As a part of this series, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Elena Pérez.
Elena Pérez was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador. She holds a Law degree from Universidad San Francisco de Quito and an LL.M degree from University College London. She has had the luxury of living in many different places in the world and experiencing the wonders of getting to know other cultures. Aside from her beloved Ecuador, she´s lived in Switzerland, UK, USA, and Spain. She finds immense joy and satisfaction in having created and running The Hip Hat, a purpose-driven business with the clear mission of creating sustainably handcrafted headwear and fashion accessories that inspire and tell stories. Elena defines herself as a woman in a constant state of creation, be it ideas, products, businesses, or stories. She´s also an avid reader who will devour a good book. She´s happily married to the man of her dreams and the mother of two wonderful boys.
In the world of business and within every industry, there are forward-thinking leaders who go against the status quo and find success. Their courage to take risks, embrace innovation, and inspire collaboration separates them from the competition. Until 2002, Apple’s famous slogan was “Think Different”. This attitude likely helped them become one of the most successful organizations in history. This interview series aims to showcase visionary leaders and their “status quo-breaking” approach to doing business. As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Molly Moon Neitzel.
Molly Moon Neitzel founded Molly Moon’s Homemade Ice Cream in 2008 to bring local, delicious ice cream to Seattle and to run a values-based business to create a healthier, more robust workforce while remaining profitable. The scoop shop is a Seattle staple, boasting 10 (soon 11) locations, earning over $10M in sales last year, and offering free health care, paid family leave, a retirement match, subsidized childcare and transportation benefits, total pay transparency, and living wages to all employees. Neitzel, previously the executive director of a political nonprofit and a 2016 White House Champion of Change Award winner, is setting a new standard for the food and beverage industry by pioneering socially responsible employment policies and remaining financially successful.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in Pocatello, Idaho, where I was given up for adoption by my birth mom. I became an overachiever during my childhood, driven to impress my wonderful, inspiring adoptive mom. It was under the tutelage of my grandparents that I learned the arts of social responsibility and hospitality. My paternal grandmother worked in Democratic politics in Idaho (a tough sell), and my maternal grandparents owned a hotel and bar. I learned small-business operations via osmosis by watching “Sesame Street” while they cleaned the bar in the mornings! College was a time of scooping ice cream, serving as student body president, and pursuing my dreams of becoming a journalist. At 23, I received $1.7 million from a venture capitalist to boost youth voter turnout through concert-based voter engagement. I later combined my passion for ice cream and politics, writing a business plan for my own socially conscious ice cream shop.
My progressive ideals stem from a socially conscious upbringing that instilled values of justice and fairness. I learned about feminism, racism, and capitalism from a young age and was raised to do what I could to make the world a better place. My favorite book as a kid was The Lorax, as it says, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” This has been a driving motto for me throughout life.
Can you give us a glimpse into your journey into this industry and share a story about one of the most significant challenges you faced when you first started out? How did you end up resolving that challenge?
When I started writing my business plan, I knew I could run an ice cream shop. I had worked every job there was at The Big Dipper, a scoop shop in Missoula, Montana, where I went to college. What I didn’t know was exactly where I was going to get next month’s rent check.
I had never had extra resources, and my parents always had just barely enough when I was growing up. I knew that research pays off and that I wanted to take my time researching, learning, and writing my business plan. So I worked four jobs during all of 2007, carving out Tuesday mornings and evenings to work on my plan. I worked at J. Crew, I was a part-time campaign manager for then-County Council member Dow Constantine, I worked as a temp in a city council member’s office, and I was a nanny. Once I’d written the business plan, I knew I needed to raise about $200,000 to build the shop. I had $42 in my bank account.
So I bought a ticket to San Francisco on a credit card and went out to lunch and dinner with two prospective donors. I came home three days later with $100,000 raised. I raised the rest within a month and quit all four jobs a few weeks later. I resolved financial insecurity by taking big risks and believing in myself. I also had the privilege of having worked for five years or so in industries where I had the opportunity to meet people with money who could invest in my idea.
Who has been the most significant influence in your business journey, and what is the most significant lesson or insight you have learned from them?
