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A Deep Dive into Small Business with 3 of Yelp’s 2023 Luminary Fellows

Season 2: Episode 13


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Yelp’s Small Business Expert Emily Washcovick sat down with three of the inaugural Yelp Luminary Fellows—women entrepreneurs who have built businesses from the ground up—to talk about the challenges and benefits of owning a small business as a woman. Listen in as they discuss how they paved their ways to success and how networking and finding community have been instrumental to their growth.

On the Yelp Blog: Learn more about the three powerhouse fellows and their strategies for educating, delegating, and humanizing the customer experience.

EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Behind the Review features conversations with business owners and customers who wrote one of their Yelp reviews. In our discussions, we talk about lessons they’ve learned that can be used by other small businesses to improve their own reviews…and their bottom line.

Occasionally, I also talk to industry experts who have additional insights into things like customer experience, small business technology, or general advice for running a successful small business. Today, I’m doing my first ever business owner round-table. This past April I had the chance to go to NYC for a week and work with a very talented colleague of mine, Andie Zimmerman for a Behind the Review video shoot. We brought together business owners and consumers in-person to talk about what makes their connections so memorable. We also did our first ever conversations with multiple business owners together. I do these types of panels all the time, but to do it ‘on the mic’ for Behind the Review was pretty cool.

Let’s give our conversation a listen.

EMILY: I cannot believe we are here sitting in the same room. Me and multiple business owners.

We have never done an episode with multiple business owners together, but who better to do it with than three of my Luminary fellows based in New York. And we’ll dig into that fellowship a little later.

But you all didn’t know each other prior to about four months ago? [Nope] And you had never met in person until today. Oh, it’s exciting. And I had never met any of you in person. [That’s true.] So this is really exciting. You all come from very different industries, but the overlap is insane. Like when I was thinking about what we’re gonna dig into today, The themes and the topics are there. No matter what you’re all working on.

So to start, why don’t we go around, have everyone introduce themselves and tell us about your business so people have a little background of who you are. Irma, I’m gonna start with you.

IRMA: Thank you, Emily. I’m Irma Cendeno Verdon. I am the founder and CEO of Diafano. Diafano is an e-learning language learning platform that helps companies create better work cultures, champion DEIA, support limited English proficient employees and provide professional development opportunities to staff all through the lens of language. I also have a second company, Main Couture, that’s in fashion.

EMILY: Incredible. Let me just say, a lot of business owners can’t give that elevator articulated pitch of what we do. That was good. That was so great. That was a while. That was was good. That was so good. We know what you do. Easy know. You do. All right Dianna, no pressure.

DIANNA: No pressure. Thank Irma, thank you. My name is  Dianna Rose. Hi Emily. It’s so cool to be here. I am the founder of Jars of Delight, a zero Waste Catering company based here in New York City, and we provide Caribbean fusion meals in mason jars, yes.

EMILY: Meals and mason jars. Yes. We’ll dig into that more. But it also is Earth Week right now when we’re filming. Yes. Which is so fun to have a sustainable business in here.

DIANNA: It’s, we have a lot of stuff happening this week, so I’m excited to talk to you about it.

EMILY: Incredible. Miriam, bring us home.

MIRIAM: Hi. It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me, Emily. I’m Miriam.

I am the founder and head trainer at MF Strong. So we are a full service personal training business. We operate both in person here in New York City as well as virtually. And MF Strong focuses on providing a positive approach to fitness. So we’re fitness and personal training without the diet culture, without the shame and the guilt that you’ll often find that perpetuates much of the fitness industry.

EMILY: And all of you have this common thread where there’s some education required when you market to customers. Miriam, with you, you are breaking a lot of the norms of the industry. With you, Dianna, it’s about educating behind the clean and sustainable behaviors and why it’s good for them as a consumer.

Yeah. And for you, Irma, it’s all about that personalized experience and getting inside those corporations so they understand how that can help them grow. [Right] I want you all to dig in a little bit into how you do that. How do you communicate and educate at the same time?

And I’m gonna start with you, Miriam, because you really do that every day in all of your social posts.

MIRIAM: Yeah. It’s a really important part of what we do because I think a lot of people have a very … they have a certain idea of what to expect when they go into a fitness space, and we’re the antithesis of that.

So I always wanna make it really clear, so that we’re attracting our ideal clients. Because our clients typically are people who have, they’ve done it all. They’ve tried everything, and they haven’t had a necessarily great experience in the past in gym experiences. Maybe they haven’t felt safe, maybe they haven’t felt supported.

And maybe they’ve just in general like never felt comfortable even entering those spaces in general. And so we always want clients to feel like, no, we’re the people that you can turn to, regardless of what your previous experiences with fitness are and help you reshape your entire relationship with exercise and with your body.

So it’s really important that in everything that we do and everything we share, that we’re making that very, very clear so that we’re attracting the right people and that, we’re separating ourselves from the industry at large. Because we tend to disagree with a lot of the industry at large.

So it’s very interesting being a part of that industry while also kind of constantly making it clear that we have, we have different values, and we have very, very specific kind of guidelines and things to expect when you work with us.

EMILY: And there’s this whole group of individuals who maybe doesn’t even know they’re searching for different than regular trainers. But they see what you have and they’re drawn to it or attracted to it. And a lot of it’s coming from your mouth. It’s not just posts about who you are. Talk about that, like getting yourself on there with your face Yeah. And humanizing it.

MIRIAM: Yeah. I think that’s a huge part of it, right? Because, a part of what we talk about at MF Strong is we’re not just trainers, we’re humans first. And that our clients are humans first, and we’re working with you in that kind of experience, because I think in general in fitness, it is sort of this idea that like you work with a trainer and they tell you what to do and that’s it.

