A SCHOLAR & ENTREPRENEUR

James May began his entrepreneurial journey at six years old selling cantaloupes door to door in downtown Phoenix with a local farmer. Eventually May convinced the farmer to let him sell the cantaloupes himself. May wanted to make more money, so he hired his young friends to help him sell; paying them each a commission on the number of fruit sold.

After high school, May enrolled at Phoenix College (PC) to pursue a career in the medical field, and continued his studies at Brigham Young University. After college, May joined the National Guard. He became an instructor at Fort Huachuca and played baritone horn in the National Guard Band, as he had at BYU and Phoenix College. 

In 1966, May helped establish the Renal Dialysis and Transplant Program at Good Samaritan Hospital. Within a few years he became the first Executive Director of the Arizona Kidney Foundation. Later, May would serve as personal consultant to the Health and Human Services program for End Stage Renal Disease Bureau in Washington, DC.

A SWEET DISCOVERY

In 1979, May established private dialysis centers; three in Arizona and one in Louisiana, as President of the Arizona Dialysis Services Corporation. Three years later, while visiting a friend, May met a young man who had been serving in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and returned with a sweet herb from the rain forest. 

The man claimed that the Guarani Indians of Paraguay used the sweet herb to make a tea that could cure the flu. May was suspicious, and considered herbal medicine akin to quackery. His friend, and the young Peace Corps volunteer, tried to convince May to taste the herb. After many objections, May put the leaf in his mouth. To his surprise, the herb had a pleasant sweet taste…which increased in intensity and sweetness the longer he held in his mouth.  “That was my introduction to the stevia leaf” says May. “Although I did not know it at that moment, my life and destiny changed forever”.

James May gave the Peace Corps volunteer his life’s savings to return to Paraguay and send stevia leaves to the U.S. so that May could research the plants medicinal and nutritional values. After conducting initial research, and with his interest piqued even more, May traveled to Paraguay to learn more about the stevia plant first-hand.

When May returned from Paraguay he was convinced that the herb had huge potential as a natural sweetener.

A TASTY BUSINESS IDEA

In 1983, May established a company in Paraguay to collect the plant and a company in the United States to package and market stevia as a natural sweetener – and sugar alternative. James May and his wife Carol founded Wisdom Natural Brands, headquartered in Gilbert, Arizona. Together with their son Michael, the May family markets and sells SweetLeaf Stevia, a zero calorie, zero carbohydrate – sweetener, along with a number of herbal teas and nutritional supplements.

May was integral in helping lift the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban on importing stevia. May’s brand, SweetLeaf, was the first stevia product to receive GRAS (“Generally Recognized as Safe”) status from the FDA in 2008.

May has recently written an autobiography entitled Miracles, Dreams and Visions, The Life Story of James Allen May, Sr., which includes a chapter about his time at PC, as well as additional details of the adventures that lead him to make his very sweet discovery. A copy of May’s book will be available at PC’s Fannin Library in early 2017. If you would like more information about Phoenix College alumni, please call 602-285-7652.  

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