Adnan Derrani – Founder & CEO, American Halal Co, Inc.

Adnan Derrani is the founder and CEO of American Halal Co, Inc., which markets the Saffron Road brand line of all-natural and antibiotic-free halal cuisines. Saffron Road is the first halal product to be sold nationally in the U.S.A. Whole Foods, the #7 ranked U.S. food retailer with over $14 billion in sales, has noted Saffron Road as one of the most successful brand launches, nationally, in their 30-year history. Saffron Road is now sold in over 12,000 retail food stores. According to A.C. Nielson/SPINS Scantrak, Saffron Road is the fastest-growing natural frozen entrée brand in the U.S.A. and nationally ranked #2.

In its Spring 2015 issue, Profile Magazine featured Adnan on its cover story regarding CEO leadership, and how he is delivering record growth in the, otherwise challenged, frozen foods category. In January 2015, The Specialty Food Association (the largest trade group globally of specialty and gourmet food brands, with over 50,000 attendees at its Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, California) awarded Adnan with its coveted “Business Leadership Award.” In April 2014, Social Venture Network awarded Adnan with a “Lifetime Service Award” for his 30 years of devotion to socially responsible business and giving back to the community. In December 2013, at the Global Islamic Economy Summit in Dubai, His Highness Sheikh Al-Maktoum gave American Halal an award as the “Best Halal Company in the World.” And in 2012, at the World Halal Forum, His Excellency, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, gave Saffron Road the award as the “Best Halal Product in the World.” Adnan and Saffron Road have been the featured in numerous publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The New York Times, Fortune, and CNN.com.

Adnan has been an entrepreneur and investment professional for almost 30 years and is president of Condor Ventures, Inc., a venture firm devoted to strategic investing in natural food companies. His entrepreneurial ventures have resulted in a successful track record of scaling and growing niche beverage and natural food product lines into mainstream-branded companies that also deliver disruptive social impact.

Adnan founded Vermont Pure in 1991. Today, Vermont Pure/Crystal Rock is the 2nd largest bottled water company in the northeast. Adnan was also a partner in Stonyfield Farms, Inc., which was sold to Groupe Danone in 2001. Stonyfield, today, generates almost $400 million in sales annually. He was also a principal of Delicious Brands, Inc., which he scaled, with the financial backing of Carl Icahn, to become the 5th largest cookie brand in the U.S.

Adnan has been recognized by BBMG and SVN as one of the entrepreneurs who engineered, “20 Ideas that Changed the Way the World Does Business.” The select list of inductees includes Ben Cohen (Ben & Jerry’s), Gary Hirshberg (Stonyfield Farms), Muhammad Yunus (Nobel Peace Prize, Grameen Bank), and Steve Case (AOL). He has also been hosted by the Vatican, Pope Benedict, and the White House, as one of only two American Muslims to be a speaker on “Interfaith in Business” in October 2010, at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Italy. Adnan is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, where he is the chairman of the board of visitors and is also chairman of Columbia’s SEAS entrepreneurship advisory board. Adnan is also a trustee and on the board of directors of Zaytuna College in Berkeley, California.

1. How do you define success?
I think startup entrepreneurs have to be very careful not to define success in the classic one-dimensional terms taught in business schools – solely by profits, sales, or scale. I define success as creating a viable, yet, disruptive enterprise that adheres to a triple bottom line philosophy – i.e. delivers on a mission of social responsibility, has a positive & measurable impact on meeting a critical need for humanity, a disenfranchised community, or the environment, as well as, meeting traditional Proforma sales or profits goals.

2. What is the key to success?
This is a very broad question and, unfortunately, there is no one answer. Over the decades, what I have personally observed is that the most successful entrepreneurs I know had grit (resilience, staying power) in the face of enormous obstacles, and against all odds, they never gave up. They are a breed of irrationally, passionate leaders who believed undeniably in their idea or enterprise. The biggest mistake young entrepreneurs make (indeed, I did in my first venture as well), is to not believe in themselves or waver in their conviction due to being young, inexperienced and told by alleged “experts” (e.g. investors, executives at large companies, competitors, or by business consultants) that their idea or venture was doomed to failure or impossible. Albert Einstein famously once said, “If any idea is not at first absurd, then it has no chance of success.” Also, it helps to really do your own research. Be skeptical of the status quo or conventional thinking out there, but back up your ideas with new, exceptional original sources and your own insightful marketing, demographic insights. Big companies, consultants, investors (Wall Street), and venture funds sometimes miss the boat by looking through the rearview mirror and using stale knowledge. Especially with the Internet and social media, today’s disruptive entrepreneurs have amazing opportunities to do astute original research like never before and click the refresh button. So the keys to success, to me, are having both “street smarts” and “book smarts,” and then having unwavering conviction to believe in yourself, regardless of the odds, to never give up.

3. Did you always know you would be successful?
No, of course not. In fact, I have had many more failures along the way than successes. Indeed, I did always have an unhealthy dose of overconfidence. But what has changed over the decades, as I got more successful with each venture, is that my mindset was transformed from a fear of failure (most common among almost all entrepreneurs) to a methodical confidence about setting reasonable and achievable goals that lead to ultimate success.

4. When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Goes back to question #2.

5. What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
To believe in myself and the conviction of my ideas, in spite of negative voices all around me to the contrary, and to make sure I don’t follow conventional thinking, but rather stay true to my values. It’s also critical to surround yourself with good mentors that believe in you, from your board to your advisors (lawyers, consultants, investors, etc.), and to seek out business communities as support groups, where you can benefit from the best practices or learn from colleagues (CEOs or entrepreneurs) in a safe environment.

6. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I love to spend time with my family, golf, skiing, deep sea fishing (including freshwater fly fishing in Vermont), as well as connecting deeper with Muslims or other religious groups on community or faith-based initiatives. I also mentor a number of young, socially conscious entrepreneurs and am active with a number of nonprofits that share my values.

7. What makes a great leader?
Being able to set discipline among the company’s team and employees, being accountable to all employees and all stakeholders, as well as being able to recognize your own weaknesses and readily admit when mistakes are made (learning to live in the solution, not just harboring on the problems). And hiring stellar managers, team members, and collaboratively delegating authority and key decision powers to them. Vision and strategy are also critical, and it is up to the leader to always keep these in focus. Of course, the key to leadership is also recognizing what motivates your employees or partners and inspiring them to excel to new levels of achievement in pushing those interests that are also passionately aligned with the company’s interests.

8. What advice would you give to college students about entering the workforce?
There is a huge movement among college students today to jump ship and not complete their degrees, or even if they are graduates, to just leap cold into being an entrepreneur. This has now become very trendy in today’s era, and I want to caution this millennial generation to not follow the herd here. Stay in college, finish your degrees, and then seek full-time employment opportunities. Only after you have had meaningful employment for a couple of years, either at a large corporation, venture capital or finance firm, consulting company, or in a business that has a skillset you want to master, then if you still want to pursue being an entrepreneur, make the leap, assuming you have done all your original research for your idea and that you have gained some work experience in the field you want to delve in.


This interview is an excerpt from Never Give Up by Jason Navallo.

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