By Rhonda Moore / #TheReal5150 Advocate & Peer / re-printed with permission via @iamanaddictandaliar.wordpress.com
If I were to step on your toes, I would apologize, make sure you were okay, and then pay closer attention to where I stepped in the future. Carlos Vieira, CEO of 51 Fifty Energy Drink and founder/president of the Carlos Vieira Foundation would say, “Hey, I just walk that way” and expect you to simultaneously discount your pain and bask in his glow.
Going into the meeting, I expected a man with the charisma of George Zimmer, founder of the Men’s Wearhouse and of the “I guarantee it” fame. The proverbial man who could sell ice to Eskimos. I was not disappointed.
But I am getting ahead of myself. We must first learn a bit about the humble sweet potato and what it means to be a poser.
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “poser” to mean a person who acts in an affected manner in order to impress others. The Online Slang Dictionary says it is a person who pretends to be a member of a group that they are not actually a member of.
Carlos relayed his tale of coming to the United States as an infant when his father immigrated to the U.S. from Brazil in search of a better life for his family. His father settled in Livingston, a town in central California’s San Joaquin Valley with a population of less than 10,000. It is there that Carlos grew up for most of his life, working summers and after school on his father’s 20 acre sweet potato farm with his brother and sister.
The average California acre planted in sweet potatoes yielded 36,000 lbs of produce in 2013 and because the skin on a freshly harvested sweet potato is so delicate, it must be extracted from the soil by hand rather than by mechanical equipment. While Carlos worked on the farm, he and his siblings were only six hands among an army of migrant workers scraping a living together by following harvests.
His father did not choose this area at random. His uncle already had a thriving sweet potato farm and packing shed in Livingston. Carlos’ father joined the business upon arriving in the U.S. in 1972. Five years later, Carlos’ father bought A.V. Thomas Produce from his uncle in what would be about $550,000 in today’s dollars. Saving over $100,000 a year is not a reality for a struggling farmer. In 2012, the median household income in Livingston was $43,919. The family arrived with money and Carlos had hit the familial lottery.
At the meeting, Carlos said, “In ’92, I went to college and decided to go into the family farm. My brother wasn’t interested in the company, my sister wasn’t interested in the company and my dad wanted to retire.” This contradicts the A.V .Thomas website on which his father, who is listed as the Owner/President says, “…today my two sons take great responsibility in assisting me run the business.” Carlos’ brother has the title of Vice President Farming Division and Carlos is Vice President Packing and Sales Division. The photograph of Carlos on this website is one of the few pictures available where he is not wearing 51 Fifty apparel. Even on the Our Mission page of the Carlos Vieira Foundation website, Carlos is shown speaking to an audience wearing a 51 Fifty shirt.
Carlos then told us that he worked very hard meeting with customers all over the country until 2007 and he built the company to the point where it was the largest grower, packer and shipper in the country. On IndiaCatalog.com A.V. Thomas Produce is noted as a “California grower” “with 1,700 acres in production.” The posting date is July 15, 2010.
According to the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service, California’s crop of sweet potatoes was half that of North Carolina’s in 2012. In THIS video at 5:23 minutes is an engaging interview with Bobby Ham of Ham Produce Company in North Carolina. The farmer says that he grows 10,000 acres and packs 16,000 acres. This company ships internationally and prides itself on its seedling to market approach.
The 2012 sweet potato crop was 2.65 billion pounds. A.V. Produce produces 100 million pounds according to its website, which is less than 4% of the total crop. Growing up in Livingston may make traveling the country visiting customers seem exotic and I called him “small potatoes” jokingly at the meeting. The evidence that he actually was small potatoes came with additional research post-meeting.
After spinning his history in an immigrant-achieves-American-Dream slant, he told us that in 2007, at the age of 35, “I wanted to do something else that was for me.” He told us he always had a dream about racing cars. Don Coble wrote in The Florida Times Union, “One of the oldest adages in racing is the easiest way to make a small fortune in the sport is to start with a big one.” In Carlos’ own words in a letter he sent to Hotrod.com about his race team, “At that time, I had never even been to a race, but I knew that I wanted to race asphalt and race the type of car like the guys do in NASCAR.” (His bio in this 2011 letter lists his position the same as A.V. Produce’s website–VP, not owner.)
