Learn from your mistakes. The truth is, we have to accept that everyone’s going to make mistakes, and I care most about the reasoning behind them — there’s always a lesson to be learned. Having a healthy dialogue about mistakes will, first and foremost, help others avoid making the same ones over and over and will assist in developing a process to drive a positive outcome or solution.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pamela Giusto-Sorrells, president and founder of Pamela’s Products, has been in the natural foods space since the 1970s. From 1940–1960, Pamela’s grandparents owned a health food store in San Francisco, Calif. with a small bakery. In 1960, the retail store was sold and, in its place, a wholesale bakery with organic flour milling continued the family business ran by her father and uncle. As a child, Pamela helped on the cookie line, and became a full-time cookie packer after college. The gluten-free foods produced by her family were always high in demand, but Pamela herself found them to be dry and tasteless. After being told she couldn’t take over the family bakery business because she was female, Pamela decided to start her own company. In 1988, Pamela’s Products was founded on the premise that gluten-free foods need to taste great because everyone deserves delicious food. To this day, Pamela still develops each recipe and is the taste buds behind every new product launch. While the gluten-free trend has skyrocketed within the last ten years, Pamela’s has been crafting a variety of gluten-free products for three decades, including the #1 best-selling gluten-free pancake mix in natural foods, other baking mixes, snack bars, pasta and more. A few of Pamela’s personal passions include her relationship with her daughter, traveling and camping with her husband, and good red wine and laughter with friends and family.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was always the food kid. I saw my older brother make a cake from scratch when I was about seven, and from then on, I was hooked. I would volunteer to make dessert, being it was the only time sugar was allowed in my parents’ house. Being raised in the natural foods industry meant I grew up eating my dad’s carob chip cookies, 9-grain hot cereal, and 9-grain sprouted bread. I however, wanted what all my friends at school got to eat — white bread, Hostess Ho Ho’s and store-bought cookies. When I was a cookie packer for my dad, I came to understand that the purpose of our soya and rice cookies was for kids with gluten intolerances. The cookies were awful tasting and I knew I could make them taste better. And thus, a career was born. Not because my family ate gluten-free, but because someone out there needed a cookie that tasted delicious, and I knew how to do that!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
In 30 years, there have been so many experiences, so many stories, disappointments, successes, tears and laughter. One of the most devastating was when my company was small, and Canada recalled some of my items in 2001 after incorrectly thinking our products had gluten (which they didn’t). Ultimately, I was forced to “voluntarily” remove our products from the entire market. During that trial, the outpour of love and concern was amazing. Canadian customers begged me to stay, store retailers and Canadian distributors called me complaining about the injustice of their government, even my competition called concerned for me and my company. People encouraged me to fight back, to stay in the game, to keep making the delicious products they counted on. I didn’t think anyone would care or come to my aid, but there they were, waiting for me when I re-entered the market within the year. This experience made me realize that my company and products made a difference to many.
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 you start a company, you become a product developer, packaging engineer, copywriter, accountant, customer service representative, forklift driver, buyer, human resources manager, salesperson, proofreader, etc. I’m not quite sure how packaging can be looked at by at least a half-dozen people and yet get printed with a glaring typo on the front panel. My Oatmeal Raisin Walnut Cookies (one of the first four cookies I produced) were in the market for over a year before a customer called to tell me that there was indeed no “diary” in the cookies… We had written “diary-free” instead of “dairy-free.” Such a simple mistake, yet so stupid. This mistake taught me that someone else needs to do the proofreading — preferably someone who knows how to spell!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
A simple concept, but while most companies are concerned with profit margins, I’m concerned with what the consumer is going to taste. Will my products make them happy? Will they be emotionally satisfying? Is this a product they will buy for the rest of their lives? For many years I’ve fought with my team about taste vs. profit. I always want more flavor, more texture — and it’s worked. I’m always hearing comments such as, “You’re the company with the food that tastes good.” This is how I want to be remembered.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
My vision for Pamela’s Products was to create foods that I would want to eat daily if I could not eat wheat or gluten. That was the mission I started with in 1988, and it remains the same today. Many comfort foods contain gluten — bread, cookies, fig bars, pancakes, mac n’ cheese, pizza, biscuits, cornbread, chocolate cake, spaghetti, muffins, graham crackers, pie. How much would you be denied if you could not eat these foods?
