Sheryl O’Loughlin

My J.E.D.I Why: Social justice has been something I have always felt intensely about. For this very reason, working as the CEO of REBBL, a company born out of a non-profit to create a world without human trafficking, was such a foundational experience in my journey to try to bring more justice and equity into this world. 

My desire to actively create change seemed to come from a deep place.  I did not fully understand why for a long time. All I knew from the stories I was told as a kid was that I was born in Jackson, Mississippi and that we fled when I was 2 years old due to the anti-Semitism we experienced and the racism we witnessed. I felt a sense of pride that my mom left a place where she was disgusted by white supremacy.  However, looking back now, I realized we ended up the lily-white suburbs in Southfield, Michigan, where our privilege shielded us from seeing and understanding the entrenched racism just 30 minutes away in Detroit. The more I learn about the privilege that I breathe as a white person, the more that pride evolved to feeling like a hypocrite; to run away from issues of racial injustice is not a source of pride.  Instead of wallowing in that, I am determined to do whatever I can to help change the system.

In 2018, Lara Dickinson and I co-founded the J.E.D.I Collaborative. Over the past two years, I was still yearning to understand why this work so profoundly affects me and why unpacking my white privilege has led me through the many stages of grief.  This internal struggle continues to be a work in progress, and I realize how important it is to engage in this work externally. 

I recently asked my80-year old mom to share the story of Mississippi with me.  She explained that when we moved to Mississippi in the late 60s, her introduction to overt racism was witnessing separate white and colored water fountains and the public pools being closed when the federal government insisted that black citizens be allowed.  She recalled distinct memories of racism: “Black individuals were not considered people at all… a shopping center was destroyed, and the local paper reported ‘No person was killed, only two blacks [sic].’ …A heart doctor I knew thought the black brain was too small to learn.”

While we as white Jews had a level of protection due to the color of our skin, our heritage left us empathetic to systemic discrimination. One painful but prescient connection, as explained in her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson is that the Nazis had looked to American Jim Crow society as a model to systemically exterminate Jews during the Holocaust. My mom recalled a memory of anti-Semitism in Mississippi: “When White Supremacists bombed the rabbi’s house the paper said, ‘No one was home, so he must have bombed it himself.’”  Although this was in the 1960s in Mississippi, it reflects the lies, distortions, and gaslighting that people play out to this day about BIPOC, and other people with marginalized identities.  It’s so flabbergasting and disgusting that, at times, I think maybe I am the crazy one because it’s so hard to fathom that these are the stories we tell ourselves and each other  But we cannot allow these injustices to happen.  We need to call the lies when we see them and stand for what is real and right. 

Watching my mom’s steadfast commitment to justice, exemplified by the way she raised three young children on her own while always making sure to stand up for those in need, is what lit this fire within me.  Through these conversations with my mom, I realized that the fervor she showed toward addressing intolerance and being vocal about antiracism (she still writes to her local paper to this day when the media reinforces white supremacy) is the source of my inspiration. This is the work that I was meant to do, and it is intrinsically part of my calling. Justice, equity, diversity and inclusion are the basis of my core values that I work every day to teach my kids, and are the values I hold at the center of my work with every ounce of energy I have which requires me to listen, learn and take action to create change.

Isabel Wilkerson writes, “The fact is that the bottom caste [African American, Indigenous, and Latinx people] …did not create the caste system, and the bottom caste alone cannot fix it. The challenge has long been that many in the dominant class [white people], who are in a better position to fix caste inequity, have often been the least likely to want to.” It is my duty and imperative to use my power to share space and dismantle systems of oppression. We owe it to each other to show up for our community where we are needed.

I am dedicated to this work to help change the system of intolerance that still permeates every portion of society, including our food and agricultural system.  I am just one person, learning to unpack more of her relationship to power and privilege every day. This lifelong journey to do my part against injustice has just begun.  Through this, I hope to help, in community, to shape an industry where all talent is included, where there is new power at the table, where we can provide our healthy products to all people in a way that is accessible, affordable, and tailored to the needs of all people, where our supply chains and our partnerships are inclusive and just and where everyone feels like they belong in this beautiful industry.

Sheryl O’Loughlin is an accomplished entrepreneur who has over 20 years of experience leading natural products companies.

In 2017, Sheryl introduced her first book, Killing It: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Head Without Losing Your Heart (HarperBusiness). The book has been featured in Fortune, Conscious Company, Inc., Forbes and Huffington Post, among others.

Sheryl is the co-founder of the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (J.E.D.I) Collaborative. She is also co-founder and board chair of the Women on Boards Project. Both non profits are focused on supporting and advocating for a more inclusive industry and economy to drive innovation, growth, profitability and justice.

From 2015 to 2019, Sheryl was CEO of REBBL, the first plant-based, super herb adaptogen beverage company. In partnership with Not for Sale, a nonprofit dedicated to co-creating a future without human trafficking, REBBL works to create regenerative and just supply chains.

Earlier in her career, Sheryl served as the CEO of Clif Bar and Company. There she led the concept development and introduction of Luna, the first whole nutrition bar for women, which became a $70 million business in three years and continues to be a core brand in the company’s portfolio. She went on to co-found and serve as CEO for Plum, Inc., a healthy, organic food company that aims to nourish kids “from the high chair to the lunch box.” In 2013, Plum was successfully sold to Campbell Soup Company.

After Plum, Sheryl was the Executive Director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and she held a faculty position at Sonoma State University, where she taught hundreds of aspiring entrepreneurs and other professionals.

Sheryl currently serves on the advisory board of Martinellis and on the board of One Step Closer (OSC). She is also a member of the Forbes San Francisco Business Council. Previous boards include Zuke’s, thinkThin, Sugar Bowl Bakery, Gardein, FoodStirs, Once Upon A Farm, American Sustainable Business Council and the Harvest Summit.  Sheryl supported Zuke’s, Gardein, and thinkThin to successful exits.

Sheryl earned her Bachelor of Business Administration from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and her Master of Business Administration from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. An avid camper and traveler, she lives in Santa Rosa, California, with her husband, Patrick, and their two sons.

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