There never is a right time to do something. You have to create your own opportunities. If you continue to wait to follow your dream, or to make the pitch that could change the trajectory of your career, the opportunities will continue to pass you up and you’ll be left with only regret. What’s the saying? “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” Of course, putting yourself out there can be scary. Most of us waste a lot of our time worrying about whether something will work or how we will be perceived in front of others if we fail. Women, especially, have a tendency to overthink things and worry we will look stupid trying. Let it go. Just let it go and trust your instincts. Great leaders take risks and put it all out there.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Josephine Caminos Oría. Josephine is the Founder of La Dorita Cooks, an all-natural line of dulce de leche products that are representative of her Argentine heritage and Pittsburgh’s first resource-based culinary kitchen incubator for fellow start-up and early stage food makers. In addition, Josephine is the author of the cookbook as food-memoir, “Dulce de Leche: Recipes, Stories, and Sweet Traditions” (Burgess Lea Press, February 2017). Josephine lives with her husband and La Dorita Cooks co-founder, Gastón, and their five young children in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Thank you for having me. Where to start? I had a successful 15-year career as the CFO of Med Health Services, a tri-state medical diagnostic testing company in Pittsburgh, PA, a loving husband, and four beautiful boys under the age of five, yet I had a nagging feeling that kept me up most nights. At the time, I was helping put together a due-diligence financial package for the potential acquisition of Med Health Services, and soon came to realize that my continued role as CFO was being leveraged as an “asset” by the current owner in order to ensure the company’s continued success after change of ownership. There was no upside in it for me, however, nor any further opportunity for advancement. It was then I came to realize that I had been undervaluing my own worth and overlooking my greatest asset — the person staring back at me in the mirror each morning. From that moment on, I decided that if I were to help anyone build a company from ground zero, it would be my own. As the main breadwinner for my family, it was time I put the potential of my future earnings back into my own hands.
Just short of closing, the acquisition of Med Health Services fell through, but I stayed the course. Unsure of my next move, I awoke days later with an innate determination that I needed to make dulce de leche; the real dulce de leche that my Grandma Dorita made me over and over when I was growing up. After months of stirring pots of milk late into the night, I finally realized that my desire to make my Grandma Dorita’s dulce de leche was more than a fleeting craving. I began to recognize dulce de leche’s immense potential in the US specialty foods market. In fact, I like to think of dulce de leche as a global, taste-bud doppelganger for Nutella, the chocolate hazelnut spread; it can be virtually spread on anything and used as a complimentary ingredient in recipes throughout the day. Once considered an Italian, specialty food item often relegated to the international grocery aisle, Nutella is now a mainstream ingredient. It’s hard to find an American pantry that doesn’t have the chocolate hazelnut spread.
I thought to myself, if Ferrero USA could turn the inherently Italian Nutella into a mainstream ingredient in our market, why couldn’t I do the same for dulce de leche? It was then that I decided to take dulce de leche out of the specialty shop and assure its spot on every family’s weekly shopping list. In February 2009, after months of perfecting my Grandma’s recipe, I founded La Dorita Cooks, an all-natural, small-batch product line of specialty dulce de leche spreads and a liqueur that are representative of my Argentine heritage. I then worked two jobs — juggling my career as CFO and working on my startup after putting my children to bed most nights and every weekend for seven consecutive years. My husband and I also added a baby girl to round out our family. While she was the answer to our prayers, her arrival did delay my transition for quite a few years. And, while it was not easy, I had finally laid enough groundwork at my startup — adding a culinary kitchen incubator into the mix — to leave my career in healthcare. So, I offered my six months’ notice and just recently, at the age of 43, walked away from my corporate career, along with the biweekly paychecks that, as head of the household, my family relied on, so I could follow my dreams and create something inherently ours.
Many close to me offered their dissenting opinions, some offering I was too old to go out on my own and start a successful business. But I begged to differ. I have more ambition AND drive now than ever, especially since I have children at home to whom I want to give the world. Some said I was being selfish, stripping my children of a lifestyle they had become accustomed to. And, while leaving did force my husband and I to restrict our budget, what kind of role model would I be if I taught my children to settle and not go after their dreams? Most importantly, my husband shares in my dream, so we are committed to building something together. In the end, I’m going for it because the thought of not trying brings me more despair than the thought of failing. Since taking the leap of faith, my culinary journey has continued to organically evolve into different directions, including publishing a cookbook. It has also brought me and my family back full-circle to our mother tongue. Starting a business that celebrates my Argentine roots has allowed me to embrace my dual, and sometimes dueling, nationalities.
