As a corporate executive, Gail Becker had the titles, the designer wardrobe and the “it” handbags. But she had bigger ambitions that she knew she had to pursue on her own.
In 2016, Becker took a calculated gamble with an inheritance from her father. She quit her job as a president at Edelman, the global public relations firm, and founded CauliPower, which makes pizza with gluten free crusts based on cauliflower.
Since going on sale in 30 Whole Foods stores in 2017, CauliPower has sold more than 10 million pizzas and the line is now available in more than 17,500 national and regional grocery stores. It ranks as the country’s top gluten-free pizza brand.
The idea was born out from her frustration at how long it took to make gluten free pizza crusts from scratch for her two sons, who were diagnosed with celiac disease, leaving them unable to digest gluten.
In her case, the phrase “starting from scratch” can be taken literally. For the first three months, she was her company’s only employee (she added employees two and three within six months). Now, Caulipower has 45 people on staff, some of them fellow “corporate refugees,” she says.
Becker offers plenty of candid advice for people in their 50s and up who want to start fresh, but find it scary to leave the safety of Corporate America—and who can’t shake off corporate culture once they make the leap.
1. Use a big life event as a push
Becker was close to her father, an immigrant who founded a food shop in San Francisco. From the age of five, she would operate the manual cash register, earning lunch and $20 a day.
She saw his death in 2016 as a sign that she was meant to launch her own business, something she had thought about doing for years.
“I felt a strong need to do something to honor him and follow in his footsteps. And to do something more meaningful,” she says. “When someone close to you passes, you begin to understand the fragility of life. And you understand that in the time you have left, you better do something you enjoy.”
2. Create the culture
From the beginning, Becker said she wanted a much more laid-back company than the buttoned-up, meeting-dominated public relations firms where she had been a key executive.
“I created it for me,” Becker says. “I wanted to wear jeans, and say there were no bad ideas, and cheer people on, and make sure that everyone has a stake in everyone else’s success.”
Another cultural must, Becker says, is being choosy. “There’s some business you take, and some business you don’t take. There are businesses you decide to work with, and businesses you don’t,” she says.
3. Banish bad habits.
Becker says it’s natural for employees to fall back on the behaviors they learned at other companies, especially if they worked there for a decade or more.
Once she had enough people to fill a conference room, Becker began asking her staff what they hoped to avoid. “We put all our baggage on the table and said, ‘Let’s not do that. Let’s not have the world we all left,’” Becker says.
What was thrown on the table? Being obsessed with titles. Being territorial about their part of the business. Competitive rather than supportive. Dismissing new ideas right off the bat.
Whenever anyone displays an old habit, “we call each other on it,” Becker says. She believes it’s important to articulate how a business should operate.
“When you grow as fast as we did, you have to put some (cultural) structure around it,” Becker says.
4. Draw from your expertise
At some point in a new venture, you undoubtedly will run into a crisis.
That’s when all your life experiences can come in handy. “When you start a career mid-life, you are able to draw on that know how and experience in order to get it right,” she says.
“If I was just starting out, I’d think, ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.’ Now, I think, ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but what’s the worst that can happen me?’” she says.
5. Expect mistakes as you grow
Becker says a friend gave her some perspective through the phrase, “It’s better to say, ‘oops!’ than ‘what if?’”
She says she’s used that as her driving force, pushing herself to try new things even when there is a possibility it may not work.
“I never wanted to wonder,” Becker says. “I never wanted to be one of those people who had this long list of things I’d never done. And I didn’t want my kids to be like that.”.
6. Define your success now
In the corporate world, success to Becker meant being comfortable, physically and financially.
But she discovered that in her corporate positions, “I was too comfortable. I wanted to learn something, and to try and help” people with dietary restrictions, she says.
It’s hard for people to voluntarily leave corporate positions in mid-life because they have worked so hard to get there.
Women and people of color might feel a particular pressure to stay, because they serve as mentors and inspirations to younger employees, Becker says.
“We’re afraid of giving up what we know. I went from making a lot of money to making zero. Nothing,” she says. “And that was scary. But I realized, I didn’t need that wardrobe or the shoes or the purses.”
Now, Becker says, she focuses on what makes her feel fulfilled.
7. Prepare to face the world
Although she was excited about creating CauliPower, Becker went through a period of time where she had left her corporate job, but had not yet started the company.
Attending a business forum, she stared at a blank nametag, wondering what identifier to write. “I was always Gail Becker from X,” she says. Finally, she jotted, “Gail Becker, Entrepreneur.”
A year later, she wrote, “Gail Becker from CauliPower” and found herself surrounded by attendees with “fancy titles and fancy paychecks” who all wanted to know how she made the transition.
8. Be grateful for early support
Becker says she remembers who was cheering her on at the outset. “You do find out who your friends are,” she says.
“In entrepreneurship, timing is everything. The early support is the most important.”
People she barely knew were posting messages of support on her Facebook page and sharing information about CauliPower among their network.
“The corollary was true, too,” Becker says. “All these people I didn’t know were sharing the word. A lot of people I really knew never bothered to spread the word.”
9. Make the leap
From the start, Becker has dealt with multiple challenges. “If I got through the day, that was enough,” she says.
But she’s never regretted starting the company. In fact, she sometimes berates herself for not acting sooner. “I got so close to not doing it. I get so mad for not listening to” her dreams.
To a person, none of the entrepreneurs have ever said, ‘I’m sorry I did it,’” Becker says. “ Everyone I’ve encountered has been so glad that they tried. They don’t want to live with the wonder of ‘what if.’ I think that is a huge gift of age.”