The first company that entrepreneur Jason Cohen ’96 launched was Mamma Says, a small but successful food manufacturing company that tucked a tiny bit of advice into every packaged biscotti. Like this one: “When your ship comes in, make sure you’re not waiting at the airport.”
It’s one of Cohen’s favorite sayings, he told graduates Wednesday at the winter commencement ceremony for the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, and it has stayed with him for nearly 20 years.
“The point of this is that luck only happens day after day when you are at bat. Sitting at home and complaining or watching what other people are doing is not being at bat. Now it's time for you to be at bat and make your own luck,” he told graduates.
Maryland Smith graduated more than 725 students on Wednesday, including 82 Part-Time and Full-Time MBA students, 96 Online MBA students, and 356 specialty master’s students.
In his commencement address, Cohen described his path toward success, from “nothing more than an average student,” to anxious graduate, to insurance salesperson, to entrepreneur and inventor.
Cohen, the founder and co-CEO of Halen Brands, earned a bachelor’s degree in 1996 from Maryland Smith with a focus in marketing and a minor in finance. After graduation, he worked for Northwestern Mutual Life, selling insurance. Then in 1999, he struck out on his own, founding Mamma Says, which he sold in 2005 for four times its revenue. That same year, he co-founded World Gourmet Marketing, creating better-for-you snacks such as Veggie Straws under the flagship brand Sensible Portions. That company grew to just under $100 million in four years. He then went on to establish other successful companies, including Rickland Orchards, the first shelf stable Greek yogurt brand, and partnered with the founders of SkinnyPop Popcorn. In 2015, he co-founded Halen Brands Inc., which later partnered with Core and most recently acquired OWYN (Only What You Need).
Calling out the students who feel graduation anxiety, as he did, he offered this advice:
Watch, listen and learn: When Cohen went to work selling insurance, he landed in an office with the country’s top-selling agent. “I decided that instead of going out and selling right away, like the rest of the young recruits, I would shadow him for 120 days. Why? I really just wanted to learn what success looks like, while everybody else wanted to sell insurance. I wanted to learn how to be successful. What does success look like? How does it walk? How does it talk?”
Send personal, handwritten notes: “We have all benefited from texting and technology, but it takes a personal connection to build a strong relationship. Every now and then, send a personal, handwritten note,” he said, adding, “It’s always good to let people know how important they are to you.”
Talk to everyone and remain humble: “I talk to everyone. And one important rule of mine? Treat regular people like celebrities and celebrities like regular people.” He described leaving a disappointing business meeting in Virginia one day and hopping into a car to the airport. Rather than burying his head in his phone, he handed one of his company’s beverages to the driver and made conversation. The driver was impressed with the beverage and happened to also be the driver for the CEO of OTG, a massive airport concessions company. “Long story short, talk to everybody. Our drinks will be in all U.S. airports starting this February. You never know when your luck will strike, so be humble and talk to everyone. Your Uber driver on your way home from graduation may have the solutions to your problems.”
Embrace (and showcase) your failures: You may not succeed in everything. And that’s not a bad thing. “In fact, my advice is to actually highlight your failures. It means you know how to beat the odds; you’ve overcome adversity and turned a negative into a positive. I love hiring those types of people.”
Find your audience: Value honesty and nurture relationships that are based on authenticity. “You know who I do listen to? My kids,” he said. “In my world, things have to taste great. When a friend tells you they don’t like something, they tell you ‘It’s not bad.’ But a kid is genuine and says ‘It’s disgusting!’” Veggie Straws, he says, wouldn’t exist without the approval of his two kids. Don’t surround yourself with “yes” people, he said. “You want people who will inspire you and make you take the road less travelled.”
Be brave and kind: “So my final advice is to start your journey now, be kind but don’t be afraid to ask for whatever you want. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know. Above all, believe in yourself. And remember to be humble. Now go invent yourself and when you do, pay it forward. Be a mentor to someone.”
In 2015, Cohen and his wife, Jamie, created an Entrepreneurship Endowment at the University of Maryland to assist the Smith School’s Dingman Center of Entrepreneurship.