I never personally knew Frieda Caplan, the woman who is credited with bringing many once-exotic fruits and vegetables to the United States. I knew only of her gifts—kiwifruits, habaneros, jicama and Asian pears. I was just a toddler when she opened Frieda’s Specialty Produce, the first woman-owned wholesale produce business. The ground she covered made it easier for me to open my company in 1996.
Hearing of Frieda’s passing at 96, I was profoundly touched by the outpouring of admiration and sorrow. I reached out to a few of my early colleagues who knew her. I was moved to tears by their stories.
Thus, began a series of revelations about the importance of mentoring and being mentored.
What Frieda did was for people was far beyond fruit and vegetables or even the way Americans eat. She was instrumental in building the very fabric of the produce world by strengthening hearts, minds and personalities.
The very last thing I needed was another writing project, busy as I was with several others. Yet, I felt compelled to document the way Frieda profoundly impacted lives while running a business.
Tonya Antle, Co-founder and EVP of the Organic Produce Network, and I have known each other since the early days of our careers. For more than 30 years, she has helped drive organic produce to become mainstream. Savvy and agile, Tonya taught me many a trick or two about customer service and marketing.
What I hadn’t fully realized was that Frieda had been an important mentor to her for years!
I touched base with Tonya to learn more about Frieda’s impact. Reminiscing about the beginnings of her career, Tonya said, “I interviewed with both Freida and her daughter Karen in the fall of 1980. I was told that there were no openings, but I was fortunate enough to have them see my potential and give me an opportunity to prove myself. Within weeks of working countless hours, they gave me my first accounts.
Sitting right next to [Frieda] was such a gift. Learning through listening and watching her was so valuable to my development and career. Her style in how she treated everyone with the same level of respect and her willingness to share and teach was inspiring. She was the perfect combination of a kind, beautiful woman and powerhouse businessperson.”
When asked how Frieda affected her life, Tonya said, “She changed the trajectory of my life in so many ways. From developing my own personal selling style to taking the lessons of specialty produce and utilizing those techniques in the early days of selling organic.
She was a true mentor to me. She taught me the importance of philanthropy, the importance of giving a voice to causes you truly believed in, to never give up even in the darkest of times, and to never compromise your ethics or reputation.”
Frieda also had a major impact on Andy Grant, a longtime organic farmer in Colorado. Back in the 1990s, I bought organic squash and spinach from him. Andy told me that he owes much of his success to his friendship with Frieda.
Andy met Frieda when he was in college. He recalled that he “was a skinny 22-year-old organic farmer in Colorado” who didn’t see the world clearly. “I was growing squash, and I met Frieda’s daughters at a convention.”
Not long after that introduction, Frieda called Andy. She said to him, “Andy we would love to work with you, but I need to coach you in the produce business.”
Soon Andy was selling truckloads of squash to Frieda’s, and he and Frieda became great friends.
Andy recalled, “This enormously busy woman would call me up every Sunday morning—coaching me on everything from social justice, racism, food inequality and business—how to stick to your guns in farming and how you live your life. She is THE NUMBER ONE MENTOR in my entire life.”
The Anti-Defamation League once honored Frieda with a Humanitarian of the Year award, and Andy Grant and friends flew in to honor her.
Andy described the event to me and said, “When it was time for Frieda to speak, she spoke powerfully and was grateful for the honor, and then she took 5 minutes and had our group come to stand with her on stage. She spoke about our friendship and the importance of young farmers in America. She took her award and put it on our shoulders and made us the stars of the show. It blew us all away!”
Andy continued, “We remained great friends over the years, and my business thrived because of her. Four years ago, I married my husband Vincent. Frieda could barely walk at that time, but she got on an airplane, and she came and was my mom at the wedding. In some ways, she was a more influential than my own parents. I will miss her.”
During the course of writing this, a young woman reached out to me for career guidance. I realized that I must do just as Frieda would have done and be there for those who ask.
No matter how busy you think you are, there is always time for that person who needs a bit of direction, support or advice.
This is why we are here – not only to build businesses and change the foodscape but also to grow each other. To create the next generation of leaders dedicated to making the world a more delicious, nutritious and fair place.
Even though I did not know her intimately, Frieda touched me in her teaching of others. I honor her memory and am glad she taught me through example.
Portions of this blog were originally posted on Organic Produce Network.