Not even a year had passed since we had started bottling our dulce de leche and I was asked to participate in a charity holiday bazaar for a private school in my area. Just quickly, for some who may not be familiar with dulce de leche, let me just clarify that it’s a boiled milk jam or spread that is inherently Argentine, but also claimed by many other nations of the southern hemisphere. It’s made by preserving farm-fresh milk with sugar in a very long cooking process similar to that of preserving fruits or making apple butter and creates a wonderfully glorious golden spread that can be used throughout the day, starting at the breakfast table.
Now, where was I? I had agreed to participate in a charity holiday bazaar for a local private school that I had no affiliation with. My children didn’t attend the school, but at the time I couldn’t afford to turn down any potential marketing opportunities to get our product in front of people and gage their reaction to it, nonetheless teach them how to say dulce de leche or dool-say day lay-chay. (It sounds so easy in Argentina!) So, I requested a vacation day from my full-time job and signed on the dotted line, agreeing to donate half of the day’s sales towards the school’s fundraising efforts. The day crawled on, and I was counting my sales for the day, which after my donation amounted to what I made in an hour at Med Health Services. You could say I was feeling somewhat discouraged. Then this beautiful little girl, a kindergartner at most, with bright blue eyes and crazy blonde curly hair came to my booth and looked at me mischievously, grabbing an apple slice, dipping it into the sample jar of dulce de leche that I had recently opened. Her eyes lit up, and not missing a beat, she liked it so much that she dipped it right back into the jar. Her reaction made me so happy, I immediately overlooked her innocent double-dipping tendencies, and after wrapping up the apple slices and placing the lid on the jar of dulce de leche, handed her both, thanking her for making my day. “If your mom has any questions about your gift, send her my way,” I said.
I began breaking down my booth and as I went to pack the last of my items before leaving, I saw the same beautiful little girl headed my way alongside her mom. The woman stopped by, insisting she pay for the dulce de leche. I refused, however, and told her how her daughter’s double-dipping indiscretions had been the highlight of my day. At that, the woman thanked me and after introducing herself as Laura Shapira Karet, the now CEO of our region’s largest grocery chain, Giant Eagle, handed me her assistant’s card, stating that if her daughter liked our product so much then she was certain it was worthy of some shelf space in Giant Eagle’s Market District stores. And sure enough, her assistant was expecting my call and a month later, our jars were on the shelves of several Market District stores. That day reminded me that networking is everything, especially at the startup stage. You have to put yourself out there to create opportunities that are later coined as “lucky.” That, and that kindness always goes a long way.
At the time, I didn’t find the predicament I had gotten myself into funny at all. In fact, it forced me to consider almost closing my recently founded startup food venture. In retrospect, however, it was the best thing that could have happened to me and my young company as it soon after led me to open Pittsburgh’s first resource-based culinary shared kitchen. I had just recently established La Dorita Cooks and was testing our dulce de leche as a guest vendor at several local farmers markets. One rainy afternoon, as I was packing up, a man came by on his bike and asked if it was too late to try some dulce de leche. I had already packed away my card reader but offered him a jar I had on display. “It’s on me,” I told him. A couple of days later I got a call from this same man, who told me he worked for our local Whole Foods Market and invited me to sell our dulce de leche in their store’s summer farmers market. Taking a deep breath in, I told him I didn’t want to be in their seasonal market, but that our product deserved a place on the shelves, next to the peanut and apple butters. To my surprise, he gave me a meeting with the store’s grocery buyers and asked if I had all of my licensing and nutrition paneling in order. “Of course,” I answered. Well, truth be told, I didn’t. The meeting went great, and they agreed to give our dulce de leche a try and ordered several cases. I had six weeks to fulfill my first order. As I left, they asked me to send them my food safety license and asked where I was making our spread. “My home of course,” I answered. To which the buyers all laughed, assuming I was kidding around with them. “All right, all right. All jokes aside, send us your license and the info on your commercial kitchen and we’ll get you going,” they said, shaking my hand.
