Elizabeth ThompsonThat Lenore Estrada co-founded a San Francisco pie business called Three Babes Bakeshop with her childhood best friend might sound quirky and cool. That Food & Wine magazine deemed one of its pies as among the best in America less than a week after the bakery opened its doors is impressive. But it’s Lenore’s ability to help others and push forward as an entrepreneur while facing life’s unexpected blows that defines her as inspirational.
In the past few years, the 30-year-old was diagnosed and treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, supported her financially troubled parents, lost her father to a heart attack and nursed her beloved mother who struggled with, and eventually succumbed to, terminal breast cancer. She also divorced a man she described as “wonderful” but who was unable to put her professional and personal needs on equal footing to his own.
Following the lead of a mentor who overcame difficult circumstances to become a successful doctor and entrepreneur, Lenore co-founded Three Babes (there was originally a third babe) and became active in Sheryl Sandberg-inspired Lean In Circles, small groups of women who support each other’s career goals.
Lenore spoke with GoGirl Finance in between whipping up batches of chocolate cream pie.
You graduated as a history major from Yale. Why did you decide to start an organic pie shop?
After spending a few years doing different jobs in New York and San Francisco, I realized I wanted to create something of my own, and decided to start a business with a socially positive function. My family is from Stockton–one of the hardest hit cities of the Great Recession–which is located in California’s Central Valley. My business partner, Anna Derivi-Castellanos and I grew up there and have been baking together since we were teenagers. Both of us have strong ties to baking. We chose pie for its versatility–the filling changes with the seasons, and gives us a chance to highlight our home region’s delicious produce! We’re able to bring more awareness to the economic, social, and environmental issues at play in the Central Valley today, and to help people realize how much power they can exercise by making thoughtful purchasing decisions.
 
How did you fund your business?
We brought Lean Startup methodology to bear in starting our business (which was necessary as we started with no money!) We had the idea one month, and the next one raised $10,000 on Kickstarter (the crowd funding site), and were selling pie by month three. As we had no way of knowing whether our concept would prove successful, we were intent on keeping our overhead low. We rented a kitchen in South San Francisco from a baker who let us use it in the off-hours, and found a coffee shop (coffee goes well with pie!) with a shipping container outside that was not being used. We convinced the owner of the cafe to rent it to us, with china and utensils, for $40 per day and we set up a little pie stand inside on Saturdays and Sundays.
We had no idea if anyone would even show up, but the Friday we launched, Daily Candy ran a national story. We sold out of the entire weekend’s inventory before we’d even opened the doors on the shipping container. We pulled four consecutive all-nighters to keep pies in stock.
 
So what did you do next with the business?
At first, we took any order we could get–I’d pull crazy all nighters to accommodate special requests, we tried shipping pies and pies in jars, and we launched a pot pie catering business for startups Monday through Friday. We also had the shipping container open on Saturdays and Sundays, a weekly pie subscription service and two farmers markets stands. They all worked, but we were exhausted. We eventually realized that in order to ever become profitable we’d need to pull back and really assess what was making us money and what we wanted for ourselves. I wanted to be very sure that there was interest in our product and that we were interested in devoting ourselves to this business long term.
How large is your business now?
We have 12 young women who work for us in the busy season, but only one who works for us regularly during the rest of the year. We are at a bit of a transitional spot. We’ve decided that retail is the way to go. Since we know we need to focus most of our energy on getting our bricks and mortar open, we’ve made the conscious choice to cut back on our sales, doing only what is necessary to pay the bills until we get our spot open.
Eventually, I want to grow a big business. We want to create jobs in the Central Valley, and support the production of high quality food that is safe, local and contributes to a healthy lifestyle. I enjoy making pies, but I care far more about creating a platform to talk about social change–poverty, jobs, education, food.
You were only 24 when you were diagnosed with cancer. How did you get through it?
Honestly, the period during which I had cancer was a really happy time in my life. I had a great job with super supportive bosses, I had great health care, and I had many, many supportive friends to help me through, including my mentor (a cancer doctor herself) and my boyfriend at the time (now my ex-husband). I have been truly blessed with wonderful relationships.
How did you get involved with Lean In Circles?
A friend in San Francisco hosted one and invited me to moderate, and when friends in other cities found out, they invited me to lead circles as well. So far I’ve moderated circles in New York, SF, Boston, and Palo Alto, and I have one in LA coming up.
After my mom’s death, I’d been feeling down about my business–worried that we’d never make any money, and frustrated that I hadn’t been able to grow more quickly–but talking with these women made me realize how proud I should be of my brand and how valuable it is.
If you knew earlier in your career what you know now, what would you have done differently?
I wouldn’t have been so terrified. I had so much fear of failure–fear I wasn’t good enough to succeed or to have a seat at the table. I realize more and more how important it is to trust your own experience and intuition, that most young entrepreneurs are just “figuring it out,” and that the first step on the path to success is always being willing to go for it. A friend’s father summarized the formula for a lifetime of success pretty simply: “Show up, pay attention, ask questions, don’t quit.” Years later he added “Also, talk to strangers.” I think he’s on to something.