Celebrate International Women’s Month with Fiona Simon — a writer who went “Gambling on Granola” and found unexpected gifts on the path of entrepreneurship
This week on Margaritas with Marguerita: Meet Entrepreneur and Author Fiona Simon
March 2023: Start off Internation Women's Month right by going "Gambling on Granola" with entrepreneur Fiona Simon. "You'll discover unexpected gifts that she received on the path of entrepreneurship," says Marguerita, who interviewed Fiona for her weekly podcast and video series. Don't miss it!
March 2023: A Note from Hope Katz Gibbs, publisher of Inkandescent Women magazine — It’s a pleasure to introduce you to Fiona Simon, a former journalist, travel writer, editor, and communications director of the Boulder, CO, Chamber of Commerce. When I met her in 2021 at a women’s gathering in Santa Fe, I quickly learned that she is passionate about developing healthy food products, writing, traveling the world, and inspiring and empowering others with her story.
Fiona says: “I was lured by the adventures of entrepreneurship and launched my own organic granola company. It led to success, despite having no business background and simultaneously juggling the demands of being a single mom.” So, truly amazing Fiona decided to turn her experience into a book documenting personal and professional challenges, hardships, and triumphs.
The result: Gambling on Granola: Unexpected Gifts on the Path of Entrepreneurship.
About the book: In it, Simon shares a tale that is uplifting and inspiring but also raw and honest. This is a business memoir and a love story―the love for her daughter, a journey in uncharted waters of the products and company she created, and the continued challenge to follow her dream.
“You’ll see my growth and healing over 15 years as mistakes, weaknesses, and naiveté, evolve into resilience, resolve, and inspiration. It started as all new businesses do―with an idea. But my world quickly became more complex as I established my company, developed new product lines, forged personal relationships in a competitive environment, grew the business, and held onto my deepest values―all while raising my daughter, Natalie.”
Click here to check out the book!
Click here to read Chapter 1.
“Follow your spirit, without hesitation.” — Anonymous (Quote on caddies of Cranberry Orange Granola Bars)
“The shadow never enters a room without a gift in its hands.” A friend once shared this quote with me, and I have always found it true. In the spring of 2000, a particularly gloomy shadow entered my life. Its presence announced a division of lives and time and space and a departure from a comfortable existence that allowed much freedom and decision-making. My world turned upside down from
one day to the next, and I turned topsy-turvy along with it.
The request for a divorce came without warning. My husband and I got along well, were great friends, and shared completely the joys of parenthood and the love of our daughter, Natalie, who was about to turn three. But his resolve was set; the separation of lives began. We sold the house, moved into smaller places, and I quickly found work as communications director of the Boulder, Colorado, Chamber of Commerce. I had been a writer for most of my career, and the position seemed a good fit for my background. With shared custody—a continuing cycle of five days with me, two with her dad, two with me, and five with her dad—and both parents at work full time, Natalie also transitioned. We placed her in a delightful Montessori preschool, which soon felt like family. Precocious, sociable, happy, and always eager to learn and explore, Natalie immediately felt at home in her new school. I was largely relieved that my daughter loved her school and was well taken care of. I also enjoyed my days. Evenings and weekends, however, were a different story. Being alone in the house with no family to share it was almost unbearable. Weekends were long and lonely.
In short order, I became depressed and despondent. I yearned to change my life so that I could see my daughter more often and gather together as a family. No aspect of my existence—mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual—was functioning in a healthy manner. I was suddenly a single mom, and my life was dictated by my work schedule. From one day to the next, I transitioned from a full-time mother to a full-time employee. I had gone from sharing my days with Natalie to sharing my days with coworkers. Along with that severe change, custody was split evenly, which meant I could be with Natalie only half the time. Having limited access to my daughter was the most painful aspect of the divorce, and it hit me harder than I could have imagined. The waves of depression were fierce, and they manifested themselves physically, plunging me to dark depths of fatigue, insomnia, and inability to focus.
Some nights—once a week or so—I could sense the “glob” coming in. The front door appeared to open on its own, and a big, heavy mass of black goop entered the room and slowly made its way toward me. I remained paralyzed, watching it approach, knowing I had to surrender. It entered my body, feeling as if some great, heavy force was slowly passing through, taking over, consuming me physically and emotionally. My breaths became short as I sat there, waiting to discover what might happen next.
Then the force was suddenly gone, as if it had had its way with me and no longer felt the need to stay. The episodes lasted only a few minutes, but they terrified me. They also became more frequent every few days or so. There were nights when I’d sit at the dining room table, sipping a glass of wine or smoking a little pot to soothe my nerves, waiting for the glob. “Come on in,” I’d yell into the room, “just get it over with.” I never knew when to expect that ugly glob. I only knew I wanted it out of my life.
