REPOST: Purpose And Profit: How This Millennial Founder Beat Addiction To Build A Business That Makes A Difference
Originally posted by Dan Moore on March 21st, 2019
Four years ago, Kelsey Witherow woke up in a Barcelona hotel room without any idea how she got there. On the floor, an empty bottle of red wine refracted shards of harsh yellow sunlight. A thatch of damaged clothes sat crumpled in a corner. Confused, she sat up in bed, unlocked her phone. She discovered her boyfriend had dumped her the night before. Coworkers were asking if she was alright. One bemoaned her wasted potential.
Slowly, Kelsey felt her heart crawl up her throat. Her head pulsed with dread.
“I knew I was capable of more,” she told me over Skype, reflecting on the moment. “I knew I had more to give to the world. And I knew I never wanted to feel like that again.”
She flew back home later that day and set out on a road to sobriety––and also, perhaps, to reinvigoration. She’d been working for years as a product marketing engineer at Intel. She was 24 and making six figures, but she was also an alcoholic who’d become complacent and had taken to coasting on natural talent. Since turning 18, she’d been arrested, hospitalized, and alienated from loved ones.
“It was really hard,” she said, “To admit that I had a problem.”
Today, she’s the founder and CEO of Doughp––a mission-driven dessert company born from a lifelong passion for baking. (Think Cold Stone meets cookie dough meets cocktail bar.) The company just opened its third physical location––this time in Las Vegas, Nevada. Each member of Kelsey’s staff is or will soon be mental-health certified. Every six months, she concocts a new “Doughp4Hope Remix” flavor––this month, she partnered with Las Vegas’ Chippendales to create “Chipp-tastic,” an unusual blend of cookie dough, potato chips, chocolate chips, and peanut butter cups––and sends 100% of the proceeds to a different nonprofit. This month, it’s the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Most startups fail before the end of their first year, never making money. Many entrepreneurs buckle under the stress of the effort and quit, or succumb to their own bad habits. Doughp, on the other hand, has been profitable for nearly 18 months. And Kelsey, meanwhile, has not had a sip of alcohol since she stepped out of that hotel room in Barcelona.
It’s a story I find fascinating. I, too, have grappled with a certain insistent propensity for self destruction, and I’ve thought hard about what it takes to defeat it.
I’ve also counseled others on the subject. In a former life, I was a school teacher. Once a student of mine asked me how she could become a CEO when she grew up. I believe I told her some version of, “Think of a problem to solve, go to college, and work really hard to make your solution really great.”
Kelsey’s story reflects the timeless relevance of that boilerplate advice. But in an age of Theranos, the Fyre Festival, and Facebook, especially, it also compels an important addendum: in an age of deceit, to be great, you have to be authentic––both in your belief in your product, your commitment to self-improvement, and your desire to better the world.
How to pick yourself up. A quick disclaimer: I’ve known Kelsey since college. We met at a philanthropy event our sophomore year. Right away I found her charming, intelligent, energetic. We became friends in the frictionless way of satellites and space objects, passing each other amicably in orbit. We lost touch after graduation.
That was back in 2012. Two months ago, I saw her on the news. I sent her a Facebook message congratulating her success and asked if we could find a time to chat. I told her I was interested in writing a story about her company; I was doing a series on millennial founders. We spoke for about an hour over Skype the next day.
On the call, which she took from her new apartment in Vegas, Kelsey told me about the morning she woke in Barcelona. Then she detailed how when she got back to Oregon the next day, she set about putting her life back together. The first thing she did was enroll in AA, find a sponsor. Then she went back to her roots, the pursuits and means of leisure that brought her solace, peace.
That meant baking, which she’d always loved. Each night, after she got home from work, she occupied her time and her newly-sober mind making truffles and cakes, brownies and, yes, cookie dough. She baked for her friends and for her coworkers. She recalled it as a kind of kinetic therapy, but it turned out to be of tangible value, too; everyone who tried her treats loved them so much, it became obvious to Kesley that she could try selling them.
