Lisa Sedlar is the Founder and CEO of Green Zebra Grocery, a healthy convenience store business on a mission to increase access to healthy food. Green Zebra has four locations in Portland, Oregon, and plans to spread their healthy convenience store throughout the country. Lisa believes that businesses should be in service to their community and do their part to strengthen their neighborhoods.
Today, we talk to Lisa about what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry, how Green Zebra has responded to COVID-19 as an “essential business,” her favorite stand up comedians, and much more.
Let’s start at the beginning. What did you want to be when you grew up?
Initially, I wanted to be a journalist. I had a paper route (which was a thing) and I actually read the paper that I delivered before I delivered it because I figured if I knew what the paper said and I could talk about it when I delivered, then I would get more tips. I really liked writing too. I even had one of those hats and I wrote a little card that said “PRESS” on it, and I put it in my hat, like an old-timey press pass. I was really into this idea.
And then somehow or another, I got off that idea, and I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian. I was completely obsessed with animals; I still am obsessed with animals. Every book report I ever had to do was about an animal or it would be about the Westminster dog show or something like that. God knows how I went from growing up in Detroit with its cars and highways to wanting to be a large animal veterinarian, but as it turns out, that didn’t work out anyway.
Now, instead, you run a grocery store chain. What is Green Zebra Grocery and why does it exist?
Green Zebra is a healthy convenience store chain. We’re on a mission to increase access to healthy food and to redefine what it means to be a convenience store in America.
Oftentimes the only grocery store in a neighborhood is a convenience store. And when you think about what most convenience stores offer, it’s cigarettes and sugary drinks and junk food. What the world is telling you is “this is what your neighborhood deserves.” What are your chances of being nutritionally fit and sound if that’s where you do most of your grocery shopping or most of your snack shopping?
In addition to unhealthy products, the people that work in convenience stores are often paid minimum wage, and the stores are often dirty. I’m trying to just change that up entirely and bring health to every neighborhood because healthy food shouldn’t be for the select few.
In the last few months, Green Zebra has become an “essential business” with “essential workers.” And I’m adding those quotes because of course, grocery was always an essential business and the workers were always essential. Can you just tell me a little bit about what this new reality has been like for you and the company and your staff? [Editor’s Note: We recorded this interview on May 6th]
It’s been exhausting. Especially from the standpoint of staying up to date on everything that I feel like I need to to keep our staff members safe.
I feel really protective of our staff and I want to make sure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to keep our team safe. Today, for example, we rolled out a requirement that all customers must wear masks in order to shop in our stores. So we had to go and source masks and make sure that we had enough available for shoppers who didn’t have them.
Every day, we have a COVID leadership conference call or Zoom call so that we can talk about the latest news and how we’re responding to it.
More than anything, it’s just the level of worry that I have around protecting our team members and our customers, and making sure that we’re cleaning enough. How could it ever be enough, you know? So there’s this constant sort of vigilance hanging over my head like, “You’ve got to do more, you’ve got to do more.”
Also, more broadly, it’s really hard to see other businesses close. We have so many friends that are restaurateurs and sommeliers and vendors that can’t make it without the restaurant business. So that’s been really hard to see and to feel that pain of our community.
I really can’t think of anything good about it other than the fact that people get to spend time with their families if they happened to be quarantined with their families. It sucks, frankly.
I don’t know if you want to call this a good thing, but one thing I have noticed is that a lot of businesses right now, when they put their mind to it, are able to move much faster than they would have under ordinary circumstances. I know that in your case, for example, it took you just 7 days to launch online ordering from scratch.
That’s a really good point. We are calling it “COVID Fast.” At Green Zebra, one of our values is to work efficiently and quickly and safely, so we’ve always worked quickly. But, man, there’s nothing like the pressure of not being able to provide an essential service if we didn’t launch online shopping. It was like, “Oh, my God, we have to roll this out now.”
We put every ounce of energy into launching and we realized that something that would normally take us six months we could do in a week if we tried hard enough. And it was stressful for everyone. But I also think that that feeling of achievement – of “you can do more than you think you can” – brought us all together.
I want to keep that sense of, “We can do more than we think we can, more quickly that we think we can.”
Do you have any major values or principles that you, Lisa, live by?
You know, my personal values are not that different from our company values. At the top of the list is being in service to others. As a human being, I really feel like I was put on this earth to be in service to others. So that is one.
Another is to put my head down and get the work done. Don’t worry about if it’s hard. Don’t worry about how long it’s going to take. Don’t worry about the obstacles. Just put your head down and get the work done.
Can you talk a little bit about your experience of being a female leader in a male-dominated industry?
I was just thinking about this the other day, because I was talking with someone about the 90s and what it was like to work in the grocery business in the 90s. This is before we were a more “woke” society. Working in a kitchen in the 90s, I can remember chefs talking about my physique and making comments to each other about my body. And talking about sex during work and how they wondered what I was like sexually. They saw no problem with it. That’s just how people talked.
