Gourmet granola and advocacy: A conversation with 2022 America’s Retail Champion Margaret Barrow

Retail Gets Real Episode 345: The founder and CEO of It’s NOLA talks about advocating for small businesses.
Sheryll Poe
NRF Contributor

Entrepreneur Margaret Barrow is always up for a challenge. In fact, it’s when she’s challenged that she makes really big moves. Take for example her plant-based snack company, It’s NOLA.

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Barrow, a tenured literature professor in New York City, was looking for a healthier granola option and thought she had created the perfect recipe, but was unsure about launching her own business. That is, until her students challenged her to do just that.

After tasting samples in class, Barrow’s students came up with a compelling case for why she should start her own granola business – they had visited area colleges, handed out samples and took surveys.

“They said, ‘You know, you should really read this,’” she says on this episode of Retail Gets Real. “’Because you’re always telling us [when] we write our essays, we need to have evidence for our argument, so here is evidence for our argument that you should start your own company.’”

It’s that same spirit that has helped Barrow, an admitted novice small business owner, step into the advocacy arena on behalf of herself and other small businesses, earning her the distinction of being named NRF’s 2022 America’s Retail Champion.

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Margaret Barrow, founder and CEO of It's NOLA.
Margaret Barrow, founder and CEO of It's NOLA.

“Running a business, for me, it can’t be solely about just the everyday operations,” Barrow says. “There’s something bigger than that in terms of thriving, in terms of ensuring that we get what we need as small businesses, and in terms of policies that are out here.”

Barrow still remembers hosting her first town hall with local legislators. “I felt like I had been struck by lightning. As I was there talking to our legislators, I was like, ‘Oh my God, they don’t get it. They’re not getting this,’” she says. The only way members of Congress can really know what is important to small businesses, Barrow says, is if small business owners get involved and tell their own stories.

“When you go to these meetings and when you go to the [Retail Advocates] Summit, there are legislators there, too. You have immediate access, and they’re there because they choose to be there,” Barrow says. “They don’t have to be there. They choose to be there because they want to hear these stories. They want to be able to go back and make legislation based on human beings and not on numbers.”

Barrow says she looks forward to being mentored by NRF’s advocacy experts.

“I appreciate that the National Retail Federation has taken up that call and offered this opportunity to so many of us to come together as a community. We’re not alone,” she says. “As a small business owner, I really felt a part of the team, a part of the family … and feeling that way, it also inspired me to continue to do more.”

Listen to the full episode to hear more about how Barrow came up with It’s NOLA, how she balances being a professor with being a small business owner, and the power and impact of mentoring in her life and business. And don’t forget to register for the next Retail Advocates Summit in Washington, D.C., July 24-25, 2024.

Episode transcript, edited for clarity

Bill Thorne: Welcome to Retail Gets Real, where we hear from retail's most fascinating leaders about the industry that impacts everyone, everywhere, every day. I'm Bill Thorne from the National Retail Federation, and on today's episode we are talking to Margaret Barrow, CEO and founder of It's NOLA and NRF’s 2022 America's Retail Champion winner. We're going to talk to Margaret about starting her plant-based snack company and what it meant to be named NRF’s 2022 America's Retail Champion winner and why she thinks it's important to advocate for small businesses. 

Margaret, welcome to Retail Gets Real. 

Margaret Barrow: Thank you very much. 

Thorne: How are you?

Barrow: I’m doing well. I’m doing well [intelligible] rainy weather. 

Thorne: It's kind of amazing to me this time of year. It's this quick like spiral into, you know, you're cold and it's winter, and then you have a little bit of spring, and then it's like, “Oh my gosh. It's getting to be like summer.” Now, you're based out of New York, correct?

Barrow: I'm in New York and the weather is exactly the same. 

Thorne: Yeah.

Barrow: You are either underdressed or overdressed.

Thorne: Correct. Everybody says, “Well, you have to layer.” It's kind of hard to layer when you're wearing a suit.

Barrow: It probably is. 

Thorne: … Like, you leave your coat at the office. I don't know. So, It’s NOLA … we're going to talk a lot about that, but I want to know what is your career background and why did you start It's NOLA?

Barrow: OK, so my career background is, I’m a tenured college professor. I’ve been teaching for almost 30 years for the City University of New York. I’ve spent the last 23 years working at Borough Manhattan Community College, teaching literature and composition. So that’s where I’ve put most of my life energy so far. 

Thorne: You got a long way to go, Margaret.

