The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.  At least, that’s how my grandmother used to describe it.  Maybe there’s still something to this adage.  Stefania Mallett turned this old idea into a billion-dollar tech unicorn called ezCater.  Along the way, she learned some valuable lessons about leadership and culture.

ezCater is a global marketplace for business catering.  Their strategy is to use technology and reliable service to consolidate the highly fragmented foodservice industry. The company was sparked when Stefania noticed that doctors in local hospitals were running like chickens with no heads, from appointment to appointment. When they had a few minutes to spare, physicians would run to their local hospital cafeteria and suffer through bland menu choices.  Why not give these busy doctors more choice, Stefania reckoned?

Confident in her idea, she piloted her plan in two markets—her hometown of Boston and Greensboro, North Carolina. Each market did reasonably well.  But the real ‘aha’ moment was the realization that more doctors would sign up if she could convince more food suppliers to add their menus to ezCater’s offering.  Every entrepreneur, particularly ones trying to create a virtual marketplace, must do two things at once—get both buyers and sellers to their platform. As Stefania recollects, it’s like pushing two big stones up the hill at the same time. It takes grit and perseverance. 

It worked.  ezCater’s business took off. Orders started pouring in. Stefania then started focusing on tightening key processes, upgrading the technology platform, and creating a meritocratic culture where anyone could share their ideas and make improvements. Most of all, she learned to hire great people, give them autonomy and never micromanage them! 

As a leader, Stefania uses equally well both the left and right sides of her brain.  The right-sided genius in her encourages creativity, contemplative discussions, and new product features.  The left-side, no doubt strengthened while she completed her electrical engineering degree at MIT, looks at complex problems with analytic rigor, focusing on the most salient issues and quickly discarding the noise.  Her leadership style trickled down and across the entire ezCater business, creating a culture that attracted, inspired, and helped talent reach their full leadership potential. Things were rocking and rolling by early 2020.

But as COVID-19 reared its ugly head in March 2020, she needed every bit of her brain and a healthy dose of resilience to survive the crisis.  Her investors stood by her.  She had earned their trust.  But many questions lingered by the spring of 2021.  Would customers stick by ezCater?  How would the growing footprint of uber eats and other foodservice apps impact their business? How would covid impact global expansion? Should the company go public or stay private?

*This interview is presented by CEO Fellows in partnership with N2Growth- Request to join our exclusive leadership forum and have conversations with our Culture Champions here. We invite you to share your story and get feedback from iconic leaders like Stefania Mallett, executive advisors, top leadership professors, and gifted students from around the world.