Be Open to Guidance and Support — It goes without saying that entrepreneurship is a difficult road scattered with both anticipated and unexpected challenges. I believe that one of the most important tools for success and grit that entrepreneurs can apply is to surround themselves with people they can trust fully; to spend their time with individuals who can give honest, unbiased advice with genuine intentions while not just ‘yes’-ing them on everything.
I had the pleasure of interviewing, Christine Marcus, CEO and Founder of corporate catering concierge company, Alchemista, located in Boston, MA and Washington, D.C. Christine and her team utilize the tangible (creative catering and unique, curated events) to create the intangible (amplified workplace culture). A CPA and former CFO with an entrepreneurial edge, Christine left an impressive career with the U.S. government to earn her MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. While a grad student at Sloan, Christine launched the company that is today known as Alchemista. Like most of her life, a strong vision and sheer force of will propelled the company from napkin sketch to creative corporate caterer, to the premiere destination for onsite food and curated brand experiences in less than five years. To Christine, amplified, effective culture is lightening in a bottle and can determine a company’s success or failure. As the visionary behind Alchemista, Christine is passionate about empowering companies to identify, build and amplify their culture to achieve greatness.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what events have drawn you to this specific career path?
My background in the worlds of government, business and start-ups has allowed me to observe culture’s power to either galvanize or stunt a business’s growth, and all of my past professional and personal experiences have collectively led me to my current role.
While earning my MBA at the MIT Sloan School of Management, I noticed a lack of inventive and exciting cuisine available for students. Sure, they brought us catered sandwiches and cookies to fuel those around-the-clock studying sessions, but we were craving something more; something that would give us a true taste of Boston’s vibrant culinary scene.
One of my classmates — an experienced and successful restaurateur — and I, saw an opportunity; a chance to elevate the 9-to-5 lunchtime and corporate events for tech firms that are at the forefront of innovation and imagination, while also increasing revenue for the best authentic, local restaurants that would otherwise not have access to this lucrative corporate catering market.
My company, Alchemista, was born out of my desire to connect restaurants and food trucks with employers looking to serve their staff creative and inspired food in the workplace. Our philosophy (and the inspiration behind the company’s name) is: Food + Experience = Culture. Or more simply put, it’s a kind of alchemy: 1 + 1 = 3.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I’m fortunate enough to say that my parents, both becoming restaurant workers when they came to the U.S., instilled a relentless resolve and a hunger in me at a young age. I was born in Egypt and emigrated to the U.S. with my parents when I was three in order to escape religious persecution.
While I married young in arranged nuptials — as was the norm among our Coptic Orthodox culture — I resisted against the pressure to have children at a young age and pursued a college education instead. As neither my family nor my husband had any money to pay for college, I worked and went to school, both full-time, at the University of Texas, graduating cum laude with an accounting degree in three and a half years. Though my husband and I went on to have two children together, we ultimately divorced.
While working for the U.S. Government in the Department of Energy during my divorce, I made it a point to ask for nothing, including child support, in exchange for my ex-husband’s agreement to not obstruct our children’s private school education. I was insistent on doing whatever I had to do, including selling my material belongings, to finance their $65,000 combined annual elementary school tuition on a $63,000 government salary.
I try to remind myself to never shy away from questioning life’s expectations of me and ‘shoulds’; I relish taking the path of most resistance. I’m grateful for all of my past challenges and struggles because they’ve given me the gifts of grit and resilience.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
Having grit allowed me to never question if or when I would accomplish my goals; even when I didn’t have the exact formula for achieving them, I simply knew that it would happen. I have an inner peace that allows me to know that with hard work, determination and a refusal to give up on one’s dreams, things always work out.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My motivation comes from my experience as a mother and my life with my children. I want to be the best role model and influence for them, to show them that anything is possible if they’re willing to put in the effort, and blood, sweat and tears. When the going gets rough, I think of them and remind myself of the person that I want to be for them.
I also enjoy proving to myself that I can accomplish what I set out to do. That constant will and the determination to keep going when the odds seem stacked against me are an enduring source of fuel.
So, how are things going today? 🙂
Alchemista currently has locations in Boston and D.C., with more expansion planned for the future.
We believe in breaking bread to break boundaries while feeding hearts, minds, souls (and bellies, of course). People in the workplace want the opportunity to connect with their colleagues and bond over shared eating experiences. We work with over 100 restaurants and vendors to architect exclusively-catered meals for major players in the tech sphere, such as: Draft Kings, Black Duck Software, Cengage, GoDaddy and more. My talented, dedicated team plans everything from Superhero and March Madness-themed events to weekly pizza lunches and wine tastings.
We take great pride in our relationships with local restaurants and love keeping their kitchens busy. We’re able to provide restaurants with an increase to their bottom line at no cost for them by sharing their food (including menus exclusively created for us and our clients) with a large new audience.
We’re proud to have recently celebrated five years in business and a milestone of one million meals served.
We’ve also just added a ‘Branded Treats’ tab to our website where anyone (even if they’re not already a corporate client) can connect with us to design customized gourmet desserts for any occasion. This is a very exciting new development because it allows us to significantly expand our reach. With the ability to ship these treats nationwide and even internationally, we’re able to practice and share sustainability. Edible, branded swag is a great way to save the trees — put pen to pastry and say it or display it in edible ink!
Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit?
