Female Founders: Michelle Carfagno of The Greater Knead On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

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Follow your passion. Pick a business idea, product, or service that truly aligns with something you are passionate about. I remember trying to come up with business ideas and even different recipes after I knew I wanted to do something within the food industry. I wanted to create something I believed in, so it took a while to come up with my idea. Once my sister and grandfather were diagnosed with celiac disease, I felt compelled to create something for those with food allergies. Following your passion first will always lead you in the right direction.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Carfagno.

Michelle Carfagno is the Founder and CEO of The Greater Knead. She founded the company in 2012 after her sister and grandfather were diagnosed with celiac disease. She set out on a mission to recreate their favorite foods.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I grew up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I’m the second oldest in a family of four (three girls, one boy). My mom was a preschool teacher, and my dad was a small business owner (dabbling in video production, janitorial services, and restaurants). I vividly remember being around 10 years old and having strep throat A LOT! It caused me to miss school frequently. I got bored watching most daytime TV (soap operas and talk shows), so I found myself stumbling upon The Food Network one day. I saw Emeril Lagasse and fell in love with cooking, and it became my happy place. I asked my mom to get me some simple boxed mixes for muffins, cookies, and cakes and would bake when I was home sick. My aunt loved baking too, so I eventually learned how to make cakes from scratch from her. When I moved away to the Chicago area for college, I became known as “Michelle the Baker” in every class, bringing cookies, pies, etc. every chance I got. The path to baking seemed so simple, it was always right in front of me. BUT I actually went to school for Music Business Management, with the goal to go to law school and study Entertainment Law. My thought process was, “I need to make money first, and then I can do what I really love.” It wasn’t until I was studying for the LSATs and became frustrated with myself that I had an epiphany. A friend of mine asked me, “Why do you want to become a lawyer?” and my response was “to make enough money to start my own business in baking.” His reply changed my life. “You know Michelle, you don’t need to be a lawyer to start a business.” That set the wheels in motion for me. It still took a few more years to finally start my own business. I started researching all the different kinds of businesses in the food industry (bakeries, pastry chef, wholesale, etc.) and got to work on recipes to find the perfect niche. Then in 2012, my sister and grandfather were diagnosed with Celiac Disease, causing them to have to adopt a gluten-free lifestyle. At that moment, I knew this was the opportunity I was waiting for, and I got to work to recreate their favorite food, a NY-style bagel made gluten-free.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I had a moment early on, when I first started, where I was bartering with a local bagel shop owner to use his space to make my gluten-free bagels. I would give him my bagels to sell, and in return, I could use his shop when they were closed to bake and experiment and grow my business. As my business started to grow, he wanted to be more involved, but I explained I did not want any partners. One day he asked me to meet him at his attorney’s office to sign an official lease just to have some official documents in writing. I didn’t think much of it, but when I showed up, the first question I was asked was, “How long have you worked for [insert bagel shop name]?” I immediately knew this was an attempt to try to say that I created a recipe while working for him, and therefore it was his recipe. I answered “never” and left the room right away. I was so scared, and no longer had a place to bake. I had to work quickly to find another solution and hope he didn’t try to sue me, knowing I couldn’t afford to fight him. Luckily it worked out, and I carried on. It was an interesting lesson for me.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first got my line of gluten-free bagels into a grocery store, I needed to find packaging. I found a local company in Philadelphia and told them I needed clear plastic bags to sticker and put four bagels in. When my order was received, I started filling them and stickering them, and off they went to our very first grocery account. A few days later, I received a call from the store that as people were pulling the bags out of the freezer, the bottom of the bags was falling off, and bagels would fall out on the floor. The complaints continued to keep coming in. It’s funny to look back and picture that happening, but at the moment, I was mortified and had no idea what was going on. I called the packaging company and explained what was happening, and their response was, “Oh, those bags aren’t freezer-safe. You didn’t say they were going in the freezer.” We got new bags, freezer-grade this time, repackaged everything, and were back in action. Luckily the grocery store had a good laugh with us over the situation. I learned in that moment that attention to detail and asking tons of questions is critical as I continued to grow.

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?

I owe much of my success to many people who helped me and continue to do so. One person in particular believed in me from the very beginning and was there to help solve problems, especially in the early days. A childhood friend of mine’s father, Michel, really took me under his wing when I started. From helping me engineer custom parts to get my first machine to work to helping me move countless times, and all the hard times in between, he is such a big reason I am still here today. One of my favorite memories is when we visited a large bagel equipment manufacturer to see if they could help us make it work with our sticky gluten-free dough. Everyone in the room said it could be done, we ran the dough through, and it didn’t really work. The company gave up and didn’t want to help us. Michel saw something as the dough was running through the machine and got to work in his garage to make a piece for the machine that would make it run through. He helped me find a used machine, we installed the part, and it actually worked, despite the experts telling us it would never. He taught me a valuable lesson to always find a solution and believe that something can work if you try hard enough.

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?