Carlos needed a number for his car and since all of his friends were calling him crazy for pursuing his racing dream, he chose 51 and added Fifty. 5150 refers to the California Code that empowers a police officer to place a person with a mental illness who is a danger to himself, to others, and/or gravely disabled under an involuntary 72-hour psychiatric hold at a behavioral health center. It is also derogatory slang word that implies mentally less-than, violent, and the word a psychiatrist would never use, “crazy.”
Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera, California approached racing teams asking them to raise and donate funds. Carlos’ team raised $3,000. In Hotrod.com, his letter states that in 2008, he held a fundraising dinner that raised $23,000. In our meeting, he said this dinner resulted in $30,000 raised. (Reviewing the Carlos Vieira Foundation’s fundraising activities in 2011, 2012, and 2013 as stated in the IRS 990-EZ filings, similar dinners netted $4,281, $7,677 and $18,548 respectively after expenses.) In the meeting, Carlos told us that he didn’t know what to do with the $30,000. My unspoken question was what types of donors participate in a fundraiser for a yet-to-be-named beneficiary?
Carlos let us know that he had an employee whose son stopped communicating around the age of two or three and she was crying in his office asking him if he knew anyone who could help. He said that a diagnosis of autism was finally made. He then asked her what he should do with the money. She told him that there was an organization in Merced that served local families but had no resources for helping families who had a child with autism. This grew into a Race for Autism campaign resulting in donations to various autism related organizations.
In 2009 he formed the Carlos Vieira Foundation. The foundation’s IRS 990-EZ filings state, “The organization assists those in need by providing funds to local and nationwide non-profit organizations. A specific focus is on organizations that help the community and promote research towards a cure for Autism.” (Emphasis mine.)
Carlos then explained that he wanted to generate more money for the foundation. He thought with racing and their extreme lifestyle, and the way they live, an energy drink would be a good fit. Thus, 51 Fifty Energy Drink and the slogan “Live the Madness” was born. It would promote autism awareness and every time someone buys a can, a portion goes to the foundation. (The IRS 990-EZ filing indicated that in 2013, a total of $9,244 was received from all donors.) He added, that Rockstar and Red Bull are cool, but 51 Fifty gives back. When I pointed out that Rockstar partners with charitable organizations, he replied that his energy drink came after the foundation. “It’s not like we became rich and now we’re giving money.” Yet he was rich enough to participate in a sport that requires a phenomenal amount of cash and he said, “I didn’t need sponsors, I didn’t need the money, I got plenty of money.” Enough to race three weekends a month as indicated in his Hotrod.com letter.
To return to the stepping on toes analogy, in Carlos’ letter to Eve initially requesting the meeting, he wrote, “I am hopeful that if you learn a little more about my company, my history, and our work in the community, you may form a different opinion of our company and our products. At the very least, an opportunity to talk could clear up some misconceptions that may exist.” We gave him ample uninterrupted time to convey his story. Then we told him ours.
We talked about TheReal5150 campaign. We told him that 1 in 4 suffer from a mental illness. We told him that 1 in 17 suffer from a severe mental illness. When a person suffers a cardiac emergency, an ambulance is called. For a mental health crisis, the police are dispatched.
Eve shared her story of the onset of her illness, PTSD with non-epileptic psychogenic seizures that prevented her from being able to speak, unable to walk, unable to care for herself. That is TheReal5150.
I told how I had been handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car, how I was subdued by a psychiatric tech who squeezed my breast so hard it left bruises, how I was assaulted by another patient at a state-run hospital so that I showed up to my capacity hearing with a black eye, how I was unable to be served a restraining order that a judge had issued on behalf of my mother because my whereabouts were so erratic that the process server was unable to locate me, how my mother died before I healed our relationship that my illness had once again damaged. That is TheReal5150.
