Women in Business: Lena Kwak - President & Co-Founder, Cup4Cup

03/11/2015 07:47 am ET | Updated May 11, 2015

A graduate of Rhode Island's Johnson & Wales Culinary Institute, Cup4Cup President and Co-Founder, Lena Kwak, began her culinary career as a private chef and caterer. To explore a growing interest in nutritional science, she pursued an internship with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.

As a Research & Development Chef, Kwak was tasked with testing edible innovations. She excelled quickly and was assigned to devise a gluten-free version of Keller's famed Salmon Cornet. Her next task was to develop gluten-free brioche. The result, which garnered a tearful response from a dinner guest with gluten intolerance, was the genesis of "Cup4Cup." Released in 2011 under the mentorship of Chef Keller, Lena refined the proprietary blend of flour and set about making it available to a larger audience.

Named one of Fortune and Food & Wine's "Most Innovative Women in Food & Drink" in September 2014, Lena has also been honored as one Forbes' "30 Under 30" in 2011, garnered a Zagat "30 Under 30" award in 2012, and was named a Martha Stewart "American Made" Award Honoree in 2012 for her work developing the brand.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
When I was growing up, money was tight and my mother was the only working parent in our household. I watched day in and day out as she woke up early to feed the family, went to work so we'd have a roof over our heads, and then come back to take care of all the household chores. Every night, I watched her pray and she was so thankful that she had enough to provide her family. My mother is the one who taught me that if there is anything you want or need in life, you need to make it happen for yourself. No one is going to give you all of the answers. My upbringing influenced me to believe that in order to be successful, you need to be able to do more with less. I constantly remind myself of a favorite quote, "Never let success get to your head, but never let failure get to your heart."

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Cup4Cup?
Before turning to food, I pursued a career in medical illustration, following in the footsteps of family members who were artists or designers. I parlayed my love for art and passion for food into a food styling job, strengthening my eye for design and aesthetics. This has been incredibly helpful with overall brand image-related projects.

While attending culinary school and working in restaurants, I learned new techniques, identified my cooking style and explored my creativity. I went on to work as a personal chef for several years, which provided valuable insight regarding the consumer market and what families want to eat. It's been important for us as a brand to balance innovation and approachability in order to be successful.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Cup4Cup?
Since launching the Cup4Cup brand, I've had many highlights to be thankful for and just as many challenges that have shaped me into who I am today. Some of the most memorable moments have been when people contact me to share their experiences with Cup4Cup. A mother thanked the Cup4Cup team for allowing her to share her grandmother's banana bread recipe with her daughter, who had been diagnosed with Celiac's. I am also appreciative to have been considered for different accolades overs the years, like Forbes "30under30" and Fortune and Food & Wine's "Most Innovative Women in Food." It's a huge honor to be included on lists next to individuals I greatly admire. Another highlight occurred what I attended the inaugural American Made Awards event as a nominee. Martha Stewart approached me and pointed out that she had personally selected me to be considered. There is a romantic notion about being an entrepreneur, but in reality it's no picnic! It's a lot of hard work and you will likely redefine the term "rock bottom" for yourself. You have to remember that having a dream is hard, but living it is harder.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Realize that mistakes will be made along the way. While you may not always have all the right answers, be sure to listen to your gut. A women's intuition is one of our greatest assets - so use it!

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
"To be a champ, you have to believe in yourself when nobody else will." - Sugar Ray Robinson

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
That's still a work in progress. I do remind myself that with one life to live, it's so important to make the most of it and to always make time to be with the people I hold close to my heart.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
A woman who asserts herself in a professional environment is often misinterpreted as being aggressive or simply being difficult. This isn't only a label given by men in the workplace, but also by other women.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Through the mentorship of Chef Thomas Keller I learned to embrace the phrase, "What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?" Chef Keller has encouraged me and challenged me many times over the years and I've always walked away learning more about myself and my abilities. In many ways, he's been a father figure to me. Without a doubt, I've grown more ambitious and learned to chase after my dreams because of his guidance.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
This question is the hardest for me to answer because there are so many incredible women who have changed or are changing the world. Two of the many I admire are Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube and Sara Blakely, Founder of Spanx. Susan was the 16th employee at Google and was responsible for raking in the bulk of the 55 billion dollars Google made in ad revenue just last year. I once read someone describe Susan as having a "healthy disregard for the impossible." How awesome is that?!

Sara Blakey's story is truly inspiring. She took $5,000and turned it into a 1 billion dollar company by selling flattering shapewear products. Sara, who owns 100% of her company, is self-made and her product changed how women dress. To top it off, it's even more admirable that both women are killing it professionally while being moms.

What do you want Cup4Cup to accomplish in the next year?
Part of our company ethos states that, "our greatest success will be our next achievement." We are striving to become category leaders and hope to continue surprising our customers with product innovation throughout 2015.