The story of Sambazon’s Ryan Black, Ed Nichols, and Jeremy Black
It’s hard to justify the idea of fate, destiny, or some pre-determined path that we follow. Life is too chaotic to believe that circumstances are anything more than just coincidence. But when you hear the story of Sambazon, you start to question where there isn’t more than serendipity pushing us forward. Is there a voice telling us to make the hard choices if we stop and listen closely enough? The story takes two friends from a Las Vegas club to the depths of the Amazon, back to Colorado, and then even deeper into the Amazon before they eventually find their footing. But when they do, the world is changed forever.
So, let’s set the opening scene:
Ryan Black, a good looking, ex-football player in his last year of college is hanging out, in all places, in a club in Las Vegas. He meets a girl. A Brazilian girl. And just like that, he unconsciously sets the whole thing in motion.
Ryan calls up his best friend Ed Nichols, who describes himself as ‘the dude with the big beard and the top knot standing next to the real apple pie California surfer guys’, and tells him they’re all going to Brazil for a month to celebrate the millennium.
So in late 1999, Ryan, his new Brazilian girlfriend Fernanda, and his best friend Ed, head down to Brazil.
Ed: “Ryan isn’t a real nurturing type. He tackles the world like he played football. Head first. And so I knew going to Brazil wasn’t going to be a leisurely thing. It was going to be adventurous.”
And while their intentions were in the right place, Ed quickly discovers that 3 really is a crowd. Ryan and his new girlfriend are off exploring her home country, and Ed is just sort of there—the third wheel.
And so he went quiet:
“Silence is one of the most powerful tools you can possibly imagine for going inwards and really having a real big cathartic experience. Asking what do I really want with my life? You can imagine, knowing that I’m going to graduate soon, it’s the new millennium, I’m in Brazil, I’m in silence effectively for almost a month, only speaking when spoken to. Before not too long, it puts you into sort of a bliss state.”
“So I was in this really bright place in my consciousness, transcending a bit of the egoism and I think it made real fertile ground.”
Silence is one of the most powerful tools you can possibly imagine for going inwards and really having a real big cathartic experience.Ed Nichols
While Ed was going inwards, their journey through Brazil continued outwards, taking them finally to the tiny island of Fernando de Noronha, a remote and exclusive spot about 2 hours off the northeast coast of Brazil. That’s where the second major chance encounter takes place, and this time it’s not with a girl.
Ed: “Ryan was off frolicking in the ocean and a local—I didn’t speak Portuguese, but he spoke a little English—he asked me if I’m hungry and I said yeah. He ordered for me and before I knew it in front of me was this big bowl of this frozen purple stuff with granola and bananas and drizzled with honey. It was just beautiful. I got my spoon in that thing and before you know it my spoon was scraping the bottom of the bowl as a sort of nonverbal cue that I wanted more.”
That ‘frozen purple stuff’? Yeah, that was açaí.
Now, you’re probably thinking, sure, I know açaí, I’ve seen it at supermarkets and health food stores and even sold online as a ‘superfood’. Remember, this is 16 years ago. Açaí still hasn’t been brought into the US, so for Ed and Ryan, this is a moment of revelation.
And it could have just ended there as an experience on a remote island in an exotic location. A story you tell your friends that fades into memory as you go on with ‘real life’. But luckily for all of us, it didn’t.
Leaving the island, Ryan goes, essentially dumpster diving at another açaí bar, scrounging up the wrappers from the raw materials they were using to make their bowls and smoothies and asks his girlfriend to start making some calls. Armed with a few leads they head back to the states—back to their normal lives—but they continue talking about the açaí and planning their next steps.
A few months later they’re back, joined by Ryan’s brother Jeremy, not on glorious white sand beaches with crystal clear water, but in the middle of the Amazon at a tiny dusty airport with backpacks full of contracts for the contacts on the back of the wrappers they’d found.
If this sounds like a bit of naive youthful enthusiasm, the guys would agree with you.
