Kale Was a Garnish Before This Creative Genius Made It Famous. Here's How She Did It — and What She's Planning Next. Oberon Sinclair, "Queen of Kale" and founder of creative agency My Young Auntie, can teach anyone a thing or two about turning passion into success.
Oberon Sinclair, "Queen of Kale" and founder of creative agency My Young Auntie, once had a caller that few ever will: the BBC. We want to follow you around and do a documentary on you. Her immediate response? Oh, God no.
Sinclair's hugely successful guerilla marketing campaign alone is worthy of the screen. But, remarkably, it's just one of many fascinating episodes that have unfolded throughout the 54-year-old's dazzling life and career, which she describes to Entrepreneur as "a series of mad moments" that have taken her from London to Hong Kong, Los Angeles and New York.
"That was probably the coolest place to work in London then, back in the 1920s."
It all began when Sinclair decided she wanted to be a journalist. The London native was enrolled in a government-training course to learn how to type when a career officer (who "literally looked like he worked at a Chase Bank in Manhattan, no offense") told her she needed work experience to complete the program — that wasn't part of the plan, so when he asked her what she was interested in, she just said "music," not thinking much of it.
The call Sinclair received after that would change the trajectory of her life. "He said, in a very serious British voice, 'I've got you an internship at Motown Records.' I thought someone had given me something quite strong. I didn't know what the hell was going on. Thought it was some kind of joke. I showed up for my interview, and it was RCA Records in London in their building."
Sinclair did every job there, from writing press releases and sending out white label records to taking care of the artists, including Stevie Wonder and the Commodores, when they came to town. BMG acquired RCA in 1987, coinciding with the launch of MTV Europe, and in the second of Sinclair's series of serendipitous events, she called MTV up, went in for an interview, and landed herself the position.
"That was probably the coolest place to work in London then, back in the 1920s," she quips. At MTV, Sinclair had a "fancy-pants office," where she produced shows, wrote news stories and worked with "gorgeous, 10-foot-tall Swedish and German DJs," including Kristiane Backer, whom Sinclair is still friends with to this day.
Sinclair jetted off to Hong Kong a year later for her next adventure. She started her own entertainment company from her kitchen (pre-cell phone, she once had to take the Commodores to the Macau Grand Prix on a bus when their car didn't arrive), and even starred in a Chinese soap opera for two years. "I played a young, eccentric mother and drove a polka dot Jeep, and my catchphrase was 'Ding Dong,'" Sinclair says.
"I work with companies and products that are doing interesting things and making a difference in people's lives in some way, shape or form."
Sinclair sold her company "for not a lot of money" and moved to California briefly. She then headed to New York, where she ran nightclub Rebar in the '90s, putting on unsigned bands like Space Hog, and ultimately got a job with Island Records, where she worked in PR and A&R before people began to encourage her to start her own agency — which she did, setting up shop in her kitchen again in 1997. "Kitchens don't get a lot of credit these days," she says.
"I started [my agency] by doing a retrospective in '97 with Jamie Reid, the Sex Pistols artist," Sinclair says, "which was a huge retrospective of all his work and new images of his lithographs. And it did so well that I was called up by Vivienne Westwood, which was completely bonkers because she was my hero. And so I worked with her on her launch, and that went really well."
Eventually, Sinclair met Kate and Andy Spade, with whom she became close friends, and worked with Andy on his men's clothing brand Jack Spade. They launched the brand with the Honest Campaign, dropping wallets around Manhattan and seeing who would return them, which culminated in a self-published mini-book about the experience that was sold in the Jack Spade store.
It was a harbinger of Sinclair's creative endeavors to come, encompassing everything from one of Hermès's biggest campaigns ever to, of course, the legendary kale movement.
"I work with companies and products that are doing interesting things and making a difference in people's lives in some way, shape or form," Sinclair says, "and that keeps me interested and curious and allows me to work on my creative endeavors, whatever they are, if it's painting or somehow bringing my life into it. It's not ever been a job for me. Never."
"It wasn't as premeditated as some people would think — I'm not that orchestrated in my thoughts. I follow my passion."
Sinclair's kale journey began on a trip to France — she had the greens in a salad there. "I said, 'What's this?' and they were like 'Oh, it's kale,'" she recalls.
Records show that kale, or leaf cabbage, has been grown and consumed for nearly 4,000 years. But before Sinclair decided to make kale a star, the vegetable had received little attention in the U.S. In fact, Pizza Hut was reportedly one of the nation's largest kale buyers before 2013; the restaurant chain purchased 14,000 pounds in 2012 for its U.S. locations — using it as a garnish to decorate its salad bars.
Of course, all that changed when inspiration struck Sinclair. "I'm not an expert in the food world," she admits, "but I just figured it was something interesting to put out there." Part of Sinclair's fascination with kale stems from the word "kale" itself — she likes words and how they sound, remarking that the whole endeavor "just seemed something nutty."
"It wasn't as premeditated as some people would think," Sinclair says. "I'm not that orchestrated in my thoughts. I follow my passion."
