Listen to a lot of entrepreneurs talk and you get the feeling that the choice to start their own business was a life or death decision, but for Loren Brill that really was pretty much the case.
Just out of the University of Southern California and with her whole life in front of her, Brill was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Though she beat the disease, being sick made her take a closer look at how she treated her body as well as made her cherish the things in life she truly adored.
Along with those close to her, food was the defining factor in both these passions so she poured her time and energy into all-things culinary. She took a master class in cooking at the New School and channeled her knowledge into gigs writing about clean living and healthy eating for Huffington Post.
As much as eating right was important to her health and well-being, Brill knew life was too short not to enjoy it by eating the sweets she craved so much. That’s when she decided to start Sweet Loren’s, which makes non-GMO, gluten free, plant-based, dairy free, and nut-free cookie dough products.
Using her culinary background and what she learned at a business program at Columbia University as well as $15,000 of her own money, she tinkered with the recipes and her business model until both were just right. In 2011, she brought her finished product to Whole Foods. They of course loved it and stocked it in their NYC stores.
Now Sweet Loren’s refrigerated cookie dough products can be found in over 10,000 supermarkets nationwide as well as on their website. In 2019, the company came in at 114 on Inc. magazine’s annual 500 list, a prestigious ranking of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies.
Along the way to the top (they’re #1 natural cookie dough brand in the US) you might have seen Brill on the front page of USA Today or in Marie Claire, which named her the top woman entrepreneur in 2012.
As you can imagine she’s pretty busy, but she found some time to tell us about how Sweet Loren’s came to be, her business practices and how she finds balance between work and play.
FEEL GOOD FOOD
Cancer at 22 is a pretty big motivator. Maybe the biggest. But while it was the tipping point for Brill to follow her dream, that dream didn’t materialize out of thin air. Nor did the key traits of an entrepreneur: determination and leadership. These were always alive and well inside of Brill, just waiting for a chance to flourish.
“When I was young, I loved playing dress up (with a long blonde hair wig) and lined up my stuffed animals in my room,” she recalls. “I would talk to them like they worked for me and we were part of a team. I remember sitting at my desk that I had in my room and loving that feeling of being an ‘adult’ and working on something serious.”
This enterprising spirit didn’t arise in a vacuum. Brill, like most, was just emulating the people close to her. For her, the biggest influence in her life was her mother, an entrepreneur and the family’s breadwinner who passed away in 2010 from Leukemia.
“I admired how she was dedicated to making the world a better place. She showed me that hard work was a good thing,” Brill remembers. But while her mother’s work ethic and accomplishments inspired her, it was the fact that she put family and friends first that truly impacted her.
“She was a great communicator, and always made me and my two siblings feel like we were the most important things in her life,” Brill says. “She rushed home for family dinners, she would take our phone calls during important meetings at her office, and she would say the highlight of her life was her children, even if she had a successful career.”
Maybe it was this sense of family that drew Brill to food. After all, family and food are intrinsically linked both in our minds and in our hearts. Soon her love of a good meal and her well-developed palate made her a draw for folks looking for restaurant and recipe recommendations knowing that Brill would take their requests seriously.
Realizing a void in the clean eating space, an editor at the Huffington Post asked Brill to write about “delicious, cleaner ways to eat.” Brill took the assignment one step further, developing a portfolio that went beyond food to encompass all human behaviors that affect our health.
“If great quality clean living is a lifestyle for someone, then it expands beyond food to beauty and clothing, etc. and that’s when I realized there is so much I could write about and connect with people on,” Brill explains.
Even with all the inspiration and expertise, Brill concedes she wouldn’t have ever started Sweet Loren’s without the cancer diagnosis and the fight to regain her health.
“When I got sick, I saw just how powerful food can be with its ability to heal. I saw and felt first-hand how processed foods are empty, and how whole, clean ingredients can be delicious but also give your body nutrition instead of inflammation,” she says. “Once I felt that, there was nothing more important to me than helping to change the food industry and make food for others that they could rely on, but it has to be delicious.”
Going back to her mom’s influence, the idea started with friends and family. Brill would reinvent her favorite recipes for treats using healthier, cleaner ingredients and then bring them to friends’ houses and to neighbors to see what they thought—and without fail they loved them.