The most powerful influence in my business life is my friend and mentor, Andy Rappaport. Andy and his wife, Deborah, met me when I was 23 and saw potential in me that I didn’t yet see in myself. They were the founding donors to the political nonprofit that I ran for most of my twenties and taught me a HUGE amount about leadership and financial stewardship of an organization during that time. Andy was the first person I asked to invest in Molly Moon’s, and he continues to be my best-sounding board for business decisions and strategy. Whenever I’m trying to figure out whether to make another values-based financial decision that may not help the bottom line in the short term, Andy encourages me to take the risk, do what’s right for our people, and figure out how to find profit elsewhere, grow sales, or just be satisfied that sometimes you make decisions that make the world better, and that is more important than profit. But — he reminds me all the time that without profit and financial sustainability, we can’t continue to take care of our people the way we do and expand our reach to have a bigger positive impact in the world.
Can you share a story about something specific that happened early on that you would consider a failure but ended up being a blessing in disguise or ended up being one of the most valuable lessons you had to learn on your own?
Ugh. I hate to say it, but my first instinct is probably too trusting! I once told a friend about a struggle I was having with a landlord in one of my earlier locations. It was a great location and was making good money, but I was looking for a partner who might want to join me in the large location to make the landlord’s financial situation more stable. The “friend” contacted the landlord unbeknownst to me and bought the lease out from under me. I had to close the location, and the “friend” created a new ice cream concept within her brand that she operated there for many years. I wouldn’t call this experience a blessing, but I sure did learn to hold my cards a little closer to my vest and choose to share business strategy and challenges with a smaller circle of friends!
Leading anything is hard, especially when grappling with a difficult situation where it seems that no matter what you decide, it will have a negative impact on those around you. Can you share a story about a situation you faced that required making a “hard call” or a tough decision between two paths?
Oh my goodness — March 2020! That spring and summer were definitely the most challenging times of my life. We had to lay off about 90 people, including my own dad. I had no idea if we would ever open our shops again. I had no idea if we would ever invite those employees back to work. It was heartbreaking, but like so many things in those early days of the pandemic, it was also incredibly inspiring. We created a sweatshirt that said “Stay Home. Eat Ice Cream” on a hand drawing of a pint and threw it up in our online store. Within the first week of our shops being closed, we’d sold enough sweatshirts to pay for a month of our health insurance premiums to keep every employee on their health insurance — about $60K. We launched pints in grocery stores, which we’d never done before, and our customers did the cutest, most supportive things. One family set up a “walk-up window scoop shop” on their porch, where the dad put on a Molly Moon’s apron and served his preschoolers cones through their window to recreate the feeling they missed of going to a Molly Moon’s shop for after-school treats!
We came out of the pandemic stronger than before and hired all but one person back into the business by the end of the summer. And that one guy? He and his wife started a very successful frozen pizza company! So he’s good!
Let’s shift our focus to the core of this interview about ‘Successful Rule Breakers’. Why did you decide to “break the rules”? Early on, did you identify a particular problem or issue in how businesses in your industry generally operated? What specifically compelled you to address this and want to do things differently? Please share how you went about implementing those changes and the impact they had.
From the day I opened our first shop, I had a vision for embodying progressive values in employment and purchasing practices while being impressively profitable. I hoped that I could influence other entrepreneurs to do the right thing for their people and our community and make the world better by leading by example. In 2008 in Seattle, employees in this industry often faced low wages, a lack of benefits, unpredictable income, irregular working hours, unsafe or hostile work environments, limited career advancement opportunities, and high turnover rates. At first, treating folks well looked like paying minimum wage, encouraging a generous tipping culture, maintaining predictable schedules, offering free health insurance, and allowing employees all the ice cream they could eat.
Over the years, I’ve learned more about what being a good employer looks like, and my workforce has changed and diversified and their needs from an employer have changed.
I’ve learned how to create jobs that have life-changing impacts on people’s lives and on our industry as a whole. In 2018, we eliminated tips after learning about the practice’s racist origins and being able to see how a tipped compensation system is so unfair.
I’ve also worked hard to utilize my business’s success to advocate for my political beliefs and lobby local and state governments to raise the minimum wage, require paid family and medical leave, and maintain predictable schedules for all workers in Washington state. We’ve added benefits like a matched 401K program, a transportation benefit, an employee assistance program, and lots of professional development. I’m proud of how we now provide not only competitive and stable wages and great benefits, but also a community where you feel respected, feel included, and are encouraged to grow.
