I left my fifteen-year, C-level career in healthcare to make dulce de leche. Dulce de leche never fails me. In fact, this inherently Argentine ingredient changed the course of my life in my mid-thirties. I had a successful career as the CFO of a tristate medical diagnostic testing company in Pittsburgh, PA, a loving husband, and four beautiful boys under the age of 5, yet I had a nagging feeling that kept me up most nights. Until one day, I awoke with an innate determination that I needed to make dulce de leche; the real dulce de leche that my Grandma Dorita made me over and over when I was growing up. In February 2009, after months of stirring late into the night perfecting my Grandma’s recipe, I founded La Dorita, an all-natural, small-batch product line of specialty dulce de leche spreads and a liqueur that are representative of my Argentine heritage. The thought of not trying brought me more despair than the thought of failing. Since then, my culinary journey has continued to organically evolve as a result of the roadblocks that have surfaced along the journey. Finally, I should mention that while I started La Dorita in 2009, it wasn’t until July, 2017 that I was able to leave my full time career and dedicate myself 100% to my own company. It was during the arduous process of making medialunas (Argentina’s signature crescent roll) that I decided to leave my fifteen-year career in healthcare in order to fully dedicate myself to my dream of working with food. I had to trust in my gut, and know that once I finally took a leap of faith, the rest would take care of itself. Where it takes me, I don’t yet know, but I’m looking forward to continuing on this journey.
What were the biggest initial hurdles to building your business and how did you overcome them?
In 2012, my husband, Gastón, and I founded La Dorita Cooks, Pittsburgh’s first shared commercial kitchen incubator for local start-up and early-stage food makers. We established the incubator in order to address a major problem we personally faced when starting our own specialty food business. Like many food startups at the time, we were unable to find accessible commercial kitchen space that would allow us to manufacture our product in a licensed commercial kitchen. We were forced to build our own commercial kitchen in the dining room of our home, which required us taking out a $30,000 line of credit on our home. Today, La Dorita Cooks acts as a proxy to capital in early years when growth is risky. We aim to help other startups avoid the very mistakes we made.
Demystifying dulce de leche has, and still is, another one of our greatest challenges. We launched an inherently Argentine product that isn’t acculturated in our market. While US consumers are intrigued with dulce de leche, they still don’t quite understand what it is, how to use it, or how to say it. Many mistake it for caramel. The same goes for buyers at grocery chains who are unsure as to its proper aisle placement. There is enormous potential to establish dulce de leche’s rightfulness as a pantry staple in America, but the ground work has to be laid. It also has enormous potential to create a new value-added product for US dairy farmers.
In response, I wrote my cookbook as-food-memoir, “Dulce de Leche: Recipes, Stories and Sweet Traditions,” (Burgess Lea Press, February 2017), to introduce the “real” dulce de leche to American consumers by shedding light on the Argentine traditions behind the spread and offering recipes that will help root dulce de leche in the reader’s sense of familiarity.
Did you ever deal with contention from your family and friends concerning your entrepreneurial pursuits?
How did you handle it? What would you do differently in hindsight?
Let’s just say that those closest to you are not always you’re biggest supporters when it comes to taking risks and going out on your own. I used to be very open and share my business aspirations with family and friends. I then realized that I had to guard my thoughts and dreams closely, as not everyone agreed with them, or for some reason or other, thinks you are not worthy of them—especially as a woman. I honestly think this stems from the fact that those closest to you are trying to protect you. “Stick to your day job…You have made a good corporate career and you cannot risk your children’s livelihood,” is something I heard often. I also believe that being a woman and mother to five children opened me up for more scrutiny among some of my family members. But in the end, you have to take all of those “no’s” and negative thoughts from naysayers—whether or not they are well intentioned—and use them as even more of a motivation to succeed. I always tell my children, “When someone says you can’t do something, prove them wrong.”
What would you say was the single most influential factor in your business success?
I originally created La Dorita to honor my Grandma Dorita, and leave an enduring legacy in her name. Our business philosophy is simple…stay true to the food, stay true to family, and lend a helping hand where needed, just as our company’s namesake, Grandma Dorita, would have done. Today, I merely need to think of my Grandma, and draw from the incredible memories I have of baking alongside her in the kitchen as a child, to stay on track.
In order to stay focused, you have to be honest with yourself and know what you want—in my case, after 15-years of building a career in the corporate world, I realized I wanted to create my own business that would provide me with a renewed purpose in life and afford me the flexibility to set my own schedule—which is something I feel helps me to be a better mom to my children. Essentially, I wanted to be my own boss—which often requires one to work twice as hard, but is that much more rewarding.
What do you know today that you wish you would have known when you first got started as an entrepreneur?
If I could go back seen years, I’d tell a younger version of myself the following: “What took you so long?” “To take a chance on yourself,” I mean. I’d remind myself that the thought of not following my passion would bring me more despair than the thought of failing. And I’d tell myself to turn every “no” I get as motivation to succeed. And to be mindful of the roadblocks, as their solution could forge a new financial trajectory for the business. In 2009, I knew I had to leave my full time job—all signs pointed to it. Yet I wouldn’t allow myself to risk my children’s livelihood to follow my own desires—no matter how unhappy or torn I felt. I started La Dorita shortly after, and for seven subsequent years worked two full-time jobs—in addition to parenting five children. But it dawned on me last year that my company couldn’t fully flourish until I followed my gut and fully put all of my energy behind it.
What advice would you give to an upcoming young and old entrepreneur locally and internationally?
-I’d advise any entrepreneur to look into joining an industry specific shared-work space that allows them to mitigate start-up risk so they can grow their venture in a community of like-minded business owners who previously forged, or are in the process of creating their own startup paths. Many times they will share their own stories and experiences that will help you avoid the very mistakes they made—saving you time and money along the way.
-Incubators and shared-work spaces can act as a proxy to capital in early years when growth is risky. They provide entrepreneurs a chance to prove their concept before breaking ground and allow them to reserve operating capital for high-priority expenses such as research and development, trademarking, personnel acquisition, marketing and branding. According to research conducted by the National Business Incubation Association, it is estimated that 87% of businesses that graduate from established incubator programs are still in business within five years, versus 50% of those that have not had this support.
-I’d also like to add, don't get discouraged by roadblocks or “no’s” that threaten to deter your business. In my case, it’s the solutions to these very “no’s” that have paved the way for new financial business models and helped my company to evolve.