We shared other stories of how a 5150 hold resulted in the loss of jobs, family support, and social standing to the individuals committed.
While we gave him accolades for his charitable acts, not one time in the meeting did he express concern for our suffering, empathy for our experience, or sympathy that one human being would normally express to another for being afflicted with something totally out of their control. After failing to reach him with our stories, we shifted the focus to probe more deeply into his energy drink company, the foundation, and the relationship between the two.
We began by asking him if he ever sponsored MARS, the horrorcore wrapper whose lyrics are rife with violence toward self and others, especially women. MARS has had to deal with five controversial multiple homicides committed by fans. Without hesitation, both Carlos and the energy drink’s general manager, Samantha, replied ,”No.” I said that MARS indicated that he was a sponsored by 51 Fifty and even had a photo of himself wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask standing in front of cases of product as if he was in the warehouse.
Samantha said, “We have people come by the warehouse all the time, but we’ve never signed an agreement with him.”
After the meeting, Eve found two Facebook screen captures. One is from MARS’ page announcing the sponsorship, the other is from 51 Fifty Energy Drink’s page making a similar announcement. Eve followed up with MARS directly via Facebook messenger and MARS replied that he used to be sponsored by them, that he used to go to their offices all the time, but his extreme lyrics probably put the company off.
I then brought up the recent interview of Kelly Kappmeier, the foundation’s Professional Relations Director, on the cable access show Central Valley Buzz. She said, “51 Fifty is a major sponsor, a platinum sponsor of the Race for Autism.” I pointed out that her phrasing was disingenuous because the two entities are really one in the same. They have the same physical address, the employees of the drink company, including the brand manager, are on the Board of Directors of the Foundation, and Carlos is CEO of the company and President of the Foundation. The entities are essentially two hands on the same body clapping each other on the back to mutual benefit.
Carlos replied that the foundation has other donors and “for all the fundraisers we do” 51 Fifty is paying for all the advertising, paying for the people to be there, anything to pay to promote the fundraisers. In looking at his referral to “all” the fundraisers, in 2011, 2012, and 2013, the IRS 990-EZ filings indicate that in those years there was a total of $18,392, $21,185, and $18,846 net proceeds raised, and this is not considering the additional expenses incurred by the drink company to “market” the events. When I told Carlos that the foundation’s average cost to raise a dollar is $.68 and that CharityWatch.org would grade that as an F in fundraising efficiency, he said, “The language you’re talking, I’m not an accountant, I have someone that does that, I don’t know when you talk about a certain percentage. You’d have to talk to my bookkeeper.” I pressed on telling him that he needed to understand the numbers because that’s how potential donors who were smart with their money would rate his foundation. He could only reply, “All I know is that I’m doing good.”
Then I pressed him for more information about his revenue stream, using 2013 as an example. The IRS 990-EZ filing for that year indicated that the organization derived 64% of its revenue from Program Service Revenue. I asked him pointedly, what service was the foundation providing and who is it benefiting? He replied that he did not know. “All I know is that we throw fundraisers, we raise money, we’re helping families. You’re speaking numbers and it doesn’t change what I’m doing.”
I asked him if he ever thought about having the foundation’s books audited. He demonstrated his complete ignorance of non-profit management by replying, “I think being a non-profit, it’s always audited.” This is simply not the case. In California there is no requirement for a non-profit to have an audit unless gross receipts from private donors are over $2M or grants from the federal government over $500,000. I had reviewed his IRS 990-EZ filings for 2011-2013 and saw no payments to directly to auditors nor in-kind gifts of auditing services. When I told him an audit was not required of his organization due to its size and explained what an audit was, he said, “I think we have an audit here and there. My bookkeeper says we have a foundation audit coming up, we have a 51 Fifty audit coming up. We get audited, I know that.” He didn’t know that, he said what he had to in order to close a sale.
