How Whole Foods' John Mackey Awoke to a New Way of Doing Business
Before I cofounded Whole Foods Market, I attended two universities, where I accumulated about 120 hours of electives, primarily in philosophy, religion, history, world literature, and other humanities. I only took classes I was interested in, and if a class bored me, I quickly dropped it. Needless to say, with such a self-directed educational strategy, I learned many interesting and valuable things, but ended up with no degree. I never took a single business class. I actually think that has worked to my advantage in business over the years. As an entrepreneur, I had nothing to unlearn and new possibilities for innovation. I spent my late teens and early twenties trying to discover the meaning and purpose of my own life.
My search for meaning and purpose led me into the counterculture movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. I studied Eastern philosophy and religion at the time and still practice both yoga and meditation. I studied ecology. I became a vegetarian (I have been a vegan for ten years). I lived in an urban co-op/commune in Austin, Texas, for two years, and I grew my hair and beard long. Politically, I drifted into progressivism (or liberalism or social democracy) and embraced the ideology that business and corporations were essentially evil because they selfishly sought only profits. In contrast to evil corporations, I believed that nonprofit organizations and government were "good," because they altruistically worked for the public interest, not for profit.
With that background, I was clearly "well prepared" to launch a business in 1978. Our original company, a natural foods market named Safer Way, was a small 3,000-square-foot store in an old house that I opened with my girlfriend, Renee Lawson. We had seed capital of $45,000 that we raised from friends and family. We were both very young (I was twenty-five and Renee was twenty-one) and idealistic, and we started the business because we wanted to sell healthy food to people, earn a decent living, and have fun doing both.
Despite working many eighty-plus-hour weeks, Renee and I initially took salaries of only about $200 a month and lived in the office above the store. There was no shower or bathtub there, so we took "showers" in the store's Hobart dishwasher when we needed to clean up (I'm pretty sure that violated several city health codes). After operating Safer Way for two years, we decided to relocate to a much larger building, merge with another small natural food store, and change the name to Whole Foods Market in 1980.