Diary of a Startup Goddess: Suzy DeYoung, La Soupe
Originally published October 19, 2020
“Success” is a word that has countless meanings and exerts an individualized emotive. More often than not, success in the business world is part of the machismo culture. However, when a woman steps into that world, she defies expectation, overcomes obstacles, and shatters the patriarchy.
For a woman, the struggles of creating her own business may seem amplified and tiresome, inducing a sense of hopelessness. ink.mdc created this blog series, “Diary of a Startup Goddess”, because just one story can uplift any woman from such disillusionment. We’ve invited businesswomen, who have redefined entrepreneurship, to tell their story because we want to encourage other women to pursue their passions. Join us each month for one of these incredible stories!
Celebrity chef Suzy DeYoung shares her uplifting journey of how she became the founder of her Non-Governmental Organization - Non-Profit Organization (NGO) La Soupe.
Aanchal Bhattacharya (AB): What led you to start your NGO La Soupe?
Suzy DeYoung (SDY): I was a caterer for 25 years, and I come from a long line of chefs. My father was the chef of a known restaurant here in Cincinnati called the Maisonette. He brought the first five stars to our city, and my maternal grandfather was also a chef in New York City at the Union Club. We call it the genetic disorder; I didn't have a choice. But after 25 years, I got burnt out. I needed to keep working, so I had to look inward to see what it was about cooking that I still liked, and it occurred to me that I liked giving food away. After a catering event I would spend my Sunday getting rid of any leftovers; that gave me joy.
I thought it would be smarter to focus on that. Nobody in Cincinnati was doing anything similar, and I had to make a living, so I decided to focus on the nonprofit sector at the same time. Food waste was becoming a real issue; it seemed to be everywhere, and I was seeing it firsthand at one of the Kroger grocery stores. Our restaurant sat above one of the stores, so I would see the amount of perishables that were put into the dumpster every day. I reached out to them first, just to see if it would be possible to even get that food. And if I did get that food, how much is there, and is it in any condition that I could actually cook with it?
Thus, it was an experiment. I sold my business to my sister, who was my business partner, and found a tiny location close to my house. I started with Kroger, and we've pivoted a thousand times since.
In the beginning, it was myself and two other people cooking. It was retail, but it was for profit.. I didn't have a game plan. But I knew that I couldn't continue in the for-profit high end like when we were a boutique caterer. I was disillusioned, and I wanted to try something else; I wanted to find my purpose.
AB: What is your source of inspiration? Did you immediately feel that something was deficient within your surroundings, prior to starting La Soupe?
SDY: We have a food bank in our city, and I didn't know this six years ago, but I couldn't help but believe that having a trained chef handling the perishables would have a bigger impact than handing people in poverty the “not-so-good-looking broccoli.”
Cincinnati became a front-page news story when they released the poverty level, and we were second behind Detroit of children living in food insecurity. And I thought, "Maybe it's because nobody's focusing on that. And could I make enough food to actually make a difference? I have no idea." But I'm also a fairly religious person, and at that time in my life, I was going to Catholic mass almost every day. I felt like the whisper became a shout, and it was, "Feed my sheep." And I couldn't ignore it. It was like, "I've got to do something. I've got to figure this out. If I fail, I'll get another job somewhere else."
Other cities have agencies that do this type of work, but Cincinnati did not. It would have been easier if I found that out before; I would have modeled it after similar institutions. But I felt like this was the way it had to happen; it was organically grown.
AB: What did the first three years look like when you started La Soupe? Did you experience any major difficulties?
SDY: I started as a “for profit”. I felt like I could model this after TOMS shoes, which is “buy one, give one.” However, the perception altered when I came across a Facebook post by a teacher. In Cincinnati, the kids in public schools that are on food assistance receive a free package of food from the food bank. One Friday, they had a snow day. When Monday came, those kids hadn't received their food. This teacher then wrote about finding a child too weak from hunger at the bottom of her steps because she hadn't eaten since Thursday's lunch.
And with that, I said, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard." I packed up the car, went down there, and started giving food away. I had no inventory control. I didn't think, "Oh, I sold 10 quarts, so I can give 10 quarts." It wasn't like that. I just gave everything. So that's when I realized I needed to become a nonprofit. In my previous professional life, I served a lot of high-heeled members of our community. They wanted to help me become a nonprofit by providing donations. I had to pivot and invest; the startup costs were all from my own personal account.