Ramen has recently become popular with noodle shops opening up everywhere. Ramen is not pasta — it’s a fast, inexpensive, and easy-to-make meal in its own cup with noodles and broth, surrounded by vegetables and protein. My new ramen line is shelf-stable, eaten as-is, with no special equipment needed — just add hot water. And while there seem to be many ramens on the market, mine is made with nutritious bone broth, organic gluten-free noodles, and abundant veggie pieces. Coming out later this year, my line will be available in chicken, beef and a vegan vegetable-only option.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
To have great communication is the best advice I can give. Trouble usually follows a misunderstanding or miscommunication. When people share information, they share commitment, responsibility, successes, failures, but also solutions. You can cover for each other if you both understand the same information, you can back someone up, take their place, help with decisions and see opportunities. A team with great communication is like a well-oiled piece of machinery. It works.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Hire GREAT managers. Being a visionary and a great manager do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. It’s so important to have someone in charge who sets goals, calls people on their short comings, who stops conflict, and creates harmony and productivity, who you can count on, and trust.
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?
In the first years of my company, I attended a distributor tabletop show that was held in the distributor’s warehouse. Due to low attendance, I spent the three days talking with the man in the booth next to me. At the end of the show, Roland Au (who was representing his own company) handed me his business card and made a statement that was the beginning of a long and adventurous relationship. He said, “If you have any questions, give me a call.” I called him the next day.
We spent years traveling from show to show, sharing booths to save money, sharing taxis to save money, and kept each other laughing on long plane rides across the country and back again. Roland was always very happy to advise, discuss and offer ideas, and always told me to “shoot for the moon.” I quickly learned I needed to stay in my comfort zone and do what I was comfortable with. People were, and still are, always trying to push me into something; learning to say “no” was the first step. Any decision I made, I was ultimately responsible for. I remember my dad thanking Roland for helping me make my business a success. Roland, without missing a beat, said, “I didn’t do it Al, Pam did this all by herself.” For my father to hear that I was the reason for my success from another man was huge.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I once met a young woman that told me when she was a teenager and didn’t know she had celiac disease, it hurt so much when she ate that she became anorexic. It hurt less to starve herself, than to eat food and feel sick. That is a powerful statement to orchestrate the importance of eating gluten-free. Celiac disease is an auto-immune disorder, and there is no cure other than eating gluten-free food for life. This is a tall order when you consider all comfort foods are made with gluten. I like to believe I’ve brought some sunshine into the lives of people who wanted something as simple as a great cookie.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Don’t let anything get in the way of your dream or vision
a. In our family bakery, there were very clear male and female roles. Women were cookie packers and ran the office, while men worked in the bakery, mill and shipping, and the leadership team consistent of all men. I loved our family business from the minute I started working there. Watching the flow of paperwork, the manufacturing process, and seeing a team come together to successfully achieve the company vision. When I told my father that I wanted to run the family business, he told me it wasn’t possible because I was a girl and had two brothers that would take over. My father couldn’t fathom a female being a leader of the business. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer, so I started Pamela’s Products. As it ended up, neither one of my brothers ended up taking over the family business. Until he died, my dad and I talked about business, compared notes, and problems — we were passionate about our visions and staying true to them.
b. Running a business is like a game of chess; I always see the bigger picture along with three to four strategies or solutions if I need to move in a different direction quickly. Many people don’t operate that way when it comes to planning future projects, or being prepared for the unknown. I am able to move fast as a problem-solver, minimize negatives as quickly as possible and surround myself with people that understand my vision.
2. Honesty may save your business
a. I learned that telling people the truth was the easiest method when I ran into issues. The stress that came from feeling like I was letting my team down was eliminated upon admitting I failed. Whether it was messing up an order, running the forklift into something or not being able to pay a bill, I could work on a solution with my team by admitting my faults and asking for help. I enjoy having a team in which I am a member, not just the owner. When we have great successes, the team shares in that success with me. When we have a challenge to work through, the same goes.
b. Before I owned the cookie bakery, I had a huge bill with the owner that I was struggling to pay on time, but I needed to make cookies to keep up with demand. I called the owner to explain the situation and we worked out a solution including a monthly payment plan for past monies owed, while also paying on delivery for current orders. I paid him in full within a year, and no longer had the stress; this also saved my company.
