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A do-gooder meets a dirty capitalist

A "Survivor" contestant turned entrepreneur reflects on 11 years of being a CEO and what still lies ahead.

7 min read


neil gottlieb
iStockPhoto/Illustration by James daSilva

This is the latest in a series called Lead Human, which features interviews and profiles conducted by Elliot Begoun in search of answers to the question “What is it like to be a leader?”

Neal Gottlieb is the founder and CEO of Three Twins ice cream. He started the company in 2005 and has been working ever since to build “The next great American ice cream brand.”

Gottlieb is definitely unique. He’s been a Peace Corps volunteer, run ultra-marathons, hiked Mount Kilimanjaro, driven an ice cream truck across country solo in 93 hours, lives on a houseboat in Sausalito and was a contestant on “Survivor” season 32. 

Yet, what struck me was his quiet, understated demeanor. He’s passionate about his business, about doing what is right for people and the planet. His answers to my questions were both thoughtful and thought-provoking. 

Why do you do what you do?

“I started my career in corporate America. I took a job with the Gap at their corporate headquarters right out of college. I sat in a cubical for 2 1/2 years. While I learned a lot and saved up money, it really wasn’t satisfying my inner do-gooder. So I quit that and went into the Peace Corps, which is a great program but it’s a tough way to make a living,” he said with a slight chuckle. 

“When I came back, I really wanted to combine my inner do-gooder and my dirty capitalist and start something. I wanted to start something that if I did well I’d feel really good about. I wanted to start a company that would be celebrated, not protested.“

Photo provided by Neal Gottlieb

What did being on “Survivor” teach you about being a CEO?

“It is really tough out there in a way that the cameras don’t capture. They can’t capture what it’s like to be that hungry yet have to perform physical challenges, have to catch food, get firewood. You feel like you’re just melting away, burning your energy reserves and trying to still compete.”

He went on to share: “I loved it. As miserable as I was, I loved it and I felt like I did really thrive. I think it showed me that this journey that I’ve decided to go down has skills that apply outside of the walls of the office. I think that I am stronger, better, and a more prepared person in general than I was 11 years ago.” 

I asked him how it changed the way his team viewed him. Gottlieb laughed and said, “Well, they’ve all seen me in my underwear now. I showed them that the person I am at work is the same person I am when I am stressed, hungry and sleep deprived on a boiling island off of Cambodia. That I am a person that embraces life, is relatively nice to people, is kind and honest and hardworking.”

What keeps you up at night?

“One of the things you learn as an entrepreneur is to live with the stress and live with the challenges. The only thing that keeps me up right now, or in the past weeks, is not the election, it’s not the stressors of the job, it’s sitting on red eyes going to sales meetings or being jet-lagged because I went to Nepal. But, I sleep pretty well most of the time, even when things do get stressful. I do think about it a lot, 24/7.”

How would you define social entrepreneurship?

“It means being a responsible citizen and making the right choices, which aren’t necessarily the best short-term financial ones. Making decisions based on people and planet. That’s why we really embrace going with an all-organic product. Because, you can’t argue that it’s the wrong thing to do. You can’t successfully argue, at least, that we should be using genetically modified ingredients or should have high-fructose corn syrup or have artificial colors or flavors in our product.”

“You can’t argue that we’ve had a lot of positive impact on the world, from thinking about the millions of pounds of organic produce that we cause to be produced each year or the thousands of acres of land we protect through our land conservation initiative.”

How do you deal with the unknowns?

“That’s a funny thing. Someone said, if you’re going to start a business, you better basically know everything or know nothing. If you know you know nothing, you’re going to be scared, and it’s not going to work well. I think it is something that you learn early on, that there is going to be a nonstop flow of unknowns. But, if you’ve done your homework and you’ve surrounded yourself with the resources to respond to those unknowns, to deal with the unknowns, you’ll figure it out, you’ll respond, you’ll get it done, and you won’t feel overwhelmed.”

As we discussed this a little more, he added, “I’ve been doing this for 11 years. So, I feel like I can do this. Yeah, it’s stressful at times and it has its challenges, but you know what? I can actually do it, I’m OK at this job.”

What are some of the surprising burdens of leadership?

“I think the biggest thing is that you’re never not in a leadership position. Even if you are just sitting quietly in a meeting. You’re still the founder, you’re still the CEO. You’re still the person that is supposed to know more about what is going on than anybody else. People are still looking to you even if there are people better prepared to make a decision in those instances. So, you counter that by soliciting the opinions of those who come with the important knowledge behind them.”

“People just assume that I am this big extrovert, but I definitely have introverted tendencies. Sometimes you just want to be there and not be noticed.”

What would your current self, tell your former self?

“Oh geez,” he said, laughing. “Part of me would say stay in that cubical, it’s a lot safer. I would probably tell myself not to be overly optimistic. Most entrepreneurs start thinking that they are going to do it faster and better than just about anybody else. That they’re going to get rich quick. That they’re going to move on to the next thing and have book deals and speaking deals. It doesn’t really work like that.”

As we explored this question further, he said that he would tell his former self, “Be patient. No matter how pure your intentions, you’re still competing in the greater business world. You’re still going to have people who are out to slit your throat or take your money. They don’t care that you have a heart of gold.”

He finished by adding, “I’d say do it. Go forward and have fun and do your part to change the world.”


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Elliot Begoun is the Principal of The Intertwine Group. His articles appear in publications such as the Huffington Post, SmartBrief, and Business2Community. He serves as a thinking partner, collaboratively working with organizations, leaders, and their teams to deliver clear and impactful communication allowing smarter decisions to be made faster, improving focus and accountability, and most importantly, helping clients grow.

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