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 Director of Fulfillment Operations, LeVonne Collins. Read on to learn why he credits his high school track and field coach as being instrumental in his professional success.
How would you describe your role at Thrive Market?
My role is to be a leader. Early on in my career, I met someone who described leadership as a person who sets the direction that the organization is going to go. That person is also responsible for setting the pace of how quickly we’re going to get there. In all of the roles I’ve had at Thrive Market, I have always felt that I'm determining a direction and setting a pace. Growth is no joke—you're either running fast or getting run over.
You were recently promoted from the home office to head up our fulfillment center in Reno, Nev. Tell us about some of the challenges of your new role.
Yes, I went from being Thrive Market’s Director of Continuous Improvement to the Director of Fulfillment Operations in Reno. Finding a place to live was the first challenge! I lived in a hotel for about eight weeks when I first moved from Los Angeles. I’ve been settled into an apartment for about four weeks now, but, for a while, it felt like I was camping indoors. I was sleeping on an air mattress! The transition was a challenge for me, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable one—it was a labor of love.
In terms of the fulfillment center, it was actually just a different challenge for me. I’ve managed facilities before, so it wasn’t a completely new experience. And before assuming the role, I was able to travel back and forth to Reno once every three or four weeks for nearly a year. That gave me an opportunity to get to know the people and understand some of the specific fulfillment processes so stepping into my current role was technically easy for me. Driving the change in culture has been the biggest challenge, and it's something I’m still working on.
Tell us more about how you’re changing the culture in Reno.
Operationally, we’re setting the bar even higher to provide better service for our members. That means asking our employees to reach a new level of productivity. We’ve implemented a new system designed to improve punctuality and attendance, and we’ve accomplished a lot in terms of aligning motivation with productivity goals.
Describe a typical day and tell us what makes you excited to get out of bed in the morning.
Reno is starting to run really well on a day-to-day basis, so every morning, I’m excited to see what new milestones we’ll hit.
On a granular level, my day almost never ends. The Reno facility has close to a 20-hour work day—two, 10-hour shifts. I could wake up a 1:30 in the morning, get online, and see data and transactions that weren’t there when I went to bed at 10:30 p.m.
I typically wake up at 5 a.m., and I start my commute no later than 6:30 a.m. That gets me to the office between 6:45 and 7:05. The first thing I do is assess how yesterday went, then I look at how the current day started. Whether it was an effective start will depend on if there were any driver concerns or issues related to the availability of equipment or products. It’s a never-ending process to monitor the entire fulfillment operation, which can be summed up by the five M’s: manpower, material, methods (related to standard operating procedures), mission, and measurements. They’re all performance indicators and useful for taking the pulse of the business on a daily basis. Included in it are average processing times, cycle counts completed successfully for inventory accuracy, total member orders packed and shipped, and how we performed relative to what the business has asked of us. A lot of that is making an early assessment, either correcting conditions or speaking to behaviors that will drive the business favorably.
You have an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). How did your education help shape your career?
MIT was probably one of the top two best decisions I ever made. Getting married and having children was number one, but MIT was a close second—and it was a decision that I didn’t even know to make. I actually resisted going to MIT!
I was one of 12 brothers and sisters, and my parents didn't have a lot of money. I wanted to study engineering, but there was a school in Michigan called the General Motors Institute that had a well-known internship program that I was interested in. Their interns were making—this is laughable now—an average salary of $14,000 year, while going to school. I don’t think my mother and father together made $14,000 a year so the prospect of possibly doubling my family’s income and going to school, made it a really appealing option. I thought it would be a good fit.
It was my high school track and field coach who told me that I had the intellectual capacity to go to MIT. I attended an all-black, inner-city high school in St. Louis, and he told me that the school had never had anyone with the qualifications to go to an Ivy League school. But I wasn’t convinced it was right for me. I resisted so much that my coach actually kicked me off the team during my senior year because he saw I was on the path to making a stupid decision by not going to MIT. Being a black, inner-city kid, I didn’t fully understand the magnitude of going to a school like MIT, and he wasn’t going to let me make that mistake. So I went, and it completely reshaped my adult life, putting me on a completely different trajectory. If you can't swim and you're at a pool party, the idea of being pushed into the deep end of the pool could be terrifying. Academically, that’s how it felt going into MIT. I graduated valedictorian of my high school, so I was pretty smart. As a 17- or 18-year-old kid, I thought I had all the answers, but then suddenly, I was in an environment with the most intellectually gifted young people on the planet. It was transformative.
