…Women belong in positions of leadership. They offer a new perspective to more male-dominated industries. Also, given the chance, women founders have a great potential for financial success; from grants, to mentorship programs, and even with investors who are looking to diversify their portfolios. The community of women-founded companies is small but mighty, and growing that community will only lead to more success for more people.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lindzi Shanks & Kat Connor of XO Marshmallow.
In 2015, Kat Connor had the idea to make delicious, flavored, gourmet marshmallows. That winter, she met entrepreneur and lifestyle blogger Lindzi Shanks and they found they had a lot in common, especially when it came to s’mores. By 2016, Kat + Lindzi teamed up, and by March they had already launched their online store. After only being in business for a year, and after constant demand from customers and marshmallow lovers alike, Kat and Lindzi opened the first ever marshmallow cafe and wonderland in Chicago, IL in 2017. Combining their personal passions and sharp business sense to create a gourmet marshmallow brand, Kat & Lindzi have navigated the woes of ecommerce, running a brick and mortar location, and the unpredictability of owning a small business during the pandemic. Each road block has propelled them forward making their sweet journey a story worth sharing.
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?
Kat Connor: I attended college to become an artist — maybe. My interest in film and politics led me to the field of entertainment law, and so I followed it to law school! It was actually in school that I started making marshmallows. I would definitely say that marshmallows weren’t the original “plan” but being open to new opportunities has always been a tenant of my education and mantra in my career.
Lindzi Shanks: I originally planned on being a professor. I went to undergrad for psychology, and was working 50+ hours a week while going to school. I started a small online shop my sophomore year that continued to grow until it was my only source of income. As I moved to Chicago to get my Masters and eventual PhD, I kept that business open — quickly realizing that my passions were for this shop, not school. After my Masters, I kept my shop going as my full time job until I met Kat and marshmallow magic was born. I think what I loved so much about my first business was that it allowed me to be both creative and analytical at the same time. While I never expected to end up in the world of marshmallows, that same ability to be creative and analytical keeps me loving this career every day.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
LS: When we first opened the world’s 1st marshmallow cafe, we were getting a lot of great press pretty quickly — a lot of it we didn’t even know was coming. The day before our first National S’mores Day, Kat and I were preparing the cafe and getting ready for a pop-up when we received a phone call that The Today Show wanted us to be on the show…tomorrow! We had to book a last minute flight, get other people to help take over our events, and rush to the airport — only to be told they had no record of our tickets! Luckily, we were able to eventually get on the very last plane of the night (after running quickly), drive to the Today Show, and get back on a plane that afternoon to help with National S’mores Day!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting XO Marshmallow? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
KC: One of our original flavors was Mango Habanero. I had not worked much with peppers, so I used some powdered habanero for the recipe. In my first batch, I added the spice to my hot sugar and as soon as it hit the liquid it turned into a terrible eye-burning, itchy skin, kind of gas! The whole kitchen had to be evacuated and I still get made fun for it today. Lesson-wise, I’d definitely recommend really doing research before trying something for the first time — especially with spices!
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?
LS: One of the biggest champions of XO Marshmallow has been our dear friend Aaron Gadiel. Before Kat and I met, Lindzi won a free pop-up shop for her first business. Aaron was the creator of the pop-up contest. Once Kat joined the pop-up with her marshmallows, Aaron encouraged the growth of the business. He later invited us back for another pop-up. As XO grew, he’s always been there to provide us with resources and connections to people we need. Almost 5 years later, he’s our commercial real estate agent and our business coach.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
KC: One book that has had a significant impact on us has been “Cooking Up A Business” by Rachel Hofsetter. The book is an exuberant read into the minds of many successful food-entrepreneurs, and one we recommend to pretty much everyone who asks for advice on starting a food business. As XO Marshmallow has grown and faced new challenges, you will often find one of us re-reading a chapter or two from “Cooking Up A Business.” Knowing that someone has made it through that exact obstacle is very comforting as an entrepreneur.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
LS: One quote I heard early in undergrad was “If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you need to find another room.” In college this made pretty obvious sense to me as an avenue to constantly be learning, but it wasn’t until I started a business and began hiring that I realized just how true this statement was. By making sure I’m never the smartest person in the room, I’m hiring people who are better able to problem solve and work on projects when I’m not around — they can help move the business forward and grow.
How have you used your success with XO Marshmallow to make the world a better place?
LS: At XO, we are constantly looking for ways to give back to our community and use our platform to speak up during times of social injustice. When we find a cause we are passionate about, we use the comforting nature of marshmallows to start conversations and give back. For example, we created a mallow called “Difficult Conversations” during the height of the BLM unrest to help facilitate important conversations about race, all while giving 100% of proceeds to Black Girl Ventures. Recently, we did something similar for winter storm relief in Texas with a Sweet Tea marshmallow.
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?
KC: I believe that one of the biggest obstacles holding women back from founding companies is economic uncertainty. This past year, this country has dealt with political discourse, violent riots, and a global pandemic. Women, especially women of color, face greater risk with no reward, and often supplement their own dreams to divert their efforts to those that will do the most good — whether that is at home, or in the workforce. I believe economic stability will bring much needed structure to the path for women founders.
Can you share with our readers what you and XO Marshmallow are doing to help empower women to become founders?
KC: As founders, we are pretty open about our story, and what it took to get us where we are today. We love hearing from other women who are interested in starting or scaling their own businesses, and often cross-promote or collaborate with women-owned businesses. We also use our branding and products to give back, and have run various “benefit marshmallows” where 100% of our proceeds are given to organizations that benefit marginalized communities.
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
KC: Women belong in positions of leadership. They offer a new perspective to more male-dominated industries. Also, given the chance, women founders have a great potential for financial success; from grants, to mentorship programs, and even with investors who are looking to diversify their portfolios. The community of women-founded companies is small but mighty, and growing that community will only lead to more success for more people.
Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.
- Women need to first feel safe in order to feel empowered. The #1 thing that should be done to empower future leaders is to create a system in which they feel safe to express themselves. At home, in school, and in the workplace.
- Girls should be empowered to take math, science, business courses at all levels, from elementary thru college. Being comfortable with technical topics is so important for women, and yet a lot of times these topics are seen as “boys only” clubs.
- One thing men can do to empower women to become founders and leaders, is to be an ally. Encouraging women to speak up in meetings, or advocating for diversity in the workplace, gives women a chance to shine.
- Starting a new business is a learning curve and process. Access to tools that give women greater financial literacy, offers a lot of empowerment. A woman who can sort out her own taxes, can do anything!
- Representation matters. Both on-screen and off, having strong, independent women who are fulfilled in their lives and respected by their peers, it goes a long way for both young girls and boys. The more diversity we are exposed to, the richer our worldview becomes.
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.
KC: I would try to set small goals to do good. I would try to inspire very small habits in things like recycling. It can seem overwhelming to try and correct all of global warming yourself; but recycling at home, anyone can do that, and it’s a step towards sustainable action.
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.
LS: We would both love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Michele Buck, the CEO of Hershey. We have admired how she’s taken a legacy brand such as Hershey’s and expanded it’s snack category through the largest deal in Hershey history. She knows the industry in and out — and her expertise would be invaluable.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
In Person: XO Marshmallow Cafe + Wonderland — 6981 N Sheridan Rd, Chicago, IL 60626
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.