Whereas like we want it to be a collaborative experience where we are obviously using our expertise. We all have multiple certifications and knowledge obviously about training. But at the end of the day, you are the expert on your body, right? I am not the expert on your body. So I wanna work collaboratively with you so that you can get the best possible experience so that you can enjoy yourself and again relearn that trust within yourself, so that hopefully you enjoy movement again, and find something that’s sustainable for you.

So that’s why it’s really important that when I show up online it’s as myself, and just kind of humanizing that trainer-client relationship.

EMILY: Yeah.  Dianna, when I first discovered Jars of Delight, I remember the first thing I saw, which was the website with the colorful jars full of the mixed greens and the different fresh vegetables.

And right away it made sense to me. But I think that even if customers are drawn to how beautiful it is or the terminology for sustainability, they might not understand the impact on the earth. Or even maybe like why the price is what it is. How have you connected those dots?

DIANNA: Yeah. That’s really important because one of the biggest things that I saw when I started Jars of Delight, which the genesis of that was really, I was a personal trainer for an MMA fighter and that’s how it started. And he posted it on his social and all of his MMA buddies and friends wanted to purchase. So that’s really how Jars of Delight started as a personal meal prep service.

And then we were able to do a pitch for the business of women entrepreneurs. And I guess in that education, just talking to her about why the company existed and our foundation. Why Zero waste matters and zero waste as being the core of our business. Not just in food waste, but also how we treat our employees, right?

How we handle our food waste, how we handle our customers and our marketing materials. She was like, I wanna book you. And that was our first big event. 350 people. And it was just, the setup was beautiful, as you mentioned, but it was the educational components that we use as our setup display that drew people in and helped them to really understand like, oh, this is really pretty. It’s really delicious, but it’s really dope too, because I’m learning a lot about zero waste. What it really is, and not the green washing of zero waste that over the past decade we’ve come to know. What a lot of companies. But really why this small business in New York City is really tackling such a big issue like climate change. And I think, like you said, Miriam just humanizing these terms and not just letting it be these words that you hear, these buzzwords, but really understanding why we use glass mason jars and why recycling them is a cool thing to do.

And I think that’s what drew a lot of my corporate clients in. It wasn’t this grand idea, it was this small company is trying to tackle something. The food is pretty, the food is delicious, but also the education is simple for you to understand. And I feel like if I could explain it to my six year old I’m doing a good job.

And that’s just how we’ve been able to educate our clients on zero waste and sustainability.

EMILY: It’s incredible. Irma with you, I always am thinking about breaking into the corporate clients. And something, you and I have talked a lot about – What you know is the best fit for a class size or how many classes a certain group might need because of how big they are. And that requires clear communication and education so that these customers are actually choosing the appropriate package.

But we all know that they really just want the cheapest package. Talk to me about how you have really worked through that, because it’s been some hard work to be honest and coach clients into what they actually need.

IRMA: Yeah. It’s so interesting because we’re all talking about humanizing the process, right? And what we’ve seen a lot in the language industry is dehumanizing the language learning process. When the truth is we all want to learn language because we wanna connect. That’s the only reason why we learn languages.

We want to connect with people whether we’re traveling, whether we’re going to the other end of town to, to go shopping, whatever it is. And for us, that educational component goes to the student because we have to explain to them that you don’t learn a language with just 10 minutes a day.

You’ll need like 10 lifetimes if you wanna do that. But then we also have to educate the corporate client and that’s tougher. That’s definitely tougher because in a lot of cases the students have already been exposed to language. They took it in high school, they took it in college, they stopped using it, so they lost it. Or maybe they tried, so they know it’s hard. And they’re just trying to find a solution that they can really trust and are really like, hold them accountable. Right? A solid method that’ll hold them accountable with great teachers.

Now, when it comes to companies, I feel like I’ve really been a trailblazer when it comes to this because the term linguistic accessibility has never really been used before, or what I call language equity.

And we all know about cultural equity. We all know about DEIA and equity in general, but when it comes to linguistic equity, we’re talking about – how do we make sure that we’re preserving language? How do we make sure that we are reflective of the communities that we’re actually trying to serve. And that we’re aware of which communities we have unwillingly overlooked.

We also wanna be aware of what other languages our organization speaks. So I put all that together. We have a very data driven approach to how we actually do business. In most cases, it’s not a company coming to us and telling us we just wanna learn Spanish. It’s us going to them and saying, you might be interested in Spanish, but I need more data to really find out not just what you want, but what your company wants, because that’s it at the end of the day, right?

So that part is more of the challenging part and it’s an ongoing process. But through implementing these classes through reassessing, through figuring out the size of the groups, like you said, the language levels, and just really analyzing the data as we go along, that’s really what’s helped us, really differentiate ourselves.

And it’s completely different from anything that’s out there in the market because people here, all language classes and companies pay for that. Yeah, it’s equity.

EMILY: It adds to the value.

A big theme I wanted to dig into today is how lonely it is at the top right.

Every entrepreneur always tells me that I think female entrepreneurs experience it even more because of battling gender inequality in your industry or just being able to find like-minded people to network with. But you all have also done a little bit to help your own businesses. You are in this Luminary Fellowship, which is a community and a network of other strong entrepreneurs.

Talk to me about how you decided to focus on getting an opportunity like this and why it was important to connect with other people or what connection means to you?  Dianna, you wanna start?

DIANNA: It’s so funny cuz I hear that term all the time. That’s lonely at the top, but it’s lonely at the bottom. It’s lonely in the middle. It’s lonely on this entrepreneurial journey. When you’re starting out, there’s so many things you don’t know and sometimes your inhibitions and you’re afraid to ask, so it’s not just when you’re at the top. But I think opportunities like this Luminary and Yelp fellowship is so important because one, we’re here now

And I’m sitting with two amazing business owners that I probably would have not met outside of this fellowship, right? And after this podcast, we’re gonna be able to connect and talk and just bounce ideas, amongst one another. So that’s really important. And there’s something about being in a club and in a clique that it’s gonna be a lot easier for me to connect with you, Miriam.