Thus began her first foray into entrepreneurism: an online store through which she tried selling her desserts. She ran into in retrospect inevitable complications, though, and shortly thereafter had to shut the business down.
What came out of that short experience, though, was the identification of a kernel of an idea that could eventually work: Kelsey’s early customers loved, in an outsized way, her vegan, eggless cookie dough recipe. In the manner of almost-successful creatives throughout time, she knew she had something––she just wasn’t sure how to harness it.
Hustle and dough. Six months later, Kelsey was given a chance to move back to San Francisco, where she’d been raised, to help run an Intel-affiliated nonprofit called Hack Harassment. Still sober, she’d get to run it in concert with Lady Gaga’s anti-bullying organization, Born This Way. At a time when millennial unemployment was still unfortunately high, it was something of a dream opportunity.
Kelsey saw it, too, as a chance to reset, or perhaps settle. But working in the nonprofit space proved a new source of inspiration. I believe it instilled in Kelsey an appreciation for the importance and moreover the opportunity of doing good. Culinarily talented, and still entrepreneurial at heart, I believe it was here that Kelsey started thinking seriously about how to couple philanthropy with a means of making money.
Inspiration didn’t truly strike, however, until Kelsey joined a group of friends for a night out in the Mission. Kelsey, assuming her usual role as social shepherd, guided the group from bar to bar and, at the end of the night, suggested getting desert. No one was in the mood, however, for ice cream or for cupcakes. That’s when it hit her. Kelsey steered everyone back to her apartment, where she made globs of cookie dough and served it by the appreciative, drunken bowl-full.
The next day, she made another batch of cookie dough at home and set up a little table in San Francisco’s Delores Park. She of course didn’t have requisite, licensed equipment to make her product at scale, nor a full recipe, nor really even a business plan, but she wanted to see if her idea was real, and so she decided to go for it. She advertised her “Edible Cookie Dough” with a sign taped to the table’s plastic brow. She had to explain to a few initial customers that her product was not in fact edible marijuana––“Oh sweeeet, edibles!” initial customers exclaimed––but this writer sees it as telling that those folks walked away satisfied anyway.
Apparently, so did Kelsey. The next week, she contacted SPARK Social, a food truck park and event space in San Francisco’s Mission Bay district. The SPARK team added her to the summer lineup that day. Her first afternoon, she sold out her entire batch. Promptly thereafter she invested $3,000 of her own money to rent a commercial kitchen, hired part-time help, and set forth on the founder’s grind––you know, the combination of long hours, isolation, and teeth-grinding grit required of nurturing a flicker of light into a profitable flame.
Success. Before too long, Kelsey’s fire caught. She quit her job for good and branded her company Doughp. She was making money working events and filling catering orders all over the city. The next step, she determined, was to make good on her authentic desire to couple profits with purpose.
It was to this end that she partnered with The Bread Project––a nonprofit kitchen based in Berkeley that provides work-readiness and professional-development programs for marginalized East Bay residents. They helped her with dough production. (Doughp is now The Bread Project’s second biggest partner, behind San Francisco Soup Company.)
Next, she began sharing her story publically. She did press in which she detailed her struggle with alcoholism. In the weeks leading up to the opening of her first brick and mortar location on Market Street––an opening which coincided with Kelsey’s two-year anniversary of sobriety––readers on Doughp’s social media pages were told that if they said, “It’s dope to be sober” at check out, they’d get 20% off their order. Subsequently, Kelsey’s inbox and Doughp’s Facebook page were flooded with messages of support and commiseration, from former addicts to those still struggling to kick drugs or booze.
Three months later, Doughp opened its second physical location, this time in Pier 39 on the well-trafficked wooden planks of Fisherman’s Wharf. (Presently, the Fisherman’s Wharf store runs a 15% net-income ratio.) Then, on March 16th, Kelsey opened Doughp’s aforementioned third location in Vegas.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Kelsey told me. “Actually doing the thing you set out to do.”
Today. Now, it should here be noted that Kelsey’s story is not without controversy. In 2017, for example, upon giving her initial menu offerings unique names like, “This S’More is Hella Lit” and “Cold Brew is Bae,” she was accused of cultural appropriation. She apologized, promptly adjusted her perhaps misguided branding, and focused on further strengthening her communal ties.
