In my job I get to speak with amazing people every day. From pioneers of impact investing to volunteer advisors who truly care about giving back to visionary entrepreneurs, I am always taken aback by just how incredible the PCV network is.
This week I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Lenore Estrada, who is the perfect example of an inspiring entrepreneur. Along with her business partner and best friend Anna Derivi-Castellanos, Lenore opened Three Babes Bakeshop, a bakery that makes pies from seasonal, organic ingredients, in 2011. Originally from Stockton, California, Lenore attended Yale and then worked for companies like Google, Blackstone, and even as a luxury wedding planner. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2007, she underwent chemotherapy and radiation in New York, where she continued to work full time so that she could support herself and help her parents make their mortgage payments back in California. When her treatment was complete, she moved to San Francisco to be closer to her mother, who had been diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. There, she began writing a book and took a job in Chevron’s alternative energy group, hoping to continue her mother’s work in conservation. But even though Lenore had the opportunity to work at well-known companies, something was always missing.
“I’d always seen myself as a smart, hard-working, curious person, but at every job, I struggled to find inspiration and had a hard time feeling engaged. I started to worry that I’d always hate my work, which was scary,” Lenore recalls. “My mother had had a satisfying career and a great family life and I’d expected the same for myself, but I was stuck in a rut. I realized that if I hated that many jobs in a row, the problem likely wasn’t the job. The problem was likely me.”
So she decided to do something about it. “After college I’d tried working for lots top companies in fields I liked, hoping I’d stumble upon my calling in the process,” Lenore says. “It’s a strategy that works for some people, but after five years it hadn’t work for me, so I tried instead to come up with a list of the actual tasks that I loved to do. I decided that the top three tasks I enjoyed were talking to people, traveling and creating positive change in my community. Then I made a list of jobs that would allow me to do those things. I didn’t want to go back to school, so I decided to try starting my own company.” Lenore’s parents had always been involved in community action, and this work inspired Lenore to start a business with a positive social function – one that would create quality American jobs and promote better environmental practices.
Anna, Lenore’s childhood best friend, shared both Lenore’s passion for food and a commitment to making positive impact in her community, and after graduating from UC Santa Barbara in 2004, she worked for several years in the organic/natural grocery business and attended culinary school. Anna’s parents, who worked with Lenore’s parents on many social justice causes in Stockton, set a positive example as hard-working entrepreneurs (the two of them own an architecture firm in Stockton). Lenore and Anna had always talked about starting a food business together, so when Lenore decided to finally go for it, Anna was the first person she called.
But how did the ladies decide to start a pie business? Well that is another exciting part of the Three Babes story! Both Lenore and Anna have a long history of pie-making in their families. “My mother was from the South and made pretty amazing pies,” says Lenore. “My father’s side of the family were migrant workers, and my grandmother was known for making huge pies and cakes out of whatever fruit was growing nearby to feed the farmhands. My father and I would make pies together all the time when I was a child – I prepped the fruit and he made the crust!” Anna’s family has an even more impressive pie pedigree. Her great-grandfather, who was born and raised in Italy, came to the United States as JP Morgan’s personal pastry chef, eventually settling in California’s Central Valley. There, he planted crops in an effort to recreate the bounty he’d known in Italy. Later, his son (Anna’s grandfather) opened an old-fashioned soda fountain in downtown Stockton, where he made pies by hand. He passed down this skill to Anna’s mother, who in turn taught Anna to bake.
Lenore and Anna already knew how to make pies, but everything else about starting a business was completely new to them. “We had no money when we started, so in April of 2011 we ran a thirty day Kickstarter campaign to raise the $10,000 we needed to start the company,” says Lenore. One month later, they launched. “During our Kickstarter campaign we created a website, found a commercial kitchen we could rent in the off-hours for baking, and persuaded a local business owner to rent us a shipping container behind his café so that we could sell on the weekends. We tweeted, blogged, and emailed everyone in our address books to raise the money.” Their efforts in building buzz paid off. They raised the money within a few weeks, and day the business launched, Daily Candy ran a story on Three Babes Bakeshop’s pie subscription service. The phones rang off the hook for days, and Lenore and Anna pre-sold all of the pies they’d made for the weekend before even opening their doors! The girls pulled four consecutive all-nighters to keep pies in stock that weekend, and were shocked when Food & Wine magazine reached out on day four, wanting to feature the pies in their Thanksgiving issue later that year. Three Babes Bakeshop has since been featured in numerous publications online, on the radio, on television, and in print, including both US and UK Huffington Post sites, Saveur Magazine, Bon Appetit, The Cooking Channel, NPR and even The Today Show. They’ve been honored as one of America’s best pie spots, one of America’s best apple pies, and their pies have been called “quite possibly the best on the planet.”
