How often do you go to a party and end up disrupting an industry and creating an empire?
“My husband went to a gathering at a friend’s home,” recalls Carol May, chairman and CEO of Gilbert-based Wisdom Natural Brands. “There was a young man there who had just returned from a stint with the Peace Corps in Paraguay. He kept talking to my husband about some leaves he brought back from the rain forest and wanted my husband to try one. My husband worked in the healthcare industry. He wasn’t about to stick some plant in his mouth.”
But May says the young man was persistent.
“After about three hours of this young man talking to him, my husband finally took the dry leaf and put it on his tongue and it got sweeter and sweeter. It was an epiphany moment and he knew immediately that the leaf could be a game-changer.”
As soon as May’s husband got home, he said, “I’ve got to go to Paraguay.”
The rest, they say, is business history. The Mays founded Wisdom Natural Brands in 1982, operating the business out of their home and are credited with establishing stevia as a mainstream product. Today, Wisdom Natural Brands and its signature product — SweetLeaf — does business in more than 30 countries and throughout the United States.
Az Business talked with May, who took over leadership of the company after her husband passed away in 2017, about her goal of making the world a sweeter place.
Az Business: What do you love most about being CEO of your company?
Carol May: I love having the opportunity to help people and that’s what our products do. We have the opportunity to support people in their healthy choices and give them alternatives. It’s very easy to be passionate about what I do.
AB: Wisdom Natural Brands is a multi-million-dollar international brand today. But how hard was that initial decision to start the company?
CM: At the time, life was goo. We were financially comfortable. But after my husband’s trip to Paraguay, I remember him telling me, “Carol, don’t write any checks. I have given all my money to these people to start this business.” We had five young children to take care of at the time, but he looked at me and said, “I know this is the right thing to do.” There were plenty of people who looked at us askance, but he was right. It was the right thing to do.
AB: Why did you decide to keep the company here in Arizona?
CM: Arizona is home, but there’s also been great opportunity here. Arizona is a great location to establish and grow a business. We’ve been helped by many government agencies and associates, who have all been very responsive to the needs of a business. Plus, there’s something exciting about the people here. It’s the Wild West, but the Wild West in a way that . people band together and bond together to help each other succeed.
AB: What gives you the most pride about the success of Wisdom Natural Brands?
CM: My husband used to say it best when he would joke, “You know, it’s been quite a journey to go from quack to visionary pioneer in 25 years.”