Home About VIP Classes Group Online Retreats Workplace Wellness Energy Work Blog Sign Up Login

Ayeshah Abuelhiga Of Mason Dixie Foods On The Self-Care Routines & Practices Of Busy Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders

Uncategorized Jun 05, 2023

An Interview With Maria Angelova

Improve your physical health. Clearly physical health is critical to personal success so balancing working what you eat and how much you move is critical. During COVID I gained almost 15 lbs and I noticed I was more down on myself, sluggish at creative thinking and then that kept spiraling downward so I made an effort to change it and worked out everyday, stopped drinking and ate right for 3 months to get back to where I was.

All of us know that we have to take breaks in our day to take care of ourselves. “Selfcare is healthcare”, the saying goes. At the same time, we know that when you are a busy leader with enormous responsibility on your shoulders, it’s so easy to prioritize the urgent demands of work over the important requirements of self-care. How do busy entrepreneurs and leaders create space to properly take care of themselves? What are the self-care routines of successful entrepreneurs and business leaders? In this interview series, we are talking to busy and successful entrepreneurs, business leaders, and civic leaders who can discuss their self-care practices and self-care routines. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ayeshah Abuelhiga.

Ayeshah Abuelhiga is the Founder & CEO of Mason Dixie Foods, the fastest growing frozen convenient comfort foods company in the U.S. Ayeshah created Mason Dixie Foods to offer better quality, clean-label comfort food, after realizing most comfort food options were heavily processed, and at the age of 28, she opened a biscuit-centric restaurant and pop-up series in Washington D.C. that immediately grew a devoted following. In 2015 Mason Dixie Foods expanded into retail stores as the only clean-label ready-to-bake biscuit brand and today, the company has expanded into biscuits, scones and breakfast sandwiches found in freezers at over 8,000 stores nationwide and at the breakfast bar at Marriott Hotels across the US.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is an honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you please share with our readers your personal backstory; What has brought you to this point in your life?

Igrew up in Baltimore, in the kitchen of my immigrant parents’ soul-food carry out restaurant and convenience store, that’s where my passion for comfort food started. I thought it was so cool to see people from all walks of life — businessmen, construction workers, all kinds of people — enjoying this food without pause. It was food I craved even as I was coming of age in college, but I could never find homestyle, scratch-made comfort food, only fast food equivalents. But being a first-generation American, a restaurant was not where my parents wanted me to spend the rest of my life.

I was the first member of my family to attend college and since my parents didn’t make a lot of money, I had to work to pay for school, so I worked in restaurants throughout my years at George Washington University. I went on to hold positions in male-dominated industries, like tech and auto and climbed the corporate ladder quickly, and in less than 14 years, I was an upper-level manager who was unfulfilled and had another 20 years to go before I could go after the only female C-level role that I didn’t even want. I was disenchanted and uninspired.

So, I decided it was time to carry out my family legacy and get back into a restaurant. While I was still working full time to fund my dream, I founded Mason Dixie. I saw a huge opportunity in the lack of comfort food options available in the growing, better-for-you food space, and an even bigger opportunity making biscuits the focal point since there were no real, scratch-made biscuits on the market.

I organized the first pop-up DC had ever experienced and had lines wrapped around 4 city blocks in an up and coming neighborhood all weekend. It led to our first temporary pop-up in a food hall in DC. It was only 80 square feet with no prep space so we would run out of food daily before noon because we couldn’t prep and transport enough.

A couple of months in, some customers kept telling me I should sell the dough so they could just bake it at home instead of waiting in line for baked biscuits. Some even said they wish they knew what the biscuits tasted like fresh out of the oven since we didn’t even have an oven onsite. Against the advice of my pastry chef at the time, I froze some of the pucks he had made and came back the next day to bake them off. They turned out even better than the fresh dough! So, I ran to Bed Bath and Beyond, bought a $100 Foodsaver vacuum sealer, and started freezing sheets of biscuits and sealing these biscuits off at 1:00 AM since I was still working full time.

The day after, I drove a big Igloo ice chest to the stall, filled it with the frozen biscuits. Two hours later, we had sold out of all the frozen biscuits by 9:00 AM! Fast-forward two months, we got secret-shopped by the Regional Marketing Director at Whole Foods who had bought a bunch weeks before. She told me I had to bring all the samples I could and show up to headquarters and that she wanted to put the biscuits on display. Nine months later, the day before Thanksgiving, we showed up to our first Whole Foods store with 150 beautiful black boxes and a table full of baked biscuits to demo and within 3 hours we sold out of all the biscuits — beating butter and milk sales that day. That’s the day it became real that we were no longer just a restaurant — we were going to be a product company too.

