Ayeshah Abuelhiga: “Women have a magic ability to inspire”

An Interview With Phil La Duke Women have a magic ability to inspire. I think it stems from our propensity to bear children and be reared by our mothers. All people are taught to listen to their mother and in some form, we all look up to them. People feel less threatened by women and have […]

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An Interview With Phil La Duke

Women have a magic ability to inspire. I think it stems from our propensity to bear children and be reared by our mothers. All people are taught to listen to their mother and in some form, we all look up to them. People feel less threatened by women and have deeper trust relationships with them. Look for ways to use your female power to inspire — whether it’s leading by example, doing something that is “below your pay grade”, mentorship — you name it. Do something that forces your team to look at you in a different way than just a boss — humanize yourself, make yourself relatable and available. This is the power that women have and can harness better than men can because of that safety women bring to the table.


As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ayeshah Abuelhiga.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga is the founder and CEO of Mason Dixie Foods, the only ready-to-bake clean-label frozen biscuit, rolls and scones brand in the country, and a member of the Spring 2019 class of the Chobani Incubator program.

Growing up in the kitchen of her parents’ soul-food carry-out restaurant, Ayeshah has long been passionate about comfort food, which inspired her to found Mason Dixie Biscuit Co., as a biscuit-centric restaurant focused on affordable, clean-ingredient comfort food. Upon identifying a gap in the 1.3B dollars frozen biscuit category, she expanded her business with her partner and COO Ross Perkins to a clean-label ready-to-bake line of frozen biscuits that can be found at over 5,000 grocery stores across the U.S.

Ayeshah previously held management positions at Fortune 500 companies including Toshiba and Audi. She is a graduate of George Washington University and resides in Baltimore, Maryland.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in Baltimore, in the kitchen of my immigrant parents’ soul-food carry out restaurant and convenience store, that’s where my passion for comfort food started. I thought it was so cool to see people from all walks of life — businessmen, construction workers, all kinds of people — enjoying this food without pause. It was food I craved even as I was coming of age in college, but I could never find homestyle, scratch-made comfort food, only fast food equivalents. But being a first-generation American, a restaurant was not where my parents wanted me to spend the rest of my life.

I was the first member of my family to attend college and since my parents didn’t make a lot of money, I had to work to pay for school, so I worked in restaurants throughout my years at George Washington University. It’s where I learned the value of a hard-earned dollar, and that there was a lot of room for modernization in the industry, and ultimately, I knew one day, I wanted to own a restaurant.

I went on to hold positions in male-dominated industries, like tech and auto and climbed the corporate ladder quickly, and in less than 14 years, I was an upper-level manager who was unfulfilled and had another 20 years to go before I could go after the only female C-level role that I didn’t even want. I was disenchanted and uninspired.

So, I decided it was time to start my dream of owning a restaurant. While I was still working full time to fund my dream, I founded Mason Dixie. I saw a huge opportunity in the lack of comfort food options available in the growing, better-for-you food space, and an even bigger opportunity making biscuits the focal point since there were no real, scratch-made biscuits on the market.

It was the last thing my parents wanted me to do, knowing how hard they had to work, but it was in my bones to do this, and it was my dream and not me helping someone else achieve their dream. That’s what I wanted most.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Our whole story is based on serendipity so it’s hard to isolate just one! I would have to say it’s the start of the whole CPG business — that was a happy accident.

After I launched the brand on Kickstarter, to gain market insight and see what people thought of biscuits in a time where Mediterranean and salads were on-trend, I took to the streets to see what the local market would think about the brand. I organized the first pop-up DC had ever experienced and had lines wrapped around 4 city blocks in an up and coming neighborhood all weekend. It led to our first temporary pop-up in a food hall in DC. It was only 80 square feet with no prep space so we would run out of food daily before noon because we couldn’t prep and transport enough.

