Stefania Mallett is no newcomer to business. Over the course of a 25-plus-year career, she’s run multiple companies as an operating executive and CEO. These days, you can find her at the helm of the only national online business catering platform, ezCater. Under her direction, ezCater recently closed on $35 million in funding, bringing total funding to $70 million, and has nearly tripled its sales each year for the past three years. Her success and wealth of experience made her the natural choice for one of the speakers at our inaugural Women in eCommerce event on February 22nd in Brooklyn. We caught up with her to talk about her experience and personal growth as a female entrepreneur, and her advice for other women business owners.
World First: How did you get started as an entrepreneur and what was your first venture?
Stefania Mallett: I actually went to school for engineering, but found myself getting more interested in the business side of things. I started developing a more rounded resume and after a while I realized, “I want to run one of these things myself!” One of my early ventures was as a founding CEO in the early days of the web. We were creating virtual sales advisors to help people buy products on this new thing called the internet. It was such a novel concept at that time to make purchases online. I remember giving advice to big retail chains, telling them that if they did business on the web, they would be more successful. At that time, it was a very big deal and it was an amazing experience to be among the first to pave the way in the world of online shopping and eCommerce.
WF: As a woman, did you encounter any particular challenges (or conversely, opportunities) in your career?
Stefania: Like many of us, I’ve faced my share of internal and external obstacles. One thing I’ve noticed women often struggling with is the feeling that they need to be more qualified before they take risks or start something new. We tend to second-guess ourselves and downplay our achievements more than men. That thinking slowed me down at times, and made me more cautious than I needed to be and less bold. I was told, “Well, women don’t do that.” But as I got older, I accepted that mindset less and less.
The turning point for me was when I was a hiring manager 20 years ago and working with several recruiting agencies. There was one gentleman in particular from one of those agencies who, unknown to me, had decided he was grooming me as a CEO. Every couple of years, he would call me and say, “Here’s a job you should take now, I’ve found a posting that’s right for you.” He was moving me to bigger and bigger responsibilities.
At one point, he called and said, “Stefania, I have a new job for you.” I told him, “But Bob, I don’t know how to do that role.” He said, “Oh Stefania, you always say that. And you always succeed at it.” At that moment, I realized that I was creating obstacles for myself. It was a crippling thought and after he pointed it out, I was able to clear it out of my head.
WF: How did you handle challenges to achieve success as an entrepreneur?
Stefania: One thing that has certainly helped me is that I grew up in a difficult family. And one of the things I learned as a coping mechanism was to be extremely attuned to what is going on around me. This has helped me hugely in life. I call it the hairball method of learning. I’ve learned something new from everybody; the waiter, the manager, the bus driver, the investor who didn’t fund me, the investor who did fund me. By paying attention, I’ve learned a lot, just by watching everyone around me. That survival tactic has helped me overcome a lot of gaps and challenges.
WF: Tell us about the story behind ezCater. How did you start it?
Stefania: In 1997, I had decided I was ready to start something new but I didn’t know what. I was lucky that I knew some people who had an idea, and they wanted a founding CEO to make that idea a reality. Once you start something, you realize “ooh this is fun,” and it’s very hard to go back to work for a huge company. We had some success, but I did go and run other companies for other people after that. By then I understood that I really was a CEO. I did some turnaround work and got involved in more brand new startups, including one that gave rise to ezCater. We ran out of cash with that first company, so we shut it down. That was on a Thursday. On the following Monday, we started a company to help feed business meetings, and that was ezCater, and it turns out that we had tapped into a huge market. We’re now the only nationwide company that provides this service and are continuing to grow every year.
WF: What have been some major milestones and achievements for ezCater?
Stefania: Definitely the day we stopped being virtual and rented an office in the spring of 2012. Our 20 employees met each other for the first time. Also, the day that we brought in institutional investments in January 2015, which really galvanized the company into big growth. There’s been a lot of happy milestones.
WF: In your 40-year career, you’ve worked across a variety of industries. What advice would you offer female entrepreneurs based on your experience? Especially women leading eCommerce businesses?
Stefania: The advice I would give to female entrepreneurs – or anybody – is to just try it. Don’t hold yourself back, because the world will hold you back. You can affect your way of thinking. Weed out all the obstacles that you have created for yourself and then just try it, whatever you want – or think you want – to do. TRY IT.
On February 22nd, World First USA, Inc. will be hosting our inaugural Women in eCommerce event to celebrate the achievements of female online sellers. The evening features a great lineup of speakers and a night of networking. Learn more and register to save your free spot today — spaces are limited!