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Women in Business: Q&A With Renée Israel, Co-Founder of Doc Popcorn

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Doc Popcorn specializes in a healthier version of popcorn and is the first and only fresh-popped, all-natural flavored popcorn franchise in the world.

Renée Israel spent years as a VP of marketing at Digitas but felt that she wasn't on the right career path. An athlete, Renée had always been conscious of what she ate. After a trip to Boulder to visit relatives in the '90s, she and her husband discovered kettle corn, fell in love with it and decided to leave New York City, move to Colorado and open a business that made a healthier version of the indulgent treat. Fast forward to 2003 and Doc Popcorn was launched in a mall kiosk in Colorado. They are known for all-natural flavors such as cheesy cheddar, better butter and caramel kettle. Since they opened their doors, business has "popped," and today Doc Popcorn is now a national franchise and holds the title of the largest popcorn retailer in the world with more than 80 locations open.

Since day one, Renée has been instrumental in the growth of the company, serving not only as co-founder but also chief marketing officer.

What life experience has helped make you the leader you are today?
From a very early age I was involved in both team and individual sports. Basketball in particular taught me so much about when to trust my own intuition, when to look for advice and when to pass the ball. I didn't listen to those who said I should consider a different sport because I wasn't tall enough. What I lacked in height, I made up for with passion, perseverance, speed (and four other girls that were taller than me that I could pass the ball to if I got into trouble!) Had I listened to the naysayers, I wouldn't have had the chance to be mentored by an amazing coach or share in leading my high school team to become one of the top teams in the state. I also believe that basketball is largely responsible for the invaluable lessons I got that apply to everything I do including how to be a team player, learn from my wins, loses and mistakes and be coachable.

How has your previous employment experience working as a VP of marketing at Digitas aided Doc Popcorn?
As one of the top integrated brand agencies, Digitas is the ultimate training ground for marketing and brand types. Digitas trained me to create strategy like a consultant and execute like an agency. The environment is entrepreneurial in a lot of ways because every account is run like its own business. We were accountable for everything from client satisfaction to running a profitable bottom line. I used many of the methodologies I learned at Digitas working for Fortune 500 clients to create the Doc Popcorn brand and the initial systems and processes required to get up and running.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I don't really believe that a work/life balance exists on a daily basis. It's more like a pendulum that swings back and forth on any given day or week. I manage those swings the best I can by making a rigid schedule every Sunday evening for the week ahead. This schedule tries to include at least one hour of one-on-one time with each of my three kiddos, a date night with my husband and one hour of exercise each day. In addition, since I work with my husband, we don't talk about work on Saturdays or in the bedroom! Admittedly, the fact that I only need about five to six hours of sleep and that my mother lives up the street helps.

What have the highlights and challenges been founding Doc Popcorn?
We began franchising in 2009. Helping people who are excited to become entrepreneurs through the Doc Popcorn concept is definitely a highlight. Also, I love seeing our mission of creating smiles with a better-for-you snack in high-traffic venues come to fruition. It's exciting to see how Doc Popcorn is really changing the way popcorn is done at these locations because it's fresh-popped and we use high-quality natural ingredients to make a variety of delicious flavors. Working with my husband is a highlight, but also a challenge. Given we both live and breathe Doc Popcorn every day, it's important to know when to change the subject. Having young kids and managing the work/family "pendulum" in general is tricky to navigate. Finally, keeping perspective when things don't go quite the way we plan -- or as quickly as we want. We were ranked at number 60 on the Inc. 500 list this year, but we are still a young company. So as far as we have come, we are humbled by how much we still have to do.

What advice can you offer individuals who are seeking to establish their own business?
Passion, persistence and patience. Being motivated by passion first is essential to creating your own successful business. We all want to be profitable, but if you try to start a business for profit's sake alone, chances are you will not get very far. I'm truly passionate about Doc Popcorn's mission to create smiles by offering a better-for-you snack, and the role this mission plays in the universe. You also need to be willing to do what it takes not just to get your business off the ground, but get comfortable with the inevitable ups and downs you will experience on the path to creating a sustainable business. Finally, patience is a virtue for a reason. Although the press makes it so, there are no "overnight successes." Doc Popcorn was eight years to an "overnight" success, and we are still working every day to make what's working even better, and evolve or get rid of what's not working.

What advice can you offer individuals who want to leave their career for a new one? How do you know when it's time?
Starting a new career at any age can be stressful. But if you can get over the fear, it will likely be a very rewarding experience -- as long as you are making the switch for the right reasons and can identify what it is you want to do. Talk to family, friends and mentors you trust, or work with a career coach to objectively identify the abilities that you are both great at AND love. Sometimes you can find a new career at the same company simply by making a lateral move to apply these abilities and further your career development. But you know it's time to make a major change when you wake up most days and dread going to work. We spend many of our waking hours working, so our work has to give us energy, not zap it.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Whether a woman owns her own company or is working for someone else in a more traditional work environment, I think communicating in an effective and honest way what we need and deserve is critical. I think the core issue is we have to first convince ourselves that we are worthy before we can make others believe it too -- and we are our own toughest audience. I believe this is one of the reasons why there is still a pervasive culture that includes unequal pay and women with children "leaning out" of the workplace. Whether it's managing up, down or across, I don't believe we are always comfortable making sure we are heard, valued and respected.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
I'm a huge fan of Sheryl's message; I find her words authentic and inspiring. Her examples really resonated with me, and I found myself pausing often to think about how I could apply them to my own life. I literally felt like she was my personal coach, holding me to task to be honest about what I need for my own development. I am always concerned about how I can be on a rewarding path with my work -- and still be present with my family. I really appreciated the notion of being a "career loving parent" vs. a "working mom" highlighted in the book. I have three young children -- my third was born at the height of Doc Popcorn's growth. Although I was in full swing pretty quickly after her birth, I made sure my time with her was focused.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has played, and continues to play, a valuable role in my life. I have several mentors, both women and men (including my husband) whom I can trust to help me see the blind spots and run through scenarios on challenging issues. However, what I have learned about mentoring over the years is that it can be impromptu. For example, when I'm going to an industry conference, I make it a point to know who else is attending. I set up a few meetings in advance with people I can learn from. Also, I always have three questions at-the-ready so I can ask the right people when I have a hallway opportunity. Being a mentor is also equally rewarding. Whether I'm guest lecturing at a business school or meeting someone for lunch to talk about a new business idea, I enjoy coaching others. Not only do I get to give back, but I also learn a lot from my mentees, my own children included. For example, my kids remind me every day about being playful and present.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many amazing female leaders. Where to begin? I admire female leaders who aren't afraid to take a stand or make tough decisions, even if it's unpopular. Because as women, I think we have more of a tendency to want to be liked and respected -- and the ones that succeed as leaders recognize that sometimes both are just not possible. Leaders from Angelina Jolie to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Margaret Thatcher come to mind. In my current industry of franchising, I think Kat Cole, President of Cinnabon is an amazing example of a female leader. She is under 35, exudes confidence with a laid back attitude and to top it off, she didn't even have a college degree when she became the VP at Hooters. She went back for her bachelors and MBA while on the job. I find this incredible.

What are your hopes for the future of Doc Popcorn?
If I were to ask you your favorite ice cream, you would likely have a brand in mind, like 'Ben & Jerry's,' and a flavor as well, 'Chocolate Fudge Brownie.' My hope is that one day I'll ask you your favorite popcorn brand, and your answer will be 'Doc Popcorn' and your favorite flavor, 'Sweet Butter.' We hope Doc Popcorn will be the next Cinnabon with 1,000 units, a household name and smiling guests and franchise owners.