What inspires, scares, and motivates celebrity cake designer Ebonie Carzo?

Welcome to another episode of The Female Founder with Bridget Fitzpatrick, Co-founder of ASBN and the CBT Automotive Network. The Female Founder is a show all about helping women grow their businesses and reach their full potential. Each episode will highlight inspiring stories, offer real-world tips, and advice to help you grow professionally and personally.

Today’s guest is Ebonie Carzo, celebrity cake designer and influential community leader helping small businesses grow one cake at a time. She’s a student of entrepreneurship and the founder of Virginia Marie Cake Boutique. Throughout her career, Carzo and her award-winning creations have been featured on Food Network, TLC’s Four Weddings, Voyage ATL Magazine, iHeart Radio, and the Jim Beach radio show to name a few.

Courtesy of Virginia Marie Cake Boutique

Transcription: 

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Ebonie, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ebonie Carzo :
Thank you for having me.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Yes. I’m a big fan of your work. Your cakes are incredibly beautiful. Can you talk to us about what inspired you to start baking?

Ebonie Carzo :
Well, thank you first off. My journey to becoming a cake designer is a bit unorthodox. Typically, when you ask a cake designer or a baker, “Hey, how did you get started?” They’re telling you all the warm, fuzzy feeling stories about baking with my grandma or my mom and all the things. But although I grew up in my mom’s cake bakery and worked a lot of hours in there, I was groomed to go to school, get good grades, go to college, and then go work in corporate America or government or something like that. And so I did not have sights on ever owning a bakery. All of my paths led to entrepreneurship. I studied entrepreneurship in college, my masters, overseas in various countries. And both of my parents are entrepreneurs and my grandfather was a serial entrepreneur, so it’s in my blood. And so in my corporate career, once I realized I needed to make a decision on whether I wanted to continue that journey or start my own path to freedom. I decided the latter, and that’s where we are today.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Yes, absolutely. Now, talk to us about that transition. You were in the corporate world and now you’re an entrepreneur, small business owner. Talk to us about that transition from the corporate world to now owning your own business.

Ebonie Carzo :
I hit a crossroad, and the moment I knew that I was going to leave, I set in place a six-month plan. And if anybody knows me, once I have a plan, it’s go time. And so for the next six months, I worked on clearing my credit card debt. I built up a six-month emergency fund as everyone advises. And I made sure that I was 100% vested in my 401(k) and stocks and things like that with the company. And so that was actually six months later, which all lined up perfectly. And so I wanted to make sure all of those dots were in a row. And I also had to get a car because I had a company car for four years. And so I had to go out and buy a cash car. So I wanted to make sure all those things were lined up before leaving.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Okay. Now, for those thinking about maybe leaving their corporate job or job that they have and starting their own business, specifically females, what advice would you give them?

Ebonie Carzo :
I would advise you to do all the things that I did, but I want you to research business credit and how to get access to capital because you need working capital. And I don’t want to see another female business take her own personal money and tie that up into her business. Gone are the days of bootstrapping. You do not have to bootstrap to start a business. To me, now that I know better, I think that’s the most insane thing ever and insane advice to give people. Is, “Oh, you just bootstrap,” and there’s no award for it at the end. And a lot of businesses fail within the first one to three years of business. And so why would you set yourself up for failure when there are resources out there?

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Great advice. Great advice. Now, you are talking the talk, you also walk the walk. You help small business owners that want to get into baking in their home and create a business out of their home kitchen. Talk to us a little bit about how you’re helping people do that.

Ebonie Carzo :
Now, for my 2022 goal, is helping 50 females start their home-based bakeries. And so I want to teach them all the things from starting your LLC to getting that business capital and creating success faster than what I was able to create it. But success looks different for everyone. In the baking industry, success is normally like, “Oh, go out and get a retail bakery.” I had so many people tell me that in the first couple years, and had I done that, I would not be in business today. I can assure you that.

Ebonie Carzo :
And for a lot of people, I see a lot of moms that go into this industry because it does give you the flexibility to stay at home with your children and to manage your home life a little bit better than getting up and going to a 9:00 to 5:00. And so I want to empower them because you can do it as a part-time job and generate high five figures, six figures, part-time or full-time, and help support your family.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Yeah, absolutely. Now, you and I are female founders. What do you think we could do to help other female founders in our lives, like our sisters, our mothers, our daughters?

Ebonie Carzo :
Yeah. There are so many things that we could do from things as simple as liking a post or sharing a post on social media to telling other people about those companies. But I think what is most important is that we continue to share our stories just like we are today because the more that we’re transparent with up and coming entrepreneurs, the faster is going to be for them to gain success, the less hurdles they have to run through. And honestly, let me back up because I remember starting out there really weren’t a lot of resources. So this was, and I’m dating myself, pre-Instagram days, if we can ever imagine a life before Instagram. And Facebook was just really getting off the ground. And so I Googled a lot, I even cold called a couple of bakeries asking questions. And to be honest, there weren’t very many people that would help me because they saw me as their competitor.