I can only speak from my personal experience and what held me back for a while. I definitely lacked confidence in myself, especially in the food manufacturing industry dominated by men. It was intimidating and still can be, as many times the room is filled with men, and I can’t help but feel uncomfortable wondering if they will take me seriously. I think this lack of confidence and fear holds many women back from founding companies.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

I think a few things we can continue to do more of is empower women to go after what they want in the business world, providing support systems and opportunities to get us over the fear hurdle. There are great resources out there, but more women need to know about them. We need to find a way to connect the dots better for women and start while they are young for the next generation, so it continues to get easier.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

I believe women have the ability to lead with their hearts and gut first, and it’s because of that instinct that we have a strong ability to make the world a better place. Women often look at people over profits, and it can create more positive impacts to the business world.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

One myth is that we are fearless, this idea of “fearless leaders.” It’s just not true, we all have fears, probably many of the same ones, and at the end of the day, I battle with fears like everyone else. The choice to feed into that fear is where founders work hard at overcoming it.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

I don’t think everyone is cut out to be a founder. Some specific traits that I think are important are persistence, self-reflection, and courage. You need to be a great problem solver and persist through all the challenges that will come your way. You need to be able to self-reflect and be willing to constantly work to become a better version of yourself. You will need the courage to take leaps of faith and trust yourself in moments when no one else does. If you are looking for a safe routine with a set road map of what to do, have trouble asserting yourself, or lack problem-solving skills, you may be better off as an employee at a company.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

Tip 1: Follow your passion. Pick a business idea, product, or service that truly aligns with something you are passionate about. I remember trying to come up with business ideas and even different recipes after I knew I wanted to do something within the food industry. I wanted to create something I believed in, so it took a while to come up with my idea. Once my sister and grandfather were diagnosed with celiac disease, I felt compelled to create something for those with food allergies. Following your passion first will always lead you in the right direction.

Tip 2: Network and lean on other female founders for support. A great place to find other women in business is by reaching out and getting involved with your local Women’s Business Enterprise Council in your area. They always have tons of events, networking opportunities, and resources to connect female founders with one another. I started early on in the local Philadelphia area going to as many networking events for women as I could. I even got my first loan as a result of these groups. I find it so valuable to have a supportive group around you, and even if you may not have that when you start, you can find that in these groups.

Tip 3: Find your confidence. The idea of “fake it until you make it” is supercritical. You need to walk into a room and convince others that they need your product or service. Even if you don’t yet fully believe in yourself or your abilities to grow a successful company, find a way to tap into some confidence so you can present it to others in a way that will make them believe in what you are doing. The very first meeting I ever had with a large grocery store, I really had no idea what I was doing. My friend suggested I go buy some red lipstick (for the first time ever), put it on, and walk in like I own the place. Still to this day, I’ve always found that when I feel less than confident in myself, it helps to put on red lipstick to embody the type of boldness needed to own the room.

Tip 4: Honor your gut instincts. Women have incredible gut instincts, but many times we talk ourselves out of them because we don’t have experience or think, “What do I really know?” or “That person is probably right, they know more than me.” Tap into your gut and honor those first thoughts about something. You don’t always need to explain it to everyone, just trust your instincts. It took me a while to honor my instincts until I felt the ramifications firsthand. I was trying to sell my products to another gluten-free bakery that didn’t offer bagels. I brought samples to the meeting and was excited to land this account. The owner of that bakery suggested that we work together in a bigger way and started saying that he would be the manufacturer of my product and help me grow. It didn’t feel quite right. I was just there to sell them my product. Somehow, he started twisting it into a different deal, but I was eager to grow. He said in order to see if he could be my manufacturing partner, he would need to see the process. I invited him into my small shared kitchen and taught him about the machines I needed and the processes (yes, we did have an NDA). About a week later, he said he could definitely make them for me. Something didn’t feel right. I didn’t want to give up control in making my bagels earlier on, and I was concerned he didn’t really know much more about manufacturing than I did. I told him I was no longer interested and that I would still be happy to sell him some for his bakery. He quickly responded, “I am making a gluten-free bagel with or without you, so get ready.” He didn’t have my recipe, but he knew my process, and sure enough, he launched a gluten-free bagel shortly after and became my competition. I knew after that experience that the uncertainty and hesitation I felt from the very beginning was my gut instincts telling me this wasn’t a good fit and to walk away. I have honored that feeling ever since.

Tip 5: TRUST YOURSELF. You don’t need someone smarter than you, or who has more experience than you, or who has been in business longer than you, etc., to tell you what you should be doing or agree with your plan. You need to balance listening to feedback and taking suggestions but ultimately knowing that you can make a good sound decision and trust yourself. If you listen too much to others and not yourself, you may end up on the wrong path. I had so many people telling me to FOCUS; only make one product, focus on one revenue channel, focus on a few accounts, etc. I knew that I had a vision and plan that not everyone believed in. I wanted to have multiple revenue streams like food service and e-commerce, not just grocery stores. I wanted to make unique bagel flavors that could be purchased online. I went full steam ahead, and I am thankful to say that it was a winning strategy. I trusted in myself, and it paid off. You should definitely work on doing the same!

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I give back to other women. I do that through one-on-one mentorship, speaking at my local Women’s Business Enterprise Center, and through networking events where I can share my story to inspire and empower other women.

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.

Transparency! Business being more transparent, leaders being transparent. The world is a big place, and if we can be more transparent with each other rather than trying to compete all the time and just help each other out, I think we could do some amazing things and collaborate in ways we can only dream of.

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.

Sarah Blakely is someone who has been inspiring to me lately, and I would love to have breakfast with her to just soak up all the inspiration she offers to women.

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Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.