Henry Belcaster: Life Lessons from the Founder of VitaLives
Henry Belcaster always knew he wanted to be a social entrepreneur. “I just have this desire to change things and start businesses,” he says.
At age 15, Henry founded VitaLives, a children’s multivitamin with a social business model. For each bottle of multivitamins VitaLives sold in the U.S., they would donate a portion of the proceeds to help undernourished children around the world obtain the critical nutrients they need to grow and thrive.
Childhood nutrient deficiency can be a matter of life or death. According to VitaLives, a staggering one million children die due to Vitamin A deficiencies each year.
VitaLives was sold online and at Whole Foods stores across the Midwest. Ultimately, they were able to provide 47,000 vitamins to undernourished families in Peru and South Africa.
“We were revolutionizing the way people give charitably,” Henry says.
Learning to fail
Henry already had the idea for VitaLives when he applied to Quarter Zero’s Catapult Incubator.
“VitaLives already had a landing page, but it was super basic. Josh [QØ CEO and founder] said, ‘You’re way behind everyone else in this cohort. If you want to come on as a Founder you’re going to have to really grind it out.’”
Luckily, Henry was up for the challenge.
“We arrived at 10am on a Friday morning and we were hashing out ideas all weekend long. That kind of work ethic was like nothing I had experienced before. What was so cool about it was that it wasn’t like sitting in an office. We were there for 12 hours a day, but it felt like one,” he says.
Henry says he feels he was born with the instincts of an entrepreneur, but he had never heard it all put into words before. The principle of “fail fast, fail often, fail forward” particularly resonated with him.
“It was amazing to meet other young entrepreneurs who all believed in this same mentality. This idea that you have to be comfortable with failure because that’s how you’ll move on, that’s how you learn,” he says. “I failed at something every week.”
But the biggest challenge Henry says the VitaLives team faced was around marketing: they were selling an elastic good, competing with a very established brand, and trying to convey the gravity of childhood malnutrition to U.S. consumers.
“It was a children’s multivitamin – really the same formula as Flintstones vitamins – but our difference was the story we were trying to sell. At Whole Foods, you only have six inches of shelf space to tell that story. In the U.S., we don’t see severe malnutrition here. It’s hard for people to visualize,” he says. “Additionally, we had to gain trust over a brand like Flintstones that’s been at it for 30 years and has a huge market share.”
Despite these challenges, the VitaLives team was able to secure impressive press coverage, appearing on NBC News and PBS, and in newspapers like The Chicago Tribune and The Charlotte Observer.
“Press coverage helped. A lot of our sales were online. That turned out to be more successful for us – you could see the press, see the videos, and that’s how you gain trust up front,” he says.
At QØ Henry learned about taking risks, something he put into practice when the team decided to use the “one for one” business model in the first place. “At the time, TOMS [shoes] had trademarked the model. At first we thought, crap, that’s so central to our identity,” Henry says. “But then we figured, maybe it’s worth the risk even if we get some heat from TOMS. At least it will bring attention to our mission.”
Henry’s risk was a calculated one that paid off. “In the end, we wound up getting the opportunity to be featured in the TOMS Marketplace, where they promoted other products with ‘one for one’ business models,” Henry says. “If I hadn’t been taught to take risks, we might have missed out on an amazing opportunity.”
After three years of hard work, Henry decided it was time to shut down VitaLives. By then a sophomore at Brown, he wasn’t convinced they were solving the problem of childhood malnutrition in the best possible way, and his work on VitaLives was taking his attention from other projects, not to mention his schoolwork.
“I am still really proud of what we accomplished. Our team never took no for an answer. We never succumbed to the pressure of someone saying that a 15 year old can’t start a business and have a mission that’s saving people’s lives,” Henry says.
But it was hard to dedicate as much attention to his social venture while trying to excel as an astrophysics major at Brown. It was also an inflection point in his academic career.
“By then I was a sophomore. In astrophysics, the sophomore curriculum is really put in place to start eliminating people from the major.”
Henry was feeling the pressure. And he also started feeling that sensation that a lot of people refer to as burnout.
“The midterms and finals are there to break you down and point out all of your flaws as opposed to showing you that you’ve mastered the material. It just seemed backwards to me. And there didn’t seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. That’s when I experienced burnout.”
He felt stifled by the study-exam-interview-internship-job track he had been placed on. “I started questioning this tunnel vision that can happen in college,” Henry says. “I could work all day on my own venture, but as a dreamer, when I feel like my dreams are being stunted by someone else’s requirements, I can shut down.”
Remembering to live
So Henry decided to get a tattoo. It was simple, just one word on his forearm, punctuated by a period: “Live.”
“It was a reminder to put the calculator down and go out and experience people and other cool things. Life is too short to be experiencing physics all the time,” he explains. “Of course my mom was like, ‘Why do you need that written on your arm? Why can’t you just remember it?’ But I want to get out there every day to do everything I can while the sun is up to make myself better by bedtime. I need it right in front of my face.”
As part of that commitment to himself, instead of doing an internship like many of his peers, Henry decided to take the summer off to travel.
He visited family in Alaska. ”Being there helped me distance myself from that preplanned and premeditated life. When I’m in Alaska I’m always just getting by. We’re camping, away from civilization days at a time, trekking or fishing,” he says.
And he returned to Johannesburg, South Africa to the African Leadership Academy, an institution that brings students from all over the African content to study entrepreneurial leadership to create economic growth and have social impact.
His return to the ALA was especially poignant because it was there that Henry originally conceived VitaLives. Each summer, they do an intensive program and invite students from other continents to participate. Now he was there to share what he learned as the founder and CEO of VitaLives.
He’s currently in his senior year, but says he wants to take a year off after school before committing to a regular job. “There are a billion projects I want to get to that I haven’t been able to do the last few years. I’m not always looking for the easiest path,” he says. “My plan is to have no plan.”