The appropriation controversy is interesting, though, in that both her response to it and her quick course correction further substantiate her case study. I think of the young girl in my class years ago. I think of the many millennial entrepreneurs I know and write about today. And I can’t help but feel there’s a lesson here. Authenticity and an honest commitment to creating something valuable and good act as a kind of oxygen for the fire you cradle in your palm. It fosters customer loyalty and acts, in a way, as a market differentiator. It can also propel you through mistakes.
It’s one reason, I think, that Kelsey and Doughp have been successful. The company found a niche, yes, but Doughp’s success is also entwined with the fact that its altruistic ambitions are genuine. When it’s all said and done, Doughp very well might leave a lasting, positive imprint on the world.
Or it might not; I’m not an entrepreneur, and I’m definitely something of an idealist. But idealistic or not, if I was an entrepreneur, Kelsey’s is the kind of business I’d want to start: one that makes money, but that also at least seeks to make a difference.
Near the end of our Skype convo, I asked Kelsey if she was proud of what she’d accomplished, given how far she’s come since that hungover morning in Barcelona. She was doing what so many before her had set out to do. She was a millennial example. She was sober.
She thought on it a moment.
“It’s dope,” she said, without a trace of irony.
Yes, I thought. Dope indeed.
Originally posted by Sober In Vegas on March 6th, 2019
It’s been a minute since I’ve had a chance to feature a local Vegas place…I’ve been working on the sobriety and spending series, the new parent deck, and just being a human being in general with a full time job and a family.
But recently, I had the chance to meet Kelsey Witherow, the owner and creator of Doughp (Cookie dough that is both safe and ridiculously fun to eat!) who is opening a Vegas location at Planet Hollywood on March 16th.
Thanks to the beauty of the internet, instagram hashtags, and the incredible online sobriety community, Kelsey and I met up for a cup of coffee at Vesta Coffee in DTLV and it was like meeting a long lost friend.
Kelsey, who has been sober since 2015, is the real deal.
She’s a woman who cares about her employees, mental health issues, business ethics, and local community.
In late 2015 during her first year of sobriety, she reconnected with her love of baking with so much newly found hang-over free time to kill. After starting a small online baked goodies delivery service, she began experimenting with Vegan cookie dough recipes. In 2017 she opened a pop-up on Market St. in San Francisco, and in honor of her two year soberversary she offered a discount to her fellow folks in recovery–walk up and say “It’s Doughp to be sober” and they received got 20% off their order!
Kelsey, the owner of Doughp (image via Doughp’s website)After her success in San Francisco with locations at Pier 39 and AT&T Park, she’s opening up shop in Vegas. The location inside of Planet Hollywood will provide a “bar-like” environment, complete with a “Happy Hour You’ll Actually Remember”mocktail menu.
The staff at Doughp also receive Mental Health Certification to be prepared to see signs of suicide risk and to be better educated to listen/engage/attend-to people as we bring up these topics in our stores. Doughp also has a mental health policy that offers two mental health days a year to staff no-questions-asked. In her words, “It opens up the conversation between employer-employee to talk about what’s really going on in your life.” Doughp also helps to subsidize mental health care for employees upon request.
In addition, Doughp the #Doughp4Hope flavor sold in stores allows them to give back monetarily to local nonprofits supporting mental health and addiction-treatment. They donate 100% of proceeds from every scoop of #Doughp4Hope to a different rotating non-profit.
Doughp is also going to be hosting tons of sober-friendly community centered events locally here in Vegas, so be sure to subscribe to their newsletter via their website and RSVP to their grand opening on Saturday March 16th from 12pm-4pm!
As Kelsey as been working to get Doughp up and running, she’s been spending a fair amount of time exploring Las Vegas. Despite working long hours, she’s also had the chance to host family members and friends while she’s been here, and taken advantage of every minute.
I wanted to ask her a few Vegas-centric questions, as I’m always curious about the experience for out of towners:
What are your favorite sober-friendly places in Vegas?
