I have the pleasure of knowing some amazing people. People who have done extraordinary things with their ‘ordinary’ lives. Steph Wong is one of them.
They have inspired me to think beyond the ‘normal’ as to what’s possible for my life – and I hope that by getting them to tell their stories here, they might just inspire a few others of you too.
Steph Wong – Gluten Free Baker & Entrepreneur
Tell us a little about yourself…
When I was small, I had ideas of what I wanted to do when I grew up. They weren’t always concrete jobs or professions, but there were requirements to the kind of future I wanted.
I grew up knowing that I wanted a job where I could travel the world, where I could become a mentor, and eventually become my own boss. Most importantly, I knew I wanted to do something that helped people or where I felt like I could make an impact.
So I went through a series of jobs during high school and college, learning what I could about the different fields that I was interested in. The list included everything from camp counselor & dentist assistant to magician’s assistant, muay thai instructor training and managing a handmade lampshade factory. I then ‘settled down’ into a corporate role as a project manager and finally a production manager.
All of it seems so disconnected, but each job gave me insight to who I wanted to be, what kind of people I wanted to work with, how to work with and lead people, and how to manage tasks that seemed near impossible! [Thanks Imagination].
However, after a while, I got to feeling that I wasn’t being challenged enough. I wasn’t learning anything new and the support that I needed to grow was not there.
Prior to this I had some health issues, and found out that I had celiac disease, which is what brought about the next big change in my life.
I had a hard time finding good food and snacks while being on the road, so I started to make my own. I shared it with friends, family and coworkers and they loved it. That’s when I realised that I could get back into doing something that made me happy.
I started WHOS Gluten Free in December of 2013.
I worked on the branding, the recipes and figuring out what people wanted by going to farmers markets and food festivals – all while working as a production manager. I slowly built up my business, funding it with my paychecks, but too scared to jump into it full-time. There was always that “what if it fails?”, or “what if I can’t pay my bills” in the back of my mind.
All of that changed though, when my mentor and ex colleague was diagnosed with ALS, which is a serious progressive neurodegenerative disease. It put things into perspective for me. This is a man, who worked hard and poured his life energy into his work, only to be let go and then diagnosed with this life altering disease. Did I want to end up in the same position as him? To put so much heart, soul & time into working towards an unknown future for somebody else’s company? The answer was an easy NO.
I spent some time planning my exit and gave my months notice. I have now been working at my bakery for 7 months. I have 3 employees, and have grown my accounts from 4 to 17.
It’s still in its early stages, but I am proud of what I have accomplished so far. I feel like I don’t have a real job. Not because I’m not taking this next stage seriously. But because I love what I’m doing.
I don’t dread waking up at ungodly hours to bake bagels or bread. I enjoy baking and cooking, even if I have to stand on my feet for 12 -15 hours straight. To me, its something that I want to do. So maybe the best type of job for anyone, is a job that doesn’t feel like a “job”.
How do you know Nicki?
I answered an add on Craigslist for a project assistant position at Imagination New York.
After meeting Nicki & the team, I was hired for the job.
We were like a mini family the first few years – working/traveling together across the US.
I learned a lot about myself from Nicki and she gave me more confidence – reminding me that I need to speak up for myself and be my own cheerleader.
Tell us a little about the life that you have created – and what you most love about it?
Most days I wake up early and walk the dog, then head to the bakery to make to-do lists for my bakers. Bake, make deliveries, talk to the neighbors, and build a community around the bakery.
Compared to what I was doing before, this all seems fun and easy.
I love coming to the bakery, knowing that we are helping people and making it easier for them to find delicious gluten-free snacks and healthy gluten-free food.
It really makes my day when parents come in with their kids, who have serious sensitivities and allergies, and feel at ease. They don’t have to worry about cross contamination – or chemically processed foods and flavors, because it is so abundant in the GF products found in the super markets.
I am also consciously working on a better work life balance – which is a lot easier now that I have 1 job instead of 2 full-time jobs. I am still learning how to slow down with the workload and focus more on my mental and physical health without feeling guilty. I started a run group in my building complex, I am organizing a team of 12 for a 2 day relay race, training for a sprint triathlon & learning how to swim.
What are the defining moments in having created this life you love?
Looking back into the past I can see how the things I wanted for myself subconsciously guided my decisions in life.
Pivotal point 1 “Leaving the nest”. I moved away from my family, friends and everything I knew to start a new life. I wanted to see if it was something that I could do, if I could survive on my own.
Pivotal point 2 “Finding my career” By accepting the job as project assistant at Imagination, I hit my dream goal of traveling and seeing different parts of the country while working. I moved up the “ladder” and then changed career paths. I learned how to work with people, how to get people behind your idea and most importantly I learned more about myself through relationships I had with my colleagues and managers.