Well, the joke was on me. I had jumped in head first and sold our product without fully understanding the food safety requirements and licenses I needed to secure in order to legally wholesale it.
Little did I know, that saying “yes” to Whole Foods meant saying “good-bye” to our family’s dining room. In order to fulfill our first dulce de leche order from Whole Foods Market, we were required to produce our product in a licensed commercial kitchen. With no other options at hand, we decided to build our own commercial kitchen in the dining room of our home, which required us taking out a $30,000 line of credit on our home — and set us back six months in the process. You could say I put the cart before the horse, but in this case, it just happened to work out for us.
Today, La Dorita Cooks’ culinary kitchen incubator acts as a proxy to capital in early years when growth is risky. Our goal is to help other food startups avoid the very costly mistakes we made. Today, a food startup that joins La Dorita Cooks can become licensed and cleared to manufacture and sell their food product within two weeks — versus the six months it took Gastón and I to become compliant at the time we were launching our dulce de leche line.
The model for our food-specific, co-working space organically developed over the course of three years after Gastón and I were unable to secure licensed kitchen space to launch our own for-profit specialty food start-up business, La Dorita dulce de leche, to market. The incubator resulted from a personal roadblock that threatened to deter our own personal success, and we were determined to fill this void.
At La Dorita Cooks, we are constantly working on new projects in both the dulce de leche and incubator fronts.
In respect to our dulce de leche, we are looking to scale up our manufacturing capability by partnering with a co-packer or co-manufacturer that is committed to staying true to our clean ingredients panel. This is proving challenging, as dulce de leche is still not acculturated in mainstream culture, we are challenged to find co-manufacturers and packers who have the equipment, know-how and capability to produce authentic dulce de leche. But we’re committed to finding one we can grow with and are hopeful we can continue to produce our dulce de leche in Pennsylvania in order to support our state’s local dairy farmers.
As for our incubator kitchen, it is operating close to capacity with a growing waitlist. We are now in the process of building three additional fully-equipped licensed co-working kitchens at our Sharpsburg location, for a total of an additional 3800 sq. ft. in licensed commercial kitchen space that will allow us to more than triple our shared-kitchen incubator membership base. Expanding our startup network is paramount to the success of our philosophically focused incubator model as it creates more opportunities for local food producers to start their projects with the support of others going through the same struggles.
On a personal front, I am halfway through writing the manuscript, Sobremesa, A Love Story in Thirteen Courses, that I am especially passionate about. It is a culinary memoir richly sprinkled with coming-of-age love stories, rare family recipes and Latin American cultural traditions. In Argentina, sobremesa — time spent lingering over a meal long after the food is gone — is a cornerstone of Latin culture and lifestyle. It richly infused the nature and culture of my own upbringing. Born in Buenos Aires then raised in the US in an Argentine household, stories were served warm to me with the breath of live narrators during family sobremesas. These tales nourished my imagination and set the table for a family and professional life focused around Argentine food and culture. By telling my story, my hope is to introduce readers to this lost art of after dinner conversation, the post meal equivalent of “pillow talk.” Told in three book parts, each of the 12 chapters and Epilogue is shaped by the real-life sobremesa it inspired and includes Argentine recipes that serve as “main course characters” of sorts in the story line. The narrative is a moving feast that follows a portion of my life in Pittsburgh, PA, Miami Beach, FL and Buenos Aires, Argentina. At its heart, Sobremesa is a poignant love story — not just in the romantic sense, but one that transcends generations and worlds between grandmother and granddaughter, mom and daughter, husband and wife, childhood sweethearts, and the ghosts of loved one’s past. In this modern era when our impulse is to grab and go, my hope is that Sobremesa will inspire readers to slow down, indulge in two-bite facturas (pastries), imbibe a digestive yerba mate or the last dregs of a fine Malbec, and surrender into the mortal desire we all share for self-expression and connection with others.
I’d advise any woman looking to establish a startup venture to look into joining an industry specific shared-work space that allows them to mitigate start-up risk, so they can grow their venture in a community of like-minded business owners who previously forged or are in the process of creating their own startup paths. Many times, they will share their own stories and experiences that will help other entrepreneurs avoid the very mistakes they made — saving them time and money along the way.