There was just one solution: make permanent, tangible changes that would allow me to cope with this new way of life. I decided to focus on one thing: change my situation into something positive.
The soul searching began. Each day at lunchtime, I pounded the pavement, contemplating what I could do to support myself and have a flexible schedule with my daughter. The probing continued day after day, week after week, month after month. Searching, searching . . . for a sign, an idea, an epiphany, that could lead me in the right direction. For nearly a year and a half, those walks offered hope and respite from the depression that continued to consume me.
Then, one sunny day, my supplications were answered.
As I walked along in my daily routine, I suddenly heard a loud male voice: “Sell your granola.” My body jolted, and I stopped in my tracks, trying to understand what had happened. I looked around, but no one was near. Feeling a bit silly, I asked out loud, “What did you say?” The voice repeated, calmly but firmly: “Sell your granola.” Whose voice was in my head? My inner psyche? My subconscious? Why was it male and not female? Was it God or some other divine entity? My mind spinning, I continued my walk.
I had not had a religious upbringing, as my Unitarian parents had decided not to sway their children toward specific spiritual beliefs. Words such as “God” and “spirit” and “divinity” weren’t heard much in our household. Most of my friends went to church with their families, but that custom was not part of my life. My mother had been raised Methodist but leaned toward Buddhism. My Dad is Jewish, but those traditions didn’t enter my spiritual landscape either. Despite my background, I believe, without a doubt, that divine forces are alive and well in our world.
As intriguing to me that such a clear voice could enter my head was the intrigue at the content of the message. As days turned into weeks, I became obsessed with the idea that perhaps I should try to sell my granola. My initial reaction of “What kind of cockamamie idea is that?” soon morphed into a consideration of possibilities. I did know how to bake granola. I’d been making the cereal since middle school, using a recipe my mom had gotten from a neighbor. It was a wholesome, hippie-era holdout from the ’60s, and I never strayed from it.
Over the years, my granola had become such a hit with family and friends that it was the most requested gift for birthdays and holidays. Schoolmates regularly came over for a bowl. By my senior year, it had replaced the usual fast food as my lunchtime staple. I knew I made great granola, but to turn its creation into a business had never occurred to me. Nor had it ever been suggested to me—until that voice showed up.
Although the voice I heard that day was unmistakable, I resisted the idea. I thought it risky to put the well-being of myself and my daughter on the line. Natalie was just four, and there had already been significant changes in her life. But as much as I tried to put it out of my head, the idea of starting a granola company became a dragon that would not be tamed. I spent countless nights tossing and turn- ing, wondering if I could pull it off and where I would start. During those sleepless nights, I reminded myself that I had been baking granola since I was fourteen. How hard could it be to bake enough to sell to others?
Two forces worked their spell on my psyche. One, insomnia. It did- n’t take too many nights to realize why sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique. My daily routine felt heavy, with the lack of sleep adding to my mental melee. I passed many hours in a zombie state, thoughts passing my mind like flour through a sieve. But despite the brain fog, the idea of starting a business persisted.
The second force working on me was another voice in my head; it was my own saying, “I don’t want to be on my death bed wondering, What if? What if I had started a granola company? Would it have succeeded? Would I have had employees, my own kitchen? Would it have been local or something larger? Would I have created other products?” These questions, and others like them, pounded at me and played their part in keeping me awake.
The despair I felt during Natalie’s absences gave me the strength to think seriously about making such a change. I knew that if I worked for myself, I could schedule my hours around her activities instead of the other way around. My stable job and stable income, while attractive for many reasons, couldn’t offer the flexibility I needed. Giving up vacation days to go on class field trips or to stay home if she was sick was taking its toll. So was not having the luxury to spend time with her at school, which was encouraged and which she loved.
Between my work schedule, her school schedule, my parenting schedule, and her sleeping schedule, we didn’t have a lot of time together. Not only was I missing out on much of her life, but a good part of my life was dictated by someone else. The nights and weekends without her were brutal.
I’d cry myself to sleep wondering what she’d worn to school, which art projects she’d chosen, what she’d eaten, and what stories had been read. I became obsessed with details such as which games she’d played, which songs had been sung, and how she’d spent her quiet time. On the days I didn’t see her, I felt cut off.
My most prized possession was accessible only half the time, which caused my pendulum to swing out of balance. If I made my own schedule, at least I could visit her at school, even if it wasn’t one of “my” days.
Then, one October night, my decision became clear: If I ever wanted to enjoy sound asleep again and have flexible hours with my daughter, I had better start a granola company. The following day, I stepped into my boss’s office. “I came to tell you I’m quitting,” I told her as I sat down. Her eyes doubled in size. “Is something wrong? Have you found other work?”
