Building Brands to Believe In

Jon Sebastiani ’92 sees entrepreneurship as an opportunity for storytelling.

Building Brands to Believe In
From SCU role models, Jon Sebastiani says he learned the importance of caring for the team. Photo by Jim Gensheimer.

Guayaki is one of those drinks you know by sight but maybe not by name, Jon Sebastiani ’92 says. The yellow-labeled Yerba Mate energy drink has been a healthy, low-sugar competitor to drinks like Red Bull and Rockstar since 1996.

“When you look at how they grow their holly tree, they have satellite imagery tracking their reforestation efforts in South America,” Sebastiani says of Guayaki, one of the 14 companies he helps through Sonoma Brands. “Over a decade, we’ve reforested 150,000 acres. We pay fair wages. Over the last three years, we shifted from gasoline-powered semi-trucks to the largest fleet of Chevy Volts in America. We’re hiring formerly incarcerated men, giving them a second chance.

“This company is real.”

Sebastiani is doing exactly what he wants professionally. After selling his beef jerky company Krave to Hershey for $240 million, he founded Sonoma Brands and has worked as a food venture capitalist, finding companies that produce healthy and sustainable products and helping them thrive financially.

“It’s allowed me to financially gain security and really begin to pursue what I’m genuinely deeply interested in,” he says.

Sebastiani grew up surrounded by the aura of hospitality. Part of the Sebastiani wine family, which at the time owned one of the three largest wineries in the country, he saw his family host guests seven days a week in their ranch home. The entire home was laid out for the perfect experience for guests.

“In the wine business, you’re storytellers and romantic story tellers,” Sebastiani says.

He also learned about hard work and entrepreneurship. At age 10, Sebastiani spent six hours a day working in the vineyards and would scoop up little bottles of red soil to sell to tourists for $1.50, a Silicon Valley nod to the pet rock.

In the 1980s, Jon’s father went in to business on his own starting Viansa Winery. With differentiation hard to come by in wine, he shifted the business to a destination vineyard rather than a production facility. 

After graduating from SCU, Sebastiani joined Viansa and, by age 24, was president. By 2005, Sebastiani helped sell the company and decided to move out of wine. When training for a marathon, he found himself searching for a healthy, low carb high protein food. That’s where he found jerky. 

“You have a $35 billion wine industry in America with 14,000 wineries. Compare that to a $5 billion jerky space but three players with an 85% market share,” Sebastiani says. “I thought to myself, I can go beat these guys.”

And he did. Krave was no gas station impulse buy, but a gluten-free, all-natural high protein training fuel. It also created a new playbook for Sebastiani: making foods that are better for you and the world. 

Brands like True Botanicals offers environmentally conscious products with no toxins and no chemicals. All 35 products are guaranteed safe. Or Milk Bar, founded by Netflix star Christina Tosi, which creates healthier versions of desserts.

“I’m not a food chemist. I’m not a scientist. I’m just a business person,” Sebastiani says. “So my perspective on entrepreneurship is as a domain expert. How do you take an idea, turn it into a product, take that product, and make a difference in the world?”

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