A couple of months in, some disgruntled customers and loyal customers kept telling me I should sell the dough so they could just bake it at home instead of waiting in line for baked biscuits. Some even said they wish they knew what the biscuits tasted like fresh out of the oven since we didn’t even have an oven onsite. Against the advice of my pastry chef at the time, I froze some of the pucks he had made and came back the next day to bake them off. They turned out even better than the fresh dough! So, I ran to Bed Bath and Beyond, bought a 100 dollars Foodsaver vacuum sealer, and started freezing sheets of biscuits and sealing these biscuits off at 1:00 AM since I was still working full time.

The day after, I drove a big Igloo ice chest to the stall, filled it with the frozen biscuits — mind you they had no instructions, just black marker with the flavor and the chef verbally telling volunteers baking instructions. Two hours later, my chef calls to ask if we have any more biscuits in the kitchen. I said I don’t know I’m already at work — we had sold out of all the frozen biscuits by 9:00 AM!

Fast forward two months, we got secret-shopped by the Regional Marketing Director at Whole Foods who had bought a bunch weeks before. She told me I had to bring all the samples I could and show up to headquarters. I didn’t even know Whole Foods had a headquarters, but I did it. She wanted to put the biscuits on display as they were so mortified, I told her to give me a few months and I would get it right.

Nine months later, the day before Thanksgiving, I showed up to our first Whole Foods store with 150 beautiful black boxes and a table full of baked biscuits to demo and within 3 hours we sold out of all the biscuits — beating butter and milk sales that day. That’s the day it became real that we were no longer just a restaurant — we were going to be a product company too.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake was when I thought I was going to be Willy Wonka and open a biscuit factory in just a few months! It was actually one of the best mistakes I ever made.

When we sold into Whole Foods our growth was so fast that we were getting requests for products everywhere. Naively, my business partner Ross Perkins and I decided to go after more accounts — particularly in the South because if these biscuits couldn’t sell down there, then we should just call this a good swag item and not further invest. Well, we got both Publix and Kroger to buy our biscuits and were going to go from 100 stores to 1,000 stores in just under 9 months. With no idea how to do this, Ross and I leased a drive-thru restaurant with a huge parking lot in the middle of nowhere so we could make pallets of biscuits and store them in a portable trailer freezer on the lot.

We kept doing this for months and transporting the pallets, but the demand kept growing locally, so we couldn’t even keep the inventory we had reserved for the new accounts. I thought we needed to build a bakery! A frozen dough bakery! In the middle of DC! I spent a ton of money on fully engineered plans for this biscuit factory that was also going to have our restaurant attached for the full Ghirardelli experience until we were about to pull the trigger on this huge spiral freezer. Turns out the freezer requires either ammonia or freon — which in DC — are banned in the quantities we needed to fuel this machine. So, we were dead in the water — and I had to pivot to find a way to make biscuits within 4 months.

I say it was the best mistake I ever made because I ended up being fluent in frozen biscuit production — I knew exactly the equipment I needed, the process, the cost of things — so when I went on the hunt for the facility that would ultimately make our biscuits, I knew everything I needed to know to make the search easy. Because I failed at building a factory, I succeeded in finding the best co-manufacturer out there for our biscuits — and that is what ultimately allowed us to scale and has brought us to where we are today.

OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of Founder & CEO that most attracted you to it?

When I was little, I was raised in public housing, so I was surrounded by both hard-working, blue-collar families, or women who were full-time stay-at-home moms. The only women I knew who worked a “successful” job were nurses or my teachers. I never encountered a woman in business, so as a little girl, I didn’t even know I was capable of being a businesswoman. My parents being immigrants wanted me to be the stereotypical doctor or lawyer because those were the only advanced positions for women that they knew.

When I did grow up and go to college and meet, for the first time ever, women in powerful positions, I was hooked. I wanted to be one of those women and set a different course for myself beyond even what my parents’ limited perspective and my community could show me. When I started this company, it didn’t even feel real to call myself a CEO yet because, in my mind, that title holds so much more power than just “that lady that owns the company” — working in the business for the last 15 years, I saw what a real CEO did. They were a protector, they were the cardholder, the influencer, the master planner. Those are what I wanted to achieve and just owning my business didn’t award me the privilege just yet of feeling what being a CEO was.

