December 01, 2012
Univera: Serving the Children First
by Karyn Reagan
Univera carries on the legacy left by its founder by bringing the best of nature to the youngest of humankind.
Although it may seem impossible to imagine life without eating, some hungry children will fall asleep tonight with an empty belly and no hope for food tomorrow. Almost 11 million children under the age of 5 die in developing countries each year. Malnutrition and hunger-related diseases cause 60 percent of the deaths, according to a report published in 2007 by UNICEF.
Seattle-based nutritional company Univera, through its nonprofit arm Serve First, is facing the nourishment problem head-on by partnering with like-minded organizations that reach out to children in need. Serve First has given more than $2.6 million in financial assistance, according to Randy Bancino, President of Univera. “We give to eight to 10 charities each year, but since 2007 we have had a close relationship with one organization in particular, Vitamin Angels,” he says. “They are committed to leading the way in providing essential micronutrients to at-risk populations.” Bancino explains that when children are deprived of these important micronutrients, both their physical and cognitive development are stunted. By partnering with organizations that provide food to the hungry, such as Feed the Children, Vitamin Angels can provide the complement of nutrients that are imperative for the proper development of children ages 6 and under.
“Our desire to improve the lives of others is baked into our culture at Univera,” Bancino says. “The founder of the company, Yunho Lee, started it for the sole purpose of unlocking the impact of plants on human health.” Yunho had been struggling with some health challenges for a long time and conventional medicine was not helping. When a friend introduced him to aloe vera juice, he tried it and was thrilled with the results, feeling that the juice aided significantly in his recovery. Yunho was a very successful businessman and decided to invest in scientific research and development in order to further study the power of the aloe vera plant as well as discover what else nature had to offer in the way of medicinal flora. He wanted to be able to help others find relief from health issues and begin to enjoy life again like he had. His success in business helped fund a team of scientists who focused on specific bioactive compounds that could be shown to help the human body revitalize and renew itself.
“The founder of the company, Yunho Lee, started it for the sole purpose of unlocking the impact of plants on human health.”
—Randy Bancino, President
Leaving a Legacy of Compassion
That was 24 years ago in South Korea. Today, Univera maintains a global network of farms, research and development teams, and even manufacturing and distribution plants to manage their product line from planting and harvesting all the way through delivering the product to consumers. They also grow Scutellaria, a common medicinal plant, and soybeans. In fact, Univera cultivates more than 10,000 farm acres in five countries—the United States (Texas), Mexico, Russia, China and South Korea. They employ more than 50 scientists and hold 177 patents. “We control the whole process from start to finish,” Bancino says. Although Yunho passed away in 1996, his son Bill Lee has built the company alongside his father since the beginning and carries on his father’s legacy of bringing the best of nature to humankind.
Bill has a passion for charity inherited from his father, according to Bancino. His generosity has been demonstrated in many ways but, as cited on the Serve First website, one of the first humanitarian projects he ever took on through the business was to respond to the severe famine people were experiencing in the mid-1990s in North Korea. He oversaw the cultivation of a rice plantation in the Maritime Province of Russia and was able to send 400 tons of rice to feed those in need.
As Univera’s charitable activities continued it became apparent that the most prudent business move was to form a nonprofit arm of the company. So in 2006, Bill started Serve First as an outlet for the funds being raised to help others worldwide. “Every dollar raised for Serve First goes directly to charity,” Bancino says. “Those who are on the board or work in any capacity for the entity donate their time to do so.”
Bancino further explains that funds funneled through Serve First are raised in both traditional and unique ways. Anyone is welcome to give financial donations at any time to the company—and every dollar donated is matched by Univera. Also, any customer enrolling in a Convenience Plan (an automatic monthly order of at least $150) will provide enough vitamins through Vitamin Angels to support the nutritional needs of four children for an entire year. “A portion of the proceeds from any product ordered on a Convenience Plan is donated to Serve First,” Bancino says. “In addition, enrollees are given the option to donate additional cash on a monthly basis, which is matched by Univera.” Also, fundraisers are held at local events throughout the year and at annual conventions in order to generate donations.