What is your “why” behind what you do? What fuels you?

I think it’s about changing the course of the future for other little girls of color who need to see women not only succeeding in leadership, but changing the world. For me, changing the world means improving access to quality food without sacrificing cultural affinities, taste, or budget. Simply put — I want people to feel good about the food they crave. When I was little, I was raised in public housing, so I was surrounded by both hardworking, blue-collar families, or women who were full-time stay-at-home moms. The only women I knew who worked a “successful” job were nurses or my teachers. I never encountered a woman in business, so as a little girl I didn’t even know I was capable of being a businesswoman. My parents being immigrants wanted me to be the stereotypical doctor or lawyer because those were the only advanced positions for women that they knew. When I did grow up and go to college and meet, for the first time ever, women in powerful positions, I was hooked. I wanted to be one of those women and set a different course for myself beyond even what my parents’ limited perspective and my community could show me.

When I started this company, it didn’t even feel real to call myself a CEO yet because, in my mind, that title holds so much more power than just “that lady that owns the company” — working in the business for the last 15 years, I saw what a real CEO did. They were a protector, they were the cardholder, the influencer, the master planner. Those are what I wanted to achieve and just owning my business didn’t award me the privilege just yet of feeling what being a CEO was.

At the same time, I was also very successful growing up and I truly believe it was because no matter how poor we were, my parents taught me how to eat well. We bought bruised produce from the farm stands, we made everything from scratch, we even canned/preserved food when we got surpluses that were cheap. They taught me that we are what we eat — and I want more people who are growing up without to understand the importance of what they put in their bodies. I feel as thought I was successful in life because I was well nourished. I watch childhood friends who are still in the system today and I remember they were on dollar lunches or eating out of a vending machine. Taking care of what you put in your body is how you prepare for what you get out of life.

How do you define success? Can you please explain what you mean from a personal anecdote?

Success is never giving up — always moving forward, even if it’s not a linear straight line up. When I took a job in LA, I worked with an engineer named Pastor Casanova, yes that was his real name. He was struggling to get his wife from Mexico to the US and kept hitting barrier after barrier and one day while recounting his trials and tribulations, he turned around, perked up and said “but you know, I asked myself, what have you ever failed at that you tried your absolute hardest? And when I think about that, I can’t think of a single time when I put my all into something where I didn’t succeed, so I know if I keep trying, this will happen.” He would get her to the States. And he did.

I don’t think he ever knew how impactful that quote would be to my life and me. For every scenario I encountered what could have been a failure, I realized if I didn’t stop trying and if I continued to persevere and stop putting a period at the end of the task, that I would ultimately succeed. It’s been the driving statement that through every bad turning point in the path to getting Mason Dixie where it is today, I think of Pastor’s quote and I find a way to persevere. It is 100% effective.

What is the role of a growth mindset in your success? Can you please share 3 mindset mantras that keep you motivated, sane, and propel you forward?

We would not be growing at over 300% YOY if we didn’t have a growth mindset. Our team at Mason Dixie is fueled by challenging status quos, by watching wins turn into new opportunities and platforms for success. For example, when we launched our breakfast sandwiches, we did so under the pressure of a retailer requesting the innovation. We had less than 9 months and a global pandemic in our way, but our team did it. They did it so well that it translated to a burgeoning national food service business on top of our retail growth, which as catapulted our innovations into the breakfast sandwich space where we continue to be the fastest growing brand.

  1. Good is never good enough. We are always striving for positive change — how can we make a bigger impact, each time better than the last
  2. Never be afraid to be first. We were the first company to launch clean label baking powder, real biscuits and now clean comfort food. We are never afraid to be the first one to market when there is no data on it working before.
  3. Win with sincerity and humility. We believe that when you are humble about your wins, it puts things into perspective and puts you back into the cycle — ok now what is the next thing I can win? That was good, but how could it be greater? It starts the cycle of growth all over again when you don’t put a period at the end of a win.

You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe that success is only as good as how much you can give back those rewards to the world. I owe a lot of my success to the mentorship of women and POC who believed and supported me, as well as to my communities who continue to support not just me, but our team. That is why we give our money, time, food and mentorship to a number of organizations and causes from:

  • Increasing BIPOC representation in CPG through my founding board member role at Project Potluck.
  • Developing women in food and beverage entrepreneurship through my advocacy and leadership roles at James beard Foundation, Females in Food, FAB and girls Inc.
  • Promoting LGBTQIA+ Safety and Inclusivity/Equity through supporting families through Rainbow Families, providing equal opportunity scholarships to gay youth through Team DC and providing housing to queer homeless youth through SMYAL.

