Healthy Pivot

words by Silas Valentino

The NatureBox headquarters, a dash from downtown Redwood City, is in an airy building with natural light streaming through floor-to-ceiling windows bordering the street. This would be an ideal setting for an automobile showroom (historically, it was) but now it’s lined with standing desks, couches, whiteboards, a large external air conditioning unit and hundreds of pounds of snacks.

These aren’t your mother’s carrot sticks; the snack company’s catalog runs rich and deep with the likes of dried chile mangos, turmeric black pepper popcorn, sriracha cashews and chocolate chip cookies that won’t give you a stomachache—it’s a cornucopia of reimagined snack favorites made with a healthy focus.

“Munch away on whatever you’re craving and feel good about what you’re eating” reads the label on the back of the trail mix. In an intriguing twist a few months ago, NatureBox took that feel-good eats concept one step further by developing a line of hemp-based cannabidiol snacks, a slightly radical shift made by the company’s CEO after  discovering the immensely positive health effects CBD had on his own daughter.

Although individual rooms exist within the headquarters, this CEO’s desk is in plain view off in the corner surrounded by employees. It’s not a hectic office space and the murmur of phone calls and chatter doesn’t interfere with John Occhipinti’s concentration as he stoically sits at his desk with a pair of noise-cancelling headphones on. Eyes closed, he’s meditating. As he’ll do throughout the day.

“I’m listening to a smattering of YouTube-guided meditations,” he later explains. “My mind will run in a lot of different directions and this will get me grounded in more creative energy, then productivity comes back. You listen to your heart to see if it’s beating.”

He’s more blue jeans than Brooks Brothers, wearing a light-blue Vineyard Vines shirt, which seems to enhance his already radiant blue eyes. Prone to smiling and unafraid to use a whiteboard to help illustrate a point, John (or “John O,” a sometimes nickname inspired by an old email he had while working at Netscape in the 1990s) leads NatureBox with a relaxed and focused direction.

“My kids gave me a bracelet that says Be Present,” he says, gesturing to his wrist. “That’s what I’d preach to them when I used to drop them off at school.”

The fact that John is this easygoing while overseeing a multi-million-dollar company with over two million customers is an attribute of a person who believes deeply in the mission of his work. Not only do NatureBox’s products allow people to snack without the consequence of an unhealthy diet, but the new line of CBD chews is at the vanguard of creating products that soothe folks who often endure anxiety, migraines or stress.

A serving of six chews contains 25mg of CBD with zero THC. They’re in three flavors—pineapple, passion-berry and watermelon-lemonade—with a bag selling for about $20 if you have a membership with the company. NatureBox introduced their CBD chews earlier this year and the snacks were an instant success, racking up 1,000 people on a waitlist and then selling out in their first week.

Creating a new genre of wellness products was not John’s initial plan when his firm, Wheelhouse Partners, assumed control of NatureBox in 2017. But the father of three gained motivation after witnessing first-hand how CBD soothed the intense migraines plaguing his middle child. He detailed the personal journey on a blog post in May 2019 titled, “Why CBD is what’s next for NatureBox.”

John describes how his daughter Gabby was suffering from a week-long headache, an extension of the chronic migraines she’s endured since childhood. They tried several solutions—visiting multiple medical specialists, changing diet, hiring a masseuse—yet the pain would not subside. One morning, after learning from a friend about CBD, John and Gabby decided to give the experiment a shot.

“I went down and bought a tincture of non-THC CBD at a dispensary. She had to wait in the car since she was under 21 and I came out with a brown bag. I looked into the bag and joked that we just scored,” John laughs, while retelling the story. “We didn’t know how much she should take so I put two drops under her tongue. In an hour, her headache was gone. It was like, ‘Woah, this is something.’”

Raised in Woodside off Cañada Road, John was predisposed to the entrepreneurial spirit before he could drive a car. “We joke that we didn’t sell lemonade on the corner; we sold zucchini because that’s what we were growing in the backyard,” John says. His father was a tech entrepreneur who worked with the likes of Don Valentine, often referred to as “the grandfather of Silicon Valley venture capital.”

“My dad’s way to communicate was to talk about what he loved: conflict resolution and people skills,” John says. “He talked about board meetings and how he dealt with conflict. I was in the boardroom at a very young age. When I was asked, ‘What do you want to be when you’re older?’ I was the kid who said ‘a bond salesman.’”

A Woodside High grad, John’s journey led him to a sales job at Oracle. He considers selling one of his innate skills and while pursuing a business degree at Cal, he was offered a position with a fledgling company called Netscape, becoming one of the first 30 employees at the early-days Internet giant.

Following the sale of Netscape, John transitioned into his father’s industry to become a venture capitalist for the family firm, the Woodside Fund. He’d later become a partner in the company Relay Ventures, where the intellectual stimuli from passionate entrepreneurs sent him on a new path.

Inspired by the innovation swirling around him, John co-founded Wheelhouse Partners in 2017 using a novel approach to private equity—the firm finds companies with previous major investments on the brink of collapse. While talking through the business model, John jumps up to a nearby whiteboard where he sketches out a graph chart to illustrate his point.

“A lot of companies get over-funded and then burn out. We find these companies that have run into trouble but with proper management skills, they could succeed,” he explains.

In 2017, John was tipped off about an innovative snack company that had great potential but had begun to idle—and that’s how NatureBox came into the picture. A direct-to-consumer disrupter (“The next Frito-Lay,” John compares.), the company had been positioned by the founders as a better-for-you snack business. Wheelhouse took over and after first serving as its executive chairman, John assumed the role of CEO to help streamline management.

It was a first for the longtime board member, venture capitalist and dad. It came like a shot in the arm. “It felt like I was living for the first time in a long time,” he says. “To raise the funds to take over NatureBox, that took sheer personal will. It was stressful but invigorating. I never felt more excited.”

It was clearly a healthy pivot, which would lead to other bold steps. Such enthusiasm is often tangible—like when NatureBox closed a recent big deal and in a fit of delight, John found himself on top of an office coffee table dishing out dance moves not seen in decades.

“I did the sprinkler and a full pop from the 1980s,” he recalls, with an exuberant grin.  

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