Barrow: I’ve got a long way to go, absolutely. So, I think it was like 2017-2018 when I started to realize that the snacks that I was eating as I headed towards pre-menopause, I had to start rethinking what I was eating because everything starts to change as you get older. I noticed that a lot of the granola that I was eating (because I absolutely love granola), I started really paying attention to the labels and noticed that they were just full of junk. I've been eating junk junky granola most of my life, and I was complaining all the time. One of my daughters said to me, “You know, why don't you stop complaining and do something about it?” I said, “Well, OK.”

Thorne: Challenge accepted, especially when it comes from a child.  

Barrow: And I started thinking about, “OK, what do I want in my granola? What do I want in terms of like healthy grains, what kind of grains?” I had no idea what I was getting into. So, it took me a while to really think about the ingredients — what kind of ingredients, why that ingredient, how that's going to affect my digestive system. Like all of these things I had to take into consideration. So, I ended up with gluten-free, rolled oats. I didn’t even know if there was gluten-free rolled oats.  

Thorne: I didn’t know that either. It’s good to know though.

Barrow: Yeah, it's good to know. And then it was fruits, and nuts, and seeds, and really kind of figuring out … you know, I shop organic, and I recognize the importance of, you know, eating the best healthy food that you can eat and that you afford. And so, I started to think about, “OK, what would I want to share with my family?” Because my family doesn't care. They don't really care if it's organic, if it's not organic. 

And most of us who eat organic, we eat out, so we're not always eating out at an organic restaurant. And creating this granola, I really wanted to create something also that was good for my digestion, very healthy, and in doing so, it took me a while. I figured it out. And the first flavor I came up with was cranberry, because it was November and my family loves cranberry at the table while they're eating their Turkey, and I'm eating my spinach … 

Thorne: The good thing is you don't have to carve spinach so you can dig right in. While everybody else. is kind of waiting around, you're like, “Come on folks, let's get with it.”

Barrow: Exactly. So, I made this granola and I wanted to make something that wasn't crumbly and crunchy because that was another pet peeve of mine with granola. If you open up a bar of granola, and you don't want to eat it all, most of it ends up at the bottom of my bag. My dogs used to be very happy about that, but it was a mess. So, I wanted to create something that was compact and chewy. 

I wasn't thinking about anything but trying to make the best snack for me and my family. And so, you know, once I made it, I gave it to them. I loved it. I gave it to them. They thought it was amazing. They really did. They eat my vegan food, but they usually add meat to it. 

Thorne: I like that. I’m a vegan-ish. 

Barrow: So, what happened was after they said that, they're like, “You know what? This is it. This is really good. You should think about doing something with this. Maybe you might want to start a company.” And I had originally, you know, never thought of a company. I watched my husband — he is an entrepreneur. He is a contractor, and I've watched him for 30-something years, you know, build this company. It's not easy. And so, I already had a career. I was very, you know, very happy, passionate about teaching. 

I decided to take some of it to the office. My students were eating junk in the morning. They had no energy. It smelled. So, I asked them, “If I bring you some vegan granola bites, will you try them?” They agreed after I convinced them that it wouldn't taste like sawdust.  So, they … I brought, I brought 10 different flavors for them into the classroom, and I was really shocked that they all loved them. And I just started sharing them with the students, with the faculty, with the staff. And I kept getting this feedback that it was really good. And some of my students came up to me and encouraged me to start a business. They thought this was a really great business idea. 

I teach literature. At least of my students who are talking to me — some of them are literature majors, some of them are finance majors — and they're saying to me, “You should really try to do this,” and I just didn't want to hear about it. And I said, I said, “No, this is just for me and my family and for, you know, anyone who wants me to share it with them, I'm very willing to.” And a couple months later, my students came back to me with a folder, and in the folder were surveys that they had taken. They had gone to New York City colleges, they had gone to Rutgers, even, in New Jersey, and they had given out the snacks to other students.

Thorne: No way.

Barrow: Yeah, and they came back with this, and they said, “You know, you should really read this. Because you're always telling us, you know, we write our essays, we need to have evidence for our argument, so here is evidence for our argument that you should start your own company.”  So, I did break down in tears …

Thorne: Margaret. You get challenged a lot by young people. 

Barrow: I do. I really do.

Thorne: You really, really do. If you want to get Margaret to do something, find a young person, have them challenge her, and she will get it done.

Barrow: That is true. That is very true. It's not good, though. 

Thorne: So, you get this and it's just like, “OK, maybe I need to do this. Maybe this makes sense.” 

