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“Be Humble With Your Employees. There Is Nothing You Should Ever Be Above Doing” With Agathe Assouline-Lichten

“There is nothing you should ever be above doing. Be humble with your employees. When I worked in corporate America, a boss who hired me told me that she doesn’t hire people who aren’t willing to “get on their hands and knees and pack boxes”. I’ve always run the company with that mindset — and there is nothing that I won’t do, or am above doing. Employees will have greater respect for you if you’re willing to do whatever it takes.”
I had the pleasure to interview Agathe Assouline-Lichten, CEO and Co-Founder of Red Velvet NYC. In 2017, the company won the Campbell’s Real Food Innovation Challenge for being an innovative food company. The bootstrapped company has just hit profitability in less than 2.5 years.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

Before founding Red Velvet NYC, I spent 10 years in marketing, where I focused on strategic partnerships for international luxury goods companies. I started my career with Sotheby’s Auction House, where I worked with Contemporary Art, Jewelry and Timepieces. I went on to work for Swiss watch brand Jaeger-LeCoultre, where I managed events and partnerships in North America, including internationally recognized Film Festivals in New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles. I most recently worked for distinguished jewelry company Harry Winston, where I managed all worldwide events and partnerships, including high–profile galas with non-profit group amfAR in Cannes, Paris, Sao Paolo, Hong Kong and more.

I have a B.A. in Art History from Boston University, and an MBA with a specialization in Hospitality from the Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne in Switzerland. While in business school, I consulted for Swiss food brand Nestle on global coffee machine solutions. Having grown up in the gourmet food business, my passion for food began early on. As a bilingual French speaker, I was able to work and live in Paris and Geneva, and I’ve always used my multi-lingual skills throughout my professional career.

In the summer of 2015, I left my corporate life behind, took my marketing and business knowledge, coupled it with my passion for cooking, baking, and entertaining, and founded the company with my sister Arielle. For me, baking is really about bringing people together. I created Red Velvet NYC to make baking more approachable, convenient, educational, and most of all — fun.

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

Early on, I handled all the customer service for the company. A client whose package didn’t
 get delivered by FedEx who lived in Manhattan and urgently needed a baking kit for a dinner party emailed us to explain the situation. I ended up delivering the package myself as it was on my way home from our Brooklyn warehouse. The client recognized me from
 my picture on the website when she opened the door, and just before walking away, she asked me if I did all our deliveries. I was taken aback since I didn’t think anyone would know who I was, but I smiled and told her that we take customer service so seriously
 that every delivery counts.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our customer service is unparalleled. We go to extremes for our customers to make sure they’re
 happy. When we first started out, I met a client at an event who didn’t think she could bake. She wanted to make her husband a birthday cake, but was convinced she wasn’t up for the task. She asked me if I could bake it for her, and deliver it in Manhattan.
 This wasn’t part of our wheelhouse (we aren’t a bakery), but I wanted the opportunity to get a new customer. I charged a small fee to bake the cake, and delivered it in person. She was so happy with the result that she soon started trying to bake on her own.
 Today, she’s a loyal customer, who has great confidence in her baking ability. For us, there’s never been anything too small (or “unscalable”) to take on, especially when it comes to customer satisfaction.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

Yes! We focused on our core e-commerce business for the first 2 years. Our clients kept asking us if they could find our baking kits in stores, especially when they would see us at pop-up events. We decided to enter the retail market in 2018, and created a shelf-stable
 version of our baking kits that could be purchased in brick and mortar shops. I’m excited that we’re adding this aspect of our business onto our model.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Let your employees make decisions and empower them to do so. They want to contribute to an organization where they’re treated well and valued. They genuinely want to help grow the business, and make it a success. Give up a little control and give them the opportunity
 to make decisions and contribute in a meaningful way. The more they are tied to the company or a project, the more likely they will stick around.

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?

My parents, who are both business owners, have been incredibly supportive of me since day one. At the beginning, they did everything from help my team pack boxes when we were overwhelmed with orders, to help me negotiate leases and contracts. They continue to
 be valuable advisors who have insight on so many facets of the business. They know how hard it is to build something from the ground-up, and can weigh-in with wisdom from decades of experience. I know that no matter what, they always have my best interest
 at heart.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

When we launched the company, it was really important to me that we give back to an organization that made an impact in an area that touched my families life. We created a Pink Velvet cupcake baking kit, a play on our namesake Red Velvet cupcake baking kit, for
 a non-profit organization called Bright Pink in Chicago. They raise awareness around breast and ovarian cancer, and our special cupcake kit gives 20% back to the organization.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You will need to have more confidence in yourself and your ability to lead than anyone else. Many people will tell you why your business won’t work, or how hard it will be and in those moments it’s hard not to let negativity get to you. You have to stay positive and be confident in your idea and execution.
  2. Utilize your team and allow them to contribute — usually, they really want to help. As a business owner, it’s hard to give up control, especially when the company is your “baby”. If you hire smart hardworking people, which you should, you will be surprised at how much they want to own their responsibilities and work to make the company a success.
  3. There is nothing you should ever be above doing. Be humble with your employees. When I worked in corporate America, a boss who hired me told me that she doesn’t hire people who aren’t willing to “get on their hands and knees and pack boxes”. I’ve always run the company with that mindset — and there is nothing that I won’t do, or am above doing. Employees will have greater respect for you if you’re willing to do whatever it takes.
  4. You need to have incredible patience. Great things take time to build and grow. Overnight success doesn’t exist, but success does come when you continue to plug away and try new things. I aim to have as many irons in the fire as I can handle. You never know when a sales cycle will finally come to fruition or what will work out. You just have to continue to try your hardest.
  5. You will always have a new set of challenges; some things will get easier, others will continue to be difficult. When you run a business, you often think to yourself that once you’ve overcome a hurdle, things will become easier. But there’s always another hurdle to overcome. As a business grows, there are just a constant stream of new challenges. But the greatest part of those ever-changing challenges is how much you learn from them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

  1. Running a small business, you learn quickly that things take a long time — in fact, much longer than you expect them to. You can pitch a prospective client and it may take them 4–6
     months to commit. The sales cycle can at times be very long and you may get discouraged. But you can’t get bogged down when you don’t hear back right away. Patience is truly a virtue.

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 whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)

I’ve always looked up to Tate’s Cookies founder, Kathleen King, who built her business from the ground up. She started as a small bakery, and now runs a cookie empire. I love what she says when she talks about running her business. She provides great insight on what you can do to be successful, and empowered me to feel like I can persevere as long as I continue to plug away and remain objective. I would absolutely love to grab tea and coffee with her — with cookies, of course!

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