And I was like, “No, this is a problem people. This is not okay to talk about.” You had to really speak up for yourself. It was hard though, because I was the only female in the kitchen, and so my name was “Girl Chef,” which in some strange way was a badge of honor because I got the “Chef” title.
It was really hard. As I entered the grocery business it was a little bit better. People were more professional than working in kitchens for the most part. But still, oftentimes, I was the only girl at the table. And you know, the dudes were always talking about dude stuff. I felt kind of like, “Oh, I don’t play golf on Tuesday afternoons with the vendors. I actually have work to do. So I’m going to say no to that invitation to spend the afternoon playing golf.”
I think, generally speaking, if someone is dedicated to their job, and they have passion for the work that they do, that it all kind of tends to work out. Not always, but it tends to. I don’t want to speak too generally, because everybody has a different experience. But that’s my experience. It’s such a sticky topic nowadays. I have difficulty finding the right words to attach to my experience.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Traditionally the hardest part has been raising money. I hate playing the card like, “Oh, because I’m a girl. I don’t get the same money that men do.” But the statistics bear this out in spades. It’s not even close to half and half, it’s like 3 to 5% compared to the 95% that men get. So it has been extremely hard.
When you hear men talk about raising money, it’s quite a bro society. It’s oftentimes a lot of rich white men saying, “Oh, you should talk to my brother-in-law. He was in my fraternity. He went to Harvard, I went to Yale. Ha ha ha.” You know? It is just like this totally insulated society and I’m always amazed by how inequitable it is. So that’s probably been the hardest thing. And I guess because it’s been hard, it’s probably something I don’t like that much.
Speaking of raising money, one thing I love about you is your investor updates. They’re hilarious and refreshingly different than most of the bland updates that most companies and CEOs send. You really just let your personality shine through. And not just in your investor updates, but in your LinkedIn posts and in emails with employees. I’m curious, where did this come from? [Editor’s Note: Peter is a former employee of Green Zebra.]
I have always been this way. I think that in order for people to really understand how Green Zebra is different, I want people to understand me, because initially the founder is the brand. If they understand me, then they can see how we’re different in the marketplace.
I like to lead with love and I love to laugh. I love watching stand up. I love cleverness. I love words. I wanted that to come out in the brand so that when people came to our stores, they feel happy and not like it is a drag or that it is sterile or that it was a chore, you know?
I consciously do make an effort to infuse my personality into the brand and into the investor updates and so on because there’s nothing more boring than reading an investor update, so I like to throw in some color.
Can you tell me a little more about what “Leading with Love” means to you?
I have love in my heart for everyone. I try to bring a sense of curiosity and understanding to every interaction and I try to be in that person’s place: “What’s going on in their life right now that’s causing them to be late to work?” or whatever it is. I just feel like love is the right way to lead. The results of leading with love, I think, are better than those leading with fear.
Yeah, absolutely. Oprah has a quote, “There’s only two emotions, love and fear.”
Ah, that’s great. I haven’t heard that one before. That’s great.
You’ve hired a lot people. What do you look for when you’re hiring people?
I always try to find people from other parts of the state. If I can find a farm kid, you’re hired on the spot. “Okay, great. You worked on a farm? You’re hired!” That work ethic is there you know (Laughs).
But mostly I look for friendliness. You can train all the other skills, but in the food service world, in the grocery world, if you’re not friendly, then I’m not hiring you.
Which isn’t to say you have to be an extrovert. I really love introverts. I love that introverts bring a different way of thinking to the table. They’re slow and thoughtful. I don’t mean slow, like slothful – they just give more thought to a topic as opposed to the first thing that goes off in their head. I think that having those differing viewpoints makes the company better. I’m not looking for another Lisa Sedlar, one is enough.
What are you doing right now to stay active?
My thing lately has been pickleball. I am obsessed with pickleball. Yesterday I had conference calls at 9, 10, 11, and noon. I had half an hour break, when I ate lunch and ran up and down my hallway. And then I had meetings at 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00. And by 3:00 I was fried. And I’m like, I gotta go play pickleball! So I did that for half an hour, fiercely. To me working out has to be fun. I can’t be aware that I’m in pain.
Besides pickleball, do you have any routines or practices that you return to make yourself feel more centered and grounded?
It really comes back to put your head down and get the work done. That is so ingrained in my head. It’s almost too ingrained. Sometimes I feel I need to find some other way. I wouldn’t say I’m a workaholic. But others would classify me as that (laughs).
I do read a lot though. I love reading. Right now I’m reading Madeline Albright’s newest memoir – Hell and Other Destinations – and I’m loving it. She didn’t start her career until she was 40, and then she just took off and she says she’s going to keep going until they put the nails in the coffin. That’s who I am also.
What has been the lowest point along your Green Zebra journey since you started in 2013?
Let’s see how I can say this while protecting the names of the innocent. There was a time about a year or two ago where we were really, really low on cash and we were exploring this little mini IPO that we could do to raise some money. And at the time this seemed like the only option to get us out of the hole that we were in.