At the time Sinclair was working with The Fat Radish, a popular restaurant on New York's Lower East Side, and she saw the opportunity to start spreading the word. "We put kale on the menu, and I started placing it [around]. And for me, it was just really fun to try to do this guerilla marketing campaign to see if I could prove it to myself, to see if I could do something that was interesting — and it worked, it just ripple-effected."
Not only did Sinclair place kale on chalkboards and menus across Manhattan, but she also created the American Kale Association to lend even more credibility to the cabbage, complete with popular Facebook and Twitter pages. "I had to do it," Sinclair says, "because I love the word 'association,' and I love associations. I just thought of it. Also, the initials are AKA, so for me it was kind of tongue-in-cheek humor, having fun."
For a while, people believed the American Kale Association was legitimate. But the National Farmers Union, the Fresh Produce Association and other kale farmers denied the existence of an official kale-lobbying group in the U.S., and in 2015, Sinclair admitted to a reporter at Mindbodygreen that she'd made up the organization for the campaign.
Sinclair's creative efforts paid off — incredibly so. It was 2014 when the reality of kale's new superstardom sunk in: Sinclair saw Michelle Obama eating kale chips on Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show and Beyoncé wearing a "kale"-emblazoned sweatshirt in her "7/11" video. "It's ridiculous what's gone on," she says. "I felt I had imposter syndrome. I still do. I'm still like, 'Who did that? Oh, I did.'"
The BBC came calling, and many of Sinclair's friends encouraged her to take full advantage of kale's popularity — to make products and go to Congress. But Sinclair wasn't interested. "That's not my life," she explains, "I don't want that. I want to put something out there and do something good for the world.
"Everyone must think I'm the most confident person," she continues, "but I'm not. It's like when you're a kid and you have your little group of friends and the little things that you do with them and your jokes — I feel like that as an adult. I want that as an adult. I want that with work. I want that with friends. I want that with clients. Because then it's effortless. Anything you do is effortless if you enjoy what you do."
"The old-school boss thing is boring. It's an ego thing that I don't want any part of — I never did."
Sinclair doesn't believe in a separation between work and play — she tackles products and campaigns she's passionate about, and that bring comfort to people. Naturally, that bleeds into the way she runs My Young Auntie, which is celebrating its 25th year in business. And as a partner in NeueHouse, a private work and social space for creators, innovators and thought leaders, Sinclair is well-versed in revolutionizing the typical office experience.
"I don't ever have a clipboard," Sinclair says. "I never send out press releases. It's me talking to someone. I drive [my assistant] mad because I'm like, 'Pick the phone up, call someone.' Because people don't call people anymore. And so it all becomes a bit generic. I like human emotion, sending a letter to someone, writing in an ink pen."
Most of Sinclair's employees have never done PR in the past, and that's very intentional. "I like that approach because I don't want anyone that's too polished or jaded," Sinclair explains. "It always feels fun."
According to Sinclair, the ability to have fun is key to getting quality work done. "My gosh, if everyone just went into a meeting and was honest about how they were and felt and didn't feel so intimidated or judged, everyone would have a lot more fun," she says. "Business should be fun. It should be fun because you do your best work when you're happy."
That also means foregoing a strict nine-to-five schedule: Sinclair says some of her ideas come to her in the middle of the night anyway. "I don't want to feel guilty about not being in the office at nine in the morning," she says. "I don't want to do that. I've never done that. If we have a good day, we leave early. If we need to work late, we work late. The old-school boss thing is boring. It's an ego thing that I don't want any part of — I never did."
"When you are curious about the world, people and life, and about doing something that's out of your comfort zone, it's good."
What's next on Sinclair's agenda? She's set her sights on another product she believes doesn't receive enough mainstream attention: oil.
Sinclair was first introduced to the product when she spent time working in Jamaica, where she admired women's skin and observed them incorporating oil into their skincare routines.
Many women are afraid to use oil on their skin, Sinclair says, because they think it will make them break out. "All these women are doing surgery and using these creams, and cream doesn't really work — but oil does work," she adds.
"About 15 years ago, I started using oil every morning after my shower and before going to bed, putting it all over my body," Sinclair says. "I just turned 54 — no shame in that, I'm not an ageist person — and I've got really good skin because I've used oil."
Sinclair recently started working with United & Free Skincare, an inclusive, vegan, cruelty-free-certified personal care brand founded by brother-sister team Brandon and Kaleena Morrison. The siblings' products include a softening balm and soothing oil.
Ultimately, Sinclair aims to "throw a wrench" into whatever it is she's working on — to do things that haven't been done before.
"People have gotten lazy," Sinclair says. "Fashion's gotten lazy. Design's gotten lazy. Merchandising, shop windows, used to be really fascinating and amazing. I look at everything in the world, from what's painted on the side of a dumpster, to plants or flowers — anything. I'm curious all the time. I'm looking around, up, down, around the corner. I'm interested in people, in their backstories.
"When you are curious about the world, people and life, and about doing something that's out of your comfort zone, it's good — to keep growing and to keep doing," she says.