Entrepreneurial Journey: Vera Stewart of VeryVera Brands
What adjectives do you think of when you think of trailblazing women entrepreneurs? Maybe resilient, tenacious, adaptable, creative, perhaps even driven? Package all of those descriptors together and you have the remarkable Vera Stewart.
Since Vera and I are contemporaries, it was easy for us to dive deep into what it took to start a business in an era–the 1970s–when female business owners were not widely accepted. And while that may have been a fact of the day, it wasn’t going to stop Vera. So how did her journey begin?
Like many young women in the South, her love for cooking was passed down through the generations. She was fascinated by the boxes of hand-written recipes from her grandmothers. Early on, she became engaged in the process of managing and organizing this piece of her family history. She loved learning all about cooking but also relished her role as a steward of her heritage, helping her hone her craft as chef, baker, super organizer and manager. It all seemed to come naturally to her.
One life event that helped propel her natural abilities into a possible career was her homeroom teacher her senior year in high school. Vera was not signed up for a Home Economics class but it just so happened that Ms Dupree, her homeroom teacher, was also a Home Ec teacher. Vera found herself coming to school early to help her teacher organize and learn cooking techniques. Ms Dupree’s impact was so strong that Vera has honored her in the forward of her new cookbook, “The VeryVera Cookbook: Recipes From My Table” (out tomorrow!). Recently, Vera had the pleasure of reading her tribute to Catherine, now 97 years old.
So it seems only fitting that Vera’s first career was teaching. In the 30-plus years since then, she has started a catering company and a mail-order cake company, was carried by top-end retailers like Neiman Marcus, opened a retail store and cafe, and started a syndicated cooking show as well as a children’s cooking camp (now in franchise). And through it all, she has not only married her passion for leadership development and life-coaching with her passion for good food, but stayed nimble and adaptable to needs and changes in the marketplace.
Like any strong brand, you must have a brand story that is impactful and Vera has that in spades. She mastered differentiating her products by having exceptional packaging that her competitors could not duplicate. Her strong entrepreneurial skills, I have to believe, come naturally and are hard to teach. Her mentoring to up-and-coming entrepreneurs is a badge of honor she wears proudly.
In recent years, Vera has contemplated her exit strategy. Don’t confuse that with stopping working and continuing to do what she loves. She has closed her retail store, freeing up time and energy to write the cookbook. Vera will also continue to focus on her TV cooking show and the cooking camps.
Lest you think Vera is all work and no play… here are some little known facts about our role model entrepreneur. She never misses a chance to dance to Carolina Shag or Big Band music. She is known as a silly grandmother with rules. And Vera’s special day is most Sundays when she spends the afternoon with her grandchildren playing in the fairy backyard gardens they have created.
There is so much more I could have written about Vera, like that fact that she beat Bobby Flay in the Carrot Cake Throw Down, or her ability to understand the science behind cooking. To meet Vera is like meeting a lightning bolt. You better hold on because you are about to be energized and inspired to go out and conquer the obstacles in front of you.
If you have the desire to start a business and live the entrepreneurial life, I hope you have the opportunity to cross paths with Vera Stewart.
What drove you to start the business?
After starting my career as a teacher, I decided I wanted to stay home after my first child. The catering business was my answer to a cottage industry. After a second child and a few years under my belt, I made it an official business in 1984.
What did you learn from your previous career that helped you with being an entrepreneur?
I actually still think of myself as a teacher. Writing lesson plans and pre-planning are still an essential part of my business. Each employee turns in weekly lesson plans on Sunday evening and we review them on Monday mornings.
What are your distinctive selling points or how do you distinguish yourself from others in your space?
The selling point to all VeryVera products was the fact that they were all handmade and shipped with exceptional packaging and care. We continue to capitalize on these in our other endeavors.
What is the biggest piece of advice you would give to someone starting a new business?
I adopted a “school” approach and grew my business as my sons grew, allowing me to grow it slowly and manageably. I encourage other entrepreneurs to stay the path. The rewards along this journey will far outweigh any pitfalls and at the end of the day, you will feel a deep sense of pride and joy.
What is your favorite part of owning your own business?
Definitely, the investment I’ve been able to make in other people and the blessings they have been to me.
What is the best investment (money or time) you’ve made in your business to date?
Looking back, I think my attention to detail and expecting the very, very best out of all staff and not selling for less has paid off for the integrity of the brand.
How do you maintain a work life balance?
First of all, marry the right person. An entrepreneur is driven, determined and courageous, not always the definition of a doting wife. A successful home is like a successful business, in terms of organization, communications and expectations. When all of these things are in place, the balance comes naturally.
What is your personal definition of success?
I would consider myself as a servant leader. Anyone who I have served in my business over the last 33 years, as a client, customer or associate, who has been positively affected, turns into a “win” for me. The ones who may have had a complaint or problem became part of the growth and allowed me to be better by expressing that concern so they are “wins” too. If you look at it that way, every day is successful.
You can check out all of Vera’s projects at www.veryvera.com.