JRF Alum Builds a “Thriving” Business

nick green jackie robinson foundation

Nick Green, ‘07 envisions a world where everyone has access to affordable, healthy food. He and his co-founders are turning that vision into a reality with their food delivery brand, Thrive Market, which offers healthy, natural products at wholesale prices online.

We spoke with him about his career path, his business and his latest project: investing in worthy causes and getting other entrepreneurs to follow suit.

JRF: Could you give an example of how your career path or personal journey was influenced by your experience as a JRF Scholar?
Nick Green: JRF made my path to higher education possible. My father went to a state school and my mom didn’t graduate from college, so the idea of leaving Minneapolis and going to Harvard was a big jump for me. JRF made it financially possible, and then set the tone for feeling like it could be done. My first company was trying to make higher education (places like Harvard) more accessible to more people. It was a company called Ivy Insiders. We hired undergrads from top colleges to go back to their hometowns and provide test prep at an affordable cost for high school students. If I hadn’t been at Harvard, I wouldn’t have been able to start that business, and I think sort of implicitly, the inspiration of JRF making higher education accessible for me was also a touchstone. That theme of access is actually woven through my entire entrepreneurial career. The first company was around education, the second one has been around access to healthy living and a healthy lifestyle. JRF for me was crucial, financially and practically speaking, to getting me through college, and then I think as an inspiration for a mission that relates to access, which has really become my mission as an entrepreneur.

JRF: How do you define access?
NG: I believe that people need access to what I would consider the fundamental building blocks of opportunity. It’s the basics: it’s an education, it’s healthcare, and then it’s actual health, like good food, which is what we’re trying to solve at Thrive. Those are the two pillars of access in my mind, education and health.

JRF: So, you’re addressing that with Thrive Market today. Can you tell us about the beginnings of Thrive Market? What kind of struggles did you face getting started?
NG: Entrepreneurship is really hard, and the truth is building anything that matters tends to be hard. Thrive was a major struggle. We got rejected by more than 50 venture capitalists. It made us question whether there was really a business to be built, forced us to actually self-fund the business for the first year. Ultimately, it led us to bring in a coalition of people who were thought leaders and influencers in the health and wellness space to fund the business. Fundraising was one of the struggles we faced early on, but there were many, many others. Those struggles actually set the stage for what became core pillars of our success. By not raising money from venture capitalists, we created a stakeholder-driven business with people that really cared about what we were doing and could actually have influence because they were thought leaders in the healthy living space. It’s been a wild roller coaster, with setbacks all the time. As an entrepreneur, I feel like that’s what you sign up for, that’s how you learn. You’re doing something that’s difficult, you’re doing something that matters, and there’s nothing more rewarding than when you break through. You can live your life trying to do what’s easy and optimized for leisure and relaxation, or you can live your life focused on impact, and the latter’s a lot more difficult, and it forces you to confront failure and your own limitations a lot, but it’s so incredibly rewarding.

JRF: Did those setbacks ever get to you? Did you ever have doubts?
NG: I think there’s this image of the entrepreneur or the innovator as being sort of invincible and being supremely confident. You look at figures, like Jackie Robinson, who you imagine never doubted themselves. Biography is one of my favorite book genres because when you actually dig in, you see that people that have done great things many times had self-doubts, and they managed to overcome them. I find inspiration knowing that the strongest people and the most successful people still had to deal with their own self-doubts. It’s funny, once we got going, people came out of the woodwork and we’ve had so much support.

JRF: Tell us about how Thrive Market led to your donor-advised fund, the Alliance for Good.
NG: We started Thrive Market because we wanted to make healthy living easy and affordable for anyone, and we’ve been incredibly fortunate to create and build a business by doing that good work. We felt with Thrive Market, that if we were really starting this business around access, that the right thing to do with some portion of the proceeds that we were getting personally was to put it back towards access. That was something I felt strongly about, my co-founder Gunnar [Lovelace] felt strongly about, and my co-founder Sasha [Siddhartha] felt strongly about, and so we used a tool called the donor-advised fund to actually take a pretty significant portion of our ownership shares in Thrive Market and set them aside for charitable giving, to make a commitment that we would give those back to access-related charitable causes.

JRF: Have you been surprised or by anything when creating the fund or figuring out how to make it work?
NG: The donor-advised fund is a really interesting vehicle because what it allows you to do is commit funds to charitable purposes before you actually give money to charities. That enables you to take a tax benefit now for a charitable work that you’ll do in the future. One of the guiding principles that we’ve had at Thrive Market is figuring out ways to do good and do well. We want to create that open source model where other entrepreneurs can do the same thing. My personal, deep desire is that entrepreneurship and business can be viewed as a vehicle for good, and I think there are more entrepreneurs that are starting to see things that way, and who don’t see the world as zero-sum. They’re not out to just make a lot of money, they’re not out to just create products that are going to be used by affluent millennials and Silicon Valley. If we can show people a path to do good and do well at the same time, we’re going to create a lot of positive change.