My favorite places are outdoors! I was just blown away by how much there is to see within ~1-2 hours of Vegas! Arizona Hot Springs, Red Rocks, Valley of Fire…I’ve been all about that outdoor life since making it here! Also – thoroughly enjoyed some of the plays/comedy/magic shows on the strip. Get soda water with lime, or ask a bartender to make you a mocktail if you’re feeling wild! It’s amazing entertainment right at your finger tips and you get to remember the show! BONUS!!!!
What would you tell someone who is sober who is visiting Vegas for the first time?
You can have an amazing time here without alcohol. If you’ve got to head to the strip, just have a purpose and try not to linger in the bars/casinos too long if it makes you uncomfortable. There’s so much more to Vegas than the strip – Get outside and hike/sight-see! Go to the Hoover Dam! Visit the Grand Canyon! Or find a new restaurant! Or join the bouldering/climbing community! Or any other hobby you’re into! You can do this!
Originally posted by Angelina Hong on March 8th, 2019
Just in time for International Women’s Day! I want to feature and honor another “doughp,” female, food, business owner: Kelsey Witherow.
I had the pleasure of hearing Kelsey’s story, and I’m so excited to share it with you all! It is powerful, raw, and real. She also touches on some major points that I feel are so relatable. As someone who has struggled with mental health, it’s so refreshing to hear someone advocate so boldly for these types of conversations. Please enjoy!
How would you describe yourself and the identities you hold most close?
I’m a passionate millennial ready to change the world! I’m the founder of Doughp – an unconventional dessert brand dishing up edible, bakeable, and ridiculously tasty cookie dough. To burn off all the sugar I eat, I enjoy yoga and hiking to clear my mind! I’m 3½ years sober which lets me really soak up all that life has to offer. :)
28 years old
I’ve read about your personal story behind creating Doughp, specifically your journey through addiction and sobriety. Can you tell me a little more about that? How did those experiences lead you from idea to fruition of Doughp?
My journey to Doughp was an interesting one. Though running a cookie dough bar as your profession doesn’t exactly have many “normal” paths. (Normal totally sucks anyway!) It wasn’t until after 10-years in the tech industry that I ditched the processor chips for chocolate chips and started Doughp. At 16, I began an internship with Intel that would take me through high school and college until becoming a salaried employee in 2013 when I graduated from ASU.
I grew up with pretty high standards for myself. I was that girl who would cry when she got a “B” on a test – heartbreaking. I wanted to be THE best at everything and desperately wanted everyone’s approval. The stress just compounded when I introduced my perfectionism issues to Corporate America while still just a kid. The need for approval transversed both school and personal life with this intense desire to also be “cool” – but I never perfectly fit in with any one group in high school. That’s when I found my “friend”, alcohol. In high school, I think alcohol filled two needs for me. One, I “fit in” and could use it to prove that I was cool and could hang, throwing back as many beers/shots as the guys (even if that inevitably ended with me being carried out of the party in a blackout). And two, it gave my brain a break. I drank to blackout regularly and it was when I was drinking that my brain wasn’t running on overdrive.
This continued into college…as did my budding career at Intel. From the outside looking in – as is often the case with alcoholism – I seemed to have it all together. As I aged, I could see this problem was growing. I tried to get sober at 21 (*this should’ve been a big red flag. LOL.*) and had the intention of “resetting” my drinking ways after 6-months sober. It was only a few weeks after that til my next blackout and a morning full of apologies.
Our society makes it crazy difficult to accept you have a problem with booze. The generation normalizes social alcoholism, so for a long time you’re told to shake it off, it’s just a phase, just count your drinks, just have water after each drink, and on and on. Nothing worked for me. And in September 2015, while living in Portland, Oregon… I found my rock bottom (which is sometimes referred to as the point in which you decide to stop digging). I like that concept – we all get to decide how low our rock bottom will be, to decide when we want to turn it around.
