Women’s History Month – In Conversation With Sogoal Zolghadri

Sogoal Zolghadri © Fabian Palencia

We have another awesome Greenpoint woman’s tale to tell today. Sogoal Zolghadri’s talents as an artist and baker came to our attention through her roommate Nina’s glowing nomination:

Sogoal Zolghadri is not only a fantastic Greenpoint-based cookie decorator (and baker), but also an incredible watercolourist. Her cookies have been featured by Vogue, Martha Stewart, Free People, Nasty Gal, and countless blogs. She makes Greenpoint awesome by headquartering her incredible Sogi’s Honey Bakeshop here. She also has taught cookie decorating classes at Brooklyn Craft Company, and has been invited to showcase and sell her watercolour paintings at Brooklyn Night Bazaar. She inspires me everyday to create, create, create.

Sogoal invited us over to her apartment to see her in cookie-baking mode and tell us about some huge decisions she’s recently made to launch her business further.

GP: With painting and baking all in one product [Sogoal hand-paints designs on white-frosted cookies], you seem to have found a really great way to combine two of your biggest creative interests. At what point did you realize you could do that in this way?

Sogoal: Well I was born and raised in San Diego, and went to college there too. After high school, I had originally wanted to go to culinary school, but my parents are incredibly traditional, and they said, “Absolutely not! You’re getting your bachelor’s degree in something practical.” So I was like, “Okay, fine.” So I went to the University of San Diego, and there I am, getting my degree in communications, and halfway through – I don’t tell my parents! – but I switch my major to fine art. And at that point I could pursue painting. My parents always knew I loved the arts. I had been drawing since I found my opposable thumbs. They knew I had always wanted to do it. So I finally did! Just secretly at first, ha. Then by senior year, I still had that desire to know pastry, to get into baking more – so I got an internship; I worked for free for Sweet Cheeks Bakery in San Diego for a couple months. At the same time I was finishing up my senior thesis in watercolour, and once I graduated, Sweet Cheeks asked if I wanted to come and work full-time for them, so I said, “Absolutely.” My parents were a little disappointed, but it was a job! I was really really really happy. That being said, our business was primarily oriented around weddings, and there’s a slow season in the wedding industry, so come January, it really slowed down, and I was still an hourly employee. My good friend Jessica, who worked with me then and is now an incredibly talented cake decorator working in SoHo, mentioned to me that she’d seen something on a blog about a woman who painted on cookies. We were really bored, so we decided to try it for fun after work. We split a bottle of chardonnay and some cheese and got to painting, and I was just like, “This feels really good.” I had been so busy, and I hadn’t actually painted anything – paper or cookie – in a long time. So that’s how it started – for fun.

© Fabian Palencia

GP: When did you make your leap from California to New York?

Sogoal: I eventually stopped working at Sweet Cheeks, and decided, quarter-life crisis style, that I needed to move and do something different. Then I found myself in New York, and I still painted cookies for fun. People started saying, “You should sell, you should sell!” So I did sell a bit with Etsy, but it wasn’t a big deal. Next thing I know, word-of-mouth spread, and people were getting more interested in it. What really set things off was when I applied to a job at Martha Stewart; I didn’t get it, and I was so bummed out. Then two months later, they reached out and said, “Hey, we remember your portfolio that you left us – you paint on cookies, right?” – and they asked me to be a vendor for them at their bridal market. At that point, I was by no means operating as a business; I felt like a girl with a hobby just faking it til I made it. But I said, “Yes, I’ll be there.” I had to make 300 cookies!

© Fabian Palencia

GP: That was a big curiosity I had in reading your story – when orders started coming in, did you have the production capability to meet them?

Sogoal: No! And that’s exactly why I just quit my job in global merchandising at Gap. Two weeks ago. Because working all day and baking and painting cookies at night was like two full-time jobs. So you’re catching me at a very interesting time. I’m typically very Type A, with no caution thrown to the wind, always with a life jacket – but when that happened with Martha Stewart, I realized I actually had a chance here in New York to make this into a career.

GP: Congratulations! So what’s the next step to scale the business up?

Sogoal: Well my roommate Melanie works at Kickstarter, and ever since this summer she encouraged me to do a Kickstarter project with my cookies. I resisted it; at that point I was like, “I have no reason to! This isn’t my job and it’s not going to make any money.” But she really kept on me, and she really thought I should do it. After giving it some thought, I realized she was right – I had nothing to lose. Worst case scenario, it doesn’t get funded, and I’m in the same place I started. So Melanie helped me put together this wonderful video, and pretty much guided me and held my hand throughout the project. And it was overfunded, thankfully!

GP: Wow! What was your funding goal? Did it seem pretty modest?

Sogoal: Now looking back I actually wonder if I should have set a higher goal, but it was $6,000, and I ended up raising about $9,000. So I managed to get my baseline covered, and I’m going to start looking for a rental kitchen space locally. The campaign ended in November right before Thanksgiving, and I’m still fulfilling the rewards!

