Agatha Kulaga

Agatha’s Cookie-Filled Journey from Social Worker to Bakeshop Owner

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Key takeaway: Intentional leadership in growing a business helps build an empathetic economy

Top 5% in the world at: Cultivating community and people

While interning as a social worker, Agatha Kulaga started baking as a way to relieve stress. “I was working with people who had so many life challenges that to make myself feel better after work I would go home and bake,” she tells us from inside her heavenly-smelling bakeshop. “I found my solace in the kitchen.” After meeting her future business partner, Erin Patinkin, at a food-centric book club, the two hit it off and formed what eventually became Ovenly, an award-winning bakery with shops across New York City. Now, not only are they known for having mouth-watering salted chocolate chip cookies, but also for having inclusive hiring practices. They’ve teamed up with local nonprofits to hire political refugees and people who have been incarcerated. Agatha chatted with us about how she created a company that is both profitable and socially conscious, and why she believes that empathy is critical to success.

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How She Did it

My childhood wasn’t the easiest. I grew up in a single-parent, working-class household and was practically responsible for taking care of my brother. My father always reminded me that I had to build my own future — that no one could do it for me. This mindset really encouraged me to constantly think about my future.

I started working as a camp counselor when I was 14. I generally worked 1-2 jobs throughout high school and college. I grew to love working because it provided me with independence and a sense of paving my own career path. While working at the camp, I realized that I loved working with people and leading teams.

When I was 15, and up until my late 20s, I worked in a number of restaurants. There was something about hospitality that I loved. While I generally worked in the front-of-house, I gravitated toward the back-of-house because I loved the high-energy, getting-shit-done atmosphere. I think this energy is what has always drawn me to work in hospitality and restaurants.

I grew up in a blue-collar, small city in Connecticut and wanted to attend college in a bigger, livelier city. I wanted a city full of diversity and opportunities for building a career. Growing up in a small town, I was never really exposed to a wide variety of career options. The options presented to me were being either a doctor or a lawyer. There was nothing in between. So when I went to Boston and realized there were endless choices of diverse career options, I was thrilled.

What did you study?
I was originally an English major. Then after a few months, I started volunteering at an organization that paired volunteers with young children diagnosed with HIV. I worked closely with a six-year-old girl and quickly bonded with her. It was an incredibly moving experience for me. I wanted to make a difference on a deeper level, so I switched my major to psychology. I studied both cognitive psychology and neuropsychology. At that point, I was most interested in the “science” of psychology.

I came straight to New York after graduating from BU. I worked in a number of restaurants for the first year and again, I loved the energy and hustle of the food world. I also worked for a non-profit organization called Volunteers of America for three months during this time. It was truly one of the most challenging jobs that I’ve ever had. It wasn’t a job where a newly-hired employee was set up for success. I was thrown into an environment where I was supposed to be counseling and helping people, but the people needed help beyond my capabilities and the resources available to me.

What skills did you need?
It was very clarifying to me to see that in order to successfully manage and motivate people, you need to be highly self-aware and have excellent communication skills. You need to have a level of connection and empathy with the people around you in order to succeed.

I saw a job posting and applied. When I interviewed for the job I immediately knew that I wanted it. The academic environment was perfect for me, and it combined my passion for science and human motivation and behavior.

I remember sitting with the woman who would become my boss during the interview and setting a goal of being in her position one day. I eventually moved into that position a few years later. During my time at NYU, I had an incredible mentor and boss who was incredibly inspiring and supportive of my ambitions. I also decided to get my Masters in Social Work while I was there.

How was balancing a Masters and a full-time job?
It was exhausting. I worked full time, did my Masters part-time, and also had a very intensive internship at the same time. For my internship, I was providing therapy for young veterans with co-occurring mental health disorders, which was extremely challenging. But this work inadvertently led me to Ovenly.

How did your outlet led to the creation of Ovenly?
I was working with people who had so many life challenges and their pain was hard to simply shake off. I found my own mental health relief in baking at home. While I had always enjoyed cooking and baking throughout my childhood and college years, I found true solace in the kitchen especially during this time. I spent a lot of time recipe testing, baking for friends, and ultimately ended up in a dessert club.

