Founder of Firebrand Artisan Breads
Established: 2008 | Number of employees: 85
Website: firebrandbread.com | Social: @firebrandbread
ICA Investment Portfolio Company
“Firebrand Artisan Breads provides a more just and equitable workplace, shared value, and thriving communities through the craft of baking. We focus on hiring people who are formerly incarcerated, homeless, or otherwise have barriers to employment.”
Why did you decide to start Firebrand?
I’ve been working in bakeries since I was 14—it’s what I’ve always loved to do. And growing up, I had some issues with homelessness, and my mom had some issues with law enforcement. I came up in the punk community, where a lot of people struggled with drug abuse. I knew I wanted to do something to help people in those communities, which is where our approach to hiring comes from.
What’s your best piece of advice for entrepreneurs?
Ask for help. Look at a business you admire and reach out. Find someone who’s doing it better than you and call them, email them, message them on Instagram or LinkedIn—whatever you gotta do. That’s what I did with Zingerman’s—I did a class in Ann Arbor and asked to meet with [co-founder] Ari [Weinzweig] and we had lunch and I got to pick his brain for a while. Find people who are in the stage you want to be in.
What was the most significant challenge your business was facing prior to interacting with ICA?
We had no strategy and didn’t know how to roadmap the future we wanted. We’d initially reached out to Ingrid [Jacobson, ICA’s Managing Director of Entrepreneurship Education at the time] and were told we weren’t ready. Ingrid told us to come back in a year, but I didn’t know if we’d be around in a year! The IRS was threatening to shut us down over back taxes. We were floundering. We were the Mr. Magoo of bakeries, blindly stumbling along.
Eventually, we started working with Nina [Robinson, ICA’s Senior Portfolio Manager at the time]. In those early years, that was so crucial for our development. We needed our hands held, and ICA did that. They helped me understand and prioritize what I should and shouldn’t be doing as a business owner, and what my goals and responsibilities were—more specifically, that I couldn’t oversee everything, all the time.
How do you envision Firebrand contributing to a more equitable small business ecosystem in the long run?
By providing jobs to people who are formerly homeless or incarcerated, and by providing more mentorship to other businesses. It’s a question of how we get people back into the community and how we can be an anchor for people. If we can help people get back on their feet and create better lives for themselves, that carries forward.
It’s so satisfying to hear when someone leaves Firebrand for a new opportunity and they say they worked at Firebrand, and the response is “OK, you’re good then.” There’s an understanding of what it means to have been a part of this. That’s a huge win.