🧁 Founder Feature: Candace Nelson
Founder, Sprinkles and Pizzana | Author, Sweet Success: A Simple Recipe to Turn your Passion into Profit
In This Edition
🍪 How childhood experiences can shape career paths
💜 The power of philanthropy as a business priority
🎈 Why prioritizing mentorship matters
Candace Nelson is a serial entrepreneur, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author, Wall Street Journal contributor and an expert in turning one’s passion into a profitable business. Her debut book, The Sprinkles Baking Book: 100 Secret Recipes from Candace’s Kitchen was a New York Times Bestseller and her forthcoming book on entrepreneurship, Sweet Success: A Simple Recipe for Turning Your Passion Into Profit published by HarperCollins Leadership on November 8, 2022 was a Wall Street Journal bestseller.
Candace Nelson revolutionized the baking industry when she left a career in finance to start Sprinkles, the world's first cupcake bakery and Cupcake ATM. Nelson followed with the launch of Pizzana, a growing chain of Michelin Bib Gourmand-awarded pizzerias leading the third wave of pizza in the US. She continues to expand her portfolio of investments with CN2 Ventures and lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two sons, and Norwich terrier, Willy.
What sparked your career pivot into baking?
Growing up, I was always passionate about baking. As a child, I lived internationally and baking was a way for me to connect with the flavors and treats that I missed from home. When I felt homesick, baking classic American treats like rice krispie treats, brownies and chocolate chip cookies always comforted me.
After college, I moved to San Francisco to work at an investment bank and then an internet company. It was the late 90’s — the height of the “dot com boom”. As a young professional on a generous expense account, I often dined at world-class restaurants and my passion for good food (and desserts) was reignited.
In 2001, two major moments unexpectedly changed the course of my career. First, the internet bubble burst, leaving me (and thousands more) without a job or prospects. In fact, there was such a mass exodus from San Francisco that there was a six-week wait for a U-Haul rental!
Just a few months later September 11th changed the course of history and led to a personal epiphany for me. I resolved to leave the corporate world and pursue a more creative career that brought me joy and meaning. As a result, I came home to my childhood passion for baking and enrolled in pastry school, instead of business school.
What is one project you are proud of creating over the years?
At Sprinkles, I started a charitable cupcake initiative to give back to the communities in which we operated. Over the years, we’ve partnered with many incredible celebrities to create special flavors and donate the proceeds to their charity of choice. It was a surprisingly powerful way to make positive change in the world — with a simple cupcake.
Our first partnership was with Blake Lively who was a huge fan of the brand. She is also an accomplished baker and cooks in her own right! Together, we created the S’more cupcake and raised $35,000 for Oxfam. Over the years, we’ve donated over $7 million in cash and cupcakes to charities since opening Sprinkles. We’ve also donated daily leftovers to food banks.
What is your communications style as a leader and how did that influence the way you communicated with your employees at Sprinkles?
Even though I resisted it at the time, my stint in investment banking had an imprint on me — it trained me to be a self-starter. Everyone in that world was smart and ambitious, however, there was a real lack of culture. When I started Sprinkles, I knew I wanted to approach my company's culture differently and instill a sense of camaraderie and caring among my team.
Company culture starts first with the hiring process. I do my due diligence by asking a lot of questions in the interview in order to make sure that every new team member is aligned with the mission and values of the company. Sprinkles was first and foremost about giving — giving to our customers by injecting joy and delight into everyday moments — and giving back to our communities. I looked for team members who embodied that customer service ethos and who were generous in spirit.
Ultimately, company culture is about how you make people feel, and it comes from the top. I may be an intense interviewer but I like to give my team members a lot of praise and recognition for their contributions.
What inspired you to write your book “Sweet Success” and what do you hope people learn from it?
There were always so many female founders approaching me for mentorship. I was already mentoring several women, as well as growing my own business (Pizzana) and raising two boys, and was frustrated that I couldn’t make a greater impact. Sweet Success offered me the perfect opportunity to package what I’ve learned in order to help more women at scale.
Writing a book takes a lot of time and reflection, which I don’t normally have. When the pandemic hit, I was unexpectedly given the gift of time and space which allowed me to write this book. During those many months of lockdown, I was finally able to pause and think about what I’ve learned over the years in order to share those lessons with others.
Ultimately, my goal with the book is to inspire more women to dream big, bet on themselves, and start taking steps toward making those dreams a reality. I believe anyone can turn their passion into reality with the right ingredients. Anyone can be an entrepreneur.
You’re writing and sharing stories with your community frequently. What are the topics you focus on with your content?
I’m a big believer in cultivating a strong brand — both for your company and for yourself. That’s how Sprinkles succeeded! Our upscale cupcakes were a complete luxury, and yet we scaled the majority of our business through the Great Recession. Because our customers felt an emotional connection to our brand, they continued to rely on our cupcakes as a small luxury and treat, even during a market downturn.
Stepping into your personal brand as a founder is also a powerful way to build trust with customers and differentiate yourself from the competition. I especially believe in the power of short-form videos to share your point of view, drive the conversation and build an engaged community.
Finally, I believe in having fun and embracing play. Play is that third space in our lives — beyond work and rest — and it’s really important to cultivate. When I’m at play is when I have the biggest breakthroughs and the most creative ideas.
What’s your favorite flavor cupcake, if you can choose?
The dark chocolate cupcake! It got me through both of my pregnancies I'm really a flavor purist. I love the classics. It’s the same for pizza — I love the Margherita.
Speaking of pizza, what projects are you excited to be working on now?
Our pizza restaurant, Pizzana, is really in a growth phase. We're scaling and it’s a make-or-break moment for us. I’m also building our community of super fans in creative ways. I also just produced a show on Hulu with our head Chef Daniele Uditi called Best in Dough. Streaming now!
I’m continuing to focus on angel investing in early-stage female-founded businesses. I’m also speaking on panels and giving keynotes at conferences to spread my message of entrepreneurship for all!
Thank you for reading The Switchboard. ☎️ Every edition is personally written by me — Julia Levy. Learn more about why I write. Review the Index of past posts.
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I enjoyed this post and now crave both pizza and cupcakes! Luckily there are both Pizzana and Sprinkles locations near me!😊