“No,” I replied, “I’m starting a granola company.”
After a moment of disbelief, she took a deep breath and asked, “A granola company? Do you have any experience running a business?”
“Have you found a bakery?”
“Do you have a business plan?”
“A marketing plan?”
“Well, certainly, you’ve researched what granolas are on the market and what kind of competition they’ll be.”
“Have you thought about the packaging?”
“What about pricing?”
“I haven’t gotten that far.”
“Well, where do you plan to sell your granola?”
When I said I didn’t know that either, she gave up. Her point had been made. Although the conversation made me realize how much I didn’t know, and hadn’t even considered, I had no intention of changing my mind.
My boss convinced me to finish out the year part-time. I’m not sure if this was mainly for the chamber’s benefit or if she was thinking about a safety net for me, just in case things didn’t work out. I would have three months to test the waters. We left the door open in case I had a change of heart.
For the next three months, I worked at the chamber in the morning, then went home to work on the business. I was starting from Ground Zero, and the learning curve was steep. My “to do” list grew steadily. My priorities: find ingredient suppliers, packaging suppliers, a graphic designer, an accountant, and, most important, a bakery. The hours flew by. Suddenly I found myself working eighty hours a week: twenty for the chamber, and another sixty for myself, doing my best to figure things out. Fortunately, many of those hours consisted of things that could be done after Natalie had gone to bed. On the days I had her, for the most part, I set work aside during her waking hours.
Then there was the small detail of sharing the news with my parents. For the most part, we had a friendly relationship; I didn’t know how they would react, but I figured they would support me as best they could and perhaps even like the idea. They had happily eaten my granola for years, and they knew others enjoyed it as well. Still, I was nervous they might not be too receptive to my plan.
One day, needing a break from work, I decided the time had come to share the news. I called and found them both at home. They each got on the line, and I asked them to sit down—something I’d never done before except when I announced my pregnancy. I had their at- attention. I took a deep breath and said, “I called to tell you I’m quitting my job to start a granola company.”
There was a brief silence, which I interpreted as confusion and possible disbelief. Then my mother said, “You’re going to start what? A granola company? However, did you come up with that idea? And how do you plan to make a living at it?” Although my mother had generally been supportive of my off-the-grid ideas, this one did not appeal to her. Her concern was clear, and she didn’t hide it. My father, on the other hand, offered only silence. He was probably in shock, perhaps with feelings he couldn’t articulate. “I’ve already given notice at work,” I added, “and I don’t intend to change my mind.” Still no response. “Dad,” I asked, “are you going to say something?” Silence. “Your father has left the room,” my mother told me. “I better get off the phone and see how he’s doing.”
My father was never keen to talk about his feelings. He had a taciturn nature when it came to anything personal, and that was accepted in our family. He was funny, likable, and witty, with a dry but keen sense of humor. But when it came to expressing his feelings, he became aloof and non-communicative. He wanted the best for his family, but he didn’t know how to express his affection. He worked hard to provide for us but, in doing so, didn’t spend much time getting to know us. Usually at his desk, never far from his numbers, he dedicated his time and energy to science and the stock market, his two great passions. We had dinner as a family, took wonderful summer vacations, and spent most Sunday evenings with my grandparents. They had chosen to live nearby to be close to my father, their only child, and to see their grandchildren grow up.
My father’s nature was understandable. He and my grandparents had narrowly escaped the Holocaust, but only after my grandfather had spent time in Buchenwald. He had been released, and the family’s escape from Germany was equally extraordinary. For my father, pro- cessing his past meant reliving that pain; instead, he buried those memories. He was only four when they escaped from Germany and got to England. It took another year to cross over to the United States—thanks to cousins on my grandmother’s side who could pay for the voyage and place them in a Quaker community in Vermont, which offered peaceful refuge and a new start.
My father was clearly devoted to his family and our well-being. Still, it was easy to interpret his reticent nature as indifference. I felt de-detached from him, and the distance felt real. I didn’t know how to forge a close bond, so I welcomed the time he did offer and knew that might be as good as it got.
When the granola bomb fell, it didn’t fall lightly. My father was not pleased, and through his silence, he let me know it. Although I had never questioned my father’s love for me, that silence was as hard as any rejection could have been. Our brief conversations in the weeks that followed were stilted and uncomfortable. He made clear in no uncertain terms that I was being irresponsible, impulsive, unreasonable, and hasty with my decision. He made a valid point that my current job supported my life as a single mom: set hours, a short commute, enjoyable work, and a built-in social life through the many chamber functions I attended. He couldn’t understand why I would give all that up to take a huge risk starting a company, especially with no business background. I’m sure he also worried about Natalie. What would become of his beloved granddaughter if I wasn’t successful? Would I risk losing my share of her custody if I had no in- come to support myself? Would I come to him asking for money? Would I lose my townhouse if I couldn’t make the mortgage payments? I’m sure these thoughts and more ran through his head, but what he mostly expressed was silence.