Can you share a mistake or failure which you now appreciate, and which has taught you a valuable lesson?

The funniest mistake was when I thought I was going to be Willy Wonka and open a biscuit factory in just a few months! It was actually one of the best mistakes I ever made.

When we sold into Whole Foods our growth was so fast that we were getting requests for products everywhere. Naively, my business partner Ross Perkins and I decided to go after more accounts — particularly in the South because if these biscuits couldn’t sell down there, then we should just call this a good swag item and not further invest. Well, we got both Publix and Kroger to buy our biscuits and were going to go from 100 stores to 1,000 stores in just under 9 months. With no idea how to do this, Ross and I leased a drive-thru restaurant with a huge parking lot in the middle of nowhere so we could make pallets of biscuits and store them in a portable trailer freezer on the lot.

We kept doing this for months and transporting the pallets, but the demand kept growing locally, so we couldn’t even keep the inventory we had reserved for the new accounts. I thought we needed to build a bakery! A frozen dough bakery! In the middle of DC! I spent a ton of money on fully engineered plans for this biscuit factory that was also going to have our restaurant attached for the full Ghirardelli experience until we were about to pull the trigger on this huge spiral freezer. Turns out that freezers require either ammonia or Freon — which in DC — are banned in the quantities we needed to fuel this machine. So, we were dead in the water — and I had to pivot to find a way to make biscuits within 4 months.

I say it was the best mistake I ever made because I ended up being fluent in frozen biscuit production — I knew exactly the equipment I needed, the process, the cost of things — so when I went on the hunt for the facility that would ultimately make our biscuits, I knew everything I needed to know to make the search easy. Because I failed at building a factory, I succeeded in finding the best co-manufacturer out there for our biscuits — and that is what ultimately allowed us to scale and has brought us to where we are today.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  1. A constant thirst for learning — since I was a kid I LOVED learning. I woke up without an alarm as a kid, couldn’t wait to go to school. Now as an adult and as a CEO, I love learning from others, how did they succeed? How do companies grow smarter? I long for constant learning.
  2. Seeking feedback/criticism — As a straight A, overachiever, I always strived as a kid to know I was doing good. That has not changed — I love hearing if I am doing things well/right and I also love when I hear I could be doing it better. There is always room for improvement. How can you get another A+ if you don’t start from the bottom each time?
  3. Being solution oriented — I never think anything is impossible, but I also know the solutions are not always clear/easy or evident. I think there is a way to get by/get around/get ahead at all times and I challenge myself and my team to think that way as well. It helps to create the right environment for success and innovation.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting new projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I really want to highlight the work that we at Project Potluck are doing to help Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), who are vastly underrepresented in the CPG industry, face additional hurdles, from a lack of mentors and networks to access to capital.

Project Potluck is concentrating its initial efforts in three buckets. First and foremost the organization wants to help create “social capital “ by creating network of support for its members. The second bucket is to facilitate learning and growth through a mentorship program as well as other education opportunities that focus on raising capital and other needs of BIPOC entrepreneurs. And the last bucket: to develop the next generation of CPG leaders through mentorships, career coaching and a jobs board.

We believe that Project Potluck can help make Diversity seen for what it is — one of the leading indicators of innovation, and the natural products industry has a huge opportunity to be innovators and leaders.

To date, Project Potluck has about attracted about 700 members both founders and entrepreneurs, but also career professionals. We believe that the more successful our founders are, the more we can encourage diversity and more companies will hire people of color.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview about Self-Care. Let’s start with a basic definition so that we are all on the same page. What does self-care mean to you?

Self-care is caring about your mind, body and soul. Mind in brain exercise — this is reading, puzzles, strategic thinking. Body — working out and getting physical. Soul — doing feel good things, whether it’s philanthropy, mentorship or petting your dog — giving love to someone else is just as important as giving it to yourself.

As a successful leader with an intense schedule, what do you do to prioritize self-care, and carve out regular time to make self-care part of your routine?

Sounds simple — but I put it on my calendar, just like I do meetings or task work time. If you create an appointment with yourself, you hold yourself accountable to it, even if it’s meditation, a workout or quiet time.

Will you please share with our readers 3 of your daily, or frequent self-care habits?

My #1 rule when I get home is to check work at the door. My partner and I work together and we make the effort to make our home time our home time. Even if I have to work a bit from home, our actual verbal conversations have nothing to do with work. You have to give yourself a physical separation from your work life however you can.

