Women’s lifestyle expert Claudia Chan talks to baker extraordinaire Eleni Gianopulos about cookies, motherhood, happiness and more.
Through a twist of fate, Eleni Gianopulos, who had a passion for baking, began a small catering business in her apartment. What began as a side business featuring her mother’s oatmeal-raisin cookies quickly outgrew her home oven and evolved into a full-fledged cookie empire. Since 1997, Eleni’s New York has been a must-stop at Manhattan’s iconic Chelsea Market, later followed by an expansive e-commerce website, where irresistibly designed custom “Conversation Cookies” and other treats await, both locally and nationwide. Today, Eleni’s custom cookie creations are a favorite of celebrities, luxury brands, Fortune 500 companies and cookie lovers alike. In addition to her stores, Eleni’s signature hand-iced sugar cookies can be found in Dean & Deluca, Whole Foods and Fairway Market, to name a few. As a working mother doing what she loves, Gianopulos knows that having it all isn’t easy, but she believes that it is possible with the support of other women.
Claudia Chan: What kind of visionary are you? What’s your process or pattern?
A: I am so passionate about my cookie company that at times I am a challenged leader. My mind races with so many different ideas for the company at the same time and I can sometimes confuse my employees. I always have to remember to slow down and take the time to convey my vision, since it is so important to me. I am passionate about the design of each cookie, the way we package our gifts, the way our production process is executed and I very much enjoy leading the team’s creative vision. My pattern is to outline the concept for a specific season or new product launch and then turn it over to our department heads to execute. They are all very dedicated individuals who deliver perfectly. I want my employees to know and feel that our work is a collaboration of ideas. Although I lead various departments, from baking to marketing, we all work together to throw out ideas, and as a team decide what would be the best way of pursuing each and every idea.
My number one priority with leading my team’s vision is listening and carrying out ideas and suggestions from our customers. They have truly shaped the growth of the company. As a leader, I have taken much time and effort into surrounding myself with a team that is equally creative, but more importantly incredibly disciplined, to take on ideas and execute them with perfection. To keep the company moving forward with well-defined goals, I always keep a helicopter view of all departments.
CC: Besides capital, what are the 3 most important things one needs in getting a business off the ground?
A: 1. Confidence and an “I can do” attitude. When I started my cookie company with an oatmeal raisin cookie, my parents said, “Are you crazy? What makes you think your oatmeal cookie is going to be better than every other oatmeal cookie in an already saturated market place?” But I believed in my product and could identify what made it superior: all natural, perfectly round, soft center, crisp edges. 2. The ability to take risks. 3. Determination. Do not give up when you hit a bump in the road. You have to have the ability to roll up your sleeves and get the job done whatever it takes.
CC: Women having it all. Do you believe it’s possible or how do you respond to it?
A: Yes, I firmly believe women can have it all. I think it takes a lot of hard work and balance, but that it can be done. I tend to hire women over men; I try to be supportive of women who are just getting started either with their career or plan to start their own company. I have found for the most part, that women are incredibly supportive of other women and we can all help each other’s success.
CC: What advice do you share with a woman who can’t find a job?
A: Get your foot in the door! If you are re-entering the job market because you took time off to have kids or were unfortunately let go, read job descriptions well and don’t feel discouraged or uncomfortable to apply for positions you are overqualified for, because you never know what opportunities can come about from a great interview. I have had several experiences recently that prove this point.
I recently ran an ad on Craig’s List, first come first serve, to decorate cookies at minimum wage. We tend to get very busy during the holiday, and needed extra hands to help our in production. A woman responded with her resume that showed roles of management and a degree from a prestigious university. I said, “What are you doing applying for this job?” and she replied, “Getting my foot in the door.” She was right, and is now being groomed for a lead role in production. Another candidate came to interview for an entry level customer sales representative role, and ended up landing a position in a much more senior corporate sales role. You never know what opportunities are out there, until you get your foot in the door.
CC: How do you fight the fear of pursuing your purpose and passion when it could mean a cut in salary (or no salary), relocation, starting from scratch, etc?
A: Determine what you want in a job. My father gave me great advice a long time ago. He told me to determine what it is that I want in a job and explained the differences. He said, “There are people who want to make a lot of money, if that is you, pursue a career that will lend itself well. There are other people who are passionate about a certain field like teaching or the arts, which are extremely rewarding, just understand that it might be a career that will have financial limitations; if you are comfortable with that, then great. And then there are people fortunate enough to create a field and a role that allows them both passion and financial reward; but those are few and far between.”
You can often find examples of people who work on Wall Street; they don’t necessarily love the work but they love the money it rewards, so that job fits that person well. However, if the money stops, the individual is left in a job that does not provide happiness. I will always advise someone to follow their dreams. I grew up in a household where I watched my father go to work every day and love what he was doing. He came home each day more happy than the last, sharing the experiences of his day with my family. He has taught me that you do not have to sacrifice happiness for hard work. I have had to give up my own salary during difficult growth periods or devastations like Hurricane Sandy. I enjoy the salary but it is not what drives me. I feel very fortunate to be in a job that I truly love. I enjoy coming to work every day and I adore the people I work with very much.
CC: What advice can you share with new moms?
A: It is so challenging to be a working mom, yet I would not trade it for the world. I love my kids and I love my job. I think I am a better mom because I go to work, and am not with the kids at every minute of every day, but I also understand that everyone is different. I’m also a more understanding boss towards other working moms because of my kids. My children are 5 and 6 years old. I have learned that my company will run without me and that it is so necessary to take vacation time away with family to rejuvenate my soul and to spend quality time with my children. Even if we just spend the week as tourists in New York City, which we have done on several occasions, it’s important to take the time away from work and spend it with your family. When I am home with my kids I am always “in the moment.” As a working mom, know there will be times you wish you could be a stay-at-home mom, know there are soccer games and trophy presentations you will not be able to attend, but also learn to appreciate every minute you have with your children. What has helped me lately is to understand not everything is going to be perfect. I have learned to carve out 3 hours a week for myself when the kids are at school and my husband is at the office. Those three hours of being home by myself can rejuvenate me for the entire week.