My path to entrepreneurship
Guest post written by Natasha Case, Co-founder and CEO of Coolhaus, former client and board member of AOF.
My path to entrepreneurship has been an unusual one – I think I may be the first formally trained architect to become an ‘ice cream lady?’ I loved studying architecture at Berkeley and UCLA, but I felt that we were operating in a bit of a vacuum and that the subject of architecture was intimidating for folks to learn about. One of my lifelong values is that the coolest stuff should be the most accessible and inclusive – and I sought out a way to do that for architecture and design.
My light bulb moment came during one of my design studios when my professor criticized a scale model I had made saying it looked like a ‘layer cake.’ I thought – why is that a bad thing? So, I went home and baked the next iteration of my model as a layer cake. It was my one and only all-nighter in all of architecture school (that’s another story) because I was having so much fun, that I couldn’t stop… I became obsessed with merging my two passions of food and architecture.
When I presented the model that next day I could see my colleagues were intrigued – who forgets a project made of cake? And they were probably wondering when they could dig into that delicious cake. Anyway, I was hooked – and I continued to explore this concept all through graduate school and into my first ‘real job’ at Walt Disney Imagineering. I started calling the idea “Farchitecture” = food + architecture.
I met Freya when I was amidst creating a project under this umbrella of an idea. It was 2009 and layoffs had started to sweep through Disney; the environment became quite tense at the office. I had started baking cookies and making ice cream from scratch… and naming the combinations after architects to bring some levity to the moment. ‘Hey – I heard you had a rough day… maybe a Frank Berry ice cream sammie can lighten your mood?’
Freya challenged me to think about the product as a business, and we went to the grocery store to explore the competition. In checking out the freezer aisle (a metaphor for our one day walking down the aisle and getting married? I think so) and discovered that we did not feel represented by any of the dessert brands on shelves… not as millennials, not as women, and definitely not as gay women. So we decided to leave our jobs in architecture and non-profit real estate development, and create the brand––from product to culture––that we wanted to buy.
Being the 25-year-olds that we were with no real credit or business experience and looking to build our global brand in the depths of The Great Recession, we couldn’t afford to open a scoop shop or conquer grocery (yet). We bought a beat-up postal van with no engine on Craigslist and sought to re-invent the ice cream truck for our generation. We begged Coachella to let us sell at the festival and when they finally caved, we needed a way to get our engine-less truck to the desert! So, we got a Triple A Platinum membership which included one free 200-mile tow. The morning of Coachella, we pretended the truck broke down even though it never drove, and they towed us to the desert. A legend was born (did I just say that?).
The festival was a success and we took the cash we made and tried to make an operation happen. We couldn’t keep up with the demand (a champagne problem, I know). We knew we needed to add to our fleet and also fix up the ‘OG’ truck we had – but even with our burgeoning and profitable business, it was still going to be extremely tight, too tight, to use cash flow to do this. Traditional banks would not work with us, and the world we know of angel investors today was much less prominent as we were only one year out of the outset of the Great Recession.
Even when we tried to raise capital, Freya and I both sensed we weren’t taken seriously because we were young women. The challenge to raise money as women entrepreneurs is startling – women only get about 1-2% of venture/PE capital, for example, but have twice the success growing the capital they get.
Accion Opportunity Fund (AOF) is a different kind of financial partner. AOF has been a meaningful part of my business, career and personal life for 11 years. I first came into contact with them when we only had one truck in Los Angeles. We couldn’t keep up with the business demand and our first truck was… well… let’s say a POS – and by that I don’t mean point of sale.
AOF was referred to us by our food truck manufacturer, and they were able to work with us in a super timely, easy, and friendly manner. We financed our second truck through them, then our third. After we paid back the initial loans, we financed another truck for our NYC fleet.
Although back then the maximum borrowing potential was $40k, which in the grand scheme of building my business today (we are at $15M in revenue), is not a massive amount – that moment of financing our second truck was the catalyst that made growing our business into what it is today possible. Truly – we could have gotten stuck back in 2010, or taken too much risk, or dialed back our ambition. Instead, to be seen by a financial partner—and by seen I mean really seen—as a client worth investing in really meant a lot.
Now I see that this was only the beginning of what AOF really was capable of. I knew them first as a dependable and friendly financial partner, and very quickly things began to evolve into so much more. In 2012, they asked me to tell my story at a prominent conference in Chicago to a group of 1,500 people. It was huge exposure for Coolhaus, and the connections I made there I still cherish today (not to mention it was my and Freya, my co-founder/wife’s, first real time spent in the city and we ate our faces off!).
I spoke a few more times at major events about my story and how AOF had helped me along.
“I came to know the AOF donors, team, and board members more and more… and I truly began to see that the organization was so much more than a financial partner. AOF was so deeply invested in advocating for their clients, supporting them, listening to them, celebrating them and I began to see AOF as a community/its own ecosystem of brands and partners.”
Frankly, I’ve not seen anything like them and their team since I’ve been in business.
In 2014, I joined the Southern California regional board for AOF. I was the only former client on the board, and it meant a lot to have a seat at the table. I began to focus a lot on bringing potential clients in need to AOF – particularly women and minority-owned businesses who are disproportionately targeted by payday lenders and often lack the resources and community needed to grow their business as desired. I have loved mentoring and supporting many of those clients along the way and cherish the friendship it has brought, too.
Seeing day after day about how women are disproportionately affected by lack of resources and, frankly, the psychology of viewing their failures as unacceptable has inspired me to make changing this issue my life’s goal.
I spent my five years on the AOF board devoting myself to this mission – meeting more and more folks in the organization who live and breathe that mission, and who offer so much kindness and generosity as they do so. It inspired me to do the same with my business and its mission: using our delicious ice cream as a platform to inspire the next generation of diverse creators and entrepreneurs to live their dreams.
Very clearly, for women entrepreneurs – it’s so important that we think big, and that we value ourselves and our time in what it takes to grow a business. It’s time to stop putting ourselves last, and to know that we are fully capable of whatever we set our minds to. However, if things don’t work out – that’s okay too… business is incredibly challenging and there may be many failures before success happens.
I have been growing my business (we are now in 6,000 grocery stores from Whole Foods to Walmart with our ice cream sammies and cones in dairy and dairy-free flavors like Churro Dough and Horchata, have a national fleet of ice cream trucks and a flagship shop/innovation center in Culver City) with this philosophy in mind. I believe purpose-driven thinking and leadership is the reason we are where we are. We have a higher purpose behind what we are doing – and in fact, that’s something I think women entrepreneurs so often bring to the table. Leaning into this feminine value can be an incredibly valuable business tool.
In many ways, this story sums up my philosophy about business – think big and find a way to spend the majority of your time and energy on the aspects of business you love. I have found that focusing on your passion will reward you in ways that are beyond any job title, and ultimately bring you more success because when you are having fun – you are inspired to work not only harder, but better.