It wasn’t until I was able to raise for the CPG business that I felt truly accountable to myself and our stakeholders. It was the first time I felt the gravity and weight of being in a CEO’s shoes — I felt like I was finally the protector, the cardholder, the influencer, and ultimately the master planner. That was the first time I felt like I accomplished my dream — because I could feel the levity behind the fact that I dreamt something, I made it a reality, I made people believe in it, and now I have to protect it.

And It’s not about power for me — it’s about ownership, control of my own destiny, true accomplishment, and changing the course of my future and hopefully the future of the next little first-generation American girl whose mom and dad said to be a doctor.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Great leaders within business organizations for the most part are siloed leaders who have to be focused and really good at what they do specifically so that that piece of the business runs perfectly.

A CEO has to be a systemic thinker — they have to know enough to be dangerous about everything and have to constantly retool themselves to be forward-thinking, to push the focused thinkers in directions they may not be comfortable or familiar with, or to find the people that can assist with the forward momentum.

I was also told that a good CEO knows how to surround themselves with the best people they can to make the company better. I think that the best CEOs not only hire the best people, but they also nourish them to become even better.

As a CEO, it is my job to not only lead my employees but also to share my knowledge and perspective of the business and challenge my employees to make Mason Dixie Foods the best it can be. Along the way, it is important for me to share my past experiences and the challenges I’ve faced to inspire greatness. I want all of my employees to feel like they are part of something, part of the Mason Dixie legacy, and I want them to feel like they are always growing as people.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

There’s an awesome chemistry that happens when you build a team to help grow and protect a business. Leading that team and watching them come up with new ideas and ways to save money, move faster, innovate like never before — all because they believe in the brand, the vision — that is one of the best feelings. The thought that you can motivate people to wake up every day to work at a place to help build your dream while loving it, is like magic. And seeing them execute their versions of your dream and watching it become a reality — there is no better feeling on earth than knowing their happiness, position in the world, and financial success is stemming from a dream you had once upon a time. It’s magic.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

It’s hard to balance work and life. To me they are not separate — I wear the weight that dozens of people’s lives are dependent on me, just as much as my family. It is hard to make time for myself, my family and friends at times, because I over rationalize that if I don’t do what I need to for the business, more people are at stake than if I miss a movie. It’s not always so black and white, but I also am doing what I love and at times, reviewing website copy or analyzing our pricing model over and over, is enjoyable to me because it’s making that dream a reality.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

Well…

  1. That we get paid more than anyone in the company. NOT TRUE! Most of my employees get paid more than I do. A lot more.
  2. That a CEO just strategizes — doesn’t contribute to “worker bee” tasks. That is the furthest thing from the truth. I spend a lot of time doing the nitty-gritty work so I can understand it, put myself in my employees’ shoes, so I can better understand what resources it takes to do the job beyond what I think so I can help grow the business smartly. Don’t forget, I too was covered in flour and butter grease for most of my trajectory.
  3. That we have it all figured out. Every CEO is faking it until they make it to some degree. It’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of “on the spot” problem solving, and a lot of listening and pulling out nuggets that hopefully lead to some kind of truth. Applying lessons learned, employing a lot of people who are smarter than you, and a lot of overthinking help us, but there isn’t always a plan for everything and we of all people know that.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

As a female and minority, we are still being judged by different criteria than our male counterparts. There’s definitely a glass floor — I have felt it. Getting asked “what would you do if something goes wrong,” proving myself over and over again while watching male counterparts get asked, “what will you do with all your success” and seeing their crazy unthought out ideas get implemented without a second thought. I’ve been shot down for higher ranking management roles for a male instead. An inherent distrust for women in the workplace still exists, particularly minority women, and it creates an environment where women have to be louder, more practiced, more “I’ve thought of everything” than men.

Working alongside firecracker female businesswomen throughout my career, I’ve learned the importance of speaking up. Every day, I strive to be part of changing this narrative.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Quite frankly, if you asked me 10 years ago, I thought I would be heading up a company that was not mine. My real dream was to be a CEO at a Fortune 500 with its power suits, power magazines, and power plays. I quickly realized I didn’t want to execute someone else’s vision or clean up the last guy’s mess and take the fall girl position. I wanted to build from the ground up.

