Evan Delehanty is a problem-solver who looks at himself and others from different angles, leading him to unexpected ideas. Sometimes in ways so unexpected that many people might find him foolish. A Cornell graduate, Evan opened his eyes to alternative paths for his personal and professional development. He decided to skip the opportunity to attend graduate school for free, along with his operations management position of more than “50,000 SKU’s and 20 guys on forklifts” in larger than half-a-million square feet of warehouse space, in order to travel to the Amazon rainforest with the Peace Corps.
Evan traveled deep into the Brazilian rainforest and, staying true to form, worked with others to solve new problems in unconventional ways. His solution this time? A fruit snack made entirely of wild acai. His company, Peaceful Fruits, allows the Amazon people to harvest wild acai from their land, as an alternative to strip mining.
Now in his third year as an entrepreneur, Evan brings to Rank & File a wealth of knowledge gained literally “in the field,” working with all types of people — from Amazon rainforest natives and Peaceful Fruit interns to the Sharks of ABC’s “Shark Tank” and people with disabilities. His experiences have taught him how to identify creative problem solvers and how to harness that creativity to overcome the unique hurdles of a social good startup.
“What you quickly realize is that people are people, but there are two kinds of people. There are people who are creative problem-solvers and then there is everyone else. Some people have that spark and some people don’t,” Evan explains. He believes the key to success in the early stages of a startup is to invest in people who have that problem-solving drive. He sets up what he calls “strategic roadblocks” as a way to determine if a potential hire is a creative problem-solver.
“I don’t believe in interviews,” Evan shares. “There is so much research that they are hard to do well… I just give them a test.” He tells his intern applicants to come up with ten leads that they think are a good fit for Peaceful Fruits that they can personally call (with a script Evan provides) to try and land a sale. Evan tells the applicant to put the leads into a spreadsheet and then set up a second meeting with him to review the list. “It’s super easy.” However, Evan says, “Ninety percent of the people don’t do it.” During the follow-up calls with the ten percent who do, “the really good ones will have thoughtful reasons why.”
Evan adds that most of the interns fall into a trap and put Whole Foods near the top of their lists. “They say, ‘It matches the target demographics, blah blah,’ but do [they] think that I would want an intern to call Whole Foods?”
“No one has fully avoided that roadblock, but what you learn from their response to you when pointing out that roadblock — That’s when you get good information about if they are a creative problem-solver or not.”
As the business grew, Evan quickly realized that he was not going to be able to make all the fruit snacks himself. He first contacted traditional co-packers, but their minimum order allowance for a unique product like Evan’s Peaceful Fruits was more than he could finance. Turning from the traditional route, he looked for other, more inventive ways to manufacture his fruit snacks.
“Some of the very early things that I did were flavor trials and going to a farmers market. I set up a booth there once or twice and had people try snacks. A mother came by with a son who has Down syndrome. His sister lives in Brazil and he loves the Amazon. We bonded instantly.” She told Evan that her son had helped other companies with labeling in the past and that he could call her when he needed packaging help. “They are what clued me into that community. These are people who are creative problem-solvers. The therapists, the job coaches, the nonprofit managers and the people who work in that field are used to solving weird, small scale problems on a shoestring budget. That is the definition of a startup.”
From there, Evan was able to connect with a local nonprofit organization that was launching a vocational therapy program for food production. Employing people with disabilities to apply labels, fulfill orders and create the products has been a substantial asset to Peaceful Fruits. “They are a great partner for a startup where every problem has weird exceptions — They are super detail oriented. They are super willing because they already have to reconfigure everything to fit their people’s needs. So they are very willing to take on weird processes.” By partnering with this nonprofit organization, Evan has been able to keep his production lean, since the nonprofit manages all the HR. It has also been a tangible way to give back to his community. “Our core social mission is the Amazon, but that mission of respectful, resourceful economic empowerment, we try to do that at every step.”
“There is no negative,” he says. “Because I also have a social mission, we are on the same team. We are in the same space and we take care of each other. It’s a win-win. I would highly encourage any startup to look into it.”
Evan’s most recent test has been his appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank.” Although he shared his personal journey through the Amazon, his unique production process, his social mission and his delicious fruit snack, he came away without a deal.