Barrow: I, you know, I brought it home to my family, and my family said, “We've said this already. Yes, you should do this.” And I said, “Well, number one, I don't know what I'm doing. I have no idea how to start a business,” and my husband said, “I'll help you.” I said to him, “It's a food business. I can't imagine it’s going to be the same.” But he said, “If you need help, you can lean on me.” Then I spoke with someone in the business department, one of my colleagues, and I said to him, “Well, if I do this, would I be able to marry the idea of mentoring students along with running this company?” And he said, “Margaret, that's the easy part.”  And I said, 
“Oh, OK.”  I was convinced. I was sold on it. 

In hindsight, you know, it’s kind of like this romantic, lofty idea of starting your own company, working with students. My background is totally writing. Literature. I don't know what I'm doing, and I was like, “Sure.” Honestly, that's how it started … really kind of not thinking it through, which is something I would never encourage people to do.  

Thorne: And just jumping in. So, you know, the thing that I love about my job and being a part of the National Retail Federation is that we get meet and to be around some extraordinary entrepreneurs and people that didn't know what they were getting into, got into it, and had some really high success and some really low valleys in between. But in your opinion, I mean, given what you've done and where you were, and where you are, and where you want to go, what are some of the biggest challenges in your entrepreneurial journey?

Barrow: I think when you are working full time, the whole idea of a side hustle — when I first started, I kept thinking that I don't like the word hustle. It sounds like a con. You know, I didn't like that word at all. But then, you know, as I went along and talked to people and I was like, “Yeah, it makes sense. It is kind of like a side hustle, you know?” So, I would say the most challenging part of starting a business and having a full-time job and career, is time. It really is.

Thorne: There’s never enough.

Barrow: Yeah. There's never enough time to do both. The way that I went about it, I imagined … you know, all my life I've been doing more than one thing. And so, I pulled back a little bit on the things that I was doing at the university so that I could also do this. And that's how I managed the time. But I also came to the realization that you can’t mentally and psychologically run two — at least I can't. It's very difficult to have two careers at the same time, and to give a hundred percent to both. And so, I recognize that that's a significant challenge, and therefore, if in choosing to run the business, I have to be very mindful, very purposeful and intentional about my priorities.  

And so that's another challenge, is making sure that I understand what that means, and the impact that those decisions are going to have on the business in addition to finances. Finances, you know, finances are really difficult, you know. As a professor, I don't really make a lot of money. 

Thorne: Yeah. It's always the money side that always kind of bogs people down, but you know, understand. It takes money to make money. So …

Barrow: It does, it does. You know, and my husband's always in my ear, “Is it sustaining itself? Is it making money?” So, you know, you have the added pressure…

Thorne: For sure.

Barrow: You know, trying to make sure. But I think it's important, too, that in certain businesses, it does take a lot longer to make a profit, so that's a challenge. Trying to navigate every day, figuring out, is this the day this company is going to fall apart? Or should I just wash my hands of this, or should I sell this? You know, so I think as a small business that struggles, you do. You have those days when you're just not sure if you are going to continue or not. 

Thorne: I'm going to get into the advocacy side of small business and what you're doing, specifically. But you mentioned it, and I do want to get back to it, and that is: mentoring and mentoring relationships. How have you used this opportunity of It's NOLA to build that, and to be able to focus on something that means so much to you?

Barrow: Initially when I started, I invited, you know, some of my mentees into the company, and the focus was, “What is it you want to do? What skills do you want to work on? Do you have any goals of starting your business? Anything that has to do with a particular skill that you want to work on?”

So, when I invited the students in, it was really for them to kind of figure out what would you, what do you want to try? Like, what role do you want to try? Many of them often (because they're young), I think too many of them are interested in social media, you know? So, again, it's that idea of romanticizing what social media is. It's not the same thing as posting on your own personal page when you're with a business. So, a lot of the students who come into the mentoring aspect of it, we really talk about, you know, it's not just the business itself, but it's also their own personal development, and so I have to wear those two hats. I've had some really challenging times when I've had to say, “Let put on my mentoring hat. I'm very proud of you. I am so proud that you did this.” And now let me take it off and I have to put on my business, partnership hat and say, “What are you doing?” 

Thorne: I'll never forget somebody, she said that she's had to call out noble failures. And she said, “You know, it's hard to do, but you've got to convince people that you can fail and make it noble. You tried and now let's try something else.” 

Barrow: That’s so true. 

Thorne: As a mentor — and you've got to kind of frame it for the mentees — this is a learning. I'm not angry — as I take off my mentoring hat and I put on my business hat — this is how we learn together and it's never easy. 

Barrow: I think that there's a lot of failure. To be transparent, we don't know what we're doing. We're constantly failing, right? And that’s a part of our experience is to fail.