Incubators and shared-work spaces provide entrepreneurs a chance to prove their concept before breaking ground and allow them to reserve operating capital for high-priority expenses such as research and development, trademarking, personnel acquisition, marketing and branding. According to research conducted by the National Business Incubation Association, it is estimated that 87% of businesses that graduate from established incubator programs are still in business within five years, versus 50% of those that have not had this support.
I’d also like to add to not get discouraged by roadblocks or “no’s” that threaten to deter your business. It’s my experience that as a woman, you’ll come across many “no’s” when trying to build your venture. Women have to work twice as hard, but we are prepared to do so. It’s in our DNA. I’ve found that instead of running from the “no’s” it’s best to learn from them and re-adjust your approach. In my case, it’s the solutions to these very “no’s” that have paved the way for new financial business models and helped my company to evolve. For instance, take my cookbook, Dulce de Leche: Recipes, Stories & Sweet Traditions, (Burgess Lea Press, February 2017). It was never my intent to become a published author. I wrote this cookbook as a result of talking to dozens of persons at food shows or during demos and realizing that dulce de leche was still very misunderstood in the United States. It’s from our conversations that I came to realize that while consumers are intrigued with dulce de leche, they still don’t quite understand what it is, how to use it, or even how to say it. The same is true for the buyers at the natural grocery chains such as Whole Foods Market. They question the proper aisle placement — whether it should be in the spreads sections by the apple and peanut butters, the international section, or the baking section? The answer? All of the above.
I realized there was a real opportunity to acculturate dulce de leche in this country and create an entirely new specialty food category. That’s when I decided that writing a cookbook was the answer to our number one marketing challenge. It’s narrative not only focuses on the spread’s sense of nostalgia and heritage, but more importantly highlights dulce de leche’s versatility and multi-faceted personality as an ingredient. As a spread, dulce de leche can be a snack on its own, a snack with another snack, part of a meal or even an ingredient in cooking. The recipes in the book root dulce de leche in that sense of familiarity, making the reader understand that it can be paired with a growing list of flavors, such as sweet, savory, spicy, and ethnic flavor combinations, further convincing the home cook that dulce de leche is worthy of its own spot in the pantry — with no substitute acceptable. The cookbook, through stories and recipes, is our way to demystify dulce de leche by shedding light on the Argentine traditions behind the spread.
I always like to remind myself to check my ego at the door before entering a room. We are each responsible for the energy we bring into a room. This is especially true if you are leading a team of persons who are all working towards the same goal. Second, surround yourself with the best of the best. When interviewing, I always keep Maya Angelou’s words, “The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them,” front and center. If you get a “hunch” in an interview, it’s usually correct. Don’t ignore it. I am also a firm believer that if a new hire does not work out in the first week, or if they do something that makes you question their character, it’s often best to part ways before investing too much time in their development. I also believe in building a great team by hiring “diversity” early. That means hiring professionals who bring different backgrounds and ways of thinking and, yes, that means hiring women into the mix early so they are part of the DNA of your team.
Creating a good team is paramount to anyone’s success. In the end, no one can perform every role in a company. If you try to micromanage those around you, it is often to the detriment of your team, which is why it’s especially important to surround yourself with persons who excel in areas that are not your forte. Smart people make you up your game. They make you smarter by making you look at situations in new and different ways. They challenge you to think outside of the box and to become a better person and leader by sparking interest and introducing you to new concepts, ideas, culture and people; even restaurants and networking opportunities. And if truly smart, they know the value of kindness and the importance of treating you, your team and customers with the same respect you offer them, because no one wants to spend the majority of their day in a negative environment.