It’s gonna be a lot easier for me to talk about the highs and the lows of what I’m going through as a female entrepreneur. Whether that looks like capital, which is really the biggest hurdle, and especially as a black female entrepreneur, it’s discouraging at times because we know that barriers of receiving capital to build my business are just they’re there, there are real barriers.

And it doesn’t matter if your projections look good. It doesn’t matter what your history look like, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a barrier. So I think opportunities like this Yelp Fellowship, it afforded me an opportunity to speak on a panel at Luminary last week, in which I met some other amazing women, and we have already connected and we’re already planning our second meetup, right?

It just strengthens you. And again, back to that, I don’t know why that theme, humanizing, this experience keeps coming up, but you don’t feel alone. You don’t feel scared as much as you would when you’re by yourself. And opportunities like this Fellowship teaches you so much. That you’re not really alone and the fallacies that are in your head sometimes, we all think them. We all feel them, but the successes are also real. And we like to share them and celebrate them. It’s really important, I think, and this particular fellowship, I myself, am trying to maximize as much as I can get out of it because it’s already been such a blessing to me and my business.

EMILY: I did a bad job setting up the fellowship. So let me give our listeners a little context. And then we can keep digging in here. But Luminary is a group of strong female women. They also have allies included as well. But it began as an actual space here in New York that was a community being built in New York.

It was all about connecting women who were in the same area. And then when the pandemic hit, they realized this connection could go way beyond just New York. So they still have their beautiful space here in the city where you can go work and network and go to events, but they also have this huge network of women across the country and honestly across the world, who are all dealing with similar things.

You can search the database and find other people. And the fellowship itself is something where Yelp partnered up with them to sponsor a year-long membership for 15 women. And I’m so glad that so many of you were here in New York because you do get to maximize those in-person benefits. But you’re also able to go to other places in different cities if you need a place to co-work. They have partnership spaces, but it takes some work on your end. [Mm-hmm. It does] You gotta go into the system. You gotta show up at events, virtual or in person, and that can go in waves. Yeah. Sometimes you are busy, busy. How do you balance? Sometimes do you feel like you’re networking, you’re connecting your meeting, and then it’s like 2, 3, 4 weeks go by and you haven’t talked to anyone?

MIRIAM: Yeah. I think that’s why having a fellowship like we’re doing is really helpful because without it, it’s really hard. Networking as a business owner is so important. It is. And you don’t even realize, like how much you get just from having very simple conversations, right? Something sticks with someone and they remember they take your card and they call you and it happens.

I have seen it happen so many times. But it’s really hard to set up those situations to happen organically unless you’re sort of kind of, you have the accountability of being a part of something. And I think that’s something that it really provides. That’s really, really cool. [Yeah]

And like these opportunities to meet with other women who are doing amazing things. And I think it’s really something that’s really striking me right now is just like listening to both of them talk. Obviously they’re incredible. But hearing all of the sort of shared things that we have in common and I’m just nodding my head along.

When we’re in completely different industries. But I think there’s so many elements and I think sometimes it’s helpful almost to speak to people in other industries who are doing sort of similar things or have sort of similar goals. Because again, it’s like you have that distance from your own little bubble, and then you can hear what they’re doing and get ideas that would work for you.

Whereas if you had just stayed in your industry and only talked to people there, you may not have thought of these things.

EMILY: And I think with the female entrepreneurship element, it’s even deeper because of all the responsibilities you have outside of your business. You are strapped with a lot of the responsibility at home, whether you put it on yourself. Or not. And this is a group of women who are moms, gonna be moms, wanna be moms. And a big theme there is like, I own my own business so that I can do those things. [Yes] But how do I step away and feel like it can run without me being, I’m gonna go to you Irma, because you’re currently pregnant and you’re planning for this period. What are you doing to get ready?

IRMA: Well, I think getting ready, first of all, you’re never really ready for anything. Not to be a mom, not to be a business owner. I always say if I had known all the challenges of entrepreneurship, like thank God I was naive. Because otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I’ve gotten.

But I think the preparation starts way before, right? You wanna start the process of really delegating from day one, the day you start your business. Start to realize what are the areas that you’re not really an expert at, and that it wouldn’t serve you to become an expert at. For example, for me, I’m not interested in becoming an expert at social media.

So eventually I had to hire a social media manager. And there are certain things within my business that I hold onto a little bit too tight, right? And those are the things that, oh my gosh, I’m going on maternity leave in September and I have to start letting go of those things slowly. I think allowing myself maternity leave was a gigantic step for me because I had a moment there where I said, you know, because I’m not in corporate America, I’m gonna miss out on maternity leave. And then I was like, wait, I own my company.

I can go on maternity leave today if I feel like it.

EMILY: Right! Yeah.

IRMA: But how do I do that in a way that things don’t just fall through? Yeah. And that I don’t let my staff down. I don’t let my teachers down. My clients down. And one of the things that I’ve started to do is I’ve started to delegate little things here and there that I’ve been holding onto.

We’ve been creating a course. An online course for staff members, for new staff members. Where they can actually go in and instead of us explaining to them this new procedure, Hey, it’s already on here. We’ve created videos for you. You can actually do it. You’ll understand why we use this project management system.

How do we use MailChimp for the newsletter? How does the back end of our website work for simple changes? So that’s been quite helpful. And then in addition to that, I have a wonderful teammate that, that helps me out a lot, but I’m hiring an additional one that’s gonna take on a lot of that admin.

And I think also keeping an eye out for what are those things that perhaps you are too eager to do that your clients can live without? So for example, we have a portal at my organization and on that portal, the client can find everything. They can find their zoom links, they can find class information, teacher information, how to contact our online school, everything.

And sometimes they still come to us for help with certain things. So we have to just have a little bit of tough love in that sense. So there’s been a lot of preparation and I think it’s not going to be perfect. And I think there’s probably gonna be one day a week that I’m gonna say I’m gonna need some other type of stimulation and I will check emails and whatnot.

