2011 commencement speaker announced

Posted on February 01, 2011 by Staff Writer

Lara Merriken, the founder of the whole-food snack bar company LÄRABAR, will speak at Sweet Briar College’s 102nd commencement on May 14. The ceremony will take place at 10 a.m. on the upper quad.

Merriken has titled her address “Anything is Possible” — a mantra she repeats often and with confidence because it reflects her own personal story.

“I think it’s important to cultivate and follow your dreams and passions in life and to be open to change and to work hard,” Merriken says. “You never know where that’s going to take you … anything is possible.”

It helps to surround yourself with supportive people, too. By doing all of those things Merriken built LÄRABAR from the ground up, turning a moment of literal hunger for a naturally tasty and healthy snack into a hugely successful company. Conceived in 2000, formally established in 2003, LÄRABAR reached nearly $20 million in sales by 2006.

Merriken’s willingness to embrace change has always been part of her success. After a career in social work helping disadvantaged children, she began working at Whole Foods while pursuing studies in natural medicine. Hands-on experience with the natural foods grocery chain became important to LÄRABAR’s development — giving her the confidence to overcome a saturated market, daunting startup costs and other obstacles that could have stalled its progress.

She made yet another momentous shift in 2008, selling the company to General Mills where she now serves as the brand’s creative director. Selling was never a goal, but it was always Merriken’s ideal to make the products available as widely and affordably as possible. “Everyone deserves a healthy life,” she says.

Large corporations had been pursuing LÄRABAR since it was less than two years old. But when sales hit $30 million, Merriken and her partners recognized that the company was poised for its next phase — and that distribution would be on such a scale that it would be the equivalent of going from “zero to thirty” all over again.

General Mills already had the means to distribute on that level and a track record of protecting established brands. It also has a respected organic products division, Small Planet Foods. “We thought that they would be a great steward of our brand and take care of our employees,” she said, noting that the most of her former employees still work for LÄRABAR.

Merriken, 42, hasn’t looked back from the decision, finding in General Mills a good partner and caretaker of the LÄRABAR brand and, for herself, longed-for time for adventures beyond running a business. Those pursuits include raising a family and doing a lot of public speaking.

Merriken says she enjoys delivering her messages of “good heath, good living and good business” to others, particularly young people, “because they’re just going out in the world and discovering what they want to do.”

It’s fertile ground for her formula for personal achievement through self-confidence, visualization and hard work.