How To Shake Up Your Career — And Start Your Own Company
Alchemista’s Christine Marcus on the lessons she’s learned
Christine Marcus didn’t take a straight shot to entrepreneurship. She grew up in a Coptic Orthodox Egyptian community in Texas, married young and followed a conservative career path that took her to a high-level government job. But eventually, she wanted more. So Christine enrolled in M.I.T.’s Sloan and went on to found Alchemista, which provides custom meal plans and catering services to companies. We spoke to Christine about carving her own path, and the biggest lessons she’s learned about business.
Katie Couric: You’ve had quite a unique path to entrepreneurship. How much of an impact has being raised as a Coptic Orthodox had on your young adulthood?
Christine Marcus: I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, which — back in the ’70s — was not a very diverse community. The Coptic Church stresses humility and taking a safe, conservative path. I’ve always had entrepreneurial leanings in terms of ideas. But I definitely took a more conservative path when I was younger. I got married at 17 and got an accounting degree instead of pursuing my passion. I also spent a lot of time in my young adulthood feeling different. Coptic Orthodox is a very small minority to begin with — and then being in Fort Worth, Texas, I definitely felt out of place.
But with that difficulty came something powerful: the Coptic Orthodox Egyptian community is really, really focused on family and food. I was taught about hospitality at a very young age. We were always the house that people came to, and my family always went out of their way to make people feel welcome. This experience translates into our business because Alchemista is also all about hospitality. We work to make people feel welcome and recognize diversity. We’re able to bring in foods that reflect different cultures, start conversations, and help people feel like they’re part of a community.
And what drove you to veer off your “safe path” and enroll at M.I.T. Sloan to pursue business?
Education has always been really, really important to me — even as a little kid. I just devoured books and loved to spend hours in my room reading everything I could. I mean, I used to read Encyclopedia Britannica for fun! So I’ve always been really hungry for knowledge. Getting an MBA was always something that I wanted to do, but it was really challenging with two young kids and a very demanding job.
Eventually, I was recruited by the head of the M.I.T. Entrepreneurship Center. Even though I was working in the government, he was the first person to say to me, “Hey, you need to be here and it’s going to transform your life.” Those were his exact words. He saw that entrepreneurial spirit in me — before I even saw it myself.
I looked up the program just a few weeks before it started — and they happened to have someone who had dropped out, so one spot suddenly became available. So it was sort of a perfect storm; the opportunity came at the right time. I knew that if I didn’t do it, then it probably was not going to happen again. I could have never predicted the timing of it or that I would quit my job and move there. I dove in with both feet, and obviously he was right: It has transformed my life.
Now, your business Alchemista is filling a big gap in the corporate food service industry. How did you come up with the idea for the company?
Because our program at M.I.T. was so busy, meals were catered to us all day long — there was just no time to eat and go get food! And let me tell you: the food was not memorable. It was just a meal; nothing to write home about. But one of my classmates happened to be a very successful restaurateur in New England. One day, he catered in food from his restaurant — very authentic Italian food. That’s how the conversation started. I said to him, “Wow, your food is amazing. Why aren’t you in this market? They’re catering to us every day, and your food is so much better.”
From there, he started explaining to me how catering, off-site catering and delivery is a totally separate business. Keep in mind, this was in 2011; delivery services were just getting started. So quickly, I learned the challenges for that part of the business — and that on the corporate side, everybody wanted better food, but nobody knew how to get it. Once I saw the pain points on both the corporate side and the restaurant side, it became very clear there was a huge need to bridge that gap.
What have been some of the most challenging aspects of starting your own company — as well as some of the most rewarding?
The most challenging aspect has definitely been taking the path of being a bootstrapped entrepreneur, especially in this food delivery space — which probably has one of the highest amount of venture capital funding of any industry. It’s in the billions. The companies that we compete against have raised (in some cases) over $1 billion or in other cases, hundreds of millions. However, I chose to take the bootstrap path because I wanted to make sure that it’s a viable business. But having raised under a million dollars in funding didn’t give me enough money to go out and hire a senior team. The company started with just me and some interns because that’s what I could afford. That was very, very challenging.
Once I got to the point that I needed to hire even one junior person with an actual salary, I didn’t have money to do that. I ended up selling my house and putting the money into the company — pretty much my last asset that I owned at the time. I was taking on a huge amount of risk. At the time, I didn’t realize how many resources are needed for marketing, so we didn’t do marketing. But it did mean that if I didn’t go out and get a customer, I wouldn’t be able to make payroll. I was very driven to grow the business organically because, if I didn’t, there was going to be no business.
How did you land your first big client outside of M.I.T., and what lessons have you learned about building relationships with clients?
When we started, I didn’t know that companies provide food. I knew M.I.T. and universities provide food, but I had no idea that Google and other companies provide food to employees. I was speaking with a very good friend of mine, who happened to be a M.I.T. alum, about the business one day and she said, “Oh, I know the CFO of this tech company and they order food five days a week for 150 people. It’s a very challenging program for them to run. So you should talk to the CFO.”
And I did. It was a Thursday and he said, “Well, it’s awesome that you can solve our pain points. We’d love to bring in restaurants. Can you start Monday?” So, of course, like any good entrepreneur — even though I only had around three restaurants at that time and this would be a five day per week client — of course, I said yes. I spent the next few days going out, finding restaurants, and figuring out how to service them. That opened my eyes to this massive market that we now serve.
Alchemista is now in a huge growth period, but how are you planning on competing with the Goliaths of corporate food service?
It goes back to the fact that I don’t have billions of dollars, while the big three corporate food service companies bring in more than $20 billion dollars each. But the way we compete with that is the fact that we’re very agile. We can tweak the model. We can react very quickly to trends, move very quickly in different markets, and develop new product lines because we can respond very rapidly to the demands of the marketplace.
As for customer relationships, it all comes back to hospitality. Having personal relationships with companies and clients is so critical, and I emphasize to every employee that we need to have personal relationships, because we aren’t a tech company. At the end of the day, we’re dealing with people and we want to make it easy for them to break bread with each other. It’s our job to bridge all of those.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This originally appeared in the November 4, 2019 edition of Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. Subscribe here.