But for the most part, a lot of my work is going to be delegated.

EMILY: I love it. I love it. It’s so important.  Dianna, you already have kids, so you’ve been doing the darn thing, the kids a while, the business.

DIANNA: Yeah. Yeah. 15, almost 15 years old. And a six year old. And, everything that you said, Irma was so true.

I liken entrepreneurship to having a child, right? Because it’s your baby. Mm-hmm. It’s your thought. It’s your vision and it’s your job to nurture and grow this business and grow and trust people just like how you would trust a baby. And when it’s time to go to childcare, you have to find the right childcare person, right?

That’s like finding your team, right? So there’s so many similarities that I find, so I call Jars of Delight my third child. I always say that because it really feels like that is just so much attachment. There’s so much emotional, financial, mental, there’s tears, there’s joy. So I think for me, one of the things that I’ve started to do was get my 15 year old vested into the business. So he’s my junior COO now. So I hired him last fall and he’s on payroll and he’s been doing a good job for a 14, 15 year old. It’s important for me to get him involved because I want him to understand that the times that I cannot be with him for whatever the reason is, whether I’m in a meeting, whether this needs to be done, this operational aspect needs to be completed, he understands why mommy’s not there. So he feels a part of it.

And there’s been such a different dynamic shift between my family now, now that the kids feel like, okay, I’m going to the kitchen with mommy. I’m gonna help mommy make these jars. My six year old is putting stickers on the jars, and it’s become more of just like an extension. Like a real sibling to them now.

It’s so important to realize, you said a keyword. It’s not gonna be perfect. Parenthood is not perfect, and I will tell you that I did it twice. It’s not perfect. And you can’t truly, you can prepare as much as you can, but you can only give it room to grow into what it’s supposed to be. My children need room to grow into who they’re supposed to become, just like this business. And sometimes it does mean stepping away from parts of the business that you can no longer grow.

And I think as a mom, that helps me let go a little bit easier. It helps me to realize like, okay,  Dianna, you’re stunting the growth of this business by holding on so tight. You gotta let go.

That’s just my correlation between parenthood and entrepreneurship. But yeah, my 15 year old is my junior COO. Well he’s 14, but he says he’s almost 15. So that’s what we’re gonna say. But he’s my junior COO and it’s been really cool to see him grow. He’s almost half the age of Jars of Delight, so it’s, you know, it’s, it’s really cool.

EMILY: That’s incredible. Yeah. Yeah. I love getting them involved. Yeah. Because I think a lot of entrepreneurs in general, but specifically female entrepreneurs feel guilty for the time away from their family. Yeah. And then when they’re with their family, they feel guilty for the time away from the business. Yeah. So to bring the two together is great.

Miriam, you wanting to go on maternity leave eventually one day was like one of the first things we talked about. Yeah. When we met. And I remember telling you that is such a good thing for you to be thinking about now because it’s possible, but you have to think about it.

And even trying to be a mom aside, you’ve been building this team of trainers up and I know that was hard to start to have clients who are MF strong clients, but they work with someone else and that’s the only way to grow your business. To trust these other trainers. Right. How have you been able to give up some of that personal control, find the right people who embody what MF Strong embodies? What’s that transition been like?

MIRIAM: Yeah, it’s definitely been an interesting one. I’ve been really lucky because I have been able to find amazing people. but it’s hard because in general I think hiring is tough.

I’m sure you can both attest to that. It’s really tough, especially because both of them mentioned, it’s like you kind of look at your business as your baby, and like ultimately no one else is gonna care about your business as much as you do. And that’s fine. And you just have to kind of understand that. But you also want to make sure that the people that are coming onto your team are aligned with your vision and kind of share the values. And especially for us at MF Strong, because we do have such a specific sort of mission, I wanna make sure that the people that I bring on embody that.

And kind of, we were talking about social media before, and I grew my business on social media. I grew a very large social media platform that allowed me to start a business, which is amazing. But the hard part of that is I was the face of the business and people were reaching out to work with me.

And so transitioning from like, I’m the face of the business to, I’m just sort of like the leader of the business, but the business sort of operates wholly without me. That’s sort of like this transition that I’m still in the process of. And a part of that is like separating myself, Miriam Fried, from MF Strong.

I have someone else running my social media and a big part of the MF Strong social Media is really featuring our other trainers so people can get to know them as well. I don’t want my face to be plastered all over MF Strong. I want our other trainers to be a huge part of it as well, because they’re incredible people and they’re incredible trainers. And I want people to feel comfortable when they reach out to us that you are going to be in amazing hands, regardless of who you’re placed with. I have personally vetted and worked with all of these trainers to make sure that they are going to uphold the standard that we put out there on social media and the reason why you probably reached out to us in the first place.

But like I said, it’s sort of all happening right now, at present. This is something I’m working through right now and I think this idea of I eventually wanna be able to step away even more. I would like to start a family in the next few years. I have this goal of being able to do that in mind is sort of what’s pushing me to make this happen and to really get on that track and so that I can, yeah fully step away for a little bit and be able to feel comfortable doing that.

EMILY: I’m gonna stick with you for a minute because your partner is a part of your business as well. Your husband and I know a lot of female entrepreneurs who in the past three years have brought their husband on board. And back in the day, this was always the flip, right? The plumber whose wife did the accounting. Yeah, the restaurant whose wife ran the back of house. But in the pandemic, it’s like all these circumstances where these women have grown their business and they’re like, we can support this family. You wanna come over and help me? Talk to me about how that’s been for you, the pros, the cons.

What’s it like?

MIRIAM: Well, so my husband was working in the fitness industry already. He was personal training, managing a gym. I was, at this time, several years ago, I was starting to, as a solo entrepreneur, build up my business, gain a lot of traction and interest in clientele.

