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Woman To Watch :: Sophia Maroon

Sophia Maroon has a resilient outlook that paved the way for her to follow her passions. It was that passion – and her mother’s salad dressing recipe, tailored for a growing, health-conscious family – that attracted opportunities that have led to her success as a business owner of Dress It Up Dressing. Her dressing recipes are innovatively simple in that they are really comprised of a handful of familiar ingredients and no mysteries. With dressings like Champagne Vinaigrette, Sesame Tahini, and Blackberry, Sophia has designed a healthy, flavorful lifestyle that everyone can enjoy. It’s as if she brilliantly bottled up her favorite childhood experiences in order to share them with the world.

In this interview, Sophia shares her uplifting experiences and some eye-opening truths. She talks about how she has grown in moments of discomfort and how that discomfort can be the catalyst for blossoming success.

Tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in Washington DC. My father was a photographer who worked for National Geographic and the other big magazines of the time. Our house was lively! I’m one of four children and when my father wasn’t traveling on assignment, he was working in the studio he had on the top floor of our house. So in addition to us children, there were assistants, models, stylists and editors in and out of the house. 

When I was in high school, my father worked on a book with the chef, Jean-Louis Palladin. Instead of clothing, and models, Jean-Louis would bring incredible food to the house. I would come home from school to a house filled with amazing smells, and Jean-Louis would be whipping up something you’d never heard of before. And when the photoshoot was over, we all ate! 

photo by Stephen Davis

It was an assignment my father was reluctant to ever finish. He was Lebanese, so he appreciated food! Fortunately, he was married to my mother, a Brit, who – despite the reputation of the English – is an exceptional cook. In my father, she found a willing audience. Her children were a little more skeptical, wishing we could just have spaghetti and meatballs instead of Chicken Velouté, or whatever she’d found in her latest Grand Diplôme cookbook. My mother was also a purest, and long before it was on-trend, she was reading labels and removed all processed food out of our diets. 

Sometime in the 70s, my father was told he was pre-diabetic, and when my mother couldn’t find any salad dressing without sugar, she started making her own. Her Red Wine vinaigrette was the foundation for Dress It Up Dressing. She served it every night on iceberg lettuce with spring onions.

I left for college with my mother’s salad dressing recipe in hand, and it has been with me ever since. I’ve lived in the UK, in New York, in and out of DC over the years. Today, I live in Chevy Chase, MD, with my three children. I’m writing this from Covid-19 containment.

Who/What inspired you to share your salad dressing with the world?

I’m a filmmaker by trade. But, while my three children were young, I was mostly a stay-at-home mother. In the spring of 2012, I was restless to do more. So I dusted off an old family idea. My brother thought there was a business to be had in our mother’s salad dressing. I’ve always loved to cook. When I thought about returning to work, my brother’s idea kept resurfacing. I would be in the carpool line, at a soccer game. Reading Harold and the Purple Crayon for the billionth time. Thinking about salad dressing.  I was becoming obsessed with something that had been a fixture in my life for as long as I could remember. Then, I began seeing it in a whole new way.

I had no intention of turning this into a big business.  Making it for friends, I was delivering it around the neighborhood and I had a great response. I used to ask my local Whole Foods in Friendship Heights for empty wooden clementine crates and I would use those to deliver the dressing. One day, one of the store managers asked what I was doing with all the crates, so I told him about the dressing and gave him some to try.  It turns out that moment was a catalyst.  He said, “We don’t sell anything like this and we should!” That single Whole Foods was my first real order. We then expanded to another store and another and now our dressings are available in every Whole Foods Market throughout the region as well as other stores across the country. 

What is your typical day like & how have you adjusted to the current pandemic?

Before the pandemic, a typical day was getting three children fed and out the door to school, then heading to my office for calls and meetings with my team and our various partners.  Lots of monitoring of orders and movement of our dressings within different grocery stores. Frequently, I’d travel to visit stores and retailers, planning our sales and marketing calendar. 