After I sold my business, I used that money to find a space and then to buy the equipment. Every part of starting this NGO I paid for myself. I also allowed myself not to be paid for six months to a year. It was hard, being married and raising two kids who were going off to college. But I also knew that I wasn't happy, and life is short. I had to figure it out. I liked the act of cooking, and I liked the act of giving that food away; therefore this was the best path.
There were many challenges that came forth. I didn't have employees, but some guy showed up to volunteer; I still call him Saint Michael. I was constantly being hounded. I had a friend that was doing my books for me, and she said, "Suzy, you're down to your last nickel." And I'm like, "I'll put another 30 in." So, I was just pumping the money into it. I had smart people telling me, "You're going to lose everything you ever made. You're being an idiot. Nobody cares about this. Why are you doing this?" I didn't have much support in that regard; people thought I was crazy and going through a midlife crisis.
Financially speaking, it was three years of hell until we got the nonprofit status and, again, I know a lot of people that have a lot of money in foundations. So once I could explain to them that by rescuing the food from the landfill, I'm using my talent to transform it, which makes it easier for people that don't have means to eat good nutritious food, rather than trying to give them more processed food. It quickly grew exponentially.
I got lucky. I had a friend (I didn't know her at the time) that came down from the Cincinnati Enquirer. She did a huge front-page story on us that also got picked up by USA Today. Once people started hearing about what I was trying to do, they started volunteering to help. The first person that showed up to volunteer was Mimi Dyer. She's now our board president, and she had visions of doing something similar. She helped us come up with a name, and then people knew us as La Soupe. We were showing up to schools in the worst areas of our city, working with the resource coordinators, trying to develop a relationship. Maintaining that relationship is probably the most gratifying part of the work that we do. I'm grateful that such helpful people were behind me for those first three years.
AB: Did you have any other forms of support when you were starting this NGO?
SDY: In so many ways, the right people kept walking into my life at the right time. One woman walked in, and she's now the attorney on our board. She did all the paperwork to become a nonprofit. I also had a friend that used to do the books for me at the restaurant that ended up doing the balancing and accounting for free. I had so many people lending their talents, people saying, "Let me go to Kroger, Suzy. I can do that. I can pick up the food. Why are you doing that every morning? Let me do that. You go straight to the shop; I'll bring you the food." It became organic in every sense of the word. I had a strong group of female friends that worked for me in my old life that understood that this is something I had to try to do.
Five years ago, I came across Betsy, who taught me about auction sites. She helped in numerous ways; her and her family scrubbed walls and put shelves together because she believed that this could work, and she would do anything to help me get there. The support was coming from all different places. The process was about taking baby steps. And then it was coming across people who would know others that could potentially help. Everybody that came aboard had talent, care, and determination. We also had many women who came on board and took charge, we called it the hen house. In the end, I had a large network of good people.
AB: Do you have any useful tricks for networking?
SDY: Take every meeting you can afford to because you never know. It's not like I wasn't known in the city; I had been here forever. But I was a busy hands-on chef. I wasn't a networking person. I didn't know how to even email. Now I rely on every one of those connections. Building your network is probably the hardest and most time-consuming part but the most necessary.
Once I got waist deep in all of this, I started looking at seminars. I started traveling around the country, learning from people that have done this longer than I have. Networking with people in your field and learning from them becomes invaluable. I want to rob and duplicate (RND). And if my way is smarter than somebody else's, let me share it with you. It shouldn't be a competitive process to try to give food away.
If you're going to keep all your cards pressed to your chest, you're not going to get far. Life is much more enjoyable when it’s shared. That's the way I've always approached my life.
The team that runs La Soupe today came as a volunteer at some point. It speaks volumes that they wanted to be part of the mission. They are just happy to have a job, happy to be contributing in a positive way, happy to be able to hone their craft as chefs, which is different from running a restaurant. You have to be able to pivot on a dime because you may need carrots for what you thought you were going to make, and there's no carrots, so now you've got to think about what else you can put into the dish; we call it reverse creativity. You just create with what you have. It takes some time to get used to doing it that way. But once you do, it's liberating.
AB: For many entrepreneurs, maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be tough. Are you able to have a work-life balance?
SDY: I live a pretty balanced life. Even though it may not be a “busy life” anymore because both of my children are out of the house, I still maintain a healthy and active life. I spend a lot of time outdoors and am a forager. For example, mushroom picking is one of my favorite things to do. Even though there are busy moments in life, especially when running a business or NGO of your own, I still make time for exploring and doing activities that I enjoy.
AB: As a female entrepreneur who has paved her own path of success, what advice do you have for anyone who’s trying to create a business, invent something, or innovate but have been systematically marginalized by society?
SDY: Most people let fear drive them, and you can't live life in fear. You should try to get to your purpose. Not everybody can afford to make a living with their purpose, but everybody has a purpose. And if you try to live your life looking for that, you'll find it. Sometimes, people just get so hung up in how much money they can make, and that's not a bad thing because the bills need to get paid. But don't let that be the only reason to live. I never have been money-motivated, which was a problem for those three years.
But also, I can't help but say I'm privileged. I had a two-hour Zoom meeting last night with different nonprofit leaders in our city. I refer to it as the lucky sperm club. I didn't choose how I was born, where I was born, who I was born to, but boy did I win. Other people may look at it and go, "Really? Your father died when you were 13, and you consider yourself a winner?" Yeah, because we stayed in our house, I still had food, and I still went to the same school.
I'm not saying it wasn't horrible. But I still had more privilege than 98% of the people that I cook for. I had love, I had a family. I look at the people that we're cooking for sometimes, and I think, "Could I raise myself up and out of their situation?" I don't know that I have that in me. It's recognizing the fact that I have been given a lot in life. And I've earned a lot of it, but I was born white, in middle class, suburban Cincinnati with a wonderful loving family. I can't discount that.
AB: How can our society create an extensive support system for female content creators, entrepreneurs, and business owners where women are represented and celebrated as well?
SDY: I worked in a male-dominant industry. There are not a lot of female chefs. When I apprenticed in France, I was the first female in three of the kitchens that I worked in. I wasn't treated any differently. If you act as an equal, you're treated as an equal. But it was interesting to me in the nonprofit sector because I wished I was a guy sometimes because in a lot of these big corporate scenes, the big players all seemed to be white males.
AB: After creating La Soupe and attaining the successful career you have had, are there any unfulfilled dreams that you still want to achieve?
SDY: My perfect life will be the day that I can live in two countries: six months in the mountains in Alsace and six months in Cincinnati. I dream of going back in time, and I hope that COVID will get us to do that a little bit more. Our world got so big so fast, so maybe everybody can just take a step back and see how great we actually have it. No matter what, my life on any bad day is tenfold better than 90% of the world's on a good day.
AB: Do you have any final words of wisdom for those budding entrepreneurs and dreamers who are looking to create something of their own?
SDY: My whole thing is do not let fear tell you “no.” If I would have listened to the fear, I never would have done it. So don't let fear be the reason you don't take the next step.
Suzy DeYoung is a celebrity chef who comes from a long line of successful chefs. Her father, Pierre Adrian, opened Cincinnati’s first Mobil 5 star rated restaurant known as The Maisonette and introduced fine dining to the city. In the same spirit, DeYoung built a brand for herself and worked at many famous restaurants in Cincinnati. She has also worked at La Gavroche London, L’Auberge d’Ill in Alsace, and Michelin star rated restaurants and many bistros in France for a year. After returning to the United States, she and her sister opened La Petite Pierre. DeYoung has also cooked for famous personalities, including Bruce Springsteen, Julia Child, Prince Andrew, George W. Bush, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. After witnessing one post on Facebook about the pressing issue of food insecurity in the country, DeYoung founded La Soupe. The NGO is successful and is continuing to grow to the extent that it is planning on moving to Walnut Hills of Cincinnati.
You can learn more about Suzy DeYoung and her story by visiting https://lasoupe.org/our-story.
To discover more about La Soupe and its mission you can visit https://lasoupe.org/.
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Aanchal Bhattacharya is ink.’s content contributor and staff writer. Aanchal holds a first-class joint honors degree in history and religious studies from McGill University. She is also a Wasserman Scholar and has a master’s degree in cinema studies from Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. From indulging in creative writing to directing short films, Aanchal’s passion has driven her to artistically express herself in this ever-changing world. She has inspiration flowing through her veins.
No matter how busy life gets, Aanchal always makes time for watching movies/television shows, listening to awesome music, and engaging in inspiring “food for thought” discussions with family and friends.