Waiting for their contact to arrive they hear the sound of 80s pop music coming from the distance
Ed: “Then the dude pulls up in his VW GTI with his big gold chain tangled in his chest hair with two 15″ subwoofers in the back… And we’re like ‘ok, this is weird’. And we show up at his house and they really took us in. They fed us their best açaí. And here’s the wake-up call. We didn’t realize that the açaí we’d been eating had been sweetened extensively with a Brazilian equivalent to Kool-aid.
“The whole family is standing around the table. Ryan and I are going to take our first bite of the açaí we’ve been missing so much since being in the US writing the business plan, and we take one spoonful and we both look at each other like ‘Oh no. This is disgusting. What the heck happened?’ They look at us with a little bit of concern and then immediately everyone realizes that we’d been initiated into the gringo açaí…”
Another hiccup. But what’s a good story without at least a few hardships?
We are not an açaí company. We’re a preservation company cloaked as a fruit company.Ed Nichols
And like all good stories, this seemingly insurmountable hurdle can only be crossed with the help of an outsider. A local. Someone who knows the berry and the people who cultivate it.
Recovering from the revelation of the açaí’s true taste at their hotel, Ed and Ryan head out into the jungle with a guide from the hotel they were staying at—the third chance encounter.
As they walk through the jungle trying to clear their heads, the guide keeps talking—doing his ‘schtick’ as Ed describes it. The guys are mostly in their own heads, until the guide explains how the indigenous people make more money selling the fruit açaí than they do selling wood.
Ed turns to Ryan and says the one thing that will turn their entire business plan on its head:
“We are not an açaí company. We’re a preservation company cloaked as a fruit company.”
And maybe it was this eventual revelation—this shift in the very fabric of what would become their company—that gave them the karmic credit to get to where they were, and to continue pushing on.
Three chance encounters and a love of a small purple berry had guided this group of unlikely entrepreneurs to start one of the largest Amazon preservation companies in the world. But there was still one last, major hurdle for them to get over before they could return victorious: just how do they mass manufacture this bitter berry into the açaí they enjoyed on the beaches of Fernando de Noronha?
They quickly discover their missing ingredient—guarana—and head off to a local plant. Here comes chance encounter number four:
Ed: “I was playing scientist. I went into the laboratory and there was this Brazilian cougar and she looked like she was going to eat me up! We started talking and by the end of it we were goo goo ga ga over each other and she said ‘you know, you guys are sweet. I’m going to basically solve your açaí problem for you. My friend works at the best açaí factory in the Amazon… you never would have found this factory. It’s a 2-hour drive outside the city.”
The next day they’re picked up by the director who takes them to his facility—a big, shiny, badass factory. As they step out of the car the whole family’s waiting for them and they tell these young Americans:
“Açaí travels on the wind. We knew it was destined for international success. People have been calling and faxing and emailing us saying they want to work with us. But you guys showed up.”
The guys signed the exclusive contract and 16 years later they now employ over 100 people in North America as well as over 10,000 people who are harvesting the fruit in the forest. They own a massive factory in the Amazon, and basically protect 6 million acres of land due to the lucrative nature of the açaí.
“First it’s self-serving. i.e. I need to be able to eat this for myself. Then it’s like how stoked would my friends be? Then, it’s this could be a great business.”
So, was it all just chance?
Were the encounters with Fernanda in Las Vegas, the berry itself, the tour guide in the Amazon, and the worker at the guarana factory all just serendipity?
Looking backwards and putting the puzzle together it makes us ask if serendipity can be forced. If, by putting yourself out there more often, you’re raising the chances of these moments happening.
It would have been all too easy for Ed, Ryan, and Jeremy to give up in the face of adversity: I mean, a few guys in their 20s running around a foreign country trying to find the next big export? It’s hard to believe they didn’t. But that’s the thing. They didn’t.
Three guys, a girl, four chance encounters, and a multi-million dollar business that somehow manages to balance profits with protecting one of the world’s most beautiful natural resources.
If this isn’t the recipe for the feel-good film of the year, I don’t know what it is.