Since the pandemic hit, like most people I am navigating how to do everything remotely from home, including juggling online school for my children. For the business, I’m running it from my dining room and we are redirecting our focus to promote more online sales through Amazon and our website.  Luckily, grocery stores are doing well right now, and in-store sales have been strong. A high-quality salad dressing is not exactly toilet paper or Clorox wipes, but now that everyone has become a home cook, it’s a great way to step up your salad game. Also, there is a big emphasis on staying healthy and sort of getting back to basics, and Dress It Up Dressing meets that need because we only use ingredients that are all-natural and really simple, but also high quality – just like if you made it at home.

photo by Deb Lindsay

What do you think has helped you the most with your success?

Unwavering optimism and grit! And some luck. That aside, I think it is vital to have a clear vision of what you want to create. I knew I wanted my product to be high quality and healthy, and also really delicious – and I was not willing to compromise on that.  I also knew I wanted my company to be mission-driven – we are a B-Corp which is like a Good House Keeping seal of approval for companies that balance purpose and profit.  For example, we have always provided dressing at cost to area public schools, and right now, we are donating our new single-serving packets to DC Central Kitchen and DC Public Schools in order to feed thousands of children and families during the pandemic. 

I think also I was slightly ahead of a cultural shift in the way people think about what they eat.  Across all demographics, consumers are increasingly looking at nutrition labels and ingredient lists.  I am really proud of the fact that our dressings are made with ingredients most people have in their own kitchens and we don’t make compromises.  Our concept is simple and delicious, and people get that.  We are not trying to capitalize on the latest diet trend, but because the dressings are so straight forward they naturally meet even the trendiest diets.

photo by Stephen Davis

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve overcome to achieve your goals?

The challenges the company has overcome are pretty typical of small growing businesses – scaling, marketing, cash-flow, etc. But I think being a female entrepreneur was more of a challenge than I’d anticipated. I have experienced first-hand how women-owned companies have a harder time realizing opportunities.  Currently, less than 3% of all investment dollars go toward companies that have a female founder or are female-led. Those are not good numbers! Only 10% of the people making those investments are women. Also not good! There are a lot of private and public programs out there designed specifically to help a company like mine, but in reality, very few of those programs are willing to actually make the investment. 

I am part of a group of female CEO’s and I would say that is a universal experience. I feel incredibly fortunate that we have investors, we’ve been able to overcome that challenge, but we probably had to knock on twice as many doors. 

How do you reward yourself after a hard day’s/week’s/month’s work?

I’m not sure I do. Maybe I should do that. I don’t really look back. I’m usually moving on to the next thing. 

What advice can you give to our readers?

This is going to sound cliché, but dream big and don’t give up. There are days when I thought we had hit the final barrier, but the next day the phone would ring, or an email would appear in my inbox that would turn everything around.  I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve gone from tears to dancing in a day! Also, be optimistic.  There are nay-sayers in the world (I can name names!) and the best way to turn them around is to show them the upside. 

But one of my favorite pieces of advice comes from Gary Hirschberg, the founder of Stonyfield Farms, who says (frequently): If you don’t ask, you don’t get. 

It’s so true. I have asked for things and literally been beyond embarrassed and astonished as the words came out of my mouth. But those bold, uncomfortable questions have often made all the difference. So get uncomfortable. If you’re asking for something you honestly need, people are natural problem solvers, and very resourceful, and want to help. And with only a few exceptions, you can’t do it alone, so you have to be unafraid to ask for help.

Last piece of advice is also a cliché: eat your vegetables!

photo by Stephen Davis

Who do you look up to or admire?

Right now, everyone who is working in any hospital anywhere! 

But to name one person, José Andrés!  His non-profit World Central Kitchen is embarking on a herculean effort to fill a food scarcity gap for so many Americans who are unable to provide for themselves or their families during the pandemic.  José has this amazing ability to tap into people’s desire to help and pass it on to the people who need the help and actually mobilize to get things done quickly.  He is not afraid to ask! He is also an amazing chef!  

All photos courtesy of Sophia Maroon. This article contains affiliate links.

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