Meet The Disruptors: CJ Pennington Of Proud Source Water On The Five Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing CJ Pennington.
CJ Pennington is the President and Co-Founder of Proud Source Water, making a positive impact through a fundamentally different approach to water: caring for our planet, our communities and our health all at the same time. Founded in 2017, CJ conceptualized and built the initial business plan for Proud Source from the ground up, rooted in the goal of uplifting small-town communities through local opportunities surrounding natural alkaline spring water sources, with a vision to be the most transparent bottled water company in the world when it comes to sourcing, sustainability and overall impact.
In his role, CJ not only designed the bottling facilities in both Idaho and Florida, but also designed the brand’s headquarters, packaging and more. Prior to Proud Source, he served as an architect and engineer assisting with the design and construction of notable projects for Boeing, the University of Oregon (Autzen Stadium) and the Simplot F.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I started my career as an architect, having graduated with a degree in architecture. In college I found my passion for sustainability, good design and problem solving. After graduating I practiced a handful of years in the space moving from architect to engineer, which I really enjoyed. I was working as an engineer in Seattle at the time when a family friend reached out asking if I would help design a water bottling facility in his hometown of Mackay, Idaho. In that first conversation I learned the town’s future was in question — the school was about to close due to lack of enrollment — and he knew someone needed to step up to create local jobs and give the town hope. His plan was simple, build a bottling plant to create 10 jobs. I had always wanted to help people and make positive impact in the world. So, I decided to walk away from a career that I truly loved to be a part of something bigger than myself.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
What makes us so disruptive is we didn’t set out to be disruptive. The goal wasn’t to shake things up — it was to do things for the right reasons — which happened to be disruptive in the industry we were getting into.
The commitment to our mission was critical as we grew the business and were faced with having to make decisions that impacted the future. We would look at how our choices would impact our community and the planet. Then we would then simply select whichever direction was better for both. We repeated this over and over until we looked around and realized we are on much different journey than other companies in the water space. I believe our way of thinking organically led to us looking and sounding different which ultimately has allowed us to disrupt.
At the core — it was this “doing the right thing” mission that was disruptive.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I think the funniest mistake was a few years ago when we thought it was a good decision to erect boxes in our Headquarter offices in Boise for an order. You learn a lot hand assembling boxes over the course of a few days and it wasn’t until we were a handful of pallets into the orders, we all realized the box was engineered to be erected in a different manner than we had been using. Looking back, it turned out to be a wonderful team bonding experience, but I wouldn’t recommend it!
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
For anyone venturing out to start a business, you need a support group and community of people who are going to help. I’ve had a handful along the way that have kept me from making mistakes or let me make them and learn from them.
My father, who has industry experience and is involved with Proud Source, has been my biggest mentor. He’s made an impact on my life from an early age, teaching me what it means to work hard, be humble and have tough skin. I take all of his words to heart.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I don’t necessarily know that I would agree that the word is somehow good or bad, positive or negative. I don’t align with that. Thinking differently should be celebrated. To be disruptive in an industry, you’re taking a different approach or angle. Personally, I think pushing boundaries and trying to innovate is always a positive thing. That’s advancement.
Can you share five of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
1- “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” -President Theodore Roosevelt.
The first time I heard this, it was from someone I looked up to when I was working as an engineer. I asked him what his secret was, as he got people to follow him in a way I hadn’t seen very often. He explained to me it was about being humble and speaking to people and holding yourself in a way that is approachable; just because you are the boss, you don’t need to beat people over the head with it. He equated this quiet confidence, and humble approach, to getting the best out of people. I really appreciated that, as he had a tremendous amount of power but didn’t tout it.
2- Positivity is a mindset. I believe in karma or essentially that we attract things based on what we put into the universe. Having a positive outlook on life makes it natural to be kinder to people and I think being kind to people can lead to ultimately better and more enjoyable outcomes in life. This is something I practice every second of every day.
3- “To know, is to know that you know nothing.” -Socrates
I didn’t enjoy English class. This is something I picked up after moving on from school in recent years after changing careers and finding success in a new industry. This idea meant something to me when people began asking me how I did something or when I was asked to give business advice. My natural response is to start by disclaiming that I know nothing but would be happy to share my own personal experience.
4- “Don’t cut corners.” I know it’s overly simple. In college I took a landscape architecture class. One day in class, the professor talked about cutting corners in way I had never thought about before. I take cutting corners very literal now walking down sidewalks or pathways properly instead of cutting through the grass or landscaping to get to where I want to go.
5- “It takes a village.” Whether it’s been raising my son or growing Proud Source, I’ve learned that it cannot be done alone. I often celebrate the village I am part of and make sure they understand how much I appreciate them allowing me in.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
We are going to take things further — the goal at Proud Source has always been to do things for the right reasons, no matter if they are easy or hard to do. After nearly 5 years of operating out of Mackay location we recently expanded to include a second spring bottling facility located within the Apalachicola Forest in Florida. The expansion allows us to offer a high-quality spring water product throughout the U.S. without having to ship long distances. It’s a win for the planet and has given us the opportunity to create positive impact within another small rural community here in the U.S.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
“Making a profit is not the goal because the Zen master would say profits happen ‘when you do everything else right’.”- Yvon Chouinard
I read the book “Let My People Go Surfing” when I was putting together the business plan for Proud Source in early 2016. The book is full of wonderful ideas but this one might be my favorite due to its simplicity and the disruptive nature. His words felt familiar and really resonated. We wanted to create a business that was focused on doing things the right way with our earliest aspirations to create positive impact on the people in our small community.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The one that always comes to mind is to “walk with a purpose.” I received this lesson early in my career — when I first stepped foot on my college campus. My father shared it with me; at that age, I was walking slow as many do with not much drive. He reminded me that if you’re going to do something, be committed and give 100% of yourself. If you’re not, don’t do it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The first step is to join us in our mission of reducing single use plastic and please recycle. Small changes can lead to big impact. Secondly, I would encourage people to think differently about recycling. I think the saying goes “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!