In the ever-changing business landscape, how exactly do you decide when to adhere to industry norms versus “breaking the rules” and forging your own way? Can you share an example?
As CEO, I’m always looking at my choices through the lens of how I can support my employees and ensure they have all the resources they need to thrive. If an industry practice is not serving working families, I will not follow it; in fact I’ll do everything in my power to bring awareness to changing it. For instance, wage transparency is important, because when women and people of color know how much the other people around them make, they can advocate for themselves to raise their wages to the same amount. I really believe that secrecy around money in general is a vehicle of the patriarchy and white supremacy to keep everyone else in the dark about money; therefore, they are disempowered about money and unable to make the wages and build the wealth they deserve. I am outspoken about this issue, and all Molly Moon’s employees have access to everyone’s salary information, including my own. Since Molly Moon’s became wage transparent in 2019, several laws have changed to require more wage transparency across the country.
What guidance or insight can you offer to new entrepreneurs trying to follow existing and accepted industry norms while at the same time trying to differentiate themselves in the marketplace?
My guidance for new entrepreneurs is always to carefully research and plan their dream business, and then figure out how to make it a reality. Sometimes you’ll follow the rules, and sometimes you’ll throw the rule book out. Every business practice in your own company, or a company that you lead, is a choice, and I think people really forget how much choice and creativity are involved in business. You can creatively devise a business model that squeezes every last dollar of profit out of your workers and your community. Or you can make different choices and pay people fairly, create benefits packages that work to support families and incorporate philanthropy into your role in your community. The CEO’s paycheck or the shareholders’ dividends might look different based on those two approaches. And that’s a conscious choice entrepreneurs and business leaders get to make every day.
To make an impact, you have to champion change, get creative, and take risks. Please think back about the decisions you’ve made that have helped your business get to where it is today, and share your top 5 strategies or decisions that helped you succeed by doing things differently.
As a leader, how do you rally others to align with your vision? Also, how do you identify those who may not be fully committed or even silently sabotaging or undermining your efforts? What steps do you take to address these situations?
Well, I’m not sure what to do about sabotaging or undermining. I would say “Haters gonna hate,” and I just always keep doing what I believe in. I don’t pay much attention to when people don’t agree with my vision. I guess at Molly Moon’s you can either get on the bus or go your own way! Most people we encounter, both our mooncrew and customers, love what we stand for at Molly Moon’s and want to be part of what we’re doing to make the world a better place. This summer we even had two mooncrew members move to the Seattle region from Florida and Texas just to work for our company!
Imagine we’re sitting down together two years from now, looking back at your company’s last 24 months. What specific accomplishments would have to happen for you to be happy with your progress?
Washington state would have a more robust childcare subsidy program that worked for more working families. The federal government would have passed a national Paid Family Leave program funded by taxing the ultra-rich. Molly Moon’s would have two more locations and more than 100 mooncrew and their kids on our health insurance policy. We would have done $15 million in sales in 2025 and spent half of that on wages and benefits for our mooncrew and their families.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would like to inspire a movement of business leaders who choose a more balanced equation between worker compensation and corporate profits. Every corporation and business leader can choose to compensate their workers more fairly and reduce today’s unprecedented corporate profits by a few percentage points. But even more, I’d like to inspire our government leaders to regulate capitalism more. We are living in a time of the most unregulated capitalism ever, and the average worker is suffering because of it. It would cost the ultra-rich in the United States such a tiny, unnoticeable fraction of their annual income to pay for Paid Family Leave and free childcare for every worker in the nation. We can do this in our lifetimes — if we want to.
How can our readers continue to follow you or your company online?
Through my LinkedIn, Molly Moon Neitzel, as well as my company’s website and Instagram.
Thank you so much for sharing all of these insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
About the Interviewer: Chad Silverstein is an accomplished entrepreneur and visionary leader. He started his first company, Choice Recovery, Inc., while attending Ohio State University and grew it to become an industry outlier before selling the business after 25 successful years. With the launch of his second venture, [re]start, a career development platform, Chad aimed to help people find meaningful career opportunities. Under his leadership, his team was recognized as a “Top Workplace” award winner for over a decade, twice being ranked the #1 small and medium-sized business to work for in Central Ohio. Chad sold [re]start in 2023, enabling him to focus on building an online community of high-performing leaders and continuing to make a positive impact in people’s lives.