Boston Calling: One Woman's Journey through Two Years in Boston


[HBS Shield Logo, Copyright Protected]


HBS Case No. N9-712-014

Revised July 10, 2014

Erica M. Zendell

Boston Calling: One Woman's Journey through Two Years in Boston

On a muggy Wednesday in July, Erica Zendell was biking home in the twilight from Harvard Square, sorting out her thoughts for the days ahead.

It had already been a full week for her, with three busy shifts on the line at sweetgreen's Fort Point restaurant, training for a hike up Mount Washington, and evaluating new prospects for her side business, Zen Cookery, including an opportunity to write a cookbook with a friend. Just over a week before, Erica had ended her tenure as a research associate at Harvard Business School but found herself thrust back into the business mentality, newly hired as an application consultant and Mandarin tutor at Cambridge Coaching, helping a student applying for finance jobs rework her resume. By mid-August, she would become a student again, beginning her MBA at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

"I never thought I'd be doing this," she said. She had been referring to biking, which she only picked up after moving to Boston, but the words applied to the rest of her story, from going back to China to starting a business to going to graduate school. Passing MIT on her right and beginning the subtle climb over the Longfellow Bridge from Cambridge into Boston, she mused, "Isn't it amazing what can happen when you stop living in fear?"

From the Garden State to the Bay State

Erica Zendell grew up in northern New Jersey and despite years of wanting to get out of the state ended up remaining in the Garden State for her undergraduate degree at Princeton. Entering the program as an electrical engineer, after her first semester, she decided she owed herself the chance to figure out others subjects she might enjoy.

"I loved math and science and really enjoyed the circuit-building projects I did in high school. But something changed in college. I had nervous breakdowns over online problem sets for my physics class and cried in front of my linear algebra professor at least once out of sheer frustration. Winter break of my freshman year, I was preparing for finals and knew something had to change when I was getting more joy from the challenge of writing a twenty-page essay than from the challenges of problem sets for my engineering classes."

That spring, she took a diverse array of courses, most influential among a course on China's foreign relations. The course, combined with a Chinese roommate and her a cappella group, which had over four Chinese-speaking members, influenced her to enroll in Chinese 101 the following fall. She reflected, "I indulged my inner language nerd. I did a year of Romanian. I did three years' worth of Arabic. I even took a trial course in Ge'ez (classical Ethiopic) with a group from the Princeton Theological Seminary. But after two years, I found that China and Brazil were the two countries that fascinated me the most, so I narrowed my language studies to Chinese, and Portuguese."

In the summer of 2011, Erica traveled to Beijing and Rio de Janeiro for the very first time for her thesis research on the the impact of bidding for and hosting the Olympics and World Cup in China and Brazil. That summer she also worked in New York for a consulting firm on projects involving trade shows and exhibitions in China and Latin America. "Before that summer, choosing between China and Brazil was like trying to choose a favorite child. But by the end of it, I noticed myself more drawn to China and wanted to see if I could work for a multinational company over there after graduation. I know I could have gotten hired in intelligence or foreign service, but the lifestyle wasn't for me and the attitude was more America-centric than globally-oriented." Failing to get hired by overseas branches of big banks and consulting firms and unable to navigate application cycles for bigger MNCs that didn't come participate in on-campus recruiting, Erica graduated in June 2012 without a job. She had no outstanding prospects save for an opportunity at Harvard Business School, which she had applied to in December and for which she had already had four interviews: two in January and March to screen her as a researcher in and two in April to match her with specific faculty members, who chose to hire someone else. The week after graduation, she had two final faculty match interviews lined up with a Brazilian professor in the Marketing Unit and a China scholar who happened to be at the business school.

"I thought I'd charmed Teixiera. By the end of the interview, he even asked me when I could start. Two days later I got a rejection call. My interview with Kirby started late, ended early and left me without any reason for hope. Two weeks later, I got the call that I had been hired. It was six months and seven interviews later, but I got my golden ticket to Boston--and I had one week to pack up and ship up."

Blazing the (Gluten-)Freedom Trail

I never had much of an opinion on Boston. I visited Quincy Market with my summer camp and came up twice more for college visits but was ambivalent about the place. When I came up for my last HBS interviews in June, something felt mysteriously right about the place. A little voice was telling me, 'even if Harvard doesn't work out, this is where you need to be. This is where you'll find yourself.'