GP: Did the success of your Kickstarter campaign change your mindset about committing to create a business out of your hobby? It must have been encouraging.

Sogoal: Well that kind of did start a conversation with myself; I started thinking, if there’s an interest for this, and people are willing to support it the way they did, and I really want to do it, then why am I saying no? Work was really not feeling like how I wanted to spend my time; I realized I’m not meant for that 9 to 5 corporate setting. Which was important to experience first, I think. I just decided, enough’s enough; I keep squashing this creative side of myself, but if I’m able to make some kind of living from it, then I should just go for it. If not now, then probably never. So here I am! I’m trying to get my bearings straight going full-time with this. The orders are rolling in, and the next steps are there to be had, but it’s definitely a lot to figure out at once.

© Fabian Palencia

GP: Bravo – that is so great that you made the leap. Tell us about some of the specific challenges you anticipate.

Sogoal: I’m definitely going to be working part-time elsewhere, just to make sure I can still live in this apartment that I love, have food on the table, and all that; I’ve accepted that I’m not going to be a millionaire. I actually realized that a long time ago, ever since I knew I wanted to be an artist. I’m so content right now; if I can at least bake and decorate cookies part-time, and make money from it, and do some part-time work on the side to make ends meet, I’m completely content. That being said, I’m 24, single, and hustling in Brooklyn! But at this very moment in time, I’m happy. Really happy. Starting a business on my own is teaching me a LOT. Not knowing what potential bumps are ahead of me on this road is kind of scary, but I think it’s part of the process, and it will eventually make me a smarter, better businesswoman.

© Fabian Palencia

GP: I’m really curious to hear more about your marketing strategies, because your roommate Nina shared some of your press highlights, and they seem like such smart alliances with other brands – like your cookies showing up on Nasty Gal’s Instagram account [an online fashion retailer for young women, with a huge and loyal following]. How did you make that happen?

Sogoal: The Nasty Gal thing was such a cool one. They really know how to target their audience. I also know how to target mine; I realized that there might be an appreciation for what I do with my cookies among their demographic base, because the cookies are very cute and whimsical, like their clothes. And girly, too. So last year when I was just doing this as a hobby, I thought, “Let’s just send Nasty Gal some cookies and see what happens.” I don’t know anyone there, but I’m gonna Google their headquarters and send them a package full of cookies that look really nice.

GP: And then all of a sudden, an Instagram shout-out! Showing off a photo of the goods, to boot. Was there any head’s up from Nasty Gal that they would be doing that? Or was it a surprise?

Sogoal: A total surprise! No one contacted me to say they had gotten the package, so that post was how I knew it got there. The power of social media is unbelievable. I was checking my Instagram account on a break at work one day soon after I sent the package, and noticed I had about 300 new followers. Then some of my friends started texting me their congratulations, because they all follow Nasty Gal too and had seen the cookie post. I was just like, this is crazy! So I did the same thing with Free People, and it happened again. Martha Stewart Weddings also did an Instagram post last year. Those were experiments for me in convincing myself that this idea was viable. More recently, I was included in Vogue’s February/Valentine’s Day gift guide.

GP: With all this hard work and growing success, now is a good time to ask: who are some of the women that support and inspire you?

Sogoal: It’s been really essential that I live in such a supportive household, since I both live and work here. My roommates are here with me day in and day out and witness me in action. A lot of the motivation I get for doing what I do comes from them; from all my close girlfriends, but namely the women in this house. They see the process from start to finish; they appreciate it, and they’re the biggest and best cheerleaders I could ask for. Each of them, and I’ll name them – Mel, Willa, and Nina – brings something different to my success. Melanie helped me set up my Kickstarter project, has always told me to go for it, and is generally a big pusher of creators. Willa is actually my best friend from college, and since she’s known me for so long, she’s been a supporter of my creativity right out of the gate. She saw my slow inch towards listening to my artistic instincts in college, as I made the transition to studying art. And Nina just wants to step in wherever she can and help. I freak out a lot, so she calms me down. She came with me to the Martha Stewart wedding event and helped me set up, and I really needed her – I was a hot mess! But Nina is someone who wants to see her friends succeed, which is such a great quality. To this day, when we’re all here at night after our long days, they still get excited about the cookies. Even though they’ve seen hundreds by now, I still hear, “That’s so cool!” – and it’s just so wonderful to live with people who are that supportive. Especially when they’re such strong and intelligent women themselves. They’re invaluable to me.

© Fabian Palencia

We wish Sogoal every success as she continues to grow Sogi’s Honey Bakeshop from Greenpoint; thanks for the cookie samples, too, Sogoal! More Women’s History Month profiles will continue into next week – stay tuned.

About Liz F

Liz became a contributor to Greenpointers when Propeller Coffee opened on her block, making an instant regular out of her; the urge to tell the neighborhood was irresistible. She works in a cross-section of film, TV, and music and writes for Greenpointers to feed her fascination with small businesses.
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