03/05/2013 11:40 am ET Updated May 05, 2013

Building the Truvia Brand: The Sweet Taste of Success with a Woman's Touch

How do you take a brand and turn it from nothing to number two in less than five years? Zanna McFerson did just that with Truvia, which is now used to sweeten food and beverage products in more than 26 million U.S. households. Even more amazing, she did so within the large, male-run, agricultural giant known as Cargill.

Zanna, a Finnish native, is a 23-year veteran of Cargill. Her first job was as a grain trader and she was Cargill's first and, at the time, one of only a few female traders. She cycled through several jobs at Cargill and even led the company's entry into the carbon dioxide business.

"To start something from the beginning in a big organization is very risky. But I kind of migrate towards those challenges. As a woman, you can take a look at a challenge and a risk and say, 'this is something that I can pursue and potentially standout for it as well."

"One of the first things that I did was create a vision statement for what we want to be when we grew up. It was about revolutionizing the sweetener world, and about becoming an undisputable leader in this space. In the process, we fundamentally changed the sweetener category -- it will never be the same again."

Cargill is not used to selling products directly to consumers. It's principally a "B to B" company that sells products to other companies. But therein lies the beauty of the strategy that Zanna and her team devised. First of all, they created a natural, zero calorie sweetener from one key ingredient: the stevia leaf. Then, they marketed it in parallel as both a consumer products business and an industrial ingredient business. The clever part of the strategy was to drive demand for the sweetener through consumers (primarily health conscious women) who would then also drive demand for the ingredient in sodas and other commercially processed foods and drinks.

Building a Multi-Million Dollar Brand

But how did Zanna, and her original team of five people, build the business to what it is today? The consumer side of the business (Truvia sweetener) is now in eight countries, while on the industrial side, Truvia is manufactured into products in over 30 countries. In addition to her attraction to risky assignments, Zanna says she thinks women have a natural advantage.

"I find women are uniquely equipped at managing risk possibly because they have many areas that need to be managed -- home, kids, career and work demands. Women have an ability to simplify very complex, multi-pronged initiatives and make them more clear to those involved. They're also good at harnessing collaboration and putting together multi-disciplinary teams and actually getting the job done. It's like putting a family together. I look for people who are different from myself. I look for diverse nationalities, multiple languages and highly competent people with diverse backgrounds. You get different perspectives. We are achieving something new that hasn't existed before."

According to Zanna, while Cargill prizes highly qualified talent, her additional focus on diversity of skillsets, gender, backgrounds, languages and nationalities is not typical at the company. Moreover, Zanna is energized by the sheer talent and cohesiveness of her team:

"The exciting part of this type of business and start-up is that it allows people to test out their talents. One of the core elements of this team is that we have to rely on each other, and we have to help each other be successful in order for the business to grow and thrive. I would gladly work for anybody on my team at any point in time. There's something about not being intimidated, and believing that I, as the leader of the business, don't need to know everything better than the team does."

Zanna's comfort in her own skin has created the foundation for the operating principles of Truvia, which thrives on transparency and sustainability.

"It's been absolutely thrilling to be able to create the brand and really think about what's important to that. We are all about transparency and sustainability. We have transparency about vision, about how things are done, about even how we think about our business in terms of our supply chain and our sustainability program. From the beginning, I had a keen mindset to build a supply chain from scratch that delivers on environmental factors, on social parameters, and on the whole corporate responsibility arena. We put all of our information out on Sedex (the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange).We have a sustainability report that details where we are against our carbon footprint and our environmental goals. It's really galvanized the team around that mindset."

As an example of the transparent and sustainable mindset, Zanna points to the Truvia packaging. "So what does our box look like and our product look like? It's clean and simple as much as the story about what this sweetener is. It's a very simple concept. It's just natural, zero calorie. You don't have to worry about it. It comes from the leaves of a plant."

In fact, the development of Truvia's flip lid box is an object lesson in why more women need to be in decision-making roles.

"It was amazing how many boxes the designers came up with, and it was taking a really long time. I was getting quite impatient. After several designs, we settled on one. But working through that design we found that there's no current equipment that could build it anywhere in the world, so it would require an investment of $5 million on this particular box design. I just said, 'Stop. We're launching a product that we don't know if it's going to be successful yet, so we're not spending $5 million on a piece of equipment when there are plenty of boxes out there in stores.' So I actually went out to find samples of different boxes. I ran into a tampon box that looked like this flip lid. So in the next box meeting, I brought that tampon box in a bag and said, 'Look. Here's a box. Make this one.' With a bunch of men in that room, it was just a funny experience."

Zanna's advice to younger women is simple and straightforward:

"Early on, try to take some risk. Go to places that you are challenged, and go learn, because you really end up finding out what you like to do and where your unique contributions can be. If you do that, then start to spend some time thinking about what you want and what really drives you. It's personally gratifying to know what you, uniquely, can contribute, and what you want in a career and a job."

Zanna's direct, no nonsense and transparent style has served her, and the Truvia business, very well. Today, you'll find Truvia in the sugar aisle of your grocery store, but also in Coke's Vitamin Water, Kraft's Crystal Light Pure and even the Sprite you ordered at that little café in Paris.

In fact, Zanna is following some of her own advice to take on new challenges. On March 4 she will follow her passion for renewable resources and sustainable energy products when she joins Amyris as Chief Business Officer. If she can turn a stevia leaf into a major brand, I'm betting that she'll work wonders on turning sugar cane into jet fuel.

This article first appeared on