On July 1, 2012, Erica boarded an Amtrak train from Newark to Boston. Her first two weeks in Boston, she didn't have a place to live, staying at the Soldiers Field Doubletree near HBS and then with a family friend, Meg, in Beacon Hill. "Beyond what her dad and my grandma had said about us to the other, Meg and I didn't know a thing about each other. But she took me in and I couldn't have been luckier or had a better person to introduce me to life in Boston." Eventually, she found find a six-week sublease in Cambridgeport. Forced to sleep on the couch for the first week (see Exhibits 1 and 2 for blog posts documenting Erica's sublet experience) she was grateful to find a new place to live for September 1. "Aside from the whole roommate situation with Diana and the late night walks in the dark in the sketchiness of Central Square, I liked my little apartment at 242 Chestnut. It was centrally located, great for entertaining, relatively cheap, and close to my office and my new friends."

By the end of August, Erica had concluded her work orientations, had prepared to leave her sublet, and had started to feel comfortable in the Boston area. She took advantage of her flexible work schedule to get settled, from exploring the different stops on the Red Line to scheduling appointments with new doctors. Having received inconclusive test results regarding anemia and a thyroid condition over the past three years in New Jersey, she decided to get her blood work done by a new doctor and to get a new perspective on these diagnoses. The results surprised her.

"'We think you have celiac disease,' the doctor told me. At first, I had to laugh. I was in an a cappella group in college and most of the members had some sort of dietary restriction. Vegan. Vegetarian. Dairy-free. Grain-free. Gluten-free. Trying to plan a dinner all together at a place that wasn't a dining hall was comedically frustrating. I was someone who ate any thing and every thing at any time. Now I was being told I was going to have to be one of those people whose diet made me a pain in the butt."

Erica began following a gluten-free diet right away. She started feeling marginally better but with her antibody numbers showing few signs of improvement. Unsatisfied with the quality of care from her first doctor, by February 2013, she managed to get appointments at Beth Israel Deaconess with a GI doctor and a nutritionist experienced in treating patients with celiac disease. Her antibody levels had stabilized by June as she prepared for her first case research trip to China with HBS, but spending three weeks in China set her back. "Going back to China that June was cathartic. 'Gluten-free' and even 'wheat allergy' weren't terms that were clearly understood. I'm glad I could meals some of my meals in my service apartment, but those home-cooked meals weren't enough to offset the damage from hidden wheat in meals I ate out in restaurants. This trip convinced me that pollution aside living in China would destroy my health. I had to let go any hopes I had of living and working there full-time in the foreseeable future. That was the end of a big dream of mine."

Even before the trip to China, Erica was getting bored with her job and looking for other experiences to fill her time. She stumbled upon a wellness startup at the Harvard Innovation Lab, for which she served as a consultant during summer 2013. "I was already spending my time researching recipes and evaluating the benefits of different types of diets, so working with Seelna was a natural fit." In late August, she went on her first yoga retreat in New Hampshire, and something powerful shifted in her during those three days. Within twenty-four hours of returning from the retreat, she created a wordpress and a Facebook page (see Exhibits 3 and 4, respectively) and designed cards on Vistaprint for a new business: an allergy-friendly, vegan bakery by the name of Zen Cookery.

Finding Zen, Founding a Cookery

I came back from Dragonfly Yoga Barn with two intentions: I was going to start a bakery and I was going to write applications to business school in which my statement of purpose would be changing the business of the way we eat. By mid-September, I'd somehow done both.

Erica started Zen Cookery by visiting numerous farmers markets in the Boston area and talking to the specialty vendors on how they started their businesses. She connected most strongly with Sarah, who was friends from college with one of her cousins and whose immensely popular cheesecake stand she visited most Tuesday afternoons at the Harvard Square Farmers Market. "Sarah was exceptionally helpful. She told me exactly what permits and licenses I needed to operate in the Boston area and gave me candid feedback on my ideas and products. I didn't have any friends who had started businesses and all my friends who ate my cooking always told me that what I made was good, so as much as I loved them, I needed more targeted guidance and critical opinions. Sarah provided both." To interact with more people in the industry, Erica started attending food entrepreneurship networking events in Cambridge and in Jamaica Plain at Crop Circle Kitchen, Boston's largest food business incubator. Between these meetings and working on two case studies at Harvard on foreign entrepreneurs beating the odds in China, her beliefs ons tarting businesses had changed: "I used to think being an entrepreneur meant you had to be building an app or working in tech. Now I know that isn't true. At all."

