When the word ‘legend’ is used, no one in the industry better fits this headline than Frieda Caplan, founder of Frieda’s Inc., Los Alamitos, CA BB #:127169 who passed away in January.
“Mom did her own thing,” says Karen Caplan. “She was mostly motivated by her desire to promote the amazing fresh produce items presented to her, and to be a hard worker.”
Frieda first introduced the Chinese gooseberry to the U.S. market in 1962 and renamed it kiwifruit. She was known for her grace, gumption, and her unbridled enthusiasm for bringing unique fruits and vegetables to the market—as well as being the first prominent woman in produce.
Today, the family works together in their female-owned and led multigenerational business in a male-dominated landscape. Frieda still had input through her 90s, while her daughters, Karen Caplan (CEO) and Jackie Caplan Wiggins (VP & COO), and granddaughter Alex Jackson Berkley (sales manager) took the baton and play integral roles in the company’s success.
“Mom didn’t really make a big deal about being the only woman on the Los Angeles Produce Market,” says Karen. “But she always sensed the men kept an eye on her, especially when she walked the market at 2:00 am each morning,” she explains. “She never saw herself as a trailblazer until many years later when other women in the industry told her what an inspiration she had been.”
Frieda focused on what she loved to do, was intrinsically involved, and driven to succeed. As far as wisdom for women coming into the industry, Karen says Frieda would say, “Follow your passion and make sure your voice is heard. Be an active member of the industry by attending meetings, conferences, and participating.”
These words made an impression on both her daughters. “It wasn’t until I got more involved in the industry that I started to feel comfortable expressing my own views,” notes Jackie. She cites becoming a member of the first United Fresh/DuPont (now Corteva) leadership program as the catalyst for her “heightened participation,” and is thankful for the support from both her mom and sister, which allowed her “to make my own mark as a leader of Frieda’s.”
Karen also acknowledges her mother’s support of her professional aspirations, noting, “Early in my career, I felt so lucky to have instant credibility and visibility because my mom was Frieda—the first woman in produce.”
The women of Frieda’s “refuse to be ordinary” and say when it comes to successful family business dynamics, it’s all about weaving the best assets together. “We typically approach things from very different perspectives—Karen is more of a visionary and I’m more of a tactician,” shares Jackie.
“Fortunately, we have strengths in different areas, so we complement each other in that respect,” she adds. “As Frieda liked to say, Karen is totally right-brained, Jackie is left-brained, together they have a whole brain!”
As the third generation, Alex didn’t make the decision to join the family business until she was halfway through her senior year in college. But summer internships “solidified my love for produce and the industry, and one of them showed me how lucky I am to have a family business I’m actually passionate about.”
Her best advice for women coming into the industry: “Remember all eyes are on you.”
Alex also has plenty of firsthand knowledge about the pressure of performing well in a family business. “It can be paralyzing,” she admits, but “when you remember to take it day by day, it becomes much easier and your passion for the business will drive you.” Although Alex hasn’t felt overshadowed by her family’s legacy, she does “feel the responsibility to perform and exceed everyone’s expectations.”
We asked, they answered: As the daughters of a legendary leader, what advice would you give to women coming up in family businesses?
Keep personal and business separate. We try very hard to avoid conversations about personal issues at the office and conversations about business when we’re at home or with family.
Know that people take their cues from you. As a business owner and/or family member, employees are always watching you for your reaction to situations and how you respond.
Be open, honest, and vulnerable. It’s OK to admit you don’t know something; seek help from others when you need it. Be thoughtful and sensitive when you have bad news to report, but don’t pretend it doesn’t exist.
Always be learning, always be teaching. Read, attend classes, participate in webinars, etc. to help understand new information. Everyone, no matter their experience level, can learn from others or share knowledge.
This is a multi-part series adapted from a profile in the March/April 2020 issue of Produce Blueprints.