Ebonie Carzo :
And so if we really wrap our arms around each other and start embracing, we will realize that there’s plenty of money out there for everyone. And I want to see everybody succeed. So I’ll tell you all of the things because if you succeed, I succeed.

Image by Food Network

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Absolutely. That’s great. Now, you, a couple years ago, were on the Food Network’s Wedding Cake Championship.

Ebonie Carzo :
Yes.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Talk to us about how that affected your business.

Ebonie Carzo :
Well, that was the stamp of approval that I didn’t know that I needed. Backstory. I have tons of stories.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
That’s great.

Ebonie Carzo :
The network called me several times over a two-year period, and I kept telling them no. And reason why I told them no is because when you watch these shows, you see all the negative things, like when the judge’s like, “Oh, my gosh, that was nasty or that was ugly.” And so I perceived that as negative stigma for the business. And I did not want that associated with my company. But one of my friends, when she found that out, she was like, “Are you crazy? It doesn’t matter. People just are going to love the fact that you were on TV. Period.” So she made me promise the next time they called I say yes. And literally they called two weeks later.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Oh, my gosh, that’s great.

Ebonie Carzo :
I said, yes, made it through, all the way through. And so, honestly, being on Food Network, people, I mean, they rallied around me. It validated me. My current customers, my VIPs that I call them who have been with me forever, they go around and say, “Oh, my celebrity cake designer, she does this and you should call her.” So it really put a stamp on my business.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
And did you find on the show that you did have to be a little vulnerable at times to some critique and things? And how did that feel?

Ebonie Carzo :
Absolutely. I did shed a tear. So glad they didn’t get that on TV. They edited that part out. I mean, this is your craft, and this is your baby, and it’s also TV. The judges, as much as I love them, could be brutal at times, but the good thing is you take that information, and even on the show, I put that to work, the feedback that they gave. But then, every day that I work, I remember some of the comments.

Ebonie Carzo :
So one funny story, we were all fighting over trying to get a airbrush and we couldn’t get one. So we had no choice but to just put the purple fondant on the cake, and we wanted to airbrush it a nice satin color so it would be bright and vibrant. We couldn’t. Well, in judging we got dinged because it was a, how did she say it? Just a basic purple. And we’re like, “But we tried to get and airbrush.” But we had to just smile it off and just, “Okay, it’s just basic purple.” So now whenever I cover a cake in purple, I always airbrush it because in my head it’s basic purple. We can’t put that out.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Yeah, absolutely. And I know that a lot of customers probably feel like there’s a certain trust. They feel like they probably know you a little bit better than the next baker down the street. So I’m sure that has helped as well.

Ebonie Carzo :
Absolutely.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
People like to do business with people they trust.

Ebonie Carzo :
Yeah. And I recently had a client who saw me on Food Network. It’s been what? Two or three years. And he said, “This is my first time ordering from you, but I took a screenshot, and I wrote it in my phone because I was waiting for my daughter’s sweet 16 to order a cake from you.” And I was like, “You kept my information all this time.” He said, “Yes, because you were just so inspiring and I wanted to support your business.” So that’s what I mean by the little blessing that I didn’t even know that I needed.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Right. You never know. Now, you recently had a little baby, seven months old now, and your business is also your baby, I’m sure. So how do you juggle the two and make it work at home?

Ebonie Carzo :
So I’m only seven months into this hashtag mompreneur life, so I’m still figuring out. But a couple things that I realized is that, one, I need to lean on my village, and when they ask for support, take it and say yes. The second thing is being able to outsource things that are not necessary, so housekeeping, different things like that that really lessen the burden. And then the third thing is it’s okay to put your kid in daycare. And I struggle with that because I really try to run my business and keep him home, and it was just not sustainable for my mental and my emotional health. And so the good thing now is he goes to daycare. It allows me to come and do things like this. But when he comes home, I can give him 100% of myself and not be torn in half. And that’s what was happening. He couldn’t get 100% of me. So now I realize that even though it hurts, it’s a necessary evil.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
From the very start, can you talk to us about one of the biggest challenges that you’ve had so far in business and how you overcame it?

Ebonie Carzo :
Yeah. So we’re going to go right back to finances. All roads lead back to finances. So the biggest challenge was gaining enough working capital to sustain my business and just to be completely transparent. There were times where I would have $0 in the bank account or negative and overdraft fees and things like that because even though I had high volume and I was bringing in a lot of money, just as much money was going out for expenses and things like that. And so it felt like I could never get ahead. And so it wasn’t until just before the pandemic, I literally figured out this wonderful world of business credit. And I got a couple working capital loans from QuickBooks and PayPal. And the pandemic happened months later, and I was able to sustain me because I had that money sitting in my account. And so that was the best time for me to figure that out.

