Could you stand in a shop full of strangers and belt out the “Happy Birthday” song?
Tennessean Debbi Fields, the founder of Mrs. Fields Cookies, required it in the final employment interviews for her early bakeshops, which she — starting as a 20-year-old housewife with only a chocolate chip cookie recipe and a dream — grew from scratch in Palo Alto, Calif., to a global franchisor she eventually sold for millions of dollars.
“I wanted team members who were passionate about my cookies and willing to step out of their comfort zones, even if they were embarrassed or didn't want to,” said Fields, who keynoted the fourth-annual Women Entrepreneurs “WE” Inspire conference Tuesday, presented by Oklahoma State University's Riata Center for Entrepreneurship at the Cox Convention Center.
Fields, who inspired 576 guests to rise, lock eyes with and sing “Happy Birthday” to nearby strangers, said her recipe for success included equal parts passion, perfection and perseverance.
“Whatever you do, make it great,” said Fields, who grew up in a modest home with a welder father, homemaker mother and four older sisters.
Fields started baking chocolate chip cookies as a young girl; she'd bag them and give them to others wherever she went. It was when she started earning her own spending money, at age 13 as a third-base ball girl for the Oakland As that she bought real butter, real chocolate and real vanilla, she said, and “learned never to compromise on quality.”
When it came to starting a business, Fields' first challenge was “to raise the dough,” she said. She brought cookies to scores of bankers who'd devour them, love them and still refuse financing, she said. But, despite discouragement from her mom, husband and others, she persevered and, finally, a baker who loved her chewy, buttery, oversized cookies loaned her $25,000 — at 21 percent interest.
“I was never in the cookie business; I always was in the feel-good business,” Fields said. “It was my job to make people smile — sell the experience — and cookies were a way to get there.”
Instead of the impossible, she saw “I'm possible,” she said.
Fields advised conference attendees to break down annual sales goals to hourly goals and never to ask questions that could be answered by “no.”
“The greatest failure of all,” she said, “is not trying.”
Gov. Mary Fallin proclaimed Tuesday “Women Entrepreneurs Inspire Day,” acknowledging Fields' success and hinting at her “Black-Bottom Chocolate Chip Cookie” recipe in a coming cookbook of her husband, Oklahoma's first “first gentleman.” Drawing guffaws from the crowd, Fallin said she buys ready-made dough, preheats the oven, slices and places the dough on a baking sheet, and then proceeds to check email, start laundry and text.
Meanwhile, master of ceremonies Kirsten McIntyre, reported she'd caught the entrepreneur bug from past conferences and left broadcast journalism a year ago to launch a real estate career with her husband.
Did you know?
Twenty-seven percent of Oklahoma businesses are women-owned. Today, women are starting businesses at 1.5 percent the rate of men. Nationwide, women-owned firms have an economic impact of $3 trillion that translates into 23 million workers, or 16 percent of all jobs.