Fast forward to today, I would have NEVER imagined what it took to get to be the CEO of my own company! I only knew what it looked like to get hired into the role — to take over the desk, set forth the vision, report to shareholders, do the publicity stunts, etc. To start from the ground up, being in the kitchen, behind the register, doing demos, then hiring people, doing business plans, pitching to investors, and now doing everything from executing innovation plans, managing sales targets, hiring, even choosing the paint color in the office — it’s not as linear or scripted of a position as I originally thought. But I wouldn’t change a thing.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

  1. The ability to take constructive criticism. I cannot tell you how many companies I have worked with, startups, in particular, that had executive leadership with no ability to take constructive feedback. Ultimately, they fail and lead a group of people to fail with them. It’s important to not focus on criticism being negative but being a way to grow.
  2. The ability to listen. Listening to stakeholders, employees, customers — if you cannot listen and take away some nugget of truth, you are missing huge opportunities for improvement.
  3. The ability to “on the spot” problem solve. Every day something goes wrong and as a person in a leadership role, you have to be agile and offer solutions, not just say “it’s your job, figure it out.” In the end, there is no incentive for any points of failure in the organization, and it’s the job of the CEO to ensure that doesn’t happen.
  4. The realization that it’s not all about building this start-up culture. Some CEOs, particularly startup CEOs, are in it for the “glam” — the opportunity to be invited to the party, come up with the company culture and think up forced cultural activities to stimulate loyalty among the brand. It’s the wrong reason for wanting to be a CEO. It’s one thing to incite a culture so your employees understand your values, it’s another to force people to do themed virtual happy hours so you can feel innovative.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Women have a magic ability to inspire. I think it stems from our propensity to bear children and be reared by our mothers. All people are taught to listen to their mother and in some form, we all look up to them. People feel less threatened by women and have deeper trust relationships with them. Look for ways to use your female power to inspire — whether it’s leading by example, doing something that is “below your pay grade”, mentorship — you name it. Do something that forces your team to look at you in a different way than just a boss — humanize yourself, make yourself relatable and available. This is the power that women have and can harness better than men can because of that safety women bring to the table.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I would not be here without the mentorship and friendship of the first female executive I ever met. When I fanaticized about meeting a businesswoman, I had this caricature in my mind of a blonde woman in a red business suit. At my first job out of college, I worked in the marketing department and had to put together a proposal with some subcontractors. On the first day of the proposal, in walks this blonde woman in a red power suit. It was like my dream had come true. Her name was Cynthia Fondriest — she cursed like a sailor (as do I), she took control of the room, had magnetic energy, and an innate ability for you to think everything was under control when the house was burning down. She could sell sand to the desert, but she was the warmest, most generous person I had ever met. She took me under her wing, told me I reminded her of herself at my age and asked me if I ever considered owning my own business. She helped me understand what it took to start one, how to grow one, and ultimately the sacrifices it would take to be a female executive. She passed away from ALS a few years ago, but I never stop thinking of her and credit a lot of who I am now as an executive to her leadership and mentorship.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Mason Dixie Foods is proud to be a woman-owned and loved business. We are unintentionally minority-run, and our team is representative of nearly every ethnicity and walk of life not limited to LGBTQ, to women, people of color, immigrants, second-chancers, and younger-than-they-should-bes. We believe people lead people and are committed to supporting the advancement of people and causes near and dear to them, and one biscuit at a time we are paving the way for others to change the way America does business.

