Problem-Solving Skills. Every day will bring a new “issue” when you start and run a business. A female founder must have the ability to problem-solve and know when to ask for help when the problem is not something you cannot solve on your own.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leslie Polizzotto. Leslie is the co-founder and owner of The Doughnut Project, a hand-crafted gourmet doughnut shop in the West Village of Manhattan. She is a former litigation attorney who took the leap to create one of the leading doughnut brands in the United States. The shop takes inspiration from food and cocktails for their doughnut flavors and is sought after by national and international brands to do collaborations and custom doughnuts.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Owning and running a doughnut shop is actually my 3rd career! I started out working for a global construction management company for 18 years straight out of high school. I then went to college at UCLA, and then studied law at Pepperdine School of Law graduating in 2008. I worked as a litigator for a big firm for 4 years before moving to NYC. I had intended to practice law in NYC, but the firm I was working for in Los Angeles did not have an associate position for me at the time in their NYC office, so I had the opportunity to explore other options. I am a total foodie and wanted to be in the business somehow. On one of the many trips my husband and I would take to NYC before we moved to the city, I met my former business partner. He was a bartender and told me he wanted to open a doughnut shop. I pulled out my I-phone and showed him pictures of doughnuts that would make me so happy when someone would bring them to the office. Once I had time to reflect, I decided to help him make the doughnut shop a reality. We wrote a business plan, raised capital (in addition to our own) from friends and family and opened The Doughnut Project in October of 2015.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I got to film a television show with comedians Jim Gaffigan and Tom Papa for Tom’s show Baked on the Food Network. They visited our shop to try our doughnuts and Tom worked in the kitchen with us to make doughnuts. Needless to say, it was a lot of laughs.
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?
We received a lot of press about our unique doughnuts when we were about6 months old. We were invited to do a Sirius XM Radio show to discuss our brand and doughnuts. We were specifically asked to bring doughnuts for the hosts to taste and discuss. We were so excited about the opportunity. As soon as I touched the door handle to enter the building where SiriusXM is located in Manhattan, I realized I did not bring any doughnuts. I am totally panicked! I called the shop and had employees bring us doughnuts, but we had to wait in the lobby until they arrived. It wasn’t the end of the world, but it was embarrassing to keep people waiting. Because of that mistake, I always make a list of everything needed when going to an event, delivery, etc. “Doughnuts” are the first thing on the list!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My husband Gino has always been extremely supportive of me and my goals. He was the person who encouraged me to continue my education. He encouraged me to take the risk to leave practicing law to become an entrepreneur. Not many husbands would encourage their spouse to leave a six-figure salary to not take one for a year. He is a successful business owner and knew I would be good at running my own business.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I think a lot of women lack the confidence to take on such a big endeavor. Most people probably do not know how you even start a business and that you first must start with registering a corporate structure (Corp., LLC, etc.), obtaining an EIN number, setting up a bank account. Even though I had a corporate and legal background, I still went through many stages of “imposter syndrome,” but just kept moving forward with making the business a reality. Once I start working towards a goal…I do not stop until I achieve the goal no matter how scary and difficult it is.
I also believe that many women are major financial supporters of their families and cannot take the risk of starting a business. That is probably why “side-hustles” are becoming more and more prominent because it allows female entrepreneurs to work a job to make money while they try to get a business off the ground.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Regarding the government, I believe there should be practical curriculum in public schools that teaches everyone how to start and run a business. It could cover everything from writing a business plan, to raising capital, to how payroll and accounts payable work. I believe this would provide a foundation of knowledge and therefore more confidence for women to believe they can start a business.
Regarding individuals, it is up to female founders to mentor younger females, especially those in their early twenties, to give guidance on becoming a founder. I just did a podcast for young females where I discussed that every job you have is an education that you take with you. Once you are ready to start a business, you will have all of that experience in your back pocket.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
I believe that women make excellent founders because we are used to having many roles in life (caretaker, employee, mother, partner, daughter, friend). When starting a business, you sometimes wear a lot of hats in order to get things done. I believe women are naturally great at multi-tasking, organizing, and at simply getting things done.