Well I turned it around! In late 2015, I was sober, figuring out what my new life would look like, and spending an ungodly amount of time in the kitchen! I had a longtime love of baking, but it often took a backseat to a hangover. It was great to be at it again, I was making cakes, cupcakes, truffles – you name it. I was loving life baking and started a little online/local delivery for my baked goods called “Monster Baby Bakery”. My first soiree into entrepreneurship and I was hooked. But then, that next spring, Intel moved me to a new position down in San Francisco and I put my bakery on hold to get adjusted to the new city.
As one does when they move to the Bay Area…I gave veganism a try! However, as more of a part-time vegan I was frequently using butter but leaving the eggs out of my recipes. That led to one day making a batch of cookies and feeling significantly less guilty saving half of the dough to chow on raw! Eggless but butter-filled – I had this delicious & safe-to-eat cookie dough recipe on my hands.
Everyone loves cookie dough, and I hated that we were forced to suffer with just cookie dough ice cream (pathetic little nibs surrounded by way too much vanilla ice cream – blah!) I had an opportunity to take my entrepreneurial spirit + a nationwide affinity for cookie dough and turn it into an epic dessert shop – unlike all the other girly dessert shops, we’d make something really chill, somewhere you’d want to get together with friends and hang out at night. I was going to make a really doughp dessert shop. The rest is history!
Can you tell me a little more about Doughp 4 Hope and mission behind that?
As the company grew, we hit a milestone on my 2-year sobriety anniversary (Sept 14, 2017) and opened a pop-up kiosk on Market St. Though only ~100 sq ft…it was ours! We threw a big grand opening on 9/14 and, after sharing my story about sobriety, offered a discount: walk up and say “It’s Doughp to be sober.” – you got 20% off. :)
It was the first time I had shared my journey on Doughp’s platform and we got an incredible response from people. Many reaching out to share their personal struggles with it, some asking for help/advice as they were in early days of sobriety, etc. It just shook me – it showed just how shrouded these topics typically are and when you share just a little bit, you offer this platform for a conversation to begin. These people wanted to talk, to share their story, and there likely are many others who remained silent but so desperately needed to hear that someone else had gone through something similar to them – and made it out. Giving them some hope in the future…
So, it was born. #Doughp4Hope launched as my way to coordinate all of Doughp’s philanthropic efforts around one topic: Mental Health and Addiction.
1 in 2 Americans will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder in their lifetime. If 50% of people (and this is arguably even higher given non-diagnosed populations) suffer from something – why in the world is it so taboo to talk about? #Doughp4Hope is about elevating the conversation on mental health – truly reminding people that it is ok to not be ok (addiction battles, mental health issues, etc.) and encouraging them to reach out for help when they need it. We do this in a couple of ways:
Creating spaces for booze-free fun; our Vegas storefront provides a “bar-like” environment; complete with a “Happy Hour You’ll Actually Remember” mocktail menu.
Mental Health Certification for our staff to be prepared to see signs of suicide risk and be better educated to listen/engage/attend-to people as we bring up these topics in our stores.
Mental Health Policy – We offer two mental health days a year to each member of the Doughp Squad; a no-questions-asked relief from a shift if they need it. It opens up the conversation between employer-employee to talk about what’s reallygoing on in your life. We also help to subsidize mental health care, upon request.
Non-Profit Donations; in our storefronts, the #Doughp4Hope cookie dough flavor allows us to give back monetarily to nonprofits supporting mental health and addiction-treatment. We give 100% of proceeds from every scoop of #Doughp4Hope to a different rotating non-profit.
What difficulties, if any, do you face being a woman in the food industry? How do you counteract these?
I don’t look at these as difficulties. I just seem them as opportunities to get more creative!
I think being a female and a CEO in general has its unique opportunities – recent studied showed less than 2% of female founded companies will ever reach $1M in annual revenue. I think a major driver in this is the challenges in accessing funding. Many VC’s have started to step up and enact some funding goals for female companies – but it really needs to be a genuine shift in human perspective of a woman’s worth/value, not a quota to hit. “Handouts” like this just undermine what we’re after.
I want someone to invest in me because Doughp freaking kicks BUTT – not because it’s run by a woman. I don’t love being referred to as a “female CEO” – one day I want to just be a CEO. (This is the same battle “female engineers” are going through – they’re like, “Hey! I’m an engineer just like you!”)
