With autoimmune illnesses and food sensitivities on the rise, GeeFree founder Susan Hougui set out to make great tasting gluten free food consumers can create right at home. Creating a line of delicious frozen foods items such as puff pastry, franks in a blanket, spanakopita, and chicken potpie, Hougui was first inspired to create her own unique pastry brand after a trip overseas.
After experimenting with gluten free pastry abroad, she knew that the United States needed such a product, and became a woman on a mission to perfect a truly delicious puff pastry. Partnering up with chef Steven Leyva, Susan’s GeeFree is now sold in approximately 800 grocery and health food stores, totally taking the frozen food world by storm. However, thanks to a recent infusion of capital from a food-conscious investor, Hougui believes that number will only triple by the year’s end.
“I was introduced to Billy Procida, founder of Procida Funding & Advisors, a year ago,” says Hougui. “Even though his company invests primarily in real estate, he believed in Geefree knowing that there is a growing concern regarding the foods we eat. He became a partner, and committed an infusion of one million dollars into the company for sales, marketing, distribution, and an e-commerce website.”
As GeeFree is ready to add more wheat-less products (hello sandwich pockets!) to their expanding line, Susan sees her brand becoming a household name in the gluten free industry in the next five years. And thanks to the newfound private equity, the brand is definitely on the right track, as GeeFree is even running a television ad, making it the first gluten free company to ever do so.
“We are currently running a commercial on broadcast television,” says Hougui. “This is the first time a gluten free company has ever run a television ad!”
But despite the success of her GeeFree business, Susan has faced some challenges along the way that have only made her stronger. Battling and surviving cancer for example, has given her unwavering gratitude for all her successes in life, encouraging her to move forward with purpose.
“Everything I do is never static, as everything is changing and is always possible,” says Hougui. “I have gratitude for what I have, and what I've accomplished, and that always gives me a sense of peace, no matter what happens in life.”
Being a woman in a male dominated company is another hurdle Hougui faces daily, but she views it more as a constant reminder of what women have achieved, and the never-ending necessity to continue to push forward.
“I see this more as a constant reminder how far women have come in the workforce and how far we have to go."
With gluten free food sales on the rise, it’s safe to say that we’ll be probably seeing more of GeeFree foods in the future. For more info on the company, follow them on Twitter and Instagram @GeeFreeFoods, or simply visit the company website here!
The Quick Ten
- What app do you most use?
The Google app on my phone
- What's the first thing you do in the morning?
Feed my cats!
- Name a business mogul you admire.
- What do you wish you invented?
- What is your spirit animal?
Seal or an otter!
- What is your life motto?
- Name your favorite workday snack!
A piece of cheese
- What's something that's always in your bag?
- What's the most inspiring place you've traveled to?
- Desert Island. Three things, go!
Fire starter, fishing gear, and another person of course
"Steal the mesh underwear you get from the hospital," a friend said upon learning I was pregnant with my first daughter.
It was the single best piece of advice I received before giving birth in December 2013. My best friend delivered her daughter eight months previously, and she was the first to pass along this shared code among new moms: you'll need mesh underwear for your at-home postpartum recovery, and you can't find them anywhere for purchase. End result: steal them. And tell your friends.
My delivery and subsequent recovery were not easy. To my unexpected surprise, after almost 24 hours of labor, I had an emergency C-section. Thankfully, my daughter was healthy; however, my recovery was quite a journey. The shock to my system caused my bloated and swollen body to need weeks of recovery time. Luckily, I had trusted my friend and followed her instructions: I had stolen some mesh underwear from the hospital to bring home with me.
Unfortunately, I needed those disposable underwear for much longer than I anticipated and quickly ran out. As I still wasn't quite mobile, my mother went to the store to find more underwear for me. Unfortunately, she couldn't find them anywhere and ended up buying me oversized granny panties. Sure, they were big enough, but I had to cut the waistband for comfort.
