When Kareem Cook came to Duke’s Fuqua School of Business for an MBA, he wasn’t planning to become an entrepreneur. But after his first-year internship, Cook decided he wanted to work for himself.
“I really believe that there’s an inner voice that tells you when you’re on the right path,” Cook told Dean Bill Boulding as part of Fuqua’s Distinguished Speakers Series. “You prepare yourself so that when you hear that voice, you can go forward.”
Cook owns Naturade, a wellness company that makes plant-based shakes, and also serves as chief marketing officer. He is also managing director of Towerview Capital Management. He started raising money to acquire a company during his time at Fuqua, with his business partner Claude Tellis, whom he met when both were undergraduates at Duke. Ultimately, the two friends acquired Naturade, but the path was far from easy.
“The entrepreneurial journey doesn’t really start until they’ve told you ‘no,’ and you decide that I’m here to win regardless of that no,” Cook said.
A unique journey into entrepreneurship
Cook said in elementary school in the Bronx, he was identified to be placed in advanced classes and a private school—and was exposed to people that were different than him. He leaned into learning from others and came to trust in himself and his abilities.
“I’m no longer scared of the type of thing that would scare most people,” Cook said. “I’m comfortable in that discomfort.”
After graduating from Duke, Cook said he went into a job that wasn’t the right fit and through a series of unexpected events became a successful choreographer working with Debbie Allen and Michael Jackson.
Building a network
Although he left performing to return to Duke for business school, his connection with Allen continued. While Cook was a Fuqua student, Allen contacted him for help with a business plan for a dance studio, like the character she’d played in the television series Fame. Cook and his business partner quickly put together a 30-page plan for her for free.
After graduating, Cook and Tellis relocated to Los Angeles to make a start as entrepreneurs together. When they arrived, Allen gave them the office space in her studio that they needed to get their company off the ground. They were able to use that office and Cook’s Fuqua network to start Healthy Body Products to help fight child obesity with healthy vending machines.
Cook said building this type of network has been key to his success as an entrepreneur.
“I’m really interested in people on a genuine level, and I didn’t realize that that would serve me in a positive way until I needed to network,” Cook said. “Throughout every iteration of myself, every environment I’ve been in, I take those people with me.”
Cook and Tellis later purchased Naturade, and eventually secured distribution in Costco, the “holy grail of distribution,” Cook said. He said they built a positive relationship with Costco’s chief financial officer for four years before he introduced them to the chief executive officer and they were finally able to get on the shelves.
Cultivating resilience and self-belief
Another guiding principle for Cook is “an irrational, illogical belief in myself,” he said.
“By definition an entrepreneur is trying to chart a path that hasn’t been charted before. There’s no blueprint to it. There may be a blueprint to being prepared to be an entrepreneur, but actually succeeding as an entrepreneur, you’re going to be charting your own way,” Cook said. “You have to have an almost irrational belief in yourself that no matter what comes, whatever the challenge is, I’m going to be able to beat that challenge.”
Cook said part of this belief comes from understanding your worth.
“You really have to know who you are and what your value is,” Cook said, “because no one else will value you if you don’t have that understanding of who you are and what you are before you walk in the room.”
Cook tells business school students to make sure they are fostering their confidence so they can be prepared to act on their inner guidance with boldness.
“I’ve just chosen to go forward with a certain fearlessness.”