Among the many female entrepreneurs and makers who share our commercial kitchen space at La Dorita Cooks, Viviana Zocco is one my greatest inspirations in business. While she is now considered one of the most successful women entrepreneurs in Latin America, I knew her as my unrelenting boss at Standard and Poor’s International in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I held a position in marketing in my early to mid-twenties. As Managing Director for Latin America Origination Business, she was certainly the most challenging person I have ever reported to. Her expectations where relentless. Yet, she was always clear of her expectations, and if I failed to meet them, she’d consistently let me know why, and serve up another opportunity for me to do better the next time. It was at times exhausting to work for her, but she certainly taught me to bring my A game to everything I did. She also taught me that as women, we can have both a large family and run a company or large team. It’s up to us. It’s our God-given right. We don’t have to settle. That doesn’t mean it will be easy to find a balance. With four young children of her own, she was constantly readjusting her schedule to fit everything in. And that she did. She was the forceful driving force behind the success of the Argentine Standard & Poor’s office. As a leader, she far exceeded my own expectations. I’m certain she made me a better business woman. Today, I aim to do the same with anyone I work with directly.
I like to think we are reaching beyond our brick-and-mortar to reach entrepreneurs who otherwise would not be able to financially secure our startup support services. Last year we developed and published a 200-page, online resource guide for food entrepreneurs, “How to Start a Business in Allegheny County,” that includes the ins- and outs- of a food start-up — branding, nutritional analysis, laboratory testing, sourcing of ingredients, pricing, food safety licensure, insurance, etc… The guide is available to download for free on our website and provides a “road-map” to aspiring food entrepreneurs and practical business tools that will give them a leg up in starting their own food business. To date, we have had more than 175 downloads from aspiring foodpreneurs.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
If you can honestly answer “Yes” to all of the above, then go for it, and don’t look back. Because in the end, the thought of not trying or the “what if” will haunt you and ultimately bring you more despair than the thought of failing itself.
I’m a strong believer that by the age of eight, every child should know how to safely fry an egg. It gives them the tools to fend for themselves. No child should grow up hungry — no matter where they live — but one in five children struggles with hunger, and some of these children live in our own backyards, share a school bus with our own children, and don’t know where their next meal is coming from during out-of-school hours. La Dorita Cooks is based in the Borough of Sharpsburg, one of Pittsburgh’s designated food deserts with a medium income that falls just short of $23,000/year. In order to fight local childhood hunger in our own backyard, we partnered with Volunteers of America’s All of Us Care program to provide cooking classes that connects our area’s at-risk children with nutritious food and teaches them how to cook healthy, affordable meals.
We recently completed an 18-month cooking culture educational programming for more than 40 children ages seven to 18. Each child went home at the end of each class with a recipe booklet and groceries to reproduce the same meal for their family during the week. The following week, the kids were always so excited to tell us what they were able to make with the ingredients. Some made the same meal, or part of it, while others shared other things their parents or guardians made with the ingredients. The idea was to get the children cooking with their families. Each semester of cooking class ended with a large family dinner, or pop-up dinner as some of the kids liked to refer to it, where the kids came and set the tables, helped to prep and cook the food, and proudly served their families and friends. They walked away from the dinner with a sense of pride and accomplishment that will help to form their choices in the future. I believe that all of us, by simply opening up our kitchens and hearts, can drive long-term behavior change in our neighborhoods, and that starts with teaching our children how to take care of themselves, and others, at a young age. This is a way to pass on invaluable culture and traditions that some children would otherwise not be exposed to. It can be as simple as teaching them how to fry an egg. I believe that simple act alone can change the trajectory of one child’s life.
“I come as one, but stand as 10,000,” from the poem Our Grandmothers by, Maya Angelou.
Seeing as my Grandmother Dorita is the namesake of my company, these words speak to me on so many levels. For most of my career I found that when it came to senior leadership teams and meetings, I was the only woman in the room. It’s an isolating feeling, to say the least. But today, as I am commandeering my own company, I know that I am not alone. I stand for every woman in my family who has gone before me and invested in me and made sacrifices so that I can be the best I can be. I draw my strength from them. I stand for every woman who has gone before me and laid the groundwork towards equality, and for those who continue to fight for equal rights and pay. I stand for my six-year-old daughter and will continue to forge the way for her to be able to pursue any career or opportunity she feels passionate about. Today, if I find myself standing alone as the only woman in a room, I no longer feel alone. I feel empowered by a sisterhood of thousands of women behind me and am constantly reminded that I must continue to help pave the way for others.
I love to hear from other entrepreneurs or lovers of all things dulce de leche.
Thank you for having me and for allowing me to share my story.
Originally published at medium.com