Before Thrive Market, you were at Conagra. Tell us about what you did there.
I had several roles during the nearly 10 years that I worked there. I started at their facility in Fort Worth, Texas, as a plant engineer and facilities manager. I had some quick successes in the beginning—this particular facility had a number of chronic equipment problems that affected productivity. As part of my role overseeing operations, I focused on improving equipment reliability and was able to turn things around in about six to seven weeks. That earned us some recognition. Within Conagra, a promotion from a small facility to a larger facility is a feather in your cap. Fort Worth was about 350 people, which is considered small. My manager was promoted and I assumed responsibility of the facility on an interim basis, but after three or four months, the director of the region offered me the full-time role. I became the Director of Manufacturing.
Within a year, it was the highest performing facility in all 40 of Conagra’s facilities. This facility had a poor safety record, and I set out to fix it by building relationships with the employees. The first conversations we had were about safety. We had weekly roundtables where we selected employees—both union and non-union. There was friction between the two groups that needed to be managed. I made sure the safety committee was cross-functional and involved layers of management. We talked about safety issues, questionable behaviors, and pretty soon, everything became so aligned. I’m highly self-motivated to be successful. I'm from a large family so the idea of a large group of people working together is something I was born into. I found that I was leveraging my life experience to help me work collaboratively.
This all happened in about two-and-a-half years, at which point Conagra wanted to build a brand new facility in Fort Worth. Talk about seeing the results of your hard work! It was really an alignment of events that I could not have anticipated. The plan was to build a $50 million facility, and while it was under construction, they wanted to have me assume a role managing either SAP (systems, applications, and products) or continuous improvement. I spent the next three years managing a team of 16 people rolling out improved SAP in Conagra’s facilities. After this, I transitioned into continuous improvement for several years.
Conagra is a huge company—what drew you to Thrive Market?
I got an email from Taylor in the recruiting department and decided to learn more about the company. She started telling me about the mission and—forgive me for digressing for a moment—but imagine, just imagine, having a dozen siblings. It was definitely tough keeping everybody fed. St. Louis’s inner city, where I grew up, was a food desert. After that first call with Taylor, I felt this magnetic draw to Thrive Market’s mission of making healthy living easy and affordable for everyone. The idea that for every paid membership, another membership would be extended to a family in need really made a deep impression on me. I was really intrigued by the opportunity to help a small, relatively unknown company make good on its mission.
What's the best part about working at Thrive Market?
The energy! There’s a vibrance and a compelling need to take action. I find that really exciting. All of our actions are driven by our mission to look out for the best interests of society. That is one of the best things about working for Thrive Market.
How does Thrive Market's mission affect the company culture?
I’m constantly surprised by how frequently Thrive Market employees will bring up our charitable events while we’re talking out on the floor. Everyone who works here is motivated to do right for society as a whole.
What does Thrive Market's commitment to continuous improvement mean to you?
That’s pretty simple—a desire to want to be better, to want to be the best at something. It’s a message that the status quo is not good enough for us. Whatever got us to where we are today, may not get us to where we want to be tomorrow so we have to constantly improve packaging materials and the utilization of those 5 M’s. We also have to keep challenging the status quo, and ask questions like, “How did we end up here ?” and “How do we get to where we’d like to be?” There’s always a way.
What inspires you to live a healthy lifestyle?
There are two drivers. I’ve always been very physically active. There is sort of an intrinsic need for me to be active but there’s an intellectual driver as well. People of color are particularly prone to hypertension, high-blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke so the idea of being a practitioner of continuous improvement and not applying that to my own existence seems like a contradiction. So the intellectual part of me and the innate part of me have been aligned for some time. Thrive Market fits both of those drivers inside of me.
What do you like to do outside of work?
I'm still very physically active, so riding my bicycle for a 10-, 12- or 15-mile workout is one of my favorite things to do. I also enjoy going to the movies with a big serving of fresh popcorn.
When do you feel most successful or proud of your work?
Oh, that’s easy! I love to see fellow Thrivers excited by their own success—especially if I had a small role in setting them up for success.
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?
I don't think anyone can tell just how deeply committed the employees of Thrive Market are to making a favorable impact on society, the environment, and the planet.
What are your favorite Thrive Market products?
I have so many! I like to drizzle Thrive Market Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil over salads, add it to soups or stews, or smoothies. But my all-time favorite is the Thrive Market Organic Sriracha Cashews. Love how flavorful the cashews are with just a hint of sriracha heat.