And I sort of always had this idea of like, I would love, as I start to expand my team, I would love for you to do that role for me. Because I obviously trust him. I think he’s an incredible trainer and he’s really good at what he does. But he was working for a gym, like full-time. And then the pandemic happened and gyms across New York closed and that gym shut down for good, like they were completely closed.

The pandemic just hurdled us forward, and I was able to immediately bring him on. Which has been such a blessing, honestly, because I was able to bring someone on that I do trust who does care about the business as much as I do. Which again, is a very rare thing. And we can kind of work together to build this business that is gonna support us in having a family and being able to live the lives that we hope to live.

And so yeah, we work together, which is a very interesting thing. I think it works well for us. He is incredibly supportive of me and he’s incredibly supportive of the business. Like he really, really believes in it. And he also came in with his own full schedule of clients already, so we incorporated his clientele into my business, which, yeah, it was like a sort of blessing in disguise that the pandemic obviously was very tough.

We were constantly trying to pivot and pivot, pivot. But it did end up bringing us together and allowing me to bring him on and join the team. And he has no, absolutely no sort of old-fashioned qualms about being the husband who’s supporting his wife’s business at all. He loves it.

EMILY: I love that. I love it. I think a big theme when we talk about stepping away from the business is diversifying revenue streams. And I’ve talked to each of you individually about this, but that’s one of the hardest parts of being a business owner, is brainstorming and imagining what those revenue streams could look like.

And like you mentioned,  Dianna, when you come up with a new one, where are you gonna pull back? What are the areas that maybe you’re not gonna do as much of? I’m gonna bring it to you, Irma, because you and I worked on new package pricing and like, big pie in the sky, we want these type of clients at this dollar amount.

We don’t need to get into that nitty gritty, but that was you thinking big and opening yourself up to say, I don’t need to do any investment or work to market this package, but if I put it as an option, someone might reach out interested in spending. How did you get yourself to a stage of, all right, I’m gonna shoot for bigger, I’m gonna do something different than what we do. I’m gonna add on to what we’ve been known for recently.

IRMA: Well, I think one of the things is just assessing needs, right? Within your clientele. What else are they asking for that you’re not offering? For example, when I started my company, I was the one teaching. Like you, I was teaching and I was teaching Spanish.

It was the language I could teach. And then I realized, hey, if I want to actually grow, if I want to scale, I need to make this a company of languages, not a company of Spanish. And that became English, Italian, French, Mandarin and Japanese, American sign language. Mm-hmm. A lot of companies were not offering American sign language.

That just opened a whole array because all of a sudden I don’t have to just focus on targeting companies that could potentially need Spanish, but I could focus on many different companies. Within that I also looked at, well, what holds people back When it comes to learning a language? Oftentimes it’s time. It’s money, right?

And when we talk about the apps, we say, oh, it’s free, or it’s 7.99 a month. So I said, you know what? I wanna be able to offer something that’s also affordable. I wanna be able to offer something that you could also do on your own time. We obviously cannot hold you accountable. The level of accountability that you get from having live teachers and the bonding you get from a group class, you won’t have that. But I can still give you something and how do I make that different?

So I decided to create a membership. A self-paced video membership that would allow you to go at your own pace, but that gave you the same feeling as being in a live class. And there was homework involved and there were quizzes involved. So you had some of the gamification components, but you also had the, oh, my teacher is actually asking me to repeat something. Like you’re in a real class. So that was another one. Very affordable, $14.99 a month, you get a month free if you sign up for the whole year. And that was just an add-on. And when I sell to clients, to corporate clients, I’m able to say, oh, you have an issue with scheduling? Don’t worry, we have Spanish, Italian, and French also available as a self-paced option, very cheap.

Let’s make it an add-on, you know? Or maybe I just throw it in free. Depending on the level of the package. So that’s kind of like what you and I worked on in terms of packaging. Then other opportunities pop up. For example, sometimes clients ask for something else. And one of the things that they asked for was, Hey, Irma, does your company offer proficiency testing?

And I learned from Richard Branson. The answer is always Yes.

EMILY: I love it. You’re like, I by tomorrow I do.

IRMA: And I did. And I did. And I have to say that offering language proficiency testing has been one of the easiest and could be a very profitable revenue stream for us. And the way language proficiency testing works is if you have a role within your organization that you want to fulfill, and you need to find out if that candidate speaks another language.

You should have an external company actually test them. And we do that in terms of orally listening, comprehension, reading, and we make the process very easy for the candidate. And it’s been great. It’s been great. It’s wonderful to be able to offer clients an entire array of options where I can always say, well, we have this, how about this? How about we make this change? How about I change into this other package? And I think that personalization component is just something you cannot get at other places.

EMILY: And there’s a key distinction here between listening to what your customers are asking for and offering more things.

Versus listening to the feedback your customers have and making reaction changes to your business, right? Sometimes when we’re talking about reviews or even like direct messages on social, where a customer shares their opinion, we don’t wanna always be emotionally changing everything because we’re reacting to what this one person says.

But if it’s a request for services, or an interest, and if you offer something. I think that being a yes, like Richard Branson says is the way to do it, right? And that is a very clear distinction so that you’re not running around getting yanked in different directions by your customer. I wanna bring it to you,  Dianna, because you had this catering company that kind of popped up out of nowhere. But then you opened a kitchen. The Essential Kitchen. Talk to me about opening that up as a different revenue stream, leaning into that and how it’s impacted Jars of Delight.

DIANNA: Yeah, that’s my fourth child. Well maybe the sixth cuz it was a farmer’s market, then that one. Essential Kitchen has, I’m not gonna lie, been the hardest endeavor I’ve ever faced. It has been the most hardest and one of the most rewarding. So Essential Kitchen is a 6,500 square foot warehouse that we converted into a commercial kitchen and business suite. So the first floor is 5,000 suite kitchen that we rent to clients, food clients, and food entrepreneurs that do not have a brick and mortar, but need one to scale or to take on contracts.