1. Remain Patient — When you’ve set your sights on something, it’s hard to resist the urge to get to the finish line ASAP and reach the top. Patience truly is a virtue and while it’s easier said than done, trusting the timing of everything and not rushing the process are critical when developing sustained levels of determination and fortitude. My friend and mentor, Lou Shipley often reminds me of the Shakespeare wisdom: “Joy’s soul lies in the doing”.
2. Keep Your Resolve — When obstacle after obstacle is thrown your way and things are not panning out as you’d hoped, resiliency can be hard to come by. What doesn’t crush your hopes and dreams only makes you stronger. This is a hard-knocks life lesson that I’ve definitely been forced to learn, and my experience has taught me that a strong sense of self and resolve are crucial.
3. Stay True to Your Purpose — Trust yourself and keep your vision and ‘the big picture’ in your lens. You know what you want and what’s best for you. It’s easy to let external forces detract or get in the way of that, but doing everything (both professionally and personally) with intent will help you hone in your objectives and stay the course. Don’t be afraid to question the status quo and go against popular opinion if it feels right to you.
4. Make Time for Daily Gratitude — Practicing mindfulness and making it a point to reflect and be thankful for your strengths can’t be underestimated. The road to developing rock-solid grit and achieving success is full of hurdles and disappointments that can sometimes chip away at optimism. It’s important to remind yourself of everything that there is to appreciate and be grateful for.
5. Be Open to Guidance and Support — It goes without saying that entrepreneurship is a difficult road scattered with both anticipated and unexpected challenges. I believe that one of the most important tools for success and grit that entrepreneurs can apply is to surround themselves with people they can trust fully; to spend their time with individuals who can give honest, unbiased advice with genuine intentions while not just ‘yes’-ing them on everything.
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 you when things were tough? Can you share a story about that?
I’m lucky enough to have two significant mentors who have helped shape and influence all aspects of my life.
Lou Shipley, my former Tech Sales professor at MIT Sloan is a constant source of guidance and inspiration for me. I still have an email that I sent to him in 2012 upon finishing his class, thanking him for sharing his experience so graciously and honestly, and I now know that was not an anomaly. While I initially was impressed by Lou’s intelligence, experience, and success as a CEO in building, transforming, and leading multiple tech companies to successful exits, his imprint on me goes well beyond that. He generously shares his vast knowledge to help others succeed and attain their own goals, always with a humility not often found in others in similar positions. Having had the privilege to watch him assist so many entrepreneurs in such a selfless way has inspired me to do the same.
Bill Aulet, the Managing Director of MIT’s Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship, is the one who initially recruited me and inspired me to pursue my current path. He has had a lasting impact on me ever since then, helping me to realize and achieve my full potential. I credit him for seeing an entrepreneurial spark in me years ago, perhaps before I even recognized it myself, and for strongly encouraging me to explore and kindle that spark as a grad student. Bill’s invaluable guidance and expertise, coupled with the intensive curriculum, pushed me to want to start my own business and forge my own path. He helped me see that it is a lot more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.
What advice would you give to other executives or founders to help their employees to thrive?
I would tell them to listen to their employees and be attuned to their wants and needs. Being a good listener is an often overlooked yet invaluable trait when it comes to those in leadership positions. It’s important for executives to help cultivate an experience and an atmosphere where their employees can grow and thrive.
Adaptability and the acceptance of change also can’t be underestimated. For example, maybe one of your employees is struggling in their current role but would be an ideal fit for another position within the company. It’s the executive’s responsibility to notice these opportunities and be receptive to flexibility.
Additionally, I’d advise other executives or founders to recognize and highlight the important distinction between company culture and traditional practices of HR; often mistaken for one another, but at their core, two truly separate entities that contribute to a happy and successful workforce. With companies growing on a daily basis and the number of employees increasing, it’s imperative for management to understand the perks and benefits that employees (specifically, those of the millennial generation) seek and desire in the workplace.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m proud to work with a wonderful organization, Discovery Internships, to bring real-life office experience to high school students from around the world who come to Boston to be immersed in a startup culture. I value any chance I get to mentor aspiring entrepreneurs and offer guidance to kids who want a taste of the working life. We are always so impressed by our roster of interns each semester at Alchemista; they truly become engrained in our culture and part of our team.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are currently looking at new and unique ways to partner with other food purveyors. We want to go beyond just restaurants and food trucks and really establish relationships with a diverse scope of partners, such as farmer’s markets and privately-owned farms. These types of very small, independent vendors often have challenges when it comes to expanding and spreading their product and influence. We are really looking forward to the potential of working with them and helping them grow their businesses.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The type of good that I would bring is something that I am most passionate about: education. Having seen first-hand the impact that a top-notch education can have inspires me even more to hopefully someday give that gift to others. My children’s experience at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. has opened up countless opportunities for them and is setting them up for sustained success. I look forward to one day being in the position where I’m able to provide similar opportunities to many other kids.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My all-time favorite quote contains famous words spoken by Henry Ford — “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” I’ve always been so drawn to this quote and touched by it. Attitude and believing in yourself are huge factors when it comes to developing grit and drive. If you doubt yourself and fall prey to “I can’t”, that negativity will often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The combined power of a positive mindset and confidence can’t be underestimated, and success is often predicated upon these factors.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Facebook — https://www.facebook.com/AlchemistaCulture/
Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/alchemista_culture/
LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/company/alchemista
Twitter — https://twitter.com/alchemista_food?lang=en
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
My pleasure! Thank you for having me. This was wonderful.