Another reason women should become founders is that I believe women make great leaders and are natural mentors. Any boss that has made a significant impact on me has been female. When I was very young starting my first career, my female supervisor took me under her wing and guided me through my early twenties when all I cared about was having fun. I grew professionally and as a person. I rose up the ranks at the company and it was all because she was an inspirational leader and wonderful mentor. Thank you Teena Hester!
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is that your business will be successful if you work hard. I worked extremely hard on my business, but there were factors that made the business fragile until lessons were learned. For example, more locations and more employees do not make your business a success. It took a long time to figure out where changes needed to be made to the structure of the business in order to make the business profitable. My business did not start seeing profits until year 4 when I changed our business model.
Another myth is that you personally become wealthy quickly. I did not take a salary for over a year. I now pay myself a fair wage but could easily pay myself more. I choose to keep the funds in the business.
Another myth to dispel is that businesses that receive a lot of outside funding are always successful. I used to deliver doughnuts to many WeWork offices that were full of businesses that were well funded, but never actually were viable businesses.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
I do not believe everyone is cut out to be a founder. And that is OK! Owning your own business is not a 9–5 job. It becomes integrated into your life because you are working on it every day. Some people are more comfortable working for others. When they leave work, they do not have to think about work again until they return.
As far as specific traits, a founder needs to be motivated, disciplined and determined. A founder must have a “do whatever it takes” and “never quit” mentality. They also must have a love of learning because every day will bring something you did not know. They must be a goal-setter and a planner because starting a business takes time and needs structure. I also believe founders need to be competitive. Not necessarily competitive with others, but to always want to do better for yourself and your business.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. The ability to communicate and speak in front of other people. All my careers have involved me being comfortable speaking in front of others. Whether it was teaching a class, speaking in front of a judge, courting investors, or telling my journey on podcasts or videos made about my business. If you can’t communicate what you and your brand are all about, you will not be successful.
2. Fitness routine. I am a fitness fanatic. Not only does it help me physically, but also mentally. A routine can be integrated into your schedule and allows for consistency and results. I utilize an online live class and on-demand platform called Bande.com and I take at least 7 classes a week. Being physically fit and healthy is crucial to being successful as a female founder.
3. A competent and committed team. I could never do every job it takes to make my gourmet doughnut shop function. Therefore, I rely on 3 female professional pastry chefs who I pay well and reward. I communicate financial information, so they know how the brand is doing.
I promote them as part of the brand, so our customers and followers know who they are. Recognition is key to keeping employees committed to keeping the brand successful.
4. A motivated and disciplined personality. Being a female founder is not easy. Having your own business is not a 9–5 job. Your business becomes your life and you must work on it every day. Therefore, you must naturally have a motivated personality do whatever it takes to get the job done. Not everyone is like that. Discipline is also very important. It is very easy to get distracted by the unimportant. Having the discipline to actually do what is on your “to-do” list every day is key.
5. Problem-Solving Skills. Every day will bring a new “issue” when you start and run a business. A female founder must have the ability to problem-solve and know when to ask for help when the problem is not something you cannot solve on your own.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I would say that my business certainly brings happiness to others. It is one of the reasons I started the business. I witnessed firsthand when a box of doughnuts would be brought into the office. How the mood would lighten up. People standing around laughing and discussing which doughnut they wanted. It would bring 5 minutes of joy to the otherwise mundane office life.
It is very rewarding when a customer visits and indicates they are so happy to be at the shop and they squeal with joy or when a customer says they are picking up doughnuts to take to the office. I know people are soon going to have a smile on their face.
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.
This idea is especially relevant now that employees are starting to return to the office. “Doughnut Fridays” — every Friday, someone should bring doughnuts into the office. It could be a reimbursable expense. As I have experienced first-hand in my previous careers, this will bring at least some brief happiness and comradery to the employees.
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.
I really admire Candice Nelson, the founder of Sprinkles Cupcakes. I would love advice on how to grow your brand while maintaining the high quality. I want The Doughnut Project brand to grow, but not at the sacrifice of its originality, quality and integrity. In addition, she does television and has created other brands both of which I have interest in doing.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.