Thorne: Yep. Yep. 

Barrow: In order to learn. In order to do better. And you can fail and decide, you know, that's not something you really are interested anymore. That you'd like to try something. I think that to me, working in It’s NOLA is so beneficial because I am really open to students trying different things. After the first month, they begin to really recognize that it's OK. Failing is OK. Nothing terrible is going to happen, you know?  

Thorne: Yeah, I think what people have to learn is that failure is a part of success, and you know, in order to be successful, you have to fail along the way because you learn from that. That's core and foundational. But so many people get scared of that, and they try to avoid it. I mean, you never want to fail, but … I had a boss one time. He told me there's three answers to a question because I didn't answer correctly. And he said, “You have three answers. It's yes, no, or I don't know and I'll find out.” 

For my lesson was I failed. I failed my boss. I failed the people that had great expectations that I would do a better job. And for the rest of my life (and that was a lesson at 27) I apply that almost every single day. And back then he was my boss. Today, he remains a mentor and I've had the opportunity to talk to him about other failures that I've had.

Barrow: And successes, right? 

Thorne: And successes. Right. Exactly. But, you know, it's interesting because I actually tell him. I saw him a few years ago when I saw him for the first time in a while, I said, “You know, I just want you to understand that any success I have in this life was as a result — a direct result of learning very early in my career at your feet — basically your philosophy, your expectations — remain with me to this very day.  

People, you know, have such a big impact on folks when they're just coming out of school, just in their professional lives. And if I had to do it all over again, I'd want to work for It’s NOLA.  I'd want to work for you. And speaking of working for you, you were named the NRF 2022 America's Retail Champion. What did that mean to you?

Barrow: First of all, I was very shocked. I believe that advocacy is something that's just a part of who I am. I think that's why I went into education. I wanted to advocate for students, especially students who are socioeconomically disadvantaged. I chose to work at a community college. I had been working at four-year colleges, and so it was really my first experience there. So, I teach my students to advocate for themselves.

Thorne: Right. 

Barrow: When I started the business, advocating never crossed my mind, and I think it's because I was so focused on the everyday business operations and trying to figure that out. I really did not think about it until 2020, when everything closed down because of the pandemic. And then I filled out an application for the NRF, the HSN-QVC Retail Federation Spotlight. I had never heard of the National Retail Federation at that point. I had to look it up. I didn’t know. I had no idea. 

Thorne: I'm sure that you were impressed by their absolutely fantastic website.

Barrow: I was actually, I was. I kept thinking, “Why didn't I know about this?” The date it was due, I filled out the application, and then a couple of months later … I kind of felt really strongly about it, too. When I looked at what the criteria was, I was like, “That's me. That's me. That’s what I want to do.” And then when I was offered the opportunity to be a part of it, there was a mentoring part of it, and I couldn't wait. I was, I was the impatient one that, you know, sending emails – “So when are we starting the mentoring? I want to work with the National Retail Federation.”

When we started that work together, the more I talked with my mentors, the more I realized that running a business, for me, it can’t be solely about just the everyday operations because there's something bigger than that in terms of thriving, in terms of ensuring that we get what we need as small businesses, and in terms of policies that are out here. I never looked at a policy about small businesses or businesses. You know, I listened to the news, I paid attention, but I never was interested at all.

Thorne: Right, right.

Barrow: Until I met folks at the National Retail Federation and when I was asked to co-host the town hall meeting with our legislators. During that first town hall meeting, I felt like I had been struck by lightning.  As I was there talking to our legislators, I was like, “Oh my God, they don't get it. They're not getting this.” And then I was asked to do another one, and then I pushed back on the legislators because they said some things that I, I just felt like, “You are not paying attention to what's happening with small businesses, and this is really disturbing to me.” And then I began to look around me and realize that so many people who look like me were not involved. There's so many, you know, Black-owned businesses that owners that I knew, and I'd go to these meetings, and I'd then go contact my friends, like, “You have to join the National Retail Federation because they're working to do this and they're helping us understand all these things.” It was very exciting for me. 

And they had not heard of it, and they were like, “Well, we're really concerned about our everyday operations.” And I said, “If you don't get involved, you may not have one.” It's bigger than you. So, being a part of the National Retail Federation and being awarded the Retail Champion, I was just floored, because it’s like ringing a bell, you know? There's more work to do.  For me, that's what happened when I won. I was really like, “OK, now.” 

Thorne: The fact of the matter is: If we don't educate them, who is?  I mean, therein lies the challenge.