“I saw the reaction from others over and over again, and it hit me: everyone is looking for delicious and healthier ways to satisfy their sweet tooth!” she exclaims. It also wasn’t lost on Brill that her creations and idea could make a positive impact on a much wider scale than just her immediate contacts and community.
“Reinventing delicious recipes to satisfy my sweet tooth was something I originally did to solve my own problem,” she says. “But later, when I had hundreds of recipes, I realized this is the gift I could give the world.”
LEARNING BETTER BUSINESS
Sounds pretty easy. Bake some cookies in your kitchen at home that everybody likes and then start a company making cookie dough for the world. But Brill learned quickly that things weren’t so cut and dry from a culinary perspective.
“It is very hard to scale a recipe,” she explains. “It takes hundreds of tweaks to go from a small batch made in your kitchen to a huge batch using specific machinery in the factory.”
Brill also had to come terms with the fact that creating a recipe for success wouldn’t be easy because the ingredients in her office are just as important as the ingredients in her food. “One of the hardest obstacles I’ve faced is finding the best talent and team,” Brill says.
As a novice entrepreneur, who she surrounded herself with was especially important. At first, like many first-timers she took too much responsibility on her own shoulders believing that since it was her company she had to do everything—a mistake she believes others should learn from.
“If I could do things over, I would have brought on a business advisor sooner, someone that had built a food business before that could have helped me find the right team and understand my numbers better,” Brill explains. “Instead, I had to learn all of that on my own and it would have been an easier and more fun ride with help.”
Despite recognizing the error of ways, Brill doesn’t dwell on her missteps. In fact, she embraces them. “There is never true failure; it’s just trying something out,” she explains. “If it doesn’t work, learn from it and make a better decision in the future.”
A fixed mindset that doesn’t allow you to learn and tweak as you go as well as the inability to ask for help, she adds, are the biggest mistakes she sees from inexperienced people trying to start their own company.
Now that she has her team in place and has a vision for her business, Brill has settled into the role she had been training for since those days back in her bedroom managing her stuffed animals. While her mother’s influence in terms of making a difference shines through, Brill’s love for what she does also heavily influences the kind of boss she is.
“My leadership style is to get people passionate about our mission and the positive effect we are having in the food industry,” she says. “I don’t like to micromanage so I encourage our team to be smarter than me. As long as we’re all clear on the same goals, I don’t care how they get there and I love to learn from them.”
Just as she can find harmony between healthy and fun in her food, Brill works at doing the same in her life. “I try to make sure I have a full life and give attention to all areas of my life,” she says. As you would expect, food plays a big role in Brill’s free time.
“I bake or try a new recipe when I have the time,” she says. “I love being creative in the kitchen and using my hands.” She also plans fun dinners with friends and loves to experience cuisines from all over the world, which comes in handy since she an avid traveler.
“I plan vacations as much as possible because that’s how I am able to handle the level of stress that comes with running a business,” Brill remarks. “It’s important to see and enjoy the rest of the world because many entrepreneurs get caught in their own bubble and world, when there is so much more out there.”
One of her favorite trips was a recent New Year’s escape to Thailand, where she got to taste the local cuisine and visit an elephant sanctuary. “I was blown away by how warm the people were, how delicious the fresh food was, how seriously they take massages and wellness, and how beautiful it was from the architecture to the beaches,” she remembers.
Okay, it might be a little unfair that Brill is so good at finding balance in her life since she is, after all, a certified Hatha Yoga instructor who started teaching the practice when she was just 18.
Because of that, it comes as no surprise that she also lives her brand, making sure to stay active and physically fit. And just like you’ll find an array of sweet treats on Sweet Loren’s website, she likes to mix it up when it comes to her workouts. “I love yoga, cycling, weights and most recently my fiancé is getting me into boxing,” she says.
But when push comes to shove, what really gets Brill’s juices flowing is getting some exercise outside like running on the beach or going for a hike. “There is nothing better than connecting to nature. It gives me all the energy and inspiration I need,” she says.
As you would expect from someone who beat cancer, she doesn’t let a chill in the air stop her either—even though being cold is one of the “worst feelings” for her. Instead, she bundles up and loves to go skiing or snowshoeing.
“That’s why I love great quality outdoor apparel. You don’t have to be cold if you dress right,” she says. “The outdoors are so healthy for you—nothing’s better for the mind and soul.” Except maybe one of Brill’s warm, chocolate cookies.