Although my father was hesitant to believe I could make a living from my endeavor, he said that if I were going to go through with it, I needed to figure out my numbers. Not just costs but what I would need to charge to make a profit. Realizing my mind was made up, he offered to help.
I sent him wholesale prices for ingredients and packaging and my estimates for labor and kitchen rental. I hadn’t yet calculated costs for liability insurance, manufacturing fees, wholesale and retail licenses, graphic design, delivery charges, and other expenses. We began with nuts-and-bolts operating costs, bare bones, and on a shoestring budget. About a week later, he emailed me his conclusions. With a bit of trepidation and a skipped heartbeat, I read them.
The report was very business-like, summarizing the results of his calculations. He began with the pro, which consisted of three sentences: “The product is outstanding. Most people who have tasted Fiona’s All-Natural Granola say it is the best they have ever eaten. Based on this nearly unanimous, very positive feedback, one is encouraged to proceed with a plan to produce and market this product.” The cons made up the rest of the report, consisting of four full pages of analysis. Primarily, the cons spelled out what he considered to be prohibitively high costs for labor, packaging, fixed expenses, and marketing fees. Other cons were production capacity limitations, regulatory concerns, and high wholesale and retail prices, both for bulk and packaged granola.
My father’s conclusions, which consisted of six sections, began: “This project appears to be unviable. The product, while of very high quality, seems too expensive and probably can neither be produced nor sold in sufficient quantities to generate an adequate income for the proprietor. The cost estimates used in this analysis may well be too low, but even with these numbers, success is extremely doubtful.”
His report ended: “This analysis concludes that this project should be terminated as expeditiously as possible, without incurring further expenses. While this recommendation will be disappointing to the proprietor, if followed, it will prevent further and larger financial losses and disappointments later. This recommendation is also disappointing to this analyst, who had hoped to be able to predict a positive outcome for this project. Unfortunately, the numbers seem to preclude such a result.”
My father’s analysis was intended to be unbiased and objective. However, I didn’t see it that way. Although he had done his best with my numbers, his conclusions were unacceptable. I took his report per- personally and felt hurt. It was clear he did not support my endeavor and thus did not support me in my efforts. I knew him well enough to understand it would be hard to win him over.
Not only was I angry, I was also offended. I took his findings as a personal affront to my abilities. I interpreted his report as a lack of belief in both my competence and my potential. After much fuming, more silence, and a widening gap between us, I decided there was only one course of action: Prove him wrong. I passionately believed in my mission, had heard positive feedback from others, and was happier than I had in a long time. My hours without Natalie were consumed as I researched each aspect of the business. Happily, my granola world engulfed me and kept my spirits afloat. Contacts I’d made via the chamber served me well. Although I didn’t know any food entrepreneurs, I did know accountants, commercial real estate agents, corporate lawyers, graphic designers, and marketing professionals—all of whom I would use at one point or another.
I was soon communicating solely with my mother. She had raised her children full-time and had some idea of how emotionally painful my days without Natalie were. This helped her be sympathetic to my cause—understanding, as a stay-at-home mom, the importance of that close contact.
Not seeing Natalie first thing in the morning left me feeling vacant all day. When she wasn’t with me, my mind constructed all the facets of her routine that I had come to love: picking out her clothes, helping with breakfast, and choosing her next book and art project. At night, I imagined our bedtime routine: putting on her jammies, brushing her teeth, and chatting about our plans for the next day. I imagined myself by her bed, reading stories and tucking her in with a big kiss and hug. On the days without her, I blew kisses and exclaimed, “Good Morning!” and “Good Night!”
Relaying these emotions to my father, a man who equated his love for his family with his ability to provide for them, seemed insurmountable. In his mind, I was acting defiant, immature, and stubborn. I wouldn’t listen to reason nor take his advice. Thus, the standoff began.
My mother was caught in the middle. Like my father, she also doubted I could earn a living by making granola. However, other than her initial reaction to my idea, she refrained from sharing more opinions. Up to that point, no one in our family had questioned my father’s skill with numbers. He had earned a Ph.D. in physics from Cal Tech; to question his calculations was unthinkable. And far be it for me, the youngest, to be the first. Yet that is exactly what I did. His un-equivocal recommendation that I abandon my idea immediately, be- fore even giving the idea a trial run, only made me more determined to succeed. I set out to prove him—and his numbers—wrong.
Don’t stop now! Click here to buy your copy of Fiona Simon’s Gambling on Granola!