It’s the true story of sweet success, and if you were among the hundreds of hopeful entrepreneurs who joined us at the Entrepreneur Center a few weeks ago for the official launch party of our Navigate podcast, you could just about taste it in the air.
As she took to the stage, Mignon Francois, the woman behind the Cupcake Collection, one of Nashville’s most successful startups, we knew we were in for a real treat. “I don’t know, Clark,” she teased as she slipped a pair of headphones over her ears, then released the first of many wide smiles she would share with us that evening. “This is messing with my afro!”
To call her account one of “rags-to-riches” may be accurate - she did manage to turn just five dollars into ten million and counting - but listening to Francois describe her journey from foreclosure to fortune, it is clear the one part of her backstory that’s always remained the same is her faith.
It was the unwavering belief that she had a purpose, that something greater than her had a plan in place for which Francois credits her inspiration to push onward. “God has such a sense of humor that he will send you a big contract when you don't have any money to start, and then all you can do is trust him to fulfill it.”
And that’s just what Francois did. In 2007, she was approached by a neighbor who offered to pay her for some homemade cupcakes she could gift to her friends and clients. Francois had just finished tucking away the last few dollars of spending money she had for the week - literally $5 - and now had a difficult decision to make: she could feed her family or follow her faith.
So Francois walked to the local supermarket - her car had been recently repossessed - and spent all five dollars on baking ingredients. That night, as she whipped everything together in her kitchen by the dim light of a backup generator - the only electricity she could afford at the time - she never stopped to wonder if she’d ever see a return on her initial investment.
Somehow, she knew her faith would be rewarded.
Later that night she turned over a dozen or so cupcakes to her neighbor and received $60 as payment. She took her initial five back, used it to feed her family, and then reinvested the remaining $55 into more cupcake ingredients. “I’ve been flipping that same money into over five million cupcakes sold, and over $10 million in business,” Francois proudly announced. “We haven’t even been able to count it all yet.”
It is amusing to her though, she says, to watch all these banks eagerly scramble for her business, years after rejecting her own calls for help. Another one of those ear-to-ear smiles frosts over her face when she reveals she does take some pleasure now being able to tell them all: “Nah, I got this!”
And by the way, she did all this completely debt-free, always replacing whatever initial down payment she had made; it’s how Francois was raised and how she’s been bringing up her own children.
As a mother of “six-plus-one” - Francois adopted a high-school student she was mentoring as one of her own - the moral of her story isn’t about the fame or fortune her incredible hard work has brought her. It’s about the future of those following behind in her footsteps. “My family name hails from one of the largest plantations in Louisiana. What an homage that I get to pay to my ancestors to be out here making a way for the people coming behind me that carry my name,” she shared. “That's the kind of stuff that's important to me.”
Francois also explained why she thinks the Cupcake Collection is so special, and has outlasted all of its competitors. “For me, there is no competition,” she said humbly.
“What you come in to get is not what you walk out the door with,” she continued. “You walk out the door with a different product because we can't serve you what we actually sell in a tangible way. We serve joy. We serve an experience that takes you back to sitting at your grandmother's table where she sliced it, put it on a plate, you ate it with a fork and you had a conversation.”
An opportunity for honest dialogue is just one way Francois sets herself apart - and may just be what brings customers back time and again - besides the delicious baked goods, of course!
It’s easy to see why talking with Francois could make anyone feel warm and special. She has a unique way of speaking about life, business and uphill battles like her own in a digestible, relatable manner - almost like a preacher with pastries.
It’s the advice many budding entrepreneurs in the room gathered to hear.
“Your struggle is directly connected to the reward,” she told us. “Every stupid thing that you've ever had to do, every job, every situation, everybody that left you, everybody that came to help you, everything is preparing you to get from where you are to where it is that you're going to be.”
As part of the conversation, Francois took questions from the audience. She spoke slowly and clearly in her replies, making sure every entrepreneur in the room heard her stance on why so many of them feel paralyzed by fear.
“You're not afraid of failure. You're afraid of success because what's going to happen if you become successful? You gotta get up everyday and do that thing. You got to actually show up,” she said with the authority only a wise grandmother could possess. “There's no one else to fall back on but you, that's what's really scaring you because you actually know it's a good idea and it will work.”
“I think if people knew that's what they were really afraid of,” Francois revealed, “they would approach it all differently. Sometimes we're so busy worrying about the fact that we've been broken, and we think we can't be used because we've been broken. But an egg will rot if it's never broken. And it once it's broken, it can be fully used.”
Francois now owns outright the very same home she almost lost in foreclosure a few years back. It serves as a reminder of where she’s been and what both she and her family have survived through.
“The same hot water that hardens an egg, softens a potato. So it's about the character of what's being put into hot water,” she confessed. “It doesn't matter what kind of hot water you're in, you can make it. You don't have to be changed by your situation; you can become better because of it. This is not happening to you; it's happening for you. And that's what my life has been.”
For more inspirational lessons from Mignon Francois be sure to listen to the entire episode of Navigate.
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