A roller coaster ride of entrepreneurship, sustainable products, and the foodservice industry
Early in 2020, I wrote a blog post about my entrepreneurship journey and about Elohi, my baby, turning five years old. I had a top-of-the-mountain perspective, and I thought I knew some things. None of us knew then, though, what the following two years would hold — pandemic, racial reckoning, an intensifying climate crisis, political polarization. When COVID-19 arrived in March of 2020, I put off posting my birthday card to the company, but here it is, now, a couple of years older and a little wiser.
On February 15, 2015, I was a very naïve first-time founder, which is a good thing. Who would actually start a company, knowing all the pressures of a small business founder? A staff of seasoned professionals, who could go anywhere and enjoy a stable paycheck, instead decide to bet on YOU, and to depend on you for their families’ livelihoods! I wrote in 2020 that I am so thankful for my foolish, trusting employees. That’s still true, and I’d say that now, in 2022, I’m also humbled by the trust and loyalty those same employees have shown during the ups and downs since then.
I also launched this company in the food industry, where only one in five executives is female. Crazy, right? Even crazier, 39% of US businesses are women-owned, but they only account for 8% of employment and just 4% of US business revenue. So, was I destined to have an underperforming, understaffed company? Nah, I had a vision!
The Entrepreneurship Dream
Upon “separating” from my last corporate gig, I wanted, needed something different. I couldn’t imagine doing the corporate dance again. Starting with the exciting honeymoon period of learning new products, tackling new challenges, creating a new vision – those things appeal to my entrepreneurial nature. When things shift into the daily grind of monotony, frustrations, corporate hierarchy, lackluster leadership … I get bored after a few years of the same nonsense. Time to create my own nonsense!
The average high-growth startup founder is 45 years old. So, while some could accuse me of a mid-life crisis when I started Elohi, I prefer to say, “Nailed it!” For my 45th birthday, I founded a company that would bring my vision to life for a better company and a better way of working in foodservice. I founded the company that I would want to work for, whose employee I would want to be.
I had a vision. I wanted to develop something that is not a brokerage and not just a consulting company, but something new — a company where we advise, guide, and actually do the real work. I dreamed of getting companies started and then letting them go.
Uhh! Reality can be cruel. Sure, I had a lot of cross-functional experience with sales, marketing, and operations, but boy, did I get a financial lesson in cash flow. Payroll, benefits, taxes, etc. Yikes, I wrote in 2020, didn’t these realities understand that I had a vision? Little did I know the financial lessons we all, especially in foodservice, had ahead of us!
Thirty-two percent of small businesses are five years old or less. A third of new companies fold within their first two years, and half close within their first five years. Ha – we beat that statistic! But it was not easy. Fortunately, I had the benefit of a key role model to follow. My mom started her agency while raising two kids. More on my mom later, because she deserves her own article, but her example and determination inspired me when I founded my baby, and helped me keep a positive attitude during the last couple of uncertain years.
I could see the opportunity in the market for natural, sustainable food companies to come in and change the game. I knew the complexities of the foodservice business and believed that I could develop a new type of organization to help those companies compete and succeed in the channel. I could see a place for something exactly like what Elohi would become.
However, another new and exciting opportunity, something I thought had the potential to rock the foodservice world, enticed me away from Elohi, my temperamental toddler. That other opportunity did rock the world, but then I missed my child, and I wanted it back. With a refined perspective, renewed energy, and new geography underfoot, I came back!
My hiatus from entrepreneurship and trip back to corporate-land reminded me of my love for my company. I still wanted Elohi, but I wanted to do it differently. Better. As so many startups eventually discover, the visionary founder isn’t necessarily the right person to run the day-to-day business, to keep the train running on the rails, and to keep the cash flowing.
Enter Dimitra! Fortunately for Elohi and me, I found a powerhouse foodservice executive who had the talent and experience to run this company and muscle it toward my vision. Not to mention that she has the unique temperament to understand and embrace my delightful personality. Her steady hand and … ahem, demeanor … have not just kept us on track and on time but guided us into enormous growth.
Five years in, Elohi began to resemble the company I originally envisioned. We had an exciting group of clients, employees, and business partners. I came back to having fun as the founder — that same person with the new, crazy ideas, but now with an incredible and talented team around me to help make them a reality. Now, more than seven years in, that team has grown exponentially and includes more than fifty employees and executives who make shit happen.
Fifty-one percent of small businesses are ten years old or less. I am proud now to be in that group, and to be a part of the 12.3 million women-owned businesses in the US, generating $1.8 trillion a year. The challenges keep coming, and bi-weekly payroll still daunts a person sometimes, but the vision has come into focus, and there is nowhere else I would rather be every day.
Happy fifth birthday, Elohi, a little bit late!