Eve circled the discussion back to the offensive and stigma promoting name and told more stories gleaned from the 51 Fifty campaign.
Carlos told us he appreciated our stories and the company has “done stuff” because of what has developed. He said they are launching a new website and it will not mention anything about the California Code 5150. They are coming out with new cans, removing the definition of 5150. He said they are trying to be sensitive. “We’ve made some changes,” he said. “I just want to share that.”
I changed course once again bringing up the fact that “Race for Autism” is trademarked by the Foundation for Autism Research who sent his foundation a cease and desist letter in 2014 with respect to their use of it and asked for his response. I had already been in touch with the Founder and President of NFAR and knew no response was received to the letter.
Carolos blamed the situation on the attorney filing the paperwork for the trademark. He did indeed apply for the trademark before NFAR, but his attorney failed to follow through and it was registered by someone else. “I did get the email or the letter and I think I responded, but once again, I’m not doing anything wrong, I’m not trying to change anybody. I hope they’re doing good. We’re doing good. I don’t see any reason not to continue.”
Eve again plead the case against the name and asked him if he would consider changing the name and slogan. Carlos replied, “I believe that we all can be greater, we all can be more, and to me, that’s what that expression means. It means make a difference. So that’s who I am. So to change the name, there’s no other name. That’s me, that’s my logo. I’m not in the energy business to be in the energy business. I don’t need money. So change the name? Change the name to what?”
I yam what I yam. Move your toes, this is how I walk.
He changed the subject to bring up another program of the foundation’s, Gloves not Drugs. It’s an after-school boxing program for at-risk youth currently in a few cities, all in gyms named 51 Fifty. He told us he wants to be up and down all California, he wants to spread to other states.
I asked him if he was going to name all the gyms 51 Fifty.
He replied that the brand is a positive brand. He added that they do a good job in the community and they need to do more.
With the scantily clad 51 Fifty girls who are ever present at 51 Fifty events in mind, I asked him exactly how do the 51 Fifty girls promote his good work in the community.
Carlos said, “To gain fans, to gain followers.” He added the non sequitur, “We own our own NASCAR team. We own our own Supercross team. We want people of all ages and we do what we need to do to get that message out there. We do everything with respect. We don’t do it with disrespect to anyone.”
A positive brand? We do it with respect?
Further post-meeting research found a VIDEO produced by the energy drink’s brand manager of the 6th Annual Rock N Ride for Autism event with a musical score by the Moonshine Bandits who are officially sponsored by the 51 Fifty.
Lyrics include such gems as:
“cause I came here tonight to get my rocks off, my crews gonna get the girls to take their tops off”
“I ain’t gonna stop till my face hits the ground”
“girls on the pole, girls in the cage”
“back in high school, I had a bottle in my locker, straight from the cradle I’ve been off my rocker”
Clips in the video include dancing children at the event.
I told him that his company could get away with the name and slogan now because it is a regional company, but if a Coca-Cola came out with a similarly offensive name, it would be yanked faster than you could say “New Coke.” Then I reiterated all our issues with the company: the lack of transparency between the two organizations, the benefit that 51 Fifty gains from marketing its goodness is greater than the benefit received by the community.
I brought up that his recently expanded program to donate $500 per family with children who have autism would only help 90 if his full 2013 autism expense allocation was spent for this purpose. 90 families in 9 counties is not creating an impact for how much it has been promoted.
The meeting ended abruptly at an impasse.
Changing wording on the back of a can that still has a front which means, “Involuntary Psychiatric Hold – Live the Madness” is simply not enough.
This is where the conflict of interest concern rears its ugly head. Carlos is President of the foundation and CEO of the company. He says that 51 Fifty is his identity and there’s no way to change the name. If the energy drink company was truly created to fund the foundation, why does its branding have to be a machine of self-identification?
There is an adage about the joy in doing a kindness anonymously and having it discovered by accident. To see Carlos as the embodiment of the opposite, see the full 1300 word text of his 2011 self-promotion Hotrod.com letter (which coincides with the launch of his energy drink) below: