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Women-Owned Business Spotlight with Leslie Polizzotto, Founder of The Doughnut Project

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

As a part of our interview series on women-owned businesses, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leslie Polizzoto, co-founder and owner of the Doughnut Project.

Leslie Polizzotto is the co-founder and owner of The Doughnut Project, a hand-crafted gourmet doughnut shop in the West Village of Manhattan. She is a former litigation attorney who had a passion for food and fine dining. When the opportunity to help open a doughnut shop was presented, she took the leap into entrepreneurship, creating one of the leading doughnut brands in the United States.

Thanks for joining me! Tell our readers about what you do.

I handle all aspects of running the business. In addition to leading a team of three female pastry chefs to execute our doughnuts, I also handle all business functions of the business including, payroll, accounts payable & receivable, sales & marketing, PR, Social Media, licensing, brand growth and collaborations.

What does being a woman-owned business mean to you?

Being a woman-owned business is important because I believe women make excellent founders because we are used to having many roles in life (caretaker, employee, mother, partner, daughter, friend). When starting a business, you sometimes wear a lot of hats in order to get things done. I believe women are naturally great at multi-tasking, organizing and at simply getting things done. I have always been very independent and having my own business validates my belief that I can do anything I put my mind to.

How did you come up with the idea for your business?

When I met my former business partner, he told me that he wanted to open a doughnut shop. I pulled out my phone and showed him all the pictures that I had taken of doughnuts when they would be brought into the law firm I was working and how happy they would make me feel. I told him that I was going to be moving to NYC and I wanted to be involved somehow. After I moved to NYC, we started to meet and write a business plan. We came up with the niche market of sophisticated doughnuts inspired by food and cocktails. We met with potential investors and eventually raised enough capital to sign a lease for our shop. The whole process from start to opening the shop took almost 2 years!

Okay, coming up with a great idea and actually taking the steps to become an entrepreneur and launch your company are two very different things. How did you know it was time to start?

The stars just aligned! I was in a very big transition in my life. I had just moved from LA to NYC. I thought I was going to continue to practice law and work at the same law firm. After taking passing the New York State Bar Exam, my law firm did not have an open associate position. That is when I re-evaluated my life and whether I was happy in the legal profession. With encouragement from my spouse who owns his own business, I decided to pursue opening the doughnut shop. My law firm did reach out to me with a position, but I turned it down to continue on my path to owning my own business.

Becoming an entrepreneur is no easy feat. What are some of the lessons you learned along the way?

Lesson 1 - It may be a cliche, but "Go with your gut!" Listening to your inner-voice telling you something is not right is crucial. I think we sometimes go on auto-pilot and your subconscious speaks up to point out a red flag that you should address.

Lesson 2 - Also cliche, but "Never give up!" You will encounter problems as a new business owner that you think are insurmountable. But if you work hard and creatively, you can always find a solution.

Lesson 3 - "LESS IS MORE!" - Before the pandemic I had 2 locations open ever day with 25 employees. I was in debt and made no money. I now have my original location, open only 25 hours each week with 3 employees. I have no debt and I am profitable every month!

If you had to list three traits or attributes that have been pivotal for your success, what would they be?

  1. The ability to communicate and speak in front of other people. All my careers have involved me being comfortable to speak in front of others. Whether it was teaching a class, speaking in front of a judge, courting investors, or telling my journey on podcasts or videos made about my business. If you can’t communicate what you and your brand are all about, you will not be successful.

  2. A motivated and disciplined personality. Having your own business is not a 9-5 job. Your business becomes your life and you must work on it every day. Therefore, you must naturally have a motivated personality do whatever it takes to get the job done. Not everyone is like that. Discipline is also very important. It is very easy to get distracted by the unimportant. Having discipline to actually do what is on your “to do” list every day is key.

  3. Problem-solving Skills. Every day will bring a new “issue" when you start and run a business. You must have the ability to problem solve and know when to ask for help when the problem is not something you cannot solve on your own.

How is your company making a difference?

I would say that my business certainly brings happiness to others. It is one of the reasons I started the business. I witnessed firsthand when a box of doughnuts would be brought into the office. How the mood would lighten up. People standing around laughing and discussing which doughnut they wanted. It would bring 5 minutes of joy to the otherwise mundane office life. It is very rewarding when a customer visits and indicates they are so happy to be at the shop and they squeal with joy or when a customer says they are picking up doughnuts to take to the office. I know people are soon going to have a smile on their face.

I know you probably have many, but what’s your proudest moment as a founder?

I am most proud that my brand is recognized and approached by other prestigious brands to partner and do collaborations. I am also proud of facilitating and executing a license agreement with an entity in Saudi Arabia that just opened their 2nd location. It is called DOTS by the The Doughnut Project. This licensee relationship has been very positive and helps grow my brand internationally.

What's one myth you'd like to debunk about your line of work?

I would like to debunk the myth that doughnuts make you fat! It is simply not true. Everything in moderation. I have trainers and body builders who come to my shop A LOT, because they choose my doughnuts as their cheat treat. Some customers come into the shop and say to me, "You must not eat your own doughnuts because you are fit." I correct them and let them know I eat about 3 - 4 doughnuts each week!

What advice would you give to burgeoning entrepreneurs?

First, you have to love and care about what your business is about. As a business owner, your business and personal life become integrated. Your business is not a job, it simply becomes your life because you are always thinking about how to make it better. Trust me, owning a doughnut shop is NOT an easy business. If I did not love being around making creative doughnuts that make people happy, my business would not be successful.

Second, you need to partner with people who have skills that you do not. That makes for a more well-rounded team who can all bring something to the table.

Third, you need to have the support of your spouse, partner, significant other because without their positivity and encouragement, it will only add stress and pressure to a situation already overwhelming. My husband is a sounding board and hears not only about our successes, but also my complaints, fears and worries. He offers his advice as a business owner himself. It is good to have that source of “therapy” to release negative feelings so you can move on to more positive solutions.

What does the future look like for your company?

In the future, I am planning on expanding The Doughnut Project brand domestically and internationally (through additional license agreements). My goal is to take the brand to other key markets while maintaining the quality, creativity and hospitality that the brand is known for.

What words do you live by?

“It’s never too late!” I definitely got a late start on a lot of things. I did not go to college until I was 29 years old, entered law school at 37 years old, and started my own business at 45 years old.

Any final words of wisdom?

Get to know other women business owners in your area. I have recently become great friends with another bakery owner and we meet regularly to discuss ideas, vent about issues and talk strategy!

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