Wanting to participate in a winter farmers market, Erica realized the urgency of finding a commercial kitchen space to legally produce goods for her business. On October 31, 2013, she started a monthlong crowdfunding campaign to raise 6,000 dollars for Zen Cookery on Indiegogo, the primary purpose of which was to pay for renting a commercial kitchen space (See Exhibit 5 for the campaign page). Erica recalled, "I wanted to launch it on Halloween, have the end of the campaign after Thanksgiving, and ship perk packages by Christmas. On October 30th, a friend filming my video said he could no longer edit the video in time for my deadline. So there I was in the middle of a coffee shop in Evanston the day before my interview at Kellogg scrambling to create a slideshow video for the campaign." The campaign launched on time and Erica spent the month of November trying to solicit donations, while traveling for ten days on the West Coast to research food businesses in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco. She commented, "From what I've experienced now, there is little in this world more humbling than asking people to give you money." On Thanksgiving morning, she had an extra reason to be grateful: she hit her funding goal. By the time the campaign ended, she had raised $6,420, donating 25% in excess of the goal to the Celiac Disease Foundation.

By the beginning of December, Erica had inked an agreement to produce in the facilities of and attend farmers markets with Violette, a local gluten-free bakery. She worked with Violette through the end of the winter market season before deciding to part ways. "Working with and at Violette was a valuable experience for me. I learned a lot about the back-of-house and customer-facing operations of local food businesses." She added, "But most of all, I learned the importance of good management and valuing your employees. The bakery could have used some work in those areas."

Within a month of leaving Violette, Erica took up a position at a Boston outpost of D.C. salad chain sweetgreen to deepen her understanding of the food business. Working in a regional chain restaurant was a different experience from working as a local specialty retailer, but had similar lessons: "I loved the values at sweetgreen, and I was constantly reminded of the importance of people there. Hiring good people and making them feel like their work and opinions are valued. Making the people who come into your store feel welcome, and, in the case of the people with allergies, making people feel taken care of. Every time I changed my gloves for Annika or Jillian, who had celiac disease or got a fresh avocado from the back that wouldn't be cross-contaminated for Daniel, who had a tomato allergy, they were so grateful to encounter someone who understood their struggles and needs so well. They clearly weren't getting it anywhere else in the middle of a 12PM lunch rush."

All the while, Erica was reevaluating the prospects for Zen Cookery. Graduate school meant she would no longer have the time or money to bake products on the same scale and scope. She had begun toying with a new idea of reshaping Zen Cookery into a personalized nutrition planning and consulting business targeted at those with special dietary needs. "I really enjoy cooking for people. It's one way of expressing how much I care about them. But I don't want to stop at feeding people--I want to empower them by teaching them how to feed themselves. I felt totally powerless, lost, and alone when I learned I had to totally transform my diet, and I don't want anyone to ever feel the way I felt then. I want to make Zen Cookery into the business I'd have sought for help two years ago."

Crossing the River

"When I graduated college, I wanted two things: I wanted a job that would get me back to China and I wanted, eventually, to go to business school. I got both and got them in ways I never could have expected."

On December 20, 2013, Erica had been admitted to MIT Sloan's MBA program. "I was sick in bed, rejected from Kellogg 2 days before, and had been watching the final season of Gossip Girl since 5AM. At 8:43AM, my mom sent me a text telling me to have faith. I got the call at 8:46AM. I was weeping on my knees in front of my mirror in a Boston Celtics shirt. At 10AM sharp, I got on the subway and bought a T-shirt at the MIT CO-OP. Nothing felt real. It still doesn't and probably won't feel real until I'm sitting in class."

With the rest of the summer off, Erica thought often about her MBA and where it would take her in the food business, whether it was in markets like Whole Foods, CPG companies like Procter and Gamble, or big food and beverage companies like Coca Cola and General Mills. She had also begun considering work in food-related logistics, dreaming about bringing Amazon Fresh to the East Coast. Agribusiness had recently come onto her radar of prospects with her final case study at HBS involving food security and the environment in China. Her visit to Seattle in November felt similarly to her visit in Boston in June 2012, and she wondered if her calling was there working for Starbucks Corporate.

Erica also wondered where China would fit back into the picture of her career--and if it would at all. She couldn't live there without getting sick, she knew, but could it be a part of taking her passion for food, health, and wellness internationally. She understood China better than most and could leverage that somehow if she kept abreast of the news there and maintained some of her language skills.

But for now, crossing the Longfellow Bridge and making a left down Charles Street, homeward bound, she had nothing to worry about other than living one day at time.