There were some investors and board members that were opposed to us doing this. And I said, “Well, do you have another means by which you think we can get this money in time?” And they said, “No.” And I said, “So you would rather see the company go under than support this idea of a mini IPO to keep the company going?”
And they said, “Yeah.” And that was crushing. I was just like, really? There’s a hundred people who work here. They’re depending on this job. There are vendors that we’ve been partnered with for five and a half years, and they need this business from us. The community at large needs a healthy grocery store in their neighborhood.
I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it when I tell you that now. But heads down, get the work done. We did find the money, and we didn’t have to do an IPO. But it’s just because I got lucky.
What would you say you know now about living a happy and successful life that you did not know or didn’t appreciate when you were 25?
Oh God, 25! Peter, Peter, Peter. When I was 25 I was working in restaurants and I loved it. But I was partyyyying. I was not an early bloomer in terms of knowing how to have good healthy control over my life. Honestly, there was no telling my 25-year-old self anything. I was just wild and had my own vision and was following that vision.
But I would tell her she doesn’t have to be right all the time. I’ve now gotten comfortable with not having to be right. In fact, it’s actually good in a lot of cases to not be right and instead to build an environment of trust where people feel like they can challenge the leader and not feel scared for their job or that their idea was stupid.
One of our company values is, “We champion discussion and debate.” The reason we do that is because the business outcomes are better if people can discuss and debate. I really appreciate when people bring different perspectives to the table, because I’m not always right. I’m just one brain and one perspective.
When I was 25, I had to be right. I was really competitive and I thought I knew everything. Now I don’t have to be right.
What’s keeping you up at night right now, so to speak?
What’s not keeping me up? I am not a good sleeper to begin with. I am not gifted in that way. My partner snores all night long, like a nice snore, not an annoying snore. But he goes to bed and he just sleeps. He’s never troubled by anything. He’s an electrical engineer, and I think everything is math in his brain. You can go to sleep on math.
But I just worry about lots of things. I worry about our staff getting sick or our community members getting sick. I have a lot of other personal stuff going on in my life right now. My brother has a brain disease and he can no longer live by himself, so he lives with me and I’m worried about him. My dad’s in a care home, and I’m worried about him. My mom lives alone, and I’m worried about her. My daughter’s moving out this Friday. I’m not worried about her. I’m happy for her, but I’m sad for myself. I always thought we’d be like the Grey Gardens people, just living with pigeons and birds and we’d be bundled up together and hoping for the Kennedy family to give us some money.
Let’s wrap up with some rapid fire questions. You mentioned stand up earlier. Who are some of your favorite comedians?
Oh my god. Okay, so John Mulaney is just too much for me right now. I love love love him. I have watched his Kid Gorgeous special like 11 times and I will watch it again and again.
And I really love Dave Chappelle. I think Chappelle tells it like it is and he’s not always appropriate. And I think that’s okay. I think that laughing at things makes it so that experiences can be felt in different ways. If you can laugh at something, you have power over it in some way.
I like Nikki Glaser, although she talks about her vagina non stop, but it’s funny vagina talk.
What is your favorite TV show you’ve watched in the past year?
Well the first thing that came to mind is right now I’m watching The Last Dance. I’m pretty obsessed with that. And especially because in the 90s I lived in Detroit and Chicago, so that was a big part of my life. My daughter said to me, “Hey Mom, I understand so much more about you from watching the Pistons.”
What is your favorite comfort food?
So many Peter. So many. The first thing that came to mind is hot tuna noodle casserole.
I know. It’s my Midwest upbringing. What can I say? I put those really gross French fried onions on the top, and then I try to healthy it up by adding some broccoli.
What are going to be some of the big new food trends in the next few years?
Well, unfortunately, I think we’re going to have a lot more packaging associated with our food to keep it safe.
The plant-based trend is going to become even more firmly entrenched. All of these meat packing companies with their really horrible food safety practices and employee practices are suffering. They should close down if they can’t follow the right procedures in order to ensure that our food system is safe and traceable. But more and more we’re going to become a plant based world. I don’t think it has to be all plant based. I think it can be mostly plants. That’s one of the things that Michael Pollan said that I love is, “Eat mostly plants.”
If you could have dinner with one famous person living or dead, who would you choose?
Well, the hormonal side of me chooses Viggo Mortensen. He is a Renaissance man. People should not underestimate him. He’s a photographer. He’s a poet. He’s a producer, he’s an actor. He’s an activist. I used to stalk him on the internet. Not in a mean or creepy way. He’s just so cute and so great.
How can people keep up with you and support your work in green zebra?
And I actually really love hearing from people directly: firstname.lastname@example.org is my direct email, and if you want to call me, you reach me at (503) 358-7748.
Once this interview gets 10 million views and you’re getting a call every hour, you’re going to regret this.
That will be a high-class problem for both of us.
You may watch the entire, uncut interview on YouTube