I LOVE quiet time. Sometimes I find myself sitting alone with my dogs in my home and no music, no TV, nothing is on. It’s just me and the buzz of the AC and it is so tranquil and rejuvenating. We live in a world with constant sound and interference. Sometimes silence is the most cleansing thing.

I work out or move everyday — whether it is pushing myself to the outer limits of my physical body at Solidcore or going for a walk around the Inner Harbor, I try to push my body to new limits. I push my mind to the fullest everyday — the body has to as well if you want equal use of mind and body.

This is the main question of our interview. Based on your own experiences or research can you please share 5 ways that taking time for self-care will improve our lives?

Improve your physical health. Clearly physical health is critical to personal success so balancing working what you eat and how much you move is critical. During COVID I gained almost 15 lbs and I noticed I was more down on myself, sluggish at creative thinking and then that kept spiraling downward so I made an effort to change it and worked out everyday, stopped drinking and ate right for 3 months to get back to where I was.

Reduce stress and anxiety. As a CEO it’s impossible to have an unstressful day — even a win can be stressful because mobilizing teams for the next step isn’t any easier than getting the win. I schedule quiet time in my day to reset, I go on walks without my phone, and I try to listen to storytelling — podcasts, books on tape, etc. because I find forcing your brain to think about a different visual picture than what is on your to do list actually reactivates your thinking energy and reduces pressure.

Boost your self-esteem. When you look and feel good about yourself, you operate at your best. Making sure you hit your physical goals — not just a number on a scale but how your hair looks, if you skin is moist and plump, if you feel stronger — all contribute to you performing at your best because you’re not worried your perception in the worst. Even though we work in a business casual atmosphere, I love to find excuses to dress up for work or put on a pair of heels to accentuate my legs — it makes you feel stronger at your job if you like how you look.

Protect your mental health. Finding quiet time and or meditative time can really help pull you out of unproductive thinking. Think about how many great ideas come to you when you are about to fall asleep — it’s because your mind is free of noise and your best brainwork is coming to the front. I use my quiet time exactly for that — to get the rush of fun, creative thoughts or my most strategic solutions come to mind when I have had quiet time.

Better relationships. No one likes to be around a wet blanket. It’s important to realize your negative energy, lack of self-esteem and stress from lack of self-care can really dampen the energy of people around you and it becomes a vicious cycle. My partner and I are the type who can easily get into a space where we will work until the job is done — even if its 24 hours. But I realize when I watched him do it, his thought clarity degraded, he got irritable, then I got irritable back and this vicious cycle of madness ensued. I had to say let’s stop — let’s hit it again in the morning because our quality of not just work, but life is getting worse. You have to put a boundary there and self care helps ensure you don’t lose those who mean the most to you.

Sometimes we learn a great deal from the opposite, from a contrast. Can you please share a few ways that NOT taking time for self-care can harm our lives?

Being vulnerable here, but my dad struggled with alcohol abuse. I watched his quality of life degrade, his relationships and family life, his physical health crumbled, and eventually his mental acuity — which was one of the things I always admired when I was little about my dad. He was smart, strong, handsome and incredibly social — but with alcohol it all went away. He was a shell of himself and even crazier — my dad was a cocky guy at times because he did have it good — well after years of alcohol abuse, he started to have worse self esteem and even broke down emotionally, which again was so foreign to me knowing how he was. I told myself I would never allow myself to get there and I made it a priority to take care of myself at all costs. I just think had he done more for himself he would have been better not just for him, but for all of us as a family.

What would you tell someone who says they do not have time or finances to support a regular wellness routine?

Meditation and physical body movement are free to everyone. You don’t need a therapist or guru to tell you to stop and breathe. You don’t need a gym to move around. Jump around, go for a walk, sit outside and just listen to the wind. Play with your kids, write dreams down in your notebook — all of these things contribute to your well being and self love — and that kind of love don’t cost a thing.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)

Serena Williams is hands down one of the most inspirational, game changing women of all time — not just because of her athleticism, her character, mission, visible strength as a woman in leadership, and her ability to be a martyr for other women of color in the world. Would die to meet her.

What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?

Follow me on LinkedIn @linkedin.com/in/ajabuelhiga

Or our brand on FB/tw/Insta @masondixiefoods

Or our website www.masondixiefoodscom

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent on this. We wish you only continued success.

About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher, and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness, and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at [email protected]. To schedule a free consultation, click here.

Source : https://medium.com/authority-magazine/ayeshah-abuelhiga-of-mason-dixie-foods-on-the-self-care-routines-practices-of-busy-entrepreneurs-ff30b42a17ae


Get monthly tips delivered to your inbox.