Female Founders: Susan Sarich of SusieCakes On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Stay focused on your “North Star”. Know exactly what makes your business idea different, special & unique. For us, it’s connecting through celebration. We achieve this by having a neighborhood feel in each of our bakeries, providing exceptional guest service and making the very best old-fashioned, classic Americana desserts for guests’ milestone moments!
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Sarich, Founder & CEO of SusieCakes.
Famous for creating SusieCakes, one of California’s top destinations for satisfying the sweet tooth, Susan is a twenty-five-year veteran of the hospitality industry. Upon graduation from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, she grew her hospitality career with a variety of renowned hospitality groups, including the Mobil 5-Star Everest restaurant and Ian Schrager’s Clift Hotel. Ready for an entrepreneurial challenge, Susan moved to Portland, OR where she co-founded Zinc Bistrot, honored as one of Zagat’s “America’s Top Restaurants”.
Combining her business savvy expertise with the treasured 3”x 5” recipe cards passed down from her grandmothers, Mildred and Madeline, she opened SusieCakes in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles in 2006, bringing old-fashioned, classic Midwest desserts such as layer cakes, pies, cookies and cupcakes to the Westcoast. The Company has since steadily expanded throughout California and Texas, for a total of 26 locations and has recently launched nationwide shipping.
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 Chicago and spent a lot of time with both of my grandmothers, Mildred and Madeline. Our days were filled with baking a variety of treats and having conversations around important life lessons. This gave me the skill and passion for hospitality at a young age, which I then turned into a career. I attended Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and after graduation, worked for companies that were best in class, with strong corporate cultures, and were still founder or family led, such as Hyatt Hotels, Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises, House of Blues, and Ian Schrager Hotels. After many years in the industry, I realized many women were leaving the industry because of the taxing hours required and I focused on creating a hospitality company that could incorporate hours less demanding than hotels or restaurants. I had my two grandmothers’ 3X5 handwritten recipe cards and decided that California was ready for some of their scratch made Midwest desserts!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
It has astounded me how much we’ve genuinely become a part of our guests’ lives through the years. Whenever I meet someone on a plane or in the bakery, they almost always share with me their favorite treat, the last time they enjoyed it, who they were with, & what they were celebrating! This is also usually accompanied by sharing a celebratory picture of the cake. It has also been incredibly interesting to see all the many unique and special moments guests celebrate with SusieCakes beyond birthdays, anniversaries, & weddings. . . I’ve received thousands of emails from guests who have had our cakes as part of such celebrations as: a cancer-free milestone, buying a home for the first time, running their first 5K, their dog’s 18th birthday, making a hole in one, learning to walk after being told they never would, having their child read their first book, and the list just goes on. I am humbled by every one of these moments we are a part of.
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?
It wasn’t funny at the time, but one year we didn’t receive enough pumpkin from our supplier to make enough pies for our single busiest day (the day before Thanksgiving). We had the teams, myself included, running around to grocery stores, filling up carts with as many small cans of pumpkin we could find! I learned planning ahead for the “worst case” is always a good idea. I can assure you; we now stockpile pumpkin in September!
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’m grateful to the landlord that gave me the opportunity to open the first SusieCakes location in Brentwood. As a new business owner, establishing credibility is difficult — you have to be ready to pitch your ideas to anyone that is willing to take a chance on you. At first, he was hesitant on taking a chance on me, but I kept showing him my plan and baking treats for him and his family. Eventually, he agreed to issue me a lease, saying that if I was this passionate about getting the location, he assumed would go to great lengths to make sure my business succeeded. I encourage aspiring female founders to persevere through any hardships they will face.
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 think there are two primary reasons for this; the first is the reason EY noted: not receiving funding. I see this first-hand repeatedly; however, I have also seen a tremendous shift in the past two years, where women of my generation are turning around the generation of female founders behind us and not only writing checks, but also providing the mentorship they may need to make their ideas into realities.
