People 20 December 2018
In a world of fresh and organic, the concept of frozen food seems relatively taboo in the expanding culinary industry, yet still, as a $50 billion industry within the United States, this aisle of the grocery store is actually more relevant than you'd think.
Co-founder of Bantam Bagels, Elyse Oleksak realized this relevancy, while simultaneously recognizing how little development the frozen food sector had in the past ten years. Thus, from a one-off dream her husband had, the couple left Wall Street and pursued the disruption of the frozen food industry.
"Frozen breakfast is brand new to this renaissance in people looking for better food," says Oleksak. “It's an uphill battle fighting against some of the largest brands in the world--the Eggos and Jimmy Deans, but we're bringing that authenticity and uniqueness."
What began four years ago as a small storefront selling mini stuffed bagels on Bleecker Street has since developed into a deal on Shark Tank, a partnership with Starbucks as a national account and the release of their second product, Pancake Balls, to continue the line of frozen breakfast, which Oleksak describes as, “Saturday morning comfort, without feeling too indulgent."
"We thought our strategy would be franchising the shop, but we realized it was less about these little shops and more about creating something that's accessible," says Oleksak. She explains that even though the concept of Bantam Bagels stemmed from the lack of innovation in their hometown of New York City, they realized that there was an untapped market throughout the nation.
So, after only six months into building their brand, the Oleksaks went on Shark Tank to gain national presence, as well as quality guidance.
“We went to Shark Tank for another layer of expertise, and of course, the capital," says Oleksak. “We would quiz each other walking through the park with every question ever asked on Shark Tank. We had eye signals on how we would respond to deals."
Oleksak continued to explain that even though the duo kept an open mind on accepting offers, they entered the show knowing who they wanted to take a deal from, Lori Greiner. And this is exactly what happened.
"The partnership with Lori is incredible," shares Oleksak. “She's with us every step of the way, and I feel so lucky that she is what we hoped and expected her to be." Oleksak also notes how empowering it is to be coached through the company's founding years by another woman, saying, “It's also fascinating to see how females view business as a series of relationships rather than transactions."
From the early days of Bantam Bagels to expanding the brand's product, Oleksak remembers the differences of running the company as a female, even with her husband as a business partner.
“I spent my first pregnancy entirely in the shop," she says. “There came a time when I was at nine months and had to step sideways because no one could get past my belly."
Yet, even as Oleksak reflects on this as one of the challenges of leading as a female entrepreneur, she adds that it's just another layer of the business that helped her create an authentic brand which reflects both her and her husband's similar mindset.
“I'm a doer and a mover, and it was almost easier having something that I was so passionate about; creating a future for the family that we were creating."
It's this mindset that also gives way to Oleksak's theory of existing as a female entrepreneur. For her two boys, she says that “they're seeing me as an equal in a man's world." "The food world is definitely still male dominated but it's what drives me to work so hard. So when they grow up, an imbalance between males and females in the workforce isn't even a thought."
Bantam Bagels celebrated their third product release in July--mini stuffed bagels with egg and sausage in the middle--and their steady growth in more than 16,000 stores nationwide.“For us, developing the authentic brand and developing that connection [with customers] while we blow out and grow our distribution is our main focus," says Oleksak. She notes that each week they may be in a new grocery store, and still will respond personally to emails and social media as part of who they are as founders. “Food is so personal. You have a choice, you can either cook something and make it personal to you, or you can invite an external food into your home—and I think you need to earn that as food brand."
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."
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