During that time, baking and recipe testing consumed far more of my thoughts than my job did. That was when I started getting antsy. I had felt incredibly passionate about my job at NYU for a long time, but when I finally reached the nine-year mark I didn’t feel like there was any more room for me to grow. If I had wanted to keep building my career there I would have needed to get my PhD, and I had no desire to do that.

My childhood friend started a food-focused book club where we would read books about food and then cook meals based on the theme of the book. I met my current business partner, Erin, there and we just hit it off.

How did you and Erin start Ovenly together?
Erin was the only other woman who didn’t already have a food-centric career, and we started chatting about our passions and ambitions. I had wanted to start a business for a while, but had not found the right business partner. When I met Erin there was something special between us. We both shared the same sense of determination, grit, and passion for food and hospitality.

But more than that, we were both extremely business-minded. We had each worked for both non-profit and for-profit organizations and through those saw opportunities as to how a successful and impactful business should be grown. We wanted to start a business where we could shape things ourselves and not face the typical bureaucratic challenges. We also wanted to create the type of business where we would want to work ourselves. That was our driving focus.

What steps did you take to officially launch it?
The process of launching Ovenly took about a year. Initially, we toyed around with starting a catering business, then an underground dessert club, and ultimately landed on the idea of starting a gourmet bar snack company. We realized, after many evenings of sitting around in bars after work scheming about starting a business, that there were no good bar snacks. That was our “aha!” moment. We were going to make the best bar snacks that ever existed.

My friend Heather, who owned Heathers Bar in the East Village, was opening a spot in Brooklyn that was going to be a bar at night and a café during the day. She said that she’d sell our bar snacks if we also made pastries for her in the morning. So we said yes, and started making bar snacks and pastries. After a while, our pastries, not the bar snacks, propelled our business into motion. People were chasing us down the street for pastries and suddenly we had a customer base and a real business.

Why do you think your pastries took off?
We came into the industry at an opportune moment. There was a second wave of independent coffee-roasting businesses starting up. Coffee shops were selling higher quality coffee but the accompanying pastries were bland, boring, and often overly sweet. We were coming up with inventive new flavors and offering high quality, handmade pastries that people were excited about. Coffee shop after coffee shop started approaching us about wholesaling and very quickly, we realized that we had a bakery business.

What was your experience creating and running a business for the first time?
It was so difficult! We realized very quickly that we needed to get a commercial kitchen and had to learn everything ourselves - neither of us had any formal culinary or business training. We started from scratch and taught ourselves everything about food production and scaling a business. It was overwhelming and exhausting, but exhilarating. We made so many mistakes in the beginning, and the first year of business was one of the hardest years of my life. I slept 2-3 hours a night.

We still had our other jobs and it got to the point where it was no longer sustainable to do both. We felt like we were onto something and were faced with an opportunity that we couldn’t pass up, so we both finally quit our jobs you 2011. We were determined to build an empire.

What makes Ovenly different from other companies?
While we are a bakery, we wanted to do more than just make the best cookies in the world. One of our first customers was a social worker at an organization called “Getting Out and Staying Out” that works with formerly incarcerated young men. He asked if we wanted to take on some fellows from his program. We, of course, said yes. That was when we really started thinking about our hiring practices, job training, and career development opportunities for our staff. We wanted to make sure that the business we were building had the potential to create positive change. We also want to set the example for other businesses that you can scale and be profitable while promoting a more empathetic economy.

Where do you see Ovenly in the next 10 years?
We want to expand our retail presence and be the neighborhood bakery in every neighborhood. We also want to be the innovators in how business can be done better.

Advice for your career launch

Ask for help
Don’t be ashamed to ask for help. There are people out there who have the answers to the problems you’re having. Not only is it the courageous thing to do, but it's also the responsible thing to do as a business owner.

Surround yourself with people who make you a better person and leader
We are the agents of our own success. Your success is shaped by your personal experiences and the people around you. Be around people who lift you up and make you a better person.

Come to a decision quickly
It’s not useful to linger on decisions. It’s much better to take action, execute, and reassess afterwards.

Always ask for more
Women tend to underestimate themselves and ask for less than men do. It’s important to remind yourself (and other women) to constantly ask for more and never settle for less.