With all of their early success in the press, you may think that the first year was a breeze for Lenore and Anna. Not so. “Like many small business owners, we hustled to keep the doors open that first year,” says Lenore. “We had to learn how to scale up our production, figure out billing, bookkeeping and taxes, and sell enough to finally be able to pay ourselves.” It wasn’t easy. In addition to their weekend popup, the ladies experimented with a lunchtime pot pie delivery business and tried selling at several local farmer’s markets, before eventually finding a home on goodeggs.com and at San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market on Saturdays. In addition to the demands of opening a business, Lenore and Anna faced many personal hardships as well. After Lenore’s father died unexpectedly, a year into the business, Lenore’s mother, who was battling terminal cancer, lost her home to foreclosure in Stockton. With the help of her siblings and Anna, Lenore moved her mother to an apartment in San Francisco and cared for her until her death in early 2013. Overwhelmed by financial and existential stress, the partners considered closing the doors for a while to catch their breath, but ultimately decided that Three Babes Bakeshop would stay open and continue to move forward.
I asked Lenore what kept her going during that time, as all of these challenges would undoubtedly make even the most seasoned business owner think twice about keeping the doors open. On the personal front, she cites positive relationships with her friends, family, and peers as the thing that has helped her maintain a positive attitude. “When bad things happen, people show up for you,” says Lenore. “It’s amazing, and it feels so good to be reminded how much people care about you and want to support you.”
As far as the business goes, Lenore again cites human connection as an important resource that helped keep her motivated. “When you’re an entrepreneur, it’s easy to doubt yourself and to question the value of your work – you aren’t growing as fast as you think you should be, or you compare yourself to a similar business that is seemingly doing better than you are. But I always find that talking to people, whether they’re doing the same thing or are in a completely different industry, helps to inspire me and give me a sense of perspective about the work we’re doing,” says Lenore, who has organized Lean In Circles in cities across the country to help connect women. “When we were thinking about shutting the company down, talking to people about my work helped me realize that Anna and I had a lot to be proud of, and that the challenges we’d faced were legitimate. It gave me the motivation to keep going for it.”
Lenore also spoke at length about her partnership with Anna, who has been an amazing source of support since the two of them founded the business, both as a friend and as a business partner. Lenore and Anna say that their common goal of creating a better world has been extremely motivating when times were tough. They both feel a tremendous amount of pride and purpose in carrying their parents’ work forward. One way they make a positive difference is by sourcing only organically and sustainably grown ingredients, and by using their brand as a platform to discuss the issues at play in today’s food economy such as water, pesticides and labor issues associated with farm work.
“We choose to use only organic and sustainably raised ingredients in our pies,” says Lenore, “and we have the additional goal of creating manufacturing jobs, both directly – by building Three Babes Bakeshop – and also indirectly – by supporting local purveyors that create quality jobs.” Their own experience, growing up in a working class farming community, watching so many people they know struggle with health problems related to the environment, and seeing the effects of growing unemployment, helps to motivate them. “Our experience growing up in the Central Valley gives us a special kind of authority,” Lenore says. “We believe that the resources in this country are worth protecting, and we want to do what we can to create social and environmental change through our business.”
It is a good thing that the two ladies behind Three Babes Bakeshop kept on going! Not only for the community, which is benefitting from the job creation, environmentally friendly practices and delicious pies that Three Babes brings to the table, but for Anna and Lenore as well! “Starting our own business has given us an amazing chance to talk to people about the issues that are most important to us – environmentally sustainable production practices and working-class job creation in the US. We’ve been so pleased with the way the public has responded to our pies and our story, and I personally am very proud of the fact that we doubled our holiday sales between 2012 and 2013. We made and sold 1,200 pies in three days during Thanksgiving week. We’ve come so far since our opening weekend in 2011, when we had to stay up all night just to make 30 pies!”
When I asked where she saw Three Babes Bakeshop in the future, Lenore said, “we hope to create more working class jobs by opening a production facility in California’s Central Valley, as well as a number of retail shops around Northern California, where we’ll sell pie and coffee.” We certainly believe in this incredible small business, and we hope to work with them well into the future to help them achieve their goals. “We love our PCV Advisor,” says Lenore, “We work with her on everything from accounting changes that will allow us to get better financial data, to talking through strategic decisions surrounding opening our first retail shop, to how different investment models would look for our company.”
We love working with entrepreneurs like Lenore and Anna, and encourage you to continue to support these small businesses that make up our vibrant local economy.
More questions about Three Babes Bakeshop? Check out their website today!