Leader you admire most:
John Mackey of Whole Foods
Number of cupcake flavors:
Approximately 1,500 over the past decade
Corporate social responsibility:
Swirlz Cupcakes has supported more than 440 charities
Open another food business that is environmentally sustainable
Unique cupcake flavors from Swirlz:
Lavender Gin, Jalapeño Stout, Chicken & Waffle, Chocolate Bourbon Bacon, Coconut Ube
Questions & Answers
When you were young did you think that you would become a leader and entrepreneur?:
I did. I come from the 1950s so at that time it was not a popular notion for a young woman to think of herself as a leader or business owner. Girls were supposed to be either teachers or nurses. I was always quite independent and had an entrepreneurial spirit. I have many interests, enjoy networking, and I’ve almost never had a boss. I knew I would become a business owner one day, and I think when you’re independent you can do that. Prior to Swirlz, I owned a furniture manufacturing company and did freelance marketing for 15 years.
Starting a business is a very big risk. Do you feel like you are more confident since the business is successful?:
If you want to talk about breaking your confidence, that’s generally what a business does. It breaks down everything you think you know, and challenges you to rethink it. We had a very rough start. There are so many variables that you never even give consideration to and at some point they all seem to occur. Starting a business teaches you patience with the fact that there are so many things you will never control.
At the same time, a lot of things that have happened at Swirlz have been truly magical. Through those positives and negatives, my co-owner, Brandon Mayberry, and I have always focused on the great things and so much good has come out of this. We’ll leave a legacy of joy and kindness, which is not a bad thing to do.
As an effective leader, what are your thoughts about workplace culture and employee communications?:
Swirlz has a very collective environment. Everything’s a great idea in some way, even if not a solution at that moment, but an impetus for another project. Some of my best ideas have come from 5-year-olds who walk into the store. It’s about listening to people and asking questions.
It’s the same with our staff. One of my best employees started off as a dishwasher with us four years ago and now is a head pastry chef. She had no training and no background whatsoever, just an immense amount of common sense and she worked her way up. People often ask if we only hire professionally-trained pastry chefs. We feel that notion would be really narrow-minded because certain people have such innate talent and you always have to look beyond what the qualifications are or what you’re requiring.
So that is a triumph: to collectively work with a whole group and keep the premise of success based on merit. If you have the talent and it stands out, you’ll get the job.
Are there any leaders or historical figures you look up to?:
One of the people who always struck me as someone to watch was John Mackey from Whole Foods. I don’t say that just because we’re a Whole Foods vendor. When his book Conscious Capitalism came out, it was groundbreaking. There was no one else who was speaking and thinking about corporate responsibility at the time like John Mackey. These days it’s more common, in my opinion, in part because of his commitment to change. John Mackey has had a tremendous influence on us; from staying consistent to the brand by maintaining the integrity of the product, to our respect and care for our customers through our core values. Integrity is and will remain the framework of Swirlz.
Do you have any leadership tips or suggestions?:
I think anyone who owns or wants to own a business should focus on listening.
It’s important to listen, read, and keep an eye on the industry—not to copy, but to understand how other people view challenges. I drive from the suburbs every day and people ask, “Do you hate the drive?” I actually don’t. I listen to books and podcasts. It gives me an opportunity to shut my mouth, stay in a quiet space, and really hear what other people are saying and just absorb it.
It’s important to be honest with ourselves and consistently evaluate our strengths and weaknesses. I make lists and question my actions all the time. What did I do a really poor job at this quarter, and what could I have done better? Could I have communicated more effectively? Could I have handled something more diplomatically? I think we make mistakes all the time and we’re really hard on ourselves. It’s important to keep moving forward and make a conscious effort to learn, re-evaluate and apply the knowledge. I trust my instincts as they are usually accurate. If you feel like you’ve made a mistake or you should’ve said something in a different way, chances are you should have. It’s never too late to go back, take responsibility, and move forward.
Do you have advice for young women who want to be leaders some day?:
One of the most important things that I could say to any young woman is to stop creating unrealistic timelines for yourself. That is it. Stop it. Don’t say, “I want to be married by this time,” or, “ I want children by this time.” Stop that behavior. You can’t ever achieve your goals when you think [everything will be] so concrete. There is no timeline. Life just happens. Have a basic plan for your education, have a plan for where you want to be, what your needs are, and how you’re going to pay off your student loans and so on. Just think about sensible planning.
There’s nothing you can’t do, but you need to have a flexible mentality and listen to yourself. Maybe it’s not what you really want to do at the moment. Maybe you’ll be in a position where you have to do something you don’t love for a while, and if that’s the case, well, do the best at it you can. Nothing’s perfect and your journey may not go as planned. But damn it, if you’re doing a job, do it well. You’ll learn a lot of things from other people and about yourself. That’s really important, learning about yourself.
What are your thoughts about mentorship?:
Fiscal responsibility is an important topic when you’re mentoring people, and they need to have an understanding of that. They might say, “I’m not good at numbers,” and you know what, neither was I, but you must learn how to read a financial statement. Every person who is in any business, I don’t care what you do, should still learn how to read one. It just makes sense so that you can understand when people around you are talking business. How do you get advice from someone if you don’t even know what they’re talking about? You need to have a basic understanding of everything, whether you’re good at it or not.
Also, young people often think that someone’s going to give them the answers. But you need to discover the answers yourself. You just have to face it. And no matter what you do, you should find your joy in it.
Where is your leadership journey heading next?:
I still would like another food business. I’m a vegetarian and there are some interesting products out there in the vegetarian/sushi world that are very innovative. I’m interested in sustainable products that provide us with more responsible ways of feeding our planet. The population is increasing at such a high rate and the carbon footprint that we’re leaving is not reasonable. With the enormous amount of meat people consume plus the waste in America, all resulting in the challenge of feeding an ever-expanding population, steps must be taken immediately to ensure that in 25 years we can survive on our planet.
I think we’re going to have to re-evaluate how people eat. Right now, everything is so unbalanced with food deserts in some areas and massive waste in others. There’s going to have to be some solution for the disparity. I feel that until people start really thinking about it responsibly and managing expectations based on the greater good, nothing will change.
People ask me if I’m going to retire but I can’t ever imagine not working. The things I hope to accomplish revolve around improving lives in general. I think I still have much to offer.