Barrow: I appreciate that the National Retail Federation has taken up that call and offered this opportunity to so many of us to come together as a community. We're not alone. I think as an entrepreneur sometimes you can feel very alone in the world, down this pathway of trying to figure it all out.  

When it comes to the policies, the education around the different kinds of policies that are made, the problems with the policies, the politics of it all …

I think that the Retail Federation does such a great job at creating a team. As a small business owner, I really felt a part of the team, a part of the family, I was welcomed in as someone who had always been there, you know, it's like this long-lost person. And feeling that way, it also inspired me to continue to do more. I think that for me, advocating has meant making sure that when I have the opportunity to speak with other small businesses, that the National Retail Federation’s work — and the opportunities are always mentioned to people — without this kind of shoring up of our possibilities through legislation, these companies are not going to be around for a long time. 

Thorne: Yep. You know, the one thing that my boss, Matt Shay, when I got hired back 12 years ago, I told him that I thought the most important thing that this organization can, could, and should do is create a platform to tell a story. Not us telling the story, providing a platform for people like you, Margaret, and others to tell the story because it's credible, it's relevant, and it's real.

And I just think that the Retail Advocates Program — by tapping into our small businesses, finding those stories, making them real and relevant to these elected members of Congress, who then turn around and they all of a sudden realize, “I've got a lot of small businesses in my district, and I need to listen to what's impacting them.” And so that is just so incredibly important. But the problem sometimes is finding the people that are willing to tell the story. That's an amazing, you know …

Barrow: You know I understand that. I understand the challenge of trying to find people.  But I also think that's why the Retail [Advocate] Summit is so important. I think that it provides an invitation, right? So, the invitation is there, and when people come into that space, it's a space where they can really tell their stories to each other first. 

Thorne: Right. Yeah. 

Barrow: Then there is the next step. So, it's the coming together. The next step is thinking about how can I be involved? How can I tell my story? You know, how am I going to be a part of this organization and tell the story? So, some of us who are struggling (some companies are) a lot of companies are struggling financially, and so they may not be able to hop on a train or an airplane, you know? 

So, I was really impressed by the National Retail Federation's dedication, and inviting people to come, and in some cases, inviting people to come and saying, “Listen, do you need help? We can get you here if you need that support, we've got that as well. But we also have this important training, so we're not sending you out there on your own to kind of say whatever. What we want to do is: One, we want to know your story. Two, we want to show you, want to educate you how you can tell your story, and give you access.”

And so, when you go to these, these meetings and when you go to the [Retail Advocate] Summit, there are legislators there, too. You have immediate access. And they're there because they choose to be there, right? They don't have to be there.  They choose to be there because they want to hear these stories. They want to be able to go back and make legislation based on human beings and not on numbers.

Thorne: And put the politics aside, let's just look at the practical application. Alright, so just a couple more questions. I'll make one easy and one a little bit more not so easy. Your favorite healthy snack.

Barrow: Well, if I didn’t say It’s NOLA …

Thorne: Yeah, you’d have a problem. 

Barrow: I should not be in business. 

Thorne: So, what’s your favorite It’s NOLA healthy snack? 

Barrow: Ooh. Uh, let's see. My favorite is the Sassy Mango Masala. 

Thorne: Sassy Mango Masala.

Barrow: Yes. Yes. And the cashew with the masala. It's layered, so as you're chewing it, you get bits and pieces of the nuts and the seeds and the mango and the masala and, and the vanilla. It's, it's absolutely delicious. It is so good. I love to see people's faces when they eat it. 

Thorne: Is that a snack or a dessert? I mean, that just sounds …

Barrow: You know what? I have to say that when I shared it with the Northeast buyer for Whole Foods, he said, “Margaret, this is not granola. This is gourmet.”

Thorne: Well, that sounds like a slogan, really. That's pretty good. “It's not just granola, it's gourmet.” That's pretty good. Well done. Thank you, Whole Foods. I'll close it with this question, and I think it's important: Career advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Barrow: So much to say. I think that the most important, top of the list, is create your community. Create your community. You cannot, and you should not ever do this alone. Create your community of small businesses. Create your community within National Retail Federation so that you have a place where you can go, where you can tell your story, where you can advocate for the changes that need to happen. You don't want to just survive in this business. You need to thrive. 

Thorne: Margaret Barrow. It has been a distinct pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much for being a part of Retail Gets Real. 

Barrow: Thank you. I appreciate that. 

Thorne: And thank you all for listening to another episode of Retail Gets Real. You can find more information about this episode at retail gets real dot com. I'm Bill Thorne. This is Retail Gets Real. Thanks again for listening. Until next time.

 

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