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CEO Tracey Halama On How Commitment, Curiosity & Courage Fuel Her Success

by Jordan Smith - March 30, 2022

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we asked Vital’s CEO Tracey Halama to share her experience as a successful female leader. Read our interview below to get the scoop on what inspires her, what she had to overcome to get to where she is today and how she is evolving as a thought leader every day.

 

Lively: You’ve been with Vital Proteins since the inception of the organization and have seen Vital grow from a small, Chicago-based start up to the global market leader in collagen. How has Vital accomplished that?

Tracey Halama: We began Vital with a big idea and a dream to create a new category and to disrupt the protein category.  Our founder (Kurt Seidensticker) and the core founding team had a strong background in technology. From the early days, we were very open to taking risks, leveraging failure and using an agile development style to quickly roll out new innovation. In fact, we used to call ourselves a digital marketing company that happened to sell consumer products. That ability to lean into new platforms, such as bloggers and influencers, allowed us to drive brand advocacy and differentiate from the other brands out there in 2015. Some of our gut instincts were correct, some were not, but we were never afraid to take risks. As an entrepreneur, one of the best things you can do is embrace change and leverage failure.  It will make you a much better leader and teach you much needed humility—both of which are critical to being an entrepreneur.

L: For entrepreneurs reading this, what other advice would you have for building a successful brand in the current climate?

TH: Building a strong culture is critical. People are far and away the greatest asset of any organization. Many entrepreneurs have great business ideas, but there is a reason why less than 1 percent of start-ups make it to $100 million (Vital did it in less than 5 years). Moving from ideation to actual execution requires a team that not only has passion for the brand mission, but also has the impetus and the purpose to drive toward the same common goal. It’s often really hard, which is why ensuring that the team is collaborative and has genuine camaraderie is critical.

We encourage our team to get “comfortable with being uncomfortable” and showing up as their most authentic, vulnerable selves. I often ask, “What does this do? Why is this important?” The accumulated wisdom of being at Vital for eight years is valuable, but there is so much that I don’t know. If I normalize being vulnerable and not knowing everything, so will others. This encourages a true growth mindset.

L: As a female CEO in the wellness space, what advice do you have for females in the industry to advance their career and earn a C-suite position?

TH: Commitment, curiosity and courage. You need to be at 110 percent in terms of passion, purpose and commitment to leadership. Really having the ability to problem solve, think through business process improvement and having the humility to want to learn more than you already know are key characteristics.

Lastly, I feel like the best thing a woman can do is to be courageous. Use your voice, take risks, don’t be afraid to fail and even challenge the status quo (of course in a respectful manner) but be resolute in your confidence in your ability to lead. Another recommendation is to build a strong network made up of other C-suite peers, mentors, mentees, industry contacts and executive coaches. The C-suite can be a lonely place for women, having a support system to bounce ideas off of provides much needed assurance.

L: What inspired your career path? 

TH: My focus has always been about growing the businesses with purpose and integrity. About 10 to 15 years ago, I knew I had a natural talent for building revenue models and leading teams. I had always been pretty competitive, as anyone that has ever played euchre or Clue against me would attest. I was motivated by doing things that had never been done before. That steadfast curiosity, commitment to deliver results while encouraging personal and professional growth of my colleagues is what led me to leadership.

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek is a favorite book of mine and it really resonates with me. I often say that my biggest accomplishments in my career are the increasing number of thought leaders I have promoted up and out of my organization. While it is hard to see strong talent leave your team, it often is the best thing you can do for a strong performer to allow them to “stretch to grow” in a new framework where they can make an even bigger difference. I can’t wait to see where the next generation leaders at Vital will be 10 years from now.

L: Are there any female leaders that you look up to?

TH: There are so many: Stacey Abrams, Whitney Wolfe Herd, Sara Blakely, Mary Barra, Brene Brown, Rosalind Brewer and Jennifer Hymen to name a few.  

L: As a female CEO what are some obstacles you’ve had to overcome?

TH: No matter the industry, there is a bias that puts women at a disadvantage.  When I entered Corporate America in the 1990s it was materially worse, I was often mistaken for the executive assistant of my white male mid-twenties peer.  Fast-forward to 2022, we are now seeing a higher percentage of strong female leadership in managerial and executive ranks. However, the wage gap has not budged in 15 years, only 6.2 percent of S&P 500 CEO positions are held by women and about 2 percent of venture capital goes to female founders.

Women (and men) must continue to use our voices to break the bias. We need to let women lead and pave the way for future female, minority and diverse leaders. Diverse leadership makes a stronger company ethos, which often manifests in stronger results.  At Vital Proteins, 72 percent of our executive leadership team is women and our C-suite is also majority women-led. As Ghandi famously said, “be the change you wish to see in the world.” Vital is evolving and growing. We are not yet at our end goal, but we embrace the baby steps and celebrate “progress over perfection.”  

L: What mantra gets you through a tough time?

TH: Always be learning. Life is a journey and you must treat both the good and the bad as a life lesson to put you on the right path. If we stay open, with a curious mindset, truly anything is possible.

L: How do you find work/life balance?

TH: Being a mom is hard, being a CEO is hard, being a friend, wife, daughter or aunt—it all can be hard. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. Having appropriate expectations is critical. Don’t expect to have it all at once. Expect some peaks and valleys and simply try your best.  

L: What are your favorite Vital Proteins products?

TH: I will always have a special place in my heart for Vital Proteins® Marine Collagen as that is the product that I developed back in 2015—the same efficacious collagen peptides but coming from a fish source versus a bovine source. It’s great for pescatarians and flexitarians alike. My daughters (Marina, 18 and Sienna, 15) came up with the Vital Proteins Beauty Collagen® in Strawberry Lemon many years ago and is still a favorite and staple in our home. I also tend to have at least one of the following every day: Vital Performance™ Cold Brew Coffee Protein in smoothies and yogurt, Apple Cider Vinegar Gummies and our Vital Proteins ® Matcha Collagen Latte for a midday pick me up. 

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