And the second floor is a 1500 square foot business suite that we call it with a conference room and rentable office spaces. I’m not gonna lie, Jars of Delight did take a backseat, because the kitchen is such a heavy lift, financially, mentally, emotionally, all the things.

But in the same aspect, right before I opened the kitchen, I had won a six figure contract with the Department of Health to provide emergency meals for the city during the pandemic. And we were doing something like 3000 meals a day and I had to rent a kitchen. And I’m not gonna lie I had to rent out a private kitchen cuz we were a 24 hour operation. I was paying their mortgage maybe three times over.

And while it was okay because I needed the space and they came through and I needed the space. But then I realized if I was going through that, so many other businesses must have been going through that. Because I could not tell them, well, I’m gonna cook out of my house.

That’s just one, it’s not legal and two, it’s not possible at scale. I took most of all the revenue that I made from that city contract to open up Essential Kitchen. Of course the idea is once the kitchen is done, I was gonna use it for Jars of Delight. But what ended up happening is during the pandemic, we launched the Farmer’s market in partnership with the Long Island Railroad. And because all of my corporate clients had canceled their catering contracts, and we were catering three, four, 500 person events. I had no catering going on during the pandemic in 2020. Unfortunately where I live in Southeast Queens, people were dying at such an alarming rate. And throughout the entire country, we were like one of the hardest hit communities with the, throughout the entire country. And I knew my background is in community health and sustainability, and I knew there was a real correlation between chronic and communicable disease and lack of access to healthy food and exercise and fitness. Like all of those things combined.

And I started looking for a farmer’s market and could not find one in my community. So I said, okay, we’re gonna open up our own farmer’s market. We launched that in the middle of the pandemic. It was widely successful. We had about 700 small businesses that registered with us. Between 2020 and 2021. So we have 763 registered businesses under the nonprofit I had to start during 2020, to open up the farmer’s market.

I took a poll, one poll, Emily. Out of the 763 clients businesses, 300 were food businesses. And I took one poll asking everyone where they were cooking? And unfortunately, and almost unanimously, everyone said from their home. And I was like, oh my God, this is not gonna work. This is a big problem. And my new Jars of Delight was still trying to figure out what was going on with that.

So I said we need a commercial kitchen. And then I followed up with, why are you not cooking out of a commercial kitchen? What are the barriers? Cost, location, distance. And I said, okay, well we’re gonna open up one. So I took a lot of, again, the revenue that I had gotten from the contract, from Jars of Delight for the catering contract with the city to open up this kitchen. And so I have about 700 farmer’s market vendors and now almost 200 commercial kitchen vendors. And at one point I had to say to myself, well, where’s Jars of Delight?

Everyone kept asking me, are you catering? Are you catering? And I’m like, I can’t. I have all these balls in my hands juggling, figuring out my children.

I am happy to say that it was a needed moment in time for me to figure out what Jars of Delight was gonna become because I was able to think about, well, you know what? All of my corporate clients are going back into the office. We’re not catering at such large scales yet. But they’re going back.

So we decided to launch smart vending machines. So that’s the new endeavor that Jars with Delight will be doing. Launching sustainable vending machines at different corporate client locations. And in the meantime, I’m still able to help the small businesses within my community and the surrounding area to support that. And Jars of Delight, because it has been such a beacon in my community of sustainability, zero waste, healthy living. I was recently awarded a contract with JFK to headstart the Institute of Concessions that is taking those same small businesses that we’ve curated and nurtured, helping them open up their own stores within JFK. And so all of that to say Jars of Delight was really, I feel like the genesis of where I am today in all of the different businesses.

So whether it’s the farmer’s market or your Essential Kitchen. But my goal was to make it all make sense because you can be doing so much different things that you feel like everything is being pulled in a different direction. So I had to say to myself,  Dianna, you have Jars of Delight. You have Essential Kitchen. How are you making this coalesce? And how can it all create like a circular economy for both yourself internally and your community? So that’s where we are and it’s been a blessing.

EMILY: And something that you’re going through with that transition is, the risk of, you gotta pay for this physical space.

Yeah. And so you gotta fill it. Yeah. And even with that big list of vendors who need space, I remember when we first started talking about this, it was like, all right, have we written down what we need at a minimum? Yeah. Per day or per week from people in the space using it. And that same rule applies when you’re talking about what you’re charging a customer, right? It’s not just for vendors. And I think of you, Miriam, when I think of this because you were doing your training without a physical space for a while, and then you decided I want a space. And I think for a lot of entrepreneurs, that is a step in success, like having a physical space, but it’s also scary. It’s overhead then. How did you decide you were ready to open up a physical mf strong. And how’s it been feeling?

MIRIAM: I didn’t decide. It was literally the thrust in front of me. I was provided the opportunity essentially. I had actually said for a while that I didn’t want a physical space because I had been here in New York at the start of the pandemic when I was a hundred percent in person training clients.

And then March 16th, all the gyms that I trained out of messaged us to say we’re closed. And that was it. And then I was like, okay, well I have a business, I need to make money. And we had to immediately pivot to an entirely virtual business literally within like hours. I got all these emails from the gyms that I trained out of at the time I was using like independent training gyms to train all of our clients.

I had just hired two trainers. I literally expanded my business. Late 2019 was when I was like, I’m ready to hire, I’m ready to bring people onto the team. I’m ready. We have the demand, I have a waiting list I need to bring on new trainers. And I did it. And I brought these trainers on. I hired one person at the end of 2019, and by early 2020, I was already ready to hire my second person. Did that, and a month later, everything shut down. So now I had taken the step to hire and I had now people relying on me and the business, and then all of a sudden everything’s shut down. So literally within hours, we were setting up Zoom. We were setting up, I think even probably at that time I don’t even know what Zoom was. Skyping with clients and figuring that out and pivoting immediately.

