Startup Stories: Q&A With Thrive Market Director of Culture Brian Tortora

June 13, 2018

Welcome to Startup Stories, a series that takes you behind the scenes to share what working at a startup is really like. Our mission at Thrive Market is simple: to make healthy living easy and affordable for everyone. But fulfilling our big dreams takes a team of dedicated, inspiring, funny, and tenacious people who show up to work every day eager to make a difference.

Today we’re introducing you to our Director of Culture, Brian Tortora. He’s all about elevating our brand internally and helping make Thrive Market a positive place to work. (You can also find him practicing headstands in the office gym!) Read on for our interview!

Let’s start with the basics. Can you describe your role at Thrive Market?

Corporate culture is loosely understood to be the shared attitudes and values of employees in a company. But what happens when a business experiences significant growth in a short period of time, as many startups do? As the Director of Culture, my role is essentially to guide the internal brand of the company through storytelling and engagement. This role champions a Thriving culture by developing company-wide programs that foster an innovative workplace and a holistic employee experience that’s driven by our mission, vision, and values.

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I’m always looking for ways to support our mission of “Making healthy living easy and affordable for every American family”—which includes our employees and their families, too. For example, our food program has been a central part of our work-life and it starts with clean, organic food and pure drinking water. I know it sounds like basic building blocks, yet it’s foundational to our work-life here at Thrive. Additionally, I work with our experience team to design programs that encourage lifestyle changes, such as yoga, meditation, and personal-development skills. My goal is to offer Thrivers an opportunity to make changes, without telling people what’s right for them. Programs are there and our employees can join if they resonate!

My goal is to offer Thrivers an opportunity to make changes, without telling people what’s right for them. Programs are there and our employees can join if they resonate!

Another aspect that’s core to my work is harmonizing our space to foster optimal productivity and effectiveness by ensuring Thrivers have what they need to do their best work. My current project is about bringing Thrive values—Member-First, Authenticity, Think Big, and Tenacity—to life in our workplace.

In designing the Tenacity installation, for example, we created geometric string art that leads from a perceived failure to a success. The “Setbacks” on the left pushed us to be tenacious, leaping the hurdle to our “Success” on the right. Our founders were rejected by more than 45 venture capital (VC) firms when they first went out to raise funding. That “Setback” resulted in developing a strategy to raise our initial seed funding through our a value-aligned influencer network rather than through institutional VC firms. Developing the workspace is one my favorite parts of my work.

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Is there anything people misunderstand about your job, or something that might surprise members to learn about your work?

The role of Director of Culture is relatively new to business. My role is primarily a service to the community, so we can contribute individually to our office environment as a whole. Essentially, I’m holding space for the vision of the leadership while allowing our culture to naturally develop from what’s core to our mission.

With a background in design, you’ve created lots of installations around the office—which one is your favorite?

Of all the visual designs I’ve created, I’m most proud of the timeline wall. At our corporate headquarters office in Marina Del Rey, all new employees get Polaroid photos taken, which are placed on a timeline according to their start dates. In addition to employee photos, we also have key historical milestones and large photos of those milestones. What’s really neat is to see each and every person who has put their hands into building Thrive Market from the beginning and to see our growth over time. It’s a very simple design that gets a lot of attention from visitors and employees alike. It also gives folks an opportunity to point to a time in our history and say, “I was here when that happened.”

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What does a typical day look like? Do you have any routines or rituals that help you feel your best?

I like to do headstands in our gym when I’m feeling tired or need an energy boost. We have a headstand bench that puts pressure on your shoulders instead of the top of your head and spine. I do inversions to move the blood from my feet to my head in 30 seconds, which makes me feel refreshed and full of energy. It’s almost like having an afternoon energy drink—but naturally.

What inspires you to live a healthy lifestyle? Is there something in particular that drew you to Thrive Market?