Ebonie Carzo :
And then during the pandemic in quarantine, I started to research even more, like, “Okay, this was pretty easy. How do I get more of this?” It becomes addictive. And so now here we are a couple later and I wish that I knew this when I started up because I literally went through all of my money, 401(k), savings, everything in the first two years because as Murphy’s law would have it, everything that could go wrong in the first year did. My transmission on that new car went up. That was $5,000. My oven went up. That was another $1,000. We had a leak in the house because I think we had a ice storm that year, so that was deductible. So all the things happened that you couldn’t imagine.

Ebonie Carzo :
And a lot of times, people would take that as a sign and say, “Okay, well I shouldn’t have left my job. Let me just quit and go back.” But I was like, “No, this is time for me to keep pressing and go forward.” And so just imagine if I had access to OPP, other people’s money. Well, OPM. And so having access to other people’s money, I could have put all that on there, and it’s on the business side is not affecting my personal credit, it’s not affecting my personal income, anything like that. And I could have still built, and I could have built a little bit faster. I could have scaled faster. But I believe all things happen for a reason because my passion is truly helping startups and entrepreneurs.

Ebonie Carzo :
That is the reason why I left my corporate job because even with all of my educational training, I really needed to know what it was like to be in the trenches, to start a business from the ground up. And even though my industry is not like an innovative industry, I didn’t create anything, there’s bakeries everywhere. It’s still a service based industry. It takes a lot of work and it really does take a lot of resources to get up and going and to sustain it. And so I would’ve never known any of that had I not left my job.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Yeah. You’ve really been a student of entrepreneurship, which so many people start a business because they are creative, they’re a great baker, or they’re a great hair stylist, but they don’t really know the business of running a business. And that’s so important. Now, can you talk to us about maybe one of your most satisfying moments in business?

Ebonie Carzo :
I have two, if you don’t mind. So of course, Food Network is most satisfying. The biggest thing with that is receiving calls, emails, and DMS from people all over the country telling me that their daughters were so inspired because they saw someone that looked like them on TV. And I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about it because I had no idea that just showing up was going to make an impact like that.

Ebonie Carzo :
And then the second pivotal moment was, a couple years before Food Network, unknowingly, one of my cakes was featured on TLC’s Four Weddings, and my bride was the wedding bride. They didn’t tell me until after the fact. And so the cool thing about that was one of the competitors did this amazing raving review, and it’s so funny to watch it because she doesn’t want to say how great it was, but she was just like, “I mean, the cake was just so moist and delicious. And then we went over and then the icing, and it was just all so good.” And then they highlighted the cake and everything. So that was amazing, and the fact that they won. So that was super cool.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
That is great. That’s great. Now, what is your great greatest fear and how do you manage it?

Ebonie Carzo :
Okay, so we’re going to get real. My greatest fear is dying before I can impact the people that I know I need to. I know that I have a greater calling on my life. And even though to some people, it looks like I’ve achieved a lot, I feel like I have an even scratch the surface because I have not been walking 100% in what I know I was put here to do. And so, now, I’m just really laser focused. Like I said, going into 2022, I already have things in play to make an impact on my community and help more female entrepreneurs get their businesses up and running.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Now, I think that I’m going to ask you this question. I’m sure there are multiple things that we could talk about here, but if there’s one piece of advice you could give to a female founder looking to start a business, or maybe just starting out in business, what advice would you give to them?

Ebonie Carzo :
If you don’t hear anything else that I say today, I really want you to Google or go to YouTube University and look up how to get working capital or business credit. I’m going to be talking about this a lot on social, but your homework tonight is going to be looking that up, and researching it, and doing the work for yourself because it’s so simple. And I’ve heard are too many stories about how hard it is to get money, and people have only looked at going to the bank and getting a loan. And then everybody has this magic number of $100,000. I don’t know why, but everybody wants $100,000 to fund their business. And honestly, it doesn’t take that. You can take a little bit of money. You can take $10,000. And this is where the bootstrapping aspect can come in because you get resourceful with what you have, but you’re not using your own money. So that’s what I would advise. I’m telling you, that’s the mission I’m going on. I’m not going to be talking about anything else, but getting access to other people’s money to fund your business.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Great advice. Now, Ebony is so much more than what you see here, so be sure to follow her on social. And she’s been inspiring and empowering for me, so I know she will be for you as well. Virginia Marie Cakes? There you go.

Ebonie Carzo :
Thank you.

Bridget Fitzpatrick:
Thank you so much for being here.

Speaker 1:
This is the Female Founder Show, with host an entrepreneur, Bridget Fitzpatrick, exclusively on a ASBN. If you are a female founder in the Atlanta market and would like to help other female founders with your inspiring story, we would love to hear from you.


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