Pivotal point 3 “Lifestyle change” I had a lot of health issues and went to doctors for years, before figuring out that I had Celiac disease.
I changed the way I ate, went out less to avoid getting sick, and started a bakery.
I went to farmers markets every weekend that I was not traveling and met great people. Within 5 months of farmers markets, I opened a retail location with 2 other women business owners. We formed a co-op space, that brought the community together, with 3 completely different businesses.
I had the GF bakery, there was a specialty tea bar and bath and body workshop that focused on afrocentric products. I felt like we were making a statement and that it was the coolest thing to be a part of.
When we came into this part of town (Jersey City, NJ) – there was nothing like us. Now it’s an up and coming area with several specialty bakeries and restaurants. I like to think we made the area more desirable. Then we were growing and needed a bigger kitchen space – so relocated to another part of Jersey City.
Pivotal point 4 “Dead end” I felt trapped at times and that whatever I did was not enough.
I believe as women we have to learn and accept the fact that
WE ARE GOOD ENOUGH…
…maybe better for the job than the male counterparts that we get passed over for.
Once we believe in ourselves, then it gives us the power to fight against the micro- aggressions and stand up to it.
If we don’t believe in ourselves, we begin accepting what is handed to us without question. I know I let that happen for too long – by the time I realized my worth – I decided that it was time to start a new journey.
Pivotal point 5 “Creating the culture” Its like the saying goes, if you want something done right, do it yourself.
I’ve taken what I’ve learned in the past 10 years, to create a space where we feel empowered to do better everyday.
I teach my employees everything I know, answer all their questions about starting their own bakery.
I help other gluten-free bakers by renting my space out – giving them contacts and tips on wholesaling.
Some people tell me that I am helping the competition. But I don’t feel that, I feel like I’m helping someone live out their dream – and that is what matters at the end of the day.
How many people can say they helped or encouraged someone to do something great with their lives or that they helped them live out one less regret?
We are on the outskirts of Jersey City, far from the popular downtown area. These are the areas that I feel like need a space like ours, a safe space for kids to hang out after school. A place to get healthy food at affordable prices. A place to have donation based yoga classes, or educational classes on food and health. Theres a lot more about the disparity in my part of Jersey City and the downtown area…(but I think that would have to be another article.)
Who are your key supporters along this journey – and what have they given you?
My key supporters are my friends and family – they jumped in feet first with me.
They stayed up late baking with me, woke up early to load up the car for the markets, then they stood out in the hot sun and pouring rain with me to sell my baked goods, without asking for anything in return.
They believed enough in me, in my idea and my cause to sacrifice their nights and weekends to see my dreams come to fruition. They even packed up my apartment and my bakery when I was on the road for work, because our lease was up and we were moving to a new location. I don’t know what kind of friend would help you move, while you were out doing something else. I think I might just have some crazy best friends.
It also helps that my boyfriend believes in my work so much, that he pushed me to choose the path that I am on now. Without the financial stability he helped to provide, I would have had a harder time transitioning from my “9-5” to living out my best life.
How do you now ‘pay-it-forwards’? What support and inspiration do you provide to others to enable them to create a life they love?
I rent out my kitchen to other small businesses who are just starting out or trying to figure out what their next stage is.
I have partnered with other women owned businesses.
We also hold community events in our space like, donation based yoga, since it is not easily available to everyone.
What’s your current favourite book recommendation?
Right now I’m reading Codex Alera, it’s a 6 part fantasy book. I like to read a ton of fiction, instead of watching tv, to escape.
What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve been given?
I can’t narrow any one piece of advise or quote down, but I know that when I’m feeling a little less than enthusiastic about life, I can count on Walter Raymond.
Without realizing it – he regurgitates little simple truths, idioms and tons of wisdom. He helped me get through a lot of self-doubt without realizing it Here is the most recent excerpt from Walter.
“What I need and what you need is different.
The point is you don’t need much to be successful.
You find your core needs, and get them to serve you fully, what can’t you achieve?”
What’s next for you on your journey?
I started an app company with a group of friends back in December of 2017. I’m planning on putting more time into this, as it’s still in the content development stages. We hope to launch a prototype in January so we can start speaking to investors.
Once that gets under way, I plan on being part of the Forbes 40 under 40 list. Maybe for the bakery, maybe for this new app, maybe for something completely different.
All I know is I’ve got a few years left to make the list and a lot of work to do!
Connect with Steph Wong and Whos Gluten Free Bakery here:
Feeling inspired? Want to work out your first step to create a life you love?
Get in touch with Nicki and schedule your free introductory coaching session.