I may be young. I may be a woman. But I don’t act any different than some other older/male CEO would. I think commanding a certain level of respect can throw my “differences” to the side – I walk with my head held high and engage everyone and every opportunity like I’m a BOSS. Cause Beyonce said so. :)
What’s your favorite Doughp flavor?
Ooooooh. Long time favorite is Lavender Dreams. It’s an oatmeal, lavender, and white chocolate flavor sent from heaven. :) I’m a huge floral/herbal fan in desserts so this one won my heart — even if it wasn’t a crowd favorite from the public.
Is there anything you want to tell me, or your customers? Any big news or upcoming events?
Big stuff coming in hot for Doughp! Our Las Vegas dessert bar will have a Grand Opening on March 16th, 12-4pm (even Chippendales is making it out for an appearance!). It’s located inside Planet Hollywood at the Miracle Mile Shops, 3663 S. Las Vegas Blvd.
Please sign our #Doughp4Hope Pledge and help spread this important message: YOU. ARE. ENOUGH!
Hey there Doughp fam!
When Doughp first opened its doors in 2017 our fearless leader, Kelsey Witherow, had a lot more in mind that just some kick-a$$ cookie dough! She was on a mission to reduce the social stigmas surrounding mental health & addiction; through her vulnerability, many of you have found the courage to open up the conversation with friends and family.
Doughp has pledged to always keep it raw and real when it comes to mental health. This pledge is something anyone and everyone is able to be a part of, and that’s what I’m going to be doing today. Doughp has 3 steps you have to commit to though before taking the pledge.
Step 1: Answer straight up when someone asks “how are you?”
Well Doughp fam, I haven’t been too great lately. I’ve had a headache that feels like it’s been following me around all week and in just a few short days my college classes will be starting up again. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE college, probably a little too much, but the hustle of keeping up with school definitely gets to me sometimes. On those stressful days I like to turn to my dog, Ozzie. Somehow he always seems to be able to lift my spirits. He has a no F’s to give kind of attitude and the way he shakes his booty with excitement when he sees me MAKES. MY. DAY. He really is my superhero in doggy disguise! Just typing this little bit about him was enough to make me crack a smile.
Here is my good boy, Ozzie! -------->
Step 2: 2. Give & accept compliments without hesitation.
Everyone loves dishing out a good compliment, but why does it feel sooo much weirder to accept them? This is definitely a step that I will have to work on after I take my pledge!! Giving compliments is a small way of brightening up someone's day, and while I do love my fair share at a compliment, giving them out is where the magic really happens! Seeing people smile over a simple sentence is what makes communication so unique. We as humans have the chance to lift up one another and it can even be as simple as telling them you like their nail polish. Think about the last time you gave out a compliment, if you can’t think of a recent one try to give one out today! You never know how this simple gesture with change someone's day.
Step 3: Keep an open door for anyone who is struggling.
In my humble opinion, this step is the MOST important. We have the power to comfort and care for our fellow human beings. Why wouldn’t do our best to try? Whether it’s sitting with a family member in silence or taking a drive with a friend, reaching out and being a place of comfort for those who need it is a mission we all can succeed in. When we allow those who are hurting to find safety within us, it opens new doors for the conversation on mental health to begin. Being open to another’s struggles and not outcasting them for their pain helps ease the tension around wanting to share our feelings. People have bad days. We all have bad days. Why not make it easier to turn to others and confide in one another. I know that any time I have a loved one come to me with their pain I do my best to make sure they know how much love surrounds them. I never push them away or shame them for being real and raw with me. Life can’t always be rainbows and butterflies, so let’s try to help each other through the rain.
Well Doughp fam,
I took a chance today and pledged to make life a little sweeter for everyone around me.
If you want to get in on the action just head to ----> https://www.eatdoughp.com/pledge-form.html
Lots of love and a little bit of sprinkles,
Doughp Social Media Intern
All of us here at Doughp are forever rooting for you.
Get the scoop from the owner, Kelsey.
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