Cat Gazzoli launched the organic baby food brand, Piccolo earlier this year and has already had great success with it being stocked in Waitrose and Asda. Cat started her career in food at the age of 21, with the United Nations food agencies in Rome. She continued her passion to campaign for good food as the CEO of Slow Food UK. This passion has helped to shape her business today and she donates ten per cent of Piccolo profits to food education charities.
Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role
I spent years with the United Nations which was incredibly rewarding both on food and women issues. My first bosses were from Columbia, Democratic of Congo, and Korea – that is what makes the UN such an interesting environment as a first working place. You learn to work in such a special way as a team as the cultural norms are never the same with that kind of diversity and I learned a lot from my colleagues.
I then became head of the Slow Food organisation in the UK, and worked with chefs, food producers on campaigning for good, healthy food, as well as worked alongside the National Childbirth Trust on baby food education. I am now leading a baby food company, Piccolo which I founded with the support of an incredible infant feeding specialist Alice Fotheringham, and a creative genius, Kane O’Flaherty.
I believe in the importance of teams so my role is very much one of harnessing the core team’s skill sets, which brings me back to the UN type of experience of working in diverse teams. Alice, Kane and I are all really passionate about good delicious nutritious food for everyone, so making food for the most important little customer ever is a big responsibility and we take it very seriously that we have this privilege!
Did you ever sit down and plan your career?
I did! But it did not go exactly according to plan, because I soon realised that a lifetime in the United Nations organisation comes with a frequent change of location, which is wonderful when one is single and footloose, but not as a mother and wife. I really enjoyed working in Africa and Latin America with the UN, but I wanted to offer though a family life in which my family was rooted in one or maybe two locations, but not moving every couple of years’ continents!
Running your own business comes with so much responsibility and pressure, but it does mean you can control so many elements that are often out of one’s control with an external employer. This is a real upside when you are a mum. We live in London but visit our family in Italy and France, which is fantastic for my daughter’s language skills but importantly for bonding with her grandparents and extended families.
Have you faced any challenges along the way and if so, how did you deal with them?
I come from a non-profit charitable background, so the biggest learning curve is the often pretty intense commercials behind the world of grocery and big supermarkets. I have dealt with that by surrounding myself by a team and a board of directors who know this environment, and can help me navigate through it.
I recently made a pretty big mistake when I did not understand commercials properly on a deal, and I have learned from that by doubling down on my support network, and will consult more when I am not 100 per cent sure. What’s important is to learn from the mistake by owning it, thinking and understanding about what you did wrong and how to improve the next time. Life does have second chances, just keep trying and learning from a failure. Get back up again, but smarter and remember why you fell down in the first place!
On a typical workday, how does you start your day and how does it end?
I cannot say I have set hours and work and family really are quite weaved together. Piccolo is quite special as it has a core social DNA, so the better we do, the more we can give to support with food education for parents and little ones. Juliet my daughter is very proud of Piccolo and takes it to her friends in the nursery and likes to tell everyone mummy makes it.
Only recently, we were able to invest in an office but for the first months, our work day started with the Operations manager sharing breakfast with Juliet in the kitchen in the morning. She has grown up with the founding team – she has even named her stuffed animals after members of the Piccolo team. So work and family is very much a hand-woven tapestry at home and in the office. There isn’t an end or beginning to the day!
Tell us a little bit about your role and how did that come about?
My role is to make Piccolo happen every day and do whatever needs to be done coordinating within our team, and also most importantly working on the blue sky type of important elements that it takes to make a great company, product and working culture. Piccolo draws inspiration from the Mediterranean approach to health and well-being with a range of organic vegetable, fruit, and savoury meal purées, made with 100 per cent natural ingredients and inspired by my family recipes.
It came about because of my family up-bringing with the Mediterranean culture and lifestyle. We put a hint of herbs and spices in our blends to develop baby’s palate and get a lot of interest from parents about that. With our commitment to give 10 per cent of its profits to food education in partnership with the prestigious National Childbirth Trust (NCT), the UK’s largest parenting charity, we are offering the taste good, and also feel good by giving back – we truly believe that parents and babies can taste the difference, but also feel it in their hearts. My job is to marry the responsibility of being commercially and socially successful and bring that Med Goodness type of culture into the workplace too.
Have you ever had a mentor or a sponsor or anyone who has helped your career?
I was very lucky in my career in the United Nations to have a fantastic female mentor who headed up the Office of the Controller – the title says it all – she was the top dog controller – essentially making sure that everything was running right in the UN Secretary General’s office. A total dynamo and real straight talker, took no prisoners type. She was a tough mentor – very critical and would not sugar-coat anything. She passed away and I miss her very much, but I really cherish every moment we spent together.
There was very tough time in my career where I needed her help, and I just stayed over for a few days, and we talked and talked about how to manage the challenge. Work can be quite an emotive thing when you care about it and its really helpful as a woman to have a woman mentor who gets that emotive response if you are that type of person who gets attached in a very deep way to your work.
I was lucky to continue in my career path to have met Prue Leith, the food campaigner and food doyenne, who has supported, and told me off too when I am making mistakes or taking too long to get going! A great mentor isn’t one who doesn’t tell you like it is. I encourage all of the Piccolo team to have a mentor outside of our company to learn and discuss their work life and progression with. I think its critical for their development.
If you could change one thing for women in the workplace, what would it be?
I don’t believe in a regular working day hours wise; its is really challenging with small children and nursery runs for women in the workplace. So I think businesses that are flexible on hours and working from home when a possibility, and work shares, do best with women in the workplace who are of course juggling a family.
The NCT, Piccolo’s partner, is a very good example of an employer with a strong mum workforce that have flexibility. I am also a member of the Fawcett Society which campaigns for fair pay – as amazingly there is still a gap between men and women’s pay. Businesses like Piccolo need to lead the way on being the example on issues like this and I can tell you we do!
How would you encourage more women into joining the start-up world?
I would say its really for some, but not for all. I would encourage but be realistic. Its also a very different picture when you are balancing a family in you have limited funds and want to keep controlling stake of your business. The business like young children need a lot of your time to develop into healthy beings and there is only one of you! It goes without saying that starting a new business is a like having a new baby in itself.
I also encourage women to join the start up world if they are willing to take big risks – I invested everything I could into Piccolo so its for the type of person that doesn’t need a safety net really. Again, that’s even more scary with a young family to do but it’s a reality if you want to be a founder with a controlling stake you have to be able to invest into your business and when it needs it most.
If you were to look back in five years, what would you see in terms of your achievements?
Giving back to parents nationwide with food education, supporting the NCT reach 20 million parents by 2020, and all the while being viable commercially. Its that simple! What gets measured gets done so I remind myself and the team of these goals pretty regularly.
Tell us about your plans for the future?
For Piccolo, we will continue to work hard to impress our Piccolo parents with exciting new flavours and ones’ that help baby’s palette develop to love a whole variety of flavours, while at the same time helping parents with our give back ethos. We will always support to the absolute best of our ability the retailers and many independent shops who stock Piccolo and have given us the amazing opportunity for parents to discover Piccolo.
And lastly, I am constantly finding things in myself to improve on – be it as Founder of Piccolo with the team and our fantastic investors, or as a mum and wife. Life is a learning and feedback is a gift. When you are doing your first start-up, it’s a critical time to listen and learn than just be headstrong and think you know everything.