I eventually recovered from my C-section, survived those first few sleepless months, and returned to work. At the time, I was working for a Fortune 100 company and happily contributing to the corporate world. But becoming a new mom brought with it an internal struggle and search for something “more" out of my life--a desire to have a bigger impact. A flashback to my friend's golden piece of advice got me thinking: Why aren't mesh underwear readily available for women in recovery? What if I could make the magical mesh underwear available to new moms everywhere? Did I know much about designing, selling, or marketing clothing? Not really. But I also didn't know much about motherhood when I started that journey, either, and that seemed to be working out well. And so, Brief Transitions was born.
My quest began. With my manufacturing and engineering background I naively thought, It's one product. How hard could it be? While it may not have been “hard," it definitely took a lot of work. I slowly started to do some research on the possibilities. What would it take to start a company and bring these underwear to market? How are they made and what type of manufacturer do I need? With each step forward I learned a little more--I spoke with suppliers, researched materials, and experimented with packaging. I started to really believe that I was meant to bring these underwear to other moms in need.
Then I realized that I needed to learn more about the online business and ecommerce world as well. Google was my new best friend. On my one hour commute (each way), I listened to a lot of podcasts to learn about topics I wasn't familiar with--how to setup a website, social media platforms, email marketing, etc. I worked in the evenings and inbetween business trips to plan what I called Execution Phase. In 2016, I had a website with a Shopify cart up and running. I also delivered my second daughter via C-section (and handily also supplied myself with all the mesh underwear I needed).
They say, “If you build it, they will come." But I've learned that the saying should really go more like this: “If you build it, and tell everyone about it, they might come." I had a 3-month-old, an almost 3 year old and my business was up and running. I had an occasional sale; however, my processes were extremely manual and having a day job while trying to ship product out proved to be challenging. I was manually processing and filling orders and then going to the post office on Saturday mornings to ship to customers. I eventually decided to go where the moms shop...hello, Amazon Prime! I started to research what I needed to do to list products with Amazon and the benefits of Amazon fulfillment (hint: they take care of it for you).
Fast forward to 2018...
While I started to build this side business and saw a potential for it to grow way beyond my expectations, my corporate job became more demanding with respect to travel and time away from home. I was on the road 70% of the time during first quarter 2018. My normally “go with the flow" 4-year-old started to cry every time I left for a trip and asked why I wasn't home for bedtime. That was a low point for me and even though bedtime with young kids has its own challenges, I realized I didn't want to miss out on this time in their lives. My desire for more scheduling flexibility and less corporate travel time pushed me to work the nights and weekends needed to build and scale my side hustle to a full-time business. If anyone tries to tell you it's “easy" to build “passive" income, don't believe them. Starting and building a business takes a lot of grit, hustle and hard work. After months of agonizing, changing my mind, and wondering if I should really leave my job (and a steady paycheck!), I ultimately left my corporate job in April 2018 to pursue Brief Transitions full-time.
In building Brief Transitions, I reached out to like-minded women to see if they were experiencing similar challenges to my own--balancing creating and building a business while raising children--and I realized that many women are on the quest for flexible, meaningful work. I realized that we can advance the movement of female entrepreneurs by leveraging community to inspire, empower, and connect these trailblazers. For that reason, I recently launched a new project, The Transitions Collective, a platform for connecting community-driven women entrepreneurs.
As is the case with many entrepreneurs, I find myself working on multiple projects at a time. I am now working on a members-only community for The Transitions Collective that will provide access to experts and resources for women who want to leave corporate and work in their business full-time. Connecting and supporting women in this movement makes us a force in the future of work. At the same time, I had my most profitable sales quarter to date and best of all, I am able to drop my daughter off at school in the morning.
Mesh underwear started me on a journey much bigger than I ever imagined. They sparked an idea, ignited a passion, and drove me to find fulfillment in a different type of work. That stolen underwear was just the beginning.