What snack are you eating while reading this column? Like Brad Pitt always eating in movies, you will often see me holding some kind of food--and the majority of the time, it's Stacy's Pita Chips. I never put thought into the question: Who is Stacy?

Guess what? She's a real, live human named Stacy Madison--and she says the secret to her success is that she "loves to eat."

Madison doesn't often talk publicly about her story, but she and I recently were able to chat. She's stepping out on behalf of a program supporting  women entrepreneurs called the Stacy's Rise Project, and we discussed her history and aspirations for all women entrepreneurs.

Madison's career began as a social worker at a home for pregnant women with drug addiction issues. She made $22,000 a year, she says--after which she left Boston for Hawaii for her first foray into a restaurant startup. Promised a bonus after months of hard work, she was instead fired to avoid compensation.

That stuck in her mind as she grew Stacy's Pita Chips over nine years, from two people and $19,000 in annual revenue to three hundred employees and $65 million in annual revenue. You have to treat your employees as your most important asset--only then will you scale-- and famously, her company gave every employee financial distributions when it eventually sold to Frito-Lay (PepsiCo) for an undisclosed amount in 2005.

Coming home from Hawaii in 1997, Madison and her business partner Mark Andrus wanted to get into the restaurant business. Shocked by the expense of getting started, they decided instead to invest $5,000 into a food cart, registration, supplies and signage. (Not a truck, people--this was a cart like you see selling hot dogs in New York City.)

Her success, though, wasn't in the sandwiches she served. It was, well, in the trash. At the end of each day, she says, she cut up pita bread that would normally have been thrown out, baked it, and handed it out to the long line of waiting customers for free. Bread was the most important ingredient to have in stock for sandwiches, so there was always extra.

Chips didn't factor into Madison's business plan--but, she says, she was always looking out for new opportunities. Customers went crazy for these pita chips, so she and Andrus started selling them for a dollar a bag. This reminded me--as it should you--that even if you're hyper-passionate about your product or service, you always need listen to your customers. They might be telling you to go into another direction.

Still, there was a problem: Can you imagine running a food cart in the middle of winter in Boston? As a solution, she started wholesaling her bags through Stacy's Pita Chip Company, leaving that cart behind. I asked her if she still had the cart. She said she sold it to a kid and exhaled a big sigh of relief as she watched him roll it down the driveway.  

Madison says that if she'd built the company with the intent to sell, she'd have been constantly distracted from actually running the business. Only when she hit $50 million of annual revenue did corporations knock at her door.

That dovetails with my own experiences: I personally get tired of every founder telling me their acquisition plans rather than their plans to grow their customer base. The latter seems clearly more important to me than the former. 

The attention prompted self-reflection, Madison says, and made her realize that her most important focus at the time was her twin daughters. Selling would provide stability, so she and Andrus decided to shop the company--carefully selecting the team of bankers, lawyers, and accounting firms that would guide the process. Madison laughed that she was always in flour-covered jeans when these "suits and ties" would walk in the front door--which even held a sign that said "no ties allowed."

They chose Frito-Lay (PepsiCo), which acquired Stacy's Pita Chips for an undisclosed amount in 2005. Interestingly, Madison says it wasn't their highest offer--but the one that best fit her business and team. It's always hard to weigh values over money, but in the end what will achieve your personal goals--being proud or being just a little bit more wealthy? 

Madison continues to be an entrepreneur--now owning Stacy's Juice Bar and Be Bold Bars--but says the Stacy's Rise Project is her primary focus right now. The idea is to help more women gain access to start and grow companies--and they're putting their money where "your" mouth is, currently matching donations to the program up to $100,000.

The program will award an additional $200,000 to help five women grow food-focused businesses, which is actually how Madison and I connected in the first place: She's partnering with my company, HelloAlice.com, on the competition that will select the five winners. One of these women will win an additional $100,000 grand prize award.

Madison said she wants her daughters to make the same amounts as their male counterparts when they grow up--and that she's proud of the program for providing a platform for women to receive inspiration, courage, grit, nourishment, success and community. (I'm biased, obviously, but I agree.)

She also told me that "community" is a global responsibility--and I think that's a great note to end on. Everyone has a role to provide opportunities for women, even one chip at a time.

Published on: Mar 12, 2019
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