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Whole Foods co-founder and ex-CEO John Mackey promoted his book book “Conscious Leadership” through the Authors@Wharton Speaker Series at Penn on Feb. 27 (Photo by Mike Gifford | CC BY-SA 2.0).

Whole Foods co-founder and ex-CEO John Mackey spoke at Penn on Feb. 27 to promote his newest book and discuss his entrepreneurial journey.

Wharton professor and author Adam Grant hosted the event through the Authors@Wharton Speaker Series. Free copies of Mackey’s book, “Conscious Leadership,” were handed out to the first 200 guests to arrive at the event. The talk was followed by a book signing portion.

Mackey, who attended the University of Texas at Austin and Trinity University, never graduated despite studying for six years. Instead of studying business, he pursued majors in philosophy and religion. His expertise in business, he stated, came entirely from books.

“I was just knowledge-hungry,” Mackey said.

In regard to the success of Whole Foods, Mackey said that the number of upfront investments to launch a business was much lower in the 1980s, citing the $45,000 initial capital he received from investors — a figure that is much smaller than what is considered substantial in today’s venture capital landscape, Mackey also noted. 

Instead, Mackey said that his commitment to serving a specific target customer base was what differentiated Whole Foods from its competitors.

“[We were] just a bunch of hippies selling food to other hippies,” Mackey said. “If you look at the pictures of us, we were all under 30, most of us with long hair.”

Around 240 students attended the event. Questions for the talk were sourced directly from the student audience, who were given the opportunity to submit them in the days leading up to the event. 

“I just love that the student turnout was super engaging, and the fact that all the students kind of stormed after to greet him and get his autograph,” Wharton Associate Director of Events Eden Sabala said. “He was really great.”

Audience members enjoyed hearing about Mackey’s journey. 

“This [event] was my favorite [of all Authors@Wharton talks], actually,” Wharton and Engineering sophomore Anjalee Narenthiren said. “Really well-run, really good questions, really good speaker.”

Brian Bridges, a close friend and personal event guest of Mackey’s, added that Mackey’s success can also be attributed to his character.

“He’s a very genuine and honest, grounded person. He really cares about the individual, and I think that’s been one of the keys to his success,” Bridges said. 

Since stepping down from his position as Whole Foods’ CEO in 2022, Mackey has since begun a new food-lifestyle company called Love.Life set to launch in late 2023, Love.Life is founded upon the desire to “inspire and empower people to love life and live well” and aims to become “a one-stop transformative health experience.”

Grant’s next guest through the Authors@Wharton Speaker Series will be on March 22, featuring Ginni Rometty, ex-IBM chairman, president, and CEO.