Does mother know best?
In the warm south side of California, a baby sits in a bucket of bananas, giggling as they do, not realizing the moment could be emblematic of a destiny already charted before the child’s even made a choice. Naturally, as many stories go, that child rebels against this, promising to find an adventure all their own and set a new course.
Trials and challenges certainly await, and while there are a few jabs exchanged across family meals, this tale is a departure from the typical.
Far from being disappointed by the prospect of her children not following her in leading the family business Organics Unlimited, Mayra Velazquez de León explains how deviation is necessary to the success of a company, and of a family too.
“One thing I tell all three of my children is: Go work for someone else for five years,” she shares with me. “If they eventually did come to our business, encouraging this meant they would bring something new to the table.”
In her eyes is a knowing gleam I can only place in mothers. While she might not have been positive about where her eldest daughter, Daniella, would end up, she likely had an idea of how well-suited she’d be to the task.
“We are one of maybe two or three family-owned banana companies. It’s very rare to see,” Daniella points out, immediately lighting upon the weight and reputation of Organics Unlimited.
As you may have now guessed, the organic banana supplier is far from new, with Daniella, now General Manager, and her siblings representing the third generation since her grandfather, Carlos Cortes, Sr., first distributed organic bananas in 1974.
“We were pioneers in the industry. My dad was the first one to bring organic bananas into the market,” Mayra, President of the company, tells me, stating simply that being organic, sustainable, and fair are ways of life for her family’s business. “We’ve been doing this for generations, and, in this case, being a smaller company has worked for us as an advantage. We know what we are doing, we do it well, and when reaching out you can connect with us easily.”
In fact, communication and transparency have been key to the company long before they were buzzwords.
“It has been important to us from day one that we do the right thing. We’ve been paying our workers fairly since our inception, sourcing ethically, and paying fair prices to our growers. As it’s become more trendy to be socially responsible and to empower workers, a lot of people have gotten on the bandwagon. But, it’s something we’ve been doing since the beginning and that we continue to do today,” Mayra shares.
When Mayra followed in her father’s footsteps by founding Organics Unlimited, the family’s banana legacy attained a new rarity in our industry, especially in tropical fruits: being woman-owned.
“Not only are we woman-owned and women-led, but that extends to our farms and packinghouses. We are run by women,” Mayra points out, identifying how this has made the company incredibly detail-oriented while also harnessing a different perspective than those it works or competes with.
After ensuring it has done right by the banana sector for nearly 50 years now, the company is taking on a whole new challenge by branching out into new markets.
“Our intention is to diversify and go into other products. I’m not going to say what products those are,” Mayra holds up a hand as she catches my smile. “But, it’s going to be little by little. We definitely want to launch at least a couple of products in 2023, because I think it’s about time.”
I heartily agree, excited for the company to bring its signature and story to even more opportunities.
This, Daniella says, is an extension of a grander next chapter Organics Unlimited is stepping into, which is one of honing and sharing the message of who the company and the family behind it are.
“We were pioneers in the industry. My dad was the first one to bring organic bananas into the market.”
Mayra Velazquez de León, President, Organics Unlimited
“For a long time, we were pretty much the only players in the organic banana market, and now that’s no longer the case. We’re really good at what we do, especially with the GROW program and the impact it is having—something we need to be more vocal about,” Daniella says of 2023’s potential. “These are tangible things. I have talked to scholarship recipients and even exchanged letters with them. This is the direct impact of what happens when you buy a GROW banana. Amid a sea of greenwashing, we can certainly do a better job of showing how we are walking the walk.”
The fire in Daniella’s speech burns brighter in contrast to the possibility that she might never have joined the industry to begin with. Despite how naturally she seems to fit into her role, Daniella assures me that the plan well past college was not to join the family business, or even the industry.
“I always said that was not what I was going to do,” Daniella laughs in regard to joining on. Now, not only did Daniella find her way to the company, but she has brought a valuable new perspective.
Fresh produce finds itself still in the throes of a big change: finding a balance between the grit of necessary commodities that forged the industry’s path and the polish of identifiable brands currently romancing consumers with story and transparency. With a background in marketing and branding, Daniella has the experience to bridge the two sides and make this a key area of growth for Organics Unlimited.
“I think bringing fresh blood in makes a big difference,” Mayra observes even of her own trailblazing. “Sometimes we’re stuck in that box and can’t see any way out, because we’ve been doing things the same way for so long. Daniella would always tell me I’m very adventurous—and I am. I’m the kind of person where, if it feels right, I will go for it. I tell the team to do the same. But I think, with time, you inevitably fall into doing things the same way, and you don’t see a reason for change until you welcome someone who sees things differently.”
Daniella, for her part, is happy to be that fresh perspective while still learning from her mom, crediting Mayra’s adventurous spirit with new approaches, launches, and the fun of getting out of a comfort zone.
“She thinks of something and goes for it,” Daniella glows. “It’s been great in teaching me to do things I might not necessarily feel the most comfortable doing. But seeing somebody with a proven track record gives me the confidence to start doing it as well.”
Now having been with the company for five years, Daniella’s learned the rules and operations well enough that she is beginning to figure out what can bend…and what can break.
“My first year or two was about learning how things have been done. Recently, we’ve done some restructuring in our leadership, welcoming some new members. It is a mix of a younger and more seasoned crowd, and we’re starting to do things a different way,” she shares, touching on aspects like technology, different backgrounds, and deeper involvement in all aspects of produce.
Recently, Daniella joined as the youngest member of the Organic Trade Association Board of Directors, bringing her and her family’s company to the table in an entirely new way.
“Involvement is very important, I think it’s going to help us move to the forefront and be more assertive about our position,” Daniella reflects.
Ultimately, though, Daniella points out that this story is a homecoming, and being true to those roots is just as important to Organics Unlimited’s success as anything new the team
“It’s true we’re doing some things differently now, and we want this fresh perspective, but I’m really freaking proud of what my parents and grandparents have done. Not only have they consistently done their best to ensure the company was doing things the right way, they didn’t feel the need to shout it from the rooftops. Now, we are ready to convey loudly that we are still here doing what my grandfather set out to do: work with integrity and treat people right. This banana option has always been here delivering on that, and it’s something I am very proud of,” Daniella shares.
“Now, we are ready to convey loudly that we are still here doing what my grandfather set out to do: work with integrity and treat people right. This banana option has always been here delivering on that, and it’s something I am very proud of.”
Daniella Velazquez de León, General Manager, Organics Unlimited
Her passion is contagious, and it’s little wonder why. With the freedom to explore her own way and choose her path, Daniella looks to have found her place in the family business. It was a process, Mayra assures me, as Daniella’s chemistry with the company started out more sour than sweet, but that is a beloved trope of adventure stories for a reason.
“I will definitely own up to how tough it was to begin,” Daniella confirms. “It was a process, but looking back on it now, moms are always right. I feel like there was a lot I had to learn, and I’m very happy with everything I’ve been exposed to and everything she’s taught me.”
Mayra smiles and takes the compliment, acknowledging the work Daniella took on to see her way through the challenges.
“I’m very proud of Daniella. She’s done a great job, and I think we still have a lot more to see from her,” Mayra agrees.
It is far too soon to sign off with “happily ever after,” which wouldn’t do justice to the amazing potential still yet to be realized by this dynamic duo and the company they are leading forward.
One thing that is clear, however, is mother does, in fact, know best.