Some conditions in Honduras do not support a healthy environment for children.
Univera’s programs provide malnourished children with a chance to grow into healthy adults.
The mission of Serve First is to deliver nourishment to impoverished children.
The Results Are Impressive
“Over 620,000 children have been supported with essential vitamin A in 2012 alone, with a total of 2.2 million children to date,” Bancino says. “We attribute such success to the purpose-based component woven into our company’s philosophy of sharing our resources and knowledge to make the world better for others.” Everyone, from corporate employees to the associates doing business in the field, is encouraged to engage in improving the life of someone less fortunate, as modeled by Bill. “And the leadership of Serve First works to maintain a balanced approach of providing assistance to both international and local charities,” Bancino says.
When a need arises due to earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and various other natural disasters, Serve First is ready with an immediate response, depending on the situation. “We also have our very own holiday here at Univera to promote philanthropy—Founders Day,” Bancino says. “Every April 5th we close headquarters, but all of the employees show up for work at a local charity. They love it!” Associates in the field are also encouraged to participate and are happy to do so.
Every year a few associates are chosen to join some of the leadership from Univera, Vitamin Angels and one of their partners on a trip to distribute nutritional supplements to children enrolled in their program. Selection for participation in this trip is based on personal donations given to Serve First throughout the year.
In 2012, Kathy Kenney was chosen by Univera to travel to Honduras with the team. “I have been with Univera for eight years and part of the reason I was drawn to the company is the heart they have for helping others in need,” she says. “To be able to observe and join the owner of the company I love, bringing happiness and hope to people less fortunate, was an unforgettable experience.”
A Firsthand Account of Success
Kenney shares that the team visited three poverty-stricken rural areas in Honduras to distribute the vital micronutrients to children. One of her responsibilities was providing a glass of milk for every child who received the nutrient—and there were more than 500. “In one of the villages, the milk was a rare treat and it was like Christmas had arrived,” she says. “Those children don’t even have access to something that is so plentiful to us.”
It was rewarding to Kenney to witness the mothers beaming with joy when discussing the health of their kids due to receiving crucial nutrients. “Although they live in a country where 70 percent of the population is in poverty—often without running water and electricity—the parents I spoke with have the same dreams for their kids that we do,” Kenney says. “And we have the opportunity to help make that happen, to help improve their life experience. We are literally changing lives as we give, providing children with a chance to develop into healthy, vibrant adults.”
The Honduras trip was the first distribution event Bill was able to attend, and when asked how it impacted him to see the fruit of Univera’s generosity, he says, “My days in Honduras have been some of the most meaningful times in my life. This trip has given me an ever-strong affirmation of what we need to do to improve the state of this world as a community.”
According to Bancino, the dreams for the future of Serve First include setting goals that result in the company being able to help more and more people through partnering with Vitamin Angels and others. “We are even refreshing our brand to be able to effectively reach as many people as possible,” he says. And the years of research dedicated to discovering how to capture and deliver the healing powers of plants pairs well with the life-giving mission of Serve First—delivering much needed nourishment to the growing bodies of young impoverished children. “Without that particular nutrition they will simply follow in the footsteps of so many forgotten children in the world who have never even been given the chance to properly develop both physically and mentally,” Bancino says. “We are driven to provide a healthy future full of hope for as many young children as possible.”
Bill Lee, Chairman of Univera, distributes nutrition in Honduras.
What We Believe
- One of the most basic ways to begin improving quality of life is by improving quality of nutrition and nourishment.
- Generosity is never taken for granted, as it sets the example for us in this collective endeavor to eradicate hunger.
- We seek to set an example for strengthening the spirit of integrity, respect and service in every community—wherever children are in need.
- The first step to making a difference is believing that you can.