We have donated resources, people, time, money to a variety of causes, from youth LGBTQ homelessness to supporting young girls in entrepreneurship, to preventing child hunger. We are always looking for opportunities to leverage our success to give back.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Learn about venture capital and investing before you start — It’s way more complicated, personal, and nuanced than anyone tells you. I did my best to read and research but only as I was hearing no’s during our initial raises. I even did a killer pitch where every investor in the room asked for follow up discussions. But sometimes it’s not just about your business track record. Sometimes it’s about money on the table or how much more money is needed and it’s hard to stomach when you think everything else is A+ and you still can’t close the deal.
  2. Being smart or having it all planned out doesn’t mean people will listen. I pitched biscuits to so many people who were like oh yeah, right, bless your heart. No one really believed it could be big, but they were supportive. Then it happened — and we did grow and get big. Then all of a sudden people listened. The same applied to investors and employees — at the start, it was hard to get top talent because no one wanted to see the promise in what I had shown them. Then I realized I have to rally them, and they need to be the evangelists, not me; that’s when I won them over.
  3. Though it’s hard to stomach when you spend your whole life embracing being different, sometimes you have to sit at the jock table to get ahead. I’ve never been the type to be around or embrace “group think” and it probably has shaped who we are as a company as a result, but if you want to be successful, you do have to get in the same room with the people you would never mingle with or the people you try not to be. I had conversations with many a starched white shirt — people I have never been comfortable around growing up or wanted to assimilate with. But when I got the courage to do it and realized it’s not about fitting in, it’s about standing out in that room of like-minded, like-interest people, I realized I owned the room and that they were there to hear from me and not vice versa. It was incredibly daunting, but in the end, incredibly empowering and helped me shape my financial strategy moving forward.
  4. Leadership doesn’t always mean being followed; leadership also means following. When I grew up, I was always told to be a leader, not a follower, never admit your weaknesses, tell the world you’re the best and prove it. The reality is, it could come off as arrogant, it could translate into people thinking you are cold or unapproachable or too strong-willed and stubborn. The reality was, I wasn’t any of those things, I was just doing it because my dad told me to do that to be strong. When I realized that there is strength in following good leaders, in learning from those who have attributes you do not, and in adapting behaviors that other leaders have, I was able to grow my teams and their trust a lot faster than just being the smartest and most confident person in the room.
  5. Not everyone is capable of change. I spent a lot of time in our foundational period trying to help and mentor special people on our team who I thought showed promise and had specific skills that were valuable but lacked in other areas. I invested a lot of time, resources, and emotion in trying to help these people change to be more suited to what I needed them to be and what I thought they could be. The reality is, not everyone is capable of change, and not everyone actually wants it. Hunger and thirst for advancement show themselves early — fostering those that have it is important but forcing it on those that don’t doesn’t always lead to results.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

As a company, we continue to look for ways to get better for you food in the mouths of as many people as possible, regardless of income status. As we continue to grow, we want to continue to push for food equality and nutritional education among the economically disadvantaged.

I am a firm believer in the mantra ‘you are what you eat’ and that I got where I am today because I had a balanced lunch as a kid, while children I knew growing up in public housing who ate out of vending machines or had to compromise and stay hungry fell into the cycle of disenfranchisement. There is no excuse for hunger today and equally no excuse for those that are hungry to suffer from poor nourishment or lack of food nutrition education. No one should have to accept eating poorly or not eating at all. Access to food education and quality food should be a right.

I want to change that paradigm and hopefully, in the coming year, we will be making some exciting announcements around how Mason Dixie will be taking that challenge head-on.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

When I took a job in LA, I worked with an engineer named Pastor Casanova, yes that was his real name. He was struggling to get his wife from Mexico to the US and kept hitting barrier after barrier and one day while recounting his trials and tribulations, he turned around, perked up and said “but you know, I asked myself, what have you ever failed at that you tried your absolute hardest? And when I think about that, I can’t think of a single time when I put my all into something where I didn’t succeed, so I know if I keep trying, this will happen.” He would get her to the States. And he did.

I don’t think he ever knew how impactful that quote would be to me and my life. For every scenario I encountered what could have been a failure, I realized if I didn’t stop trying and if I continued to persevere and stop putting a period at the end of the task, that I would ultimately succeed. It’s been the driving statement that through every bad turning point in the path to getting Mason Dixie where it is today, I think of Pastor’s quote and I find a way to persevere. It is 100% effective.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

Sandy Lerner –- I found her story of founding Cisco, being ousted, and turning what could have been a miserable end into a successful business at Urban Decay, incredibly inspiring. She did what women are told not to do, became what many women couldn’t be and yet she persevered. I admire her history and path and would love to meet her in person and really understand some of the stories she has described in real life.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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