Before there were tele-calls to learn how to monetize your business, before there was Etsy, before there was a Working Mother magazine list of family friendly companies- there was Margaret Rudnick.
Who, you say? I’m glad you asked. Margaret was the founder of Pepperidge Farms. Yes, the one with the cookies that must be eaten one bag at a time.
She began her career as a baker out of necessity. Her son had many different allergies, and no matter what bread she tried for him, he still had reactions. So she created her own version, omitting ingredients she thought may be creating the problem. And he was better.
She took her homegrown solution to the boy’s doctor, who encouraged her to make it available to others. So she did, and the solution became a business. And the business grew.
As it grew, Margaret didn’t know what not to do. By virtue of inexperience, she blazed her own trail and revolutionized the baking industry as she did it. She scoured Europe for products she thought might be popular in the United States, and imported manufacturing systems at the same time. And without setting out to be a revolutionary, she revolutionized.
I think of my Grandmother, who took the leather from my grandpop’s taxidermy business and began a business making leather coats and gloves that wound up keeping her busy for 25 years.
I think of Katharine Graham, whose husband died suddenly, leaving her in charge of the Washington Post. She had to decide whether to sell it or simply let the big boys run it while she was a figurehead.
She did neither, but through her inexperience and consequent surplus of guts and heart, steered the paper through the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate Scandal. In a letter I wrote to her once, I said, “I know you didn’t set out to be a trailblazer, but you were. Just by virtue of getting up and going to work every day, you created opportunities for my generation that wouldn’t have been dreamed of before.”
(I wrote about that in this post.)
In the same letter, I promised her a chocolate cake (See, Margaret? Baked goods really will take you far!) if she would meet with my Journalism Ethics class. Which is how I wound up in the College Park Washington Post Printing plant 10 years ago hearing history from the mouth of one who made it.
And that was the first step in doing what I do today. Reaching out to someone who had won the Pulitzer, who ran my favorite newspaper, and having her respond positively- well. That changed everything.
It taught me to be fearless when it came to insecurity. We all have them, but letting them limit our actions is to squander our birthright.
When I have an idea, or think of a connection between people or brands, I never assume it’s already been done or someone else is doing it better. And I think that leads to seeing patterns that may be overlooked, because like my heroines Margaret and Katharine, I am inexperienced in the arena I play in.
That affords me a naivete about how things work that helps me get things done in a way I couldn’t were I already cynical. I don’t assume things won’t work, I have no reason to believe they won’t. So I try. And sometimes, I get lucky.:)
While I’ll never have the chance to bake for Margaret Rudnick, I give a nod to her for the doors she opened just by doing what was best for her son, and I hope that someday a choice I make effects such change.
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