Sarah Frey-Talley is the founder of Tsamma™ watermelon juice, and president and CEO of Frey Farms.
Sarah was raised on a small, 100-acre farm in southern Illinois, where at age eight, she and her mother would buy watermelons from local farmers and then go store-to-store, making deliveries to local grocers during the summer. At age 16, Sarah bought a truck and took over the distribution, and it wasn't long before she grew the client list from 12 stores to more than 150. In fact, she purchased the family business when she was 18 years old.
Sarah used proceeds from sales to re-invest and buy farmland from neighboring farmers as they retired. As her business continued to grow, her brothers (Leonard, Harley, John, and Ted Frey), returned home to work for their younger sister, where they remain today.
Headquartered in rural Wayne County, Ill., Frey Farms is a Certified Woman Owned Business that specializes in the growing, packing, and shipping of fresh market produce, including cantaloupes and watermelons. Frey Farms is also the nation's largest pumpkin grower with Jack O' Lanterns, whites, pinks, miniatures and tigers, and a full line of ornamental gourds and squash. Frey Farms also has developed a unique line of "Heirloom" varieties, referred to as "Autumn Couleur", which are recognized by their unique and wonderful shapes, colors and textures. Tsamma (pronounced Sah-Mah), is the first and only bottled watermelon juice produced in the U.S. Sarah created Tsamma after noticing a gap in the variety of flavored juice and sports drinks offered to consumers. Seizing the opportunity to fill a market void, Sarah launched Tsamma in June 2014 and within two months secured product distribution to more than 1,500 stores nationwide. Sarah serves on many industry boards, including the United Fresh Government Relations Council and Grower-Shipper Board, and the National Watermelon Promotion Board.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Growing up on a small working farm in southern Illinois was probably the most beneficial life experience. I was the youngest child with four older brothers and there was plenty of work to go around. We grew up growing and harvesting the food that our family enjoyed. At the time I thought we were poor but later in life I realized that we were in fact rich with simple pleasures that most would never enjoy.
I learned by doing things without a lot of instruction on that farm. I learned that making mistakes is a part of life and can be more valuable than some lessons from an Ivy League education. A leadership role requires that when mistakes are made, they become constructive educational material for future sharing. You can benefit just as much from sharing failures as well as successes with a team.
I also found that if you want people to come along with you and work toward the same goals, you have to show them first that it is worth it.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Frey Farms?
Truly, I really never had a lot of previous employment experience leading up to my current position as president of Frey Farms and creator of Tsamma Watermelon Juice. I embraced my entrepreneurial spirit at a very early age and wanted to exert my independence sooner rather than later. When I was 16 years old I attended high school and college simultaneously, laying the foundation for my own business and working at a Tractor Supply Company as a cashier.
On that note, working at Tractor Supply was the only real job I have ever had. I have simply always been an entrepreneur and feel like I had been since I was age eight. I always enjoyed making the deals, closing the sale and moving on to the next thing as I visualized how great things could be.
What have the highlight and challenges been during your tenure at Frey Farms?
I'm always focused on how to improve and improve the lives of others, as well as making our business better, more efficient, more productive and profitable. The highlights that are most important to me have been and continue to be small acts of kindness and gratitude for regular people. When complete strangers take the time to reach out and tell us how much they have enjoyed our fresh produce or products, those are my proudest moments.
The greatest challenge our business has ever faced is the need for immigration reform. This has been a top priority for me both on a personal and professional level. I have made many visits to Washington D.C., speaking to our elected officials in respect to the current agriculture workforce and support for comprehensive immigration reform. Their inability to act is discouraging to say the least.
As for the challenges of being a woman in business, they are fortunately becoming less. More women are engaging in business and starting their own business, and major corporations have recognized the value in doing business with women-owned companies. Nurturing by nature, I believe when women generate wealth they have a greater tendency to bring positive change to their communities and give back to better the lives of others. I've never really viewed being a woman in business a type of disability. I've worked in a male dominated industry my entire life and yes there have been challenges, but I've always just worked around them. Or, I've plowed right through them, not giving a second thought to how I might be perceived by others or losing sleep over what I thought wasn't "fair." In the end all that matters is how you see yourself.
What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
I know so many women who have really great ideas, intentions, work ethic and ambition, but just can't seem to take that step to get themselves started. My advice to women is to not over think things and just go for it. My best business decisions have been made when I was thinking like a man. Having said that, it seems like the aggressiveness of a man is far more accepted than a woman. Set aside fear and doubt and imagine the life you want to lead. Then simply make it happen by giving everything you have inside of you. Take risks, accept in advance that you will have failures, keep your head down working hard every day, and cut ties with anyone who brings you down.
What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Always say what you're going to do and always do what you say, no matter what. Your word is everything. Build a strong team and learn to let go. Those people have to be like family to you. There are no such things as problems, only opportunities for improvement.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Women are great multi-taskers, and we are able to keep a lot of balls in the air. Surrounding yourself with a strong network of people, close friends, team members and loyal employees is a critical. You can find a work and life balance when you have built a support system around you. The biggest struggle women in business face is guilt. Get over that and you are free to succeed, and will find a balance much quicker.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Depends on the workplace. If it's a good environment then the issues shouldn't be any different regardless of gender.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship started for me at a very young age. As a child on a farm, my parents taught me a lot of things - especially my father. When I was very young my father always told me I could be anything I wanted to be. I remember him pointing out on our tiny TV screen when Geraldine Ferraro was put on the ticket as the first democratic vice presidential candidate, and telling me she could be our next president. It was a big deal to him to make sure I knew I could do the same. I didn't understand at the time why it was a big deal for him to point that out to me, as I had just assumed that women always did incredible things.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I wish I could answer it differently, but the fact is I didn't have very many women in my life with the exception of my mother. I admire her a lot for working hard, raising children and setting a good example but for the most part I've been surrounded by men my entire life. The lesson, I believe, is that fathers have a great deal of responsibility when it comes to nurturing their daughters and instilling confidence in them.
What do you want Frey Farms to accomplish in the next year?
Pretty simple. We want to make the nutritional value of one of the biggest commodities we produce more convenient than lugging a 20 pound watermelon out of a grocery store. Americans would know more about the insane amount of nutrition and antioxidants in watermelon if it was something they had better and more convenient access to. This is why we developed Tsamma. Frey Farms is the first domestic company to successfully bottle premium watermelon juice and distribute it on a national scale.
We are changing the way people perceive the watermelon, and we are educating them on a whole host of nutritional benefits. Tsamma offers essential hydration nutrition and is naturally packed with antioxidants that were never before offered in the convenience of a bottle. Made not only as a lower calorie, delicious juice, Tsamma is essential for athletic recovery, including 45 percent vitamin C, no sodium, no added sugar, no cholesterol and zero fat. Tsamma is also a vegan, gluten-free, soy-free and non-GMO beverage that increases heart health. Studies are currently underway to reflect the lycopene, citrulline and antioxidant content.
Our farms and the type of commodities we produce will expand as we educate the nation and hopefully the world about Tsamma juice.