And luckily our clients were down for it because they didn’t really have any other option. And they didn’t wanna just be sitting in their apartments not moving. So everyone was pretty game for it. We were very lucky for that. But because of that, I was really spooked out of the idea

opening up a physical space because I had a lot of friends and colleagues who were gym owners and they lost everything. And that was terrifying to me. So I thought once before that, had this goal of eventually probably having my own space, I was like, you know what? I don’t think we need a space. I think we can operate virtually and we can figure it out. And I think it’s just a safer option. And that’s what we were doing. And then obviously the world started to reopen a little bit and we started to be a little bit more hybrid and taking on more clients in person again. And I was looking for a space to start training my clients out of. In this time I moved to Brooklyn and I had never had a space in Brooklyn, so I was sort of reaching out to people in the area. And I connected with someone who was in my neighborhood who had a Pilates studio. And she was like, you can come in and train some clients. We have a little bit of space here that you can use.

And then her and I became friends. I started training clients out of just like a small space in the back of her Pilate studio that had benches. And I got some weights and stuff like that. And it was just out of necessity. And then her and I were chatting and she was like, I have, she had a whole extra floor of her space. And at one point she was like, do you wanna just rent the floor? Do you wanna just take over the entire thing, like the whole first floor? When something is handed to you. You know when the universe, I think, gives you that [Yeah, yeah] nudge, you don’t say no, you just figure it out.

So that’s what I did and I moved in and we moved into our space. Long story. We had some landlord issues and we actually moved into another space in January, but we’re still operating out of the same neighborhood in Green Point. It’s been sort of like a very wild journey because again, it wasn’t something I planned for and it was something I was very strongly against until I had the opportunity.

But it’s been mostly great, mostly really great. Obviously they know there’s been some hiccups. There’s a lot more to think about, when you have a physical space. A lot more to do, a lot more to buy and pay for. But I really do love having our own physical space and I feel like it’s important with our, again, going off of the same core values that we uphold at MF Strong. It is kind of important for us to have a physical space, which I realized once we were there, it was like, oh, we really do need our own space, because then people can come here, they can feel safe, they can feel welcome.

We set the tone of the environment. So that when our clients walk in, they’re like, I feel comfortable here. I feel like I can exercise here without feeling judged, without any sort of outside distractions. So it’s really nice to be able to do that. The crazy thing is we’re already outgrowing the space.

I mean, it’s great. But it’s a studio, it’s meant for a few trainers at a time and we’re already outgrowing the space. So my wheels are turning about what’s next. I have no idea. But it’s crazy because I was so scared to open a physical space cuz I was afraid of it not working out, not being able to maintain the clientele and the business to be able to afford all of the cost of that. But now we’re kind of hitting this point where I’m like, oh, we actually need more space. So, yeah, we’ll see.

EMILY: It’s incredible. It’s a good feeling when you took that risk, and even when it’s hard and there’s the ups and the downs, you feel like you’re getting those affirmations along the way that it was the right thing.

I wanna get into feedback, how you listen to it, how you leverage it, if at all. Do you read it? Does someone look at it for you? Who wants to start?

DIANNA: So reviews are so important. Jars of Delight. I love the idea that we spent, I think over the, we’re almost gonna be six years old, so maybe about a thousand dollars in any type of social media or marketing because all of our reviews were word of mouth.

So from that one conference that we did in 2017, because there were so many like-minded business owners there, it was just word of mouth. Everyone’s like, this was so cool. I want you at my event. And so reviews, word of mouth reviews have been really what launched us. It was that. And then we have our online reviews, right?

I can’t say we’ve had too many negative reviews. I think the issue that we’re probably still currently having is our website where, because we’re really a corporate type, Catering company, people want to order for home. And I’m like, well, I can’t just make five jars for you, right? So maybe tweaking that and finding out a way to correct that so that people can understand clearly that we’re more like a large scale catering company, would circumvent all of those type of reviews.

“Like, wait, we can’t order anything here. Or where’s your store?” So I think those are the reviews that we get most of. But for us, word of mouth reviews have been the biggest thing for our company.

IRMA: Well, I have to agree with you. I think it’s super important to get feedback, just feedback in general. And it’s so wonderful to hear all the wonderful things people have to say about us. That’s always great. But one of the things that I’ve been emphasizing lately is we want to hear the bad stuff. Please say it to us. Yeah, don’t tell the universe, right.

That’s and the reason why is because oftentimes, I think that if we don’t hear anything and classes continue and everything seems fine, then it’s all good. But at the same time, if we can make any tweaks here and there, cause I’m always looking for those patterns. Mm-hmm. What are clients, and not just the corporate clients, but the students within those companies. What are they having trouble with? How are the books working out? How are the materials working out? The portal, the technology, are we supporting you? What about the teacher? I mean, we work with about 20 teachers, right? So how can we improve all that?

So we actually sent out midterm reviews and end of term reviews as well. And through our newsletter, we ask them to fill it out, through our portal. We actually put it on the portal with a link. And it’s amazing what you find out in terms of what’s working and it’s great to go back to the teachers and say, you know, these are the things that are working and these are some of the things that I want you to consider.

And although we’ll struggle a little bit, we all always wanna be five stars. Of course. It’s not five stars in everything. And I think even though it’s also challenging to tell your own staff, this is what we need to work on. I think they also appreciate that, right? To be able to know how can they grow?

How can they serve the community better? So I’m all for reviews, but you know, if it’s bad, tell us first.

EMILY: What I like about what you just shared though is you have a format on your website and you have like a check-in where you’re asking for that feedback. And you know, we have pretty strict rules on Yelp about not asking specifically for Yelp reviews, but I think by giving a channel to say direct to me, I wanna hear, you avoid some of those criticisms ending up online. Because they do feel like they can bring it to you. And it’s a low barrier to get you that feedback.