I was born with childhood asthma so I took a lot of different medications from birth. All the antibiotics and steroids challenged my gut flora, digestion, and adrenal glands. When I was 33, I broke out in massive hives all over my body, and my doctor wanted to increase my steroids medication. I asked him how long I would need to be on the higher levels of steroids and he said that it would be for the remainder of my life—and would possibly increase as I got older. That’s when I made up my mind to get off medication and transition to a healthy diet, breathwork, and meditation to achieve that goal.

It can be dangerous and rather shocking to the body to quit medication cold turkey, so an acupuncturist helped me with a slow transition with twice-weekly treatments over a period of nine months. As I detoxed, the hives became more acute, and I was assured that my body was removing the toxins through my skin and it would soon pass. So, I kept up with my allergen-free diet and breathing exercises. I pushed through any asthma attacks by calming myself through meditation.

The biggest hurdle for me was the sheer panic I would feel without my medication, but I realized it was mostly a mental game. If I really had trouble, I took smaller doses of my inhaler, or used a Chinese herbal powder to remedy tightness in my chest. To this day, I always keep backup medication nearby just in case of an emergency, and I make no joke about the reality of living with asthma. But seventeen years after making changes, I’m completely free of asthma symptoms and medication as long as I keep my environment and diet free of the things that trigger attacks. I’m still working on rebuilding friendly gut bacteria, and I get closer to that goal every day.

When do you feel most successful or proud of your work?

I feel most successful when I see people making changes in their lives that they’ve dreamed of achieving, but didn’t know where to begin. When you surround yourself with the people and the environment that inspires you to make the change, it’s a lot easier to shift because you have community support. That is why I love our social mission. Not only do we make it affordable to buy healthy and organic products, but we’ve also created a community of like-minded people willing to share their stories and offer support to others on the path. Even if you’re a seasoned veteran or just beginning your wellness journey, there are always people there to cheer you on, give you friendly advice, and a pat on the back when you achieve your goal. Being a part of that makes me proud.

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Give us a peek at what you eat during the day—breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a snack!

I have been a vegetarian since 2001 and my staple foods are salads and steamed veggies with white rice. In the last year, I’ve shifted to including wild-caught ocean fish after learning about the 8-body type diet, which focuses on strong and weak internal organs. For breakfast, I have coffee or black tea with coconut yogurt and a GoMacro bar. For lunch, I eat salads with cooked vegetables. For dinner, I have a steamed vegetable medley and rice, or I make a special meal for my girlfriend, like Thrive Market Brown Rice Fusilli and Marinara Sauce. I also love to cook Indian red lentil dal and vegetable aloo gobi, or I make a delicious falafel. As a general rule, I’m allergic to dairy, wheat, and some beans, so I avoid them completely. I also love anything with raw dark chocolate!

What’s one thing you want others to know about Thrive Market, that they might not learn from ordering, reading the blog, or visiting the website?

This company was founded by people with big hearts who truly care about the issues that Thrive is working to address. I’m Thrive Market’s first employee, so I’ve seen from the very beginning how important it is for the founders and for the people who work here to authentically deliver on our mission. Are there challenges to building a fast-growing start-up company? Absolutely. We don’t always get it right. But the fact remains that we care about the people we’re serving and the brands we work with. With honest feedback from our members, and the support of our community, we’re addressing issues of food safety, clean food and water, and helping create a healthier America. It’s a big task, and we thank you for joining us in this mission. We have work to do and each brand and person who comes onboard helps us fulfill the dream of a healthy planet and community.

We have work to do and each brand and person who comes onboard helps us fulfill the dream of a healthy planet and community.

Last but not least, what’s your favorite Thrive Market product and why?

One favorite product is Dr. Ohhira’s Fermented Probiotic. It’s the only shelf-stable probiotic on the market that has had a lasting effect on my digestion, and I use it every day. Lastly, Endorfin Foods Dark & Salty 82% Cacao Chocolate has been rocking my world. It’s right up there with Hu and it has really unique flavors. Be well out there, folks!

This article is related to:

Healthy Choices, Startup Stories

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Nicole Gulotta

Nicole Gulotta is a writer, author, and tea enthusiast.

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