I had the opportunity yesterday afternoon to speak with Tasia Malakasis, head of a highly successful creamery in rural Alabama. Tasia uses her entrepreneurial spirit to bring value to her community and drive passion among her employees. Her diverse background and advice brings inspiration for anyone ready to ‘run the show’. Let me share with you her story:
After nine years of working with top executives in tech-based companies, Tasia was ready for change. Her ‘aha-moment’ came one day while shopping at a Dean and Deluca when she spotted a package of special cheese called Belle Chèvre that was made near her hometown in Alabama. Shortly thereafter, Tasia enrolled in a few culinary courses, quit her job, and moved to sweet home Alabama announcing: “I’m coming home to make cheese.”
Tasia interned at Belle Chèvre for free where she mopped the floors and learned the nitty-gritty of cheese making. In no more than 6-months, Tasia managed to build a trusting partnership with the ready-to-retire CEO, Liz Parnell, and after a few long walks persuaded Liz to sell the business to her. Tasia renegotiated the value, took some debt, and acquired the company. Tasia doesn’t recommend entering entrepreneurship the way she did–leading more with her heart and less with her head–but for her it was the only way. She believes, “anything you do is going to be hard, and you want to do it well, so you might as well love it.” Being a single-mom, in debt, and running your own company can be scary, but as Tasia advises, “caution and knowledge are important [in entrepreneurship], but fear is not.”
Though Tasia set out to learn the industry before acquiring the company, she was far from an expert in the field. The top five reasons why businesses don’t succeed are because people don’t know industry. Tasia leveraged this challenge for more opportunity: “I get to be the ‘village idiot’ who doesn’t know and so just does. I’m not tainted by what people allow or are protocoled. In some ways it’s challenging, but in some ways it serves me well.”
Tasia used her global brand marketing skills and sales background to further market size, triple revenue, and rebuild the Belle Chèvre brand. By the middle of the second quarter in the first year, Tasia managed to launch a new global image that deviated from the niche, high-end focused consumer-base to a more ‘fun’ cheese that was approachable and accessible to the every-day American. Tasia forged new partnerships through cold calls and scaled with mainstream retailers like Whole Foods, Krogers, Costco, and Safeway.
Tasia believes entrepreneurship is all about people. Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is: “Surround yourself with people from whom you want to learn from. Take the lower salary and the lower title to work with someone that could teach you something. Choose people over paycheck.” At Belle Chèvre, Tasia pays it forward. She asks each one of her employees, “What is your ultimate job?” And whatever experiences her employees need in order to pursue their ultimate dream job, she tries to give to them because that’s what people did for her.
Given that I first heard of Tasia at a Harvard Business School panel called Perspectives from Women Entrepreneurs, I inevitably probed into her experience as a ‘female’ in the entrepreneurship field. While Tasia acknowledges that she is a feminist, she defends her hard-fought title as an ‘entrepreneur,’ not a ‘female entrepreneur,’ stating: “I wouldn’t call myself a female doctor, I would call myself a doctor. Like a good business person would do, if you happen to find a barrier, ignore it and find a way around it.”
I learned from Tasia’s enterprising spirit and unique story that it’s never too late to pivot and follow your ever-reaching passions…And if you hit a barrier, surround yourself with people, leverage your inner ‘village idiot’ and just keep going.