3. Learn from your mistakes
a. The truth is, we have to accept that everyone’s going to make mistakes, and I care most about the reasoning behind them — there’s always a lesson to be learned. Having a healthy dialogue about mistakes will, first and foremost, help others avoid making the same ones over and over and will assist in developing a process to drive a positive outcome or solution.
b. I, of course, made many mistakes in the last 31 years, but one quite large one was the year we made a cookie packaging change from trays and labels to boxes. During this time, UPC codes came on film that was stripped into typeset artwork. The UPC code film was created and mailed to me from a vendor and I didn’t double-check it because I trusted everyone else. The UPC codes were all printed incorrectly so we spent three months relabeling all one million boxes (I was also seven months pregnant!). The vendor worked with me and ended up splitting all the expenses, and today, I still work with them — loyalty!
4. Know your strengths, and hire better and smarter to fill the gaps
a. Somedays I feel like I’m a terrible leader. Sure, I’ve been doing this for over 30 years, I’m fun, energetic, and bring a positive spirit to my staff, but we need structure. One of the most important decisions I ever made was hiring my VP of Sales and Marketing, Linda Gerwig. She came with intelligence, rules, procedures, goals and a corporate culture mind-set to help curb my “flying by the seat of my pants” way of running the business. Hey, it worked really well for many years! That said, from then on, she helped manage the hiring process and has compiled an amazing group of people that I call my dream team. I’ve found that I’m better at my job when others do their jobs well.
5. Always ask questions and stay actively involved in your business
a. I believe that it’s important to keep your hands in everything. Observe, ask questions, double-check, verify and trust your instincts — knowledge is power. Being actively involved will save you money, emotion, time, irritation, frustration and possibly your business. Unfortunately, when you own a company, you may experience hardships from staff members including lies, stealing, entitlement and being downright hurtful — but I’m still standing because I remained dedicated and involved, and eventually figured it out. I now have an incredible team that allows me to not have to be “great” at everything. Staying true to my vision has been important, but I believe being open-minded to growth and future thinking through the encouragement of my brilliant staff, says more about my leadership qualities than anything.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
My ideas have always been simple; a better-tasting cookie for a happier life. I don’t think we give enough credit to the little things that can have a huge effect on others. I fear for the younger generations who are so attached to their phones that they never look up. How many sunny days go by without one thought about the sun shining its beautiful golden rays? Do they notice when spring comes; when the buds are slowly forming on the trees? Are they paying attention as another homeless person is on the street, or to the thousands of volunteers in this world who give of themselves so that others might be better off? I often think about the cars that almost hit me when I’m walking because everyone nowadays is on their phone or in such a hurry that they no longer see. I want to stop people in their tracks and make them look around; enjoy the earth and its people while we have the chance. I think there needs to be more acts of kindness, positive public service notices and paying it forward.
Smile. Smell the flowers, feel the sun, enjoy the rain. Pay attention to the world and people around you. The first step is to see that there are problems, then maybe it motivates you to do something about it. Is it as simple as thanking others for what they do? Maybe, just maybe, it’s not all about you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“A place for everything, and everything in its place.”
This is a quote from my Italian grandmother, Amelia. My grandfather was always starting businesses that she had to work at — I’m sure there was a reason for this being something she always said. The one thing I knew about myself was I did not want to be tied down to an office. I watched my dad be married to his business; never away from his office Monday-Friday, always at the mercy of the phone. This quote would pop into my mind as I maneuvered through my chaotic life. I wanted to be able to travel and run my company from a phone — I can still call someone in my office to go to my desk and find the pile on the left, dig down about half-way, and look for the document on green paper.
Some of the biggest 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 :-)
When I think about people who I admire in business, Richard Branson comes to mind. I love the casual nature that he brings to business and his friendliness, without the need to wear an expensive suit to show he’s boss. I love his compassion for people that work for him — treating everyone with respect. We, after all, don’t get here without the aid of so many others. His creativity of trying it his way, with his vision, even when it goes against tradition. I love his end results — who knew flying could be so enjoyable as when he launched Virgin Airlines. From the terminal to the plane, he showed us things could be different. He seems to enjoy life, all while working. Richard Branson seems to be a person who grabs life and is not afraid at all to take it by the shoulders and shake it up. It’s the fearless ones who make the differences in this world. I like to think I have made a difference, albeit a small difference, with a cookie.
Thank you for joining us!