
Larry Yatch, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Leslie Danford for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Leslie Danford or her company, you can do it through her – Facebook
Disclaimer: The ValiantCEO Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.