IRMA: Right. And I also wanna add to that, Emily, that sometimes those people that are very upset become your greatest fans.

We’ve had situations where they give us this feedback and sometimes they give us this feedback and I’ll say, you know, this is so bad that I wanna have a phone call with you. And then I meet with them and I’m like, actually, you don’t feel that bad about us. I don’t know why you put those numbers there. But other times when they’re very frustrated and I have, it’s not very often that I have a meeting with them. But if they actually request it, I’ll have those meetings with them. And we’ve had situations where those students convert for years. And that’s so important. You know you wanna hear what’s going great and you wanna hear what’s not so great to see what you can actually do about it and find out what are some trends within your organization that you can work on.

DIANNA: Mm-hmm. That is so important and as a nugget for parents and soon to be moms, I do that with my children. I have reviews with my children as to how am I doing as mom, right? Because it’s like, just like your business, you want to know how you’re doing.

I have those conversations with my kids. They’re like, let’s have a talk. How’s Mommy doing right now? And like you said, because I give them that open Access to speak to me. There’s a lot less lashing out and acting out because it’s a safe space. So you’ve created a safe space for your clients to come and vent to you.

So that is real in both aspects of life. Yeah.

EMILY: That’s awesome. Yeah. I want you to talk about reviews too, but also weave a little of the social in because you do have such a big following. I know people message you.

MIRIAM: Yeah. Well it’s interesting because it’s much actually easier for me to navigate the business feedback than the social feedback.

With, look, business feedback for us is everything because it’s one-on-one, right? If you are not happy with the person that you’re working with or something is off like that is your entire experience. And because I am in this place where I’m really trying, most of our new clients are going to other people. I am not in the session, so I don’t know what’s happening unless I’m able to get feedback. I do really love hearing that feedback. And then I know what sort of containing education to work on with my trainers or what types of things we need to chat about. And also making sure that my trainers are every two months or so, checking in with their clients of like, have your goals shifted? Are you happy with your progress so far? What do you wanna work on now? Now that we’ve been working together for a few months. Those things are so, so important to that one-on-one experience.

In terms of social media, it’s a completely different story. I’m still kind of trying to figure out how to not let that affect my mental health to be quite honest. Because I do have a large platform. I do talk about things that I guess are sometimes a bit controversial, talking about more inclusive fitness, I think. Sometimes, oddly enough, people are triggered by that and very upset by that. So I am honestly at this point used to angry DMs or I’m unfollowing you or those kinds of things. Or I’m, I would never work with you. Okay, that’s totally fine. Probably not for us.

EMILY: But you don’t need to message me.

MIRAM: You don’t, you don’t. It’s actually okay to just unfollow without announcing your departure. It’s not an airport. I’ve gotta say, I’ve, I will have periods of time where I’m totally fine with it, and then sometimes I will post something really from the heart and I will get a lot of really angry responses.

I had this happen recently, actually. And I don’t know, it will just hit me and I will actually need to step away from social media because it’s a lot. So when you are more public facing, I think those criticisms are tough. The thing that I have to continue to remember is we’re growing because of those things that I talk about that maybe other people in the fitness industry talk about.

And I love everything that you, I wanna talk to you more because I really love hearing about everything that you’re doing in your community, but like a huge part of what I talk about or barriers to exercise and it’s not always as simple as if you’re overweight, just exercise.

It’s not that simple because there are social and economic barriers. There are tons of like, that get in the way of people being able to just eat healthier and just exercise. And these are things that I talk about and it. Upsets some people sometimes. I think over the years it ebbs and flows, but always trying to just stay true to the message and continue to put it out there because it does need to be heard.

And I think it’s from reminder when people push back that, oh wow, this is all the more reason to talk about it, you know?

EMILY: And I like how you mentioned. You do have to emotionally step away, but you don’t stop showing up. Mm-hmm. Even after you get those negative responses. Yeah. I see you days later on there again.

MIRIAM: Yeah, yeah, exactly. You know, you take a pause, you take a breather, you do your own stuff that you do for yourself. Talk to your therapist, talk to your friends, and go for a walk and breathe, exercise. Then it’s like you remember the mission, you remember the purpose and you get right back out there and continue doing it cuz Yeah, it’s like it needs it. It obviously needs to be said and there’s a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of work to be done in the fitness industry as much as it changes and as much as people are getting a little bit more on board with these ideas, it’s still, we’ve got a long way to go.

EMILY: And I think all of you have this same approach of engaging online and responding and being a human and a business and that’s what’s required when you’re talking about what you do in person and how it translates to your digital presence. We covered so much ground. Is there anything that any of you wanted to talk about as it relates to building community, being a female entrepreneur, online and offline?

Anything you thought we might talk about that I didn’t tee you up?

DIANNA: I think we talked about so much on sh Oh, we did. I, I mean, I think I definitely want what you said on a t-shirt. It’s okay to step away but just keep showing up. I think that’s so powerful because sometimes you forget that you can step away, but you stepping away does not mean that you’re still not gonna show up.

I think that is so powerful. I need that on a t-shirt. All right we’re going to start making them. T-shirts, entrepreneur inspiration shirts. I love it.

IRMA: I also really liked, when we were talking about getting our husbands involved. My husband is not part of my company, but he has a regular full-time job and occasionally he comes home and he has another job.

Yeah. So everything from reviewing contracts, giving me advice. I spend most of the day alone. So when he comes home, yeah there’s quite a bit for him to do usually. Sometimes he asks me for a break, but I think it’s so important to really pull them in and build that support system around you.

MIRIAM: I feel like you mentioned it’s like the business is a part of the family. It is. So everyone kind of has to be involved in a way. It is. Even if they’re not directly involved, like my husband is, it’s like you can’t, like you, we need support. Right. We do. We work hard. We need support, you know?

IRMA: And if the business succeeds, we all succeed.

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