Entrepreneurs beat long odds when they launch a company and sell it to investors. Jason Cohen ’96 has done it many times.
It’s not how he started his career.
After graduating from Maryland Smith, Cohen took a job selling insurance for Northwestern Mutual. It wasn’t where he imagined he’d be long-term, but the job and his first boss taught him the skills he’d need to thrive as an entrepreneur.
“I learned how important it was to build relationships, and to listen,” he says.
After three years, Cohen decided to pursue his passion for food and co-founded Mamma Says Biscotti. He later partnered with Kelloggs and sold the brand in 2005 – for four times its revenue – to Nonni's Biscotti.
That same year, he co-founded World Gourmet Marketing, creating Sensible Portions Veggie Straws, which defined the puff category and became the No. 1 non-Frito Lay snack food brand. And on and on his career has gone.
He has launched, invested and partnered in several other brands, Rickland Orchards, Chefs Cut, Mrs. Thinsters, CORE water, OWYN Protein, and From Ground Up Snacks. He partnered with the co-founders of SkinnyPop, which went public in 2015 for $1.6 billion and is now the No. 1 popcorn sold in the United States. The next year, he co-founded Halen Brands, a home for creating, investing and scaling emerging, better-for-you brands in consumer packaged goods.
In his career, he has spent a lot of time thinking about snacks.
“My job today has been an evolution of the past 20 years of really looking at the snack food and beverage community and trying to find a niche to create either a new product, a new category or a new way to think about eating,” he says.
When he started, Cohen says, there were very few healthy packaged snacks out there. “There were basically rice cakes as an alternative to potato chips. And I realized they weren’t very good. They kind of tasted like cardboard and you had to put something on them to fake that enjoyment opportunity,” he says.
It was an opportunity.
It was the late 1990s, and Cohen saw the increasing popularity of coffee shops, most of them without food options. He knew that in Europe, people liked to have a biscotti with their coffee. “We felt it was a good way to walk into a very challenging, very competitive category – cookies,” he says.
It worked. And that successful venture was the first of many for Cohen. He credits much of his success to his willingness to partner and to listen. “We build strong relationships with our retailers, and help them by asking them what they need on their shelves, what opportunities are out there. We also hire the best in talent. You can’t win without a great team,” he adds. “We look for those niches, we grow them and then we sell them to big companies. And we help them scale up by giving them a strong base and a consumer they might not have.”
Cohen admits he’s worked hard and put in long hours, particularly in those early years, but his work, he says, has always been fun. With a strong team around him now, he says, he enjoys being able to function more as a coach, and less as a quarterback. “What I enjoy about my current role is that sometimes I feel like we have done such a good job recruiting talent that my day job has become more of a think tank and what’s next,” says Cohen, who lives in northern New Jersey with his wife, Jamie, and their two daughters. “It’s nice. It’s given me a little more flexibility than I had in my earlier career.”
He’s using some of that flexibility to give back at UMD, as a member of Maryland Smith’s Board of Advisors, a former member of the board of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, and as a member of the University Board of Trustees.
“When I talk to students, my goal is to give them confidence – the confidence that, even without any industry knowledge or relationships or family history in those careers, that the family of alum at Maryland are there to help and support them,” he says. “I want them to know that there are alumni out there who want to help them succeed.”
Cohen says his own career was inspired by the work ethic his grandparents instilled in his parents and their siblings. “Each and every one of them had no contacts and no money but persevered and became best in class in their respective fields,” he says. “My father went to medical school in Brussels and had to learn French while in class. That’s something that has stuck with me when things seem to be too tough or not going my way.”
Cohen says he is still inspired by career stories. “I love those stories, and I think it’s so important for students to be able to hear the stories of people who started from nothing and did something really big,” he says.
To students he meets, Cohen says, “Don't have anxiety on graduation day if you don't know what you want to do. You have to see where your experiences take you.”
And, he tells them, "You might not succeed at everything you try, and that’s OK. You only fail if you don't learn a way to do things better the next time."
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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business
The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.