SANTA CRUZ—Linda Kahler, who has championed significant trends in the supplement industry as head of Santa Cruz-based Rainbow Light Nutritional Systems for three decades, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Nutrition Business Journal last week.
In addition to longevity in the industry, the award commends successful business leaders who “have practiced conscious capitalism” and often those who have been on the cutting edge, said Tom Aarts, founder of the NBJ and chairman of the editorial board.
Kahler grew a five-person company from its early days in the then-fringe industry of supplements into a market leader in the estimated $37 billion domestic market. She is credited with spearheading several key initiatives that have changed the industry.
“I have been reflecting back to my first introduction to the industry in a family-owned retail store,” Kahler said. “It was owned by a passionate, quirky, creative businesswoman who inspired me and introduced me to the community of people who were building upon their passion for health and wellness.” They showed her “that we can really make a difference.”
Early on, the company introduced food-based supplements to increase efficacy, as well as prenatal supplements for women. The company created new top-selling supplement categories for different stages of life. Rainbow Light was also an early advocate of sustainable practices and was the first to introduce 100 percent recycled and recyclable packaging. The company was also the first to sell 100 percent certified organic products.
On the corporate giving side, Kahler linked the company to several international causes such as Vitamin Angels, an international program that provides free supplements to underserved communities in 50 countries, including the U.S., and 5 Gyres, which works to reduce plastic pollution in the oceans.
“She’s as genuine as they come when it comes to being everything our industry personifies—as a leader and as a human being,” Aarts said. “If you had to name the top 10 people who give back to the industry and the community, I’d put her at the top of the list.”
Kahler, a former health food store clerk as a teen, later managed The Food Bin in the 1980s when natural food was served up largely in bulk bins, and eventually stepped into the leadership position at Rainbow Light in 1985. There were about five employees including botanist Christopher Hobbs, who continues to serve as the company’s director of Integrative Science.
In 1989, she bought the company through a management buyout and has maintained control of the company through a couple rounds of funding and a new partnership with Nature’s Products to support manufacturing.
The company employs about 75 people directly as well as more than 400 through Nature’s Product in Florida. Two years ago the company moved into expanded headquarters on Santa Cruz’s Westside, a unique facility that was built to meet top environmentally sustainable standards.
“They come at their business from a service perspective,” said Deb Anderson-Berardo, a pharmacist at the UC-Santa Cruz Student Health Center. Campus center staff has reached out to several local integrative health companies in recent years to expand offerings at their pharmacy. The company enthusiastically responded, Berardo said. “They look to see what they can do to help. That’s a marvelous attribute about a business.”
Kahler and the company have received numerous awards over the years. Last year, she was inducted into the “Hall of Legends” during a Natural Products Expo West trade show in Anaheim.
The Journal, an executive journal that publishes market research, is produced by Boulder, CO-based New Hope Media, a division of publicly held Penton Media. The company provides consultant services to the industry and organizes events. The organization’s Facebook page describes it as “the leading media resource and marketing solutions provider for the natural, organic and healthy-lifestyle products industry.”
Other recipients of the 18-year-old award include fish oil researcher Jorn Dyerberg, supplement manufacturing expert Gerry Holly and functional foods researcher Jeffrey Bland.
This article first appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.