Secondly, I think that women are still expected to be the primary care givers to the children in most households. We are expected to take care of the home, family schedules, meals etc. regardless of our careers. There is a societal expectation to “have it all” and this can seem intimidating to a lot of women. To change this means, we have to ignore what society’s narrative this topic and figure it out our own solutions. Maybe this means having a supportive partner willing to share those duties, or it may mean asking for help with those things…and women should just know that that’s okay. It will never be a true balance between work and life, but it’s important to find the balance that works best for you.
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?
Implementing a flexible business model that gives women the opportunity to thrive and render their business ideas is a good start. Additionally, the government offering more small business grants or low interest loans for female founders can help eliminate the underfunding that’s creating these obstacles. At SusieCakes, we help create a guided career path to advance professional development in hopes to create a premier employment destination for hospitality and culinary professionals.
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?
Becoming a founder will help pave the way for other women in many male-dominated industries. With all the hardships women have faced in our respective industries, we know how important it is to be good to people and treat them with respect, so we can bring this aspect to the workplace. Additionally, being a female founder normalizes women as leaders, inspiring upcoming generations to be successful and create their companies.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I think there are many different types of founders. There are founders who are only the face of the company, there are founders that have been bought out and are no longer involved and there are founders who are making big picture decisions but not involved in the day to day. Then, there are founders that are the face of the company, the decision makers and also involved in the day to day. . . I am the latter one! I may be doing a TV interview one day but the next day I am moving boxes and opening a new bakery.
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 believe anyone with a tremendous passion, applicable work experience, and a well-developed business plan should absolutely go for it. My advice would be to not let anyone make you think that your proposed business model is not viable. You have to be tough and be willing to continually pick yourself up when you fall down, which if often. Someone who is not a risk-taken should not become an entrepreneur. For me, taking a chance is better than having regrets.
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.)
1. Surround yourself with people who believe in you. No one does it alone, we all need those people to pick us up when we are down and tell us it’s going to be okay. My grandmothers were those individuals early in my lifet and I relied upon their lessons in believing in myself and being capable of anything when opening the first bakery (& still today!)
2. Make a plan and then prepare for it to change! When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we had to completely turn our business upside down and shift our model to be able to survive the months of back-to-back crisis we were managing.
3. Trust your gut. It is never wrong. I’ve let the analytics around certain decisions such as real estate selection override my gut. In hindsight, each decision needs to be a balance of both head and heart.
4. You will make mistakes, but it’s how you respond to them that matters. I’ve failed many times, in many arenas and the single best thing I did in each instance was dust myself off and get back up.
5. Stay focused on your “North Star”. Know exactly what makes your business idea different, special & unique. For us, it’s connecting through celebration. We achieve this by having a neighborhood feel in each of our bakeries, providing exceptional guest service and making the very best old-fashioned, classic Americana desserts for guests’ milestone moments!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Over the past 16 years, we have donated hundreds of thousands of end of day products to local food banks, veteran’s groups, homeless shelters and women’s domestic abuse safe houses. Additionally, we often donate proceeds to numerous organizations ranging from local animal shelters to the Red Cross and even international causes such as support for Ukraine. At SusieCakes, it’s crucial for us to ensure we are giving back to the community that supported us to become the brand we are today.
I also serve on the Board of Directors for the California Restaurant Association, where we help bring together our community by advocating for legislation, along with providing valuable resources for business owners.
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.
I think there is an incredibly serious mental health crisis in our country. There is a very negative stigma about it, and many suffer in silence because of it.
I also know that there are hundreds of thousands of unwanted animals on the streets and in the shelters who are looking for their forever homes. There are significant studies showing that having pets can improve one’s state of well-being so somehow being able to bring these two groups together could generate a whole lot of goodness.
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 my inspiration — almost everyone told her Spanx wasn’t going to work — (which by the way, is quite similar to my story)! However, she believed in herself and her idea, persevering to be the incredible success story she is today.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.