12/08/2014 08:17 am ET Updated Feb 07, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Sue George, Founder, Harvard Sweet Boutique

Sue George is the founder and owner of Harvard Sweet Boutique, an online and retail gourmet bakery featuring all-natural cookies, brownies, toffee, and more. Prior to starting Harvard Sweet Boutique, Sue was a software engineer for Hewlett-Packard. She grew up in North Andover, Massachusetts and currently lives in Harvard, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. Sue has been married for more than 20 years and is a proud mom to two children. She received her undergraduate degree from Boston College's School of Management, with a double major in Computer Science and Finance. She received her Master's Degree in Computer Science from Northeastern University in Boston.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, in 2001. While it was life changing, I was determined to not let it change my lifestyle dramatically. I immediately went on an insulin pump, and followed the "rules" as closely as possible. Having diabetes doesn't mean you can never have a cookie again, but the challenge becomes being able to accurately estimate your carb intake.

Despite having diabetes and needing to watch what I'm eating, baking has always been a passion of mine. So, I started an all-natural, gourmet bakery using only the finest quality ingredients called Harvard Sweet Boutique in 2007. Diabetes played a role in the creation of my low-carb product line. I wanted to turn my diagnoses into something positive by developing a line of all-natural, low-carb treats, working with my physician and a nutritionist at the Joslin Diabetes Center, for people with diabetes like myself or for those on a low-carb diet. Now there are 10 unique sweets offered in 15 different configurations, offering a bounty of options for those seeking delicious, low-carb alternatives to their favorite classic sweets!

Since being diagnosed and developing the low-carb line, I have become more aware to other dietary needs such as celiac disease or gluten intolerance/sensitivity. I've worked very hard developing, testing and retesting gluten-free recipes as well. We now have three varieties of cookies and five brownie flavors that are all gluten-free. Living with diabetes has not dictated the direction of my business, but it has helped shape my product offerings and made me the business owner and leader I am today.

How has your previous employment experience aided your current position at Harvard Sweet Boutique?
I was previously a software engineer for 10 years and then a program manager for Digital Equipment Corporation, now Hewlett-Packard. I realized after being in the corporate world for so long that I wanted to pursue something different. Despite not having any formal training, I wanted to combine my love for fresh, high-quality baking, creativity and computer skills into my own business. That's when I started Harvard Sweet Boutique as an ecommerce site in 2007.

I started the business as an ecommerce site so I could reach a national audience and I recognized a need for unique gift alternatives. When you order from the site you can customize your package including the treats you put in it and the box design. We package our treats in whimsical boxes with colorful ribbons that can be shipped right to the recipients' doorstep or your doorstep for an easy gifting solution.

Harvard Sweet Boutique lets me to do something I'm passionate about, while allowing me to have additional time to spend with my family - it's truly the best of both worlds!

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Harvard Sweet Boutique?
Running Harvard Sweet Boutique alone without a business partner has been a challenge and can sometimes prove to be tougher than I imagined. I love being in control and driving the vision for my business at all times, but it would be a relief to have assistance sometimes, too. Because of that, mentorship is even more important, but I'll talk more about that later.

One of my all-time favorite moments was when I expanded Harvard Sweet Boutique from an ecommerce website to a brick-and-mortar retail location in Hudson, Massachusetts, in 2012. I live in Harvard (where I got the name for the bakery) and Hudson is just a quick drive away. Hudson is a quaint town and the retail location is perfect for us. The storefront offers the same sweet treats as the ecommerce site plus more. The storefront also serves item such as cakes, cupcakes, salads, soups, lunchtime savories and seasonal drinks.

Opening the brick-and-mortar location has been very rewarding and a major highlight for the business. While we are still a young retail bakery and working hard to get more foot traffic, the word has spread quickly and we get new customers in every day. The bonus side to having more foot traffic in the store is that they become potential new customers for the ecommerce side of the business as well.

What advice can you offer women who want to start their own business?
Don't be afraid to take risks. Mistakes will happen, but don't let them bring you down. Instead, use your mistakes as a stepping stone and as a lesson about what not to do. Always test out new ideas.

The mom in me wants you to remember to eat well and exercise! This is true for everyone, but especially for those of us in the food business where it is so easy to sample all day long and never eat anything of substance. I make it a point to do some form of exercise at least five mornings a week before I go to work. In fact, I am considering running in the Boston Marathon in spring 2015! Exercise breeds energy and I always feel much sharper and quicker after a good workout.

I also believe it's very important to have a strong support system in place before starting your own business. In my personal life, I have some very dear friends who are almost as close to my business and family as I am. They have helped me through thick and thin, including jumping in at busy seasons to assist with packaging, cookie scooping, or even washing dishes! They have played an important role in my success and I think it's essential for every entrepreneur to have a supportive team of friends and family by your side.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Part of the reason I started my own company was to have more control of my schedule and be able to spend more time with my family. It's been a blessing! With Harvard Sweet Boutique's success, things are really busy so it's important for me to purposely plan my schedule and maintain that balance. Since opening the retail store, I've made a conscious decision to step back and delegate control of the production. I've hired talented pastry chefs who have helped to bring my product lines to new levels. I've learned that each chef has something unique to offer, and I'm all for listening and experimenting. Hiring them has freed up my time, allowing me to focus on various business aspects such as brainstorming new seasonal products, social media/marketing ideas, networking, planning events and managing the everyday operations.

My family also loves to get involved with the business whenever they can which makes my work/life balance easier to maintain. My husband Peter and two children, Nick and Katrina, like to help out as much as their schedules allow. Nick just finished his first year in college at Duke University, so isn't around as much anymore, but when he is in town he'll pitch in wherever I need him (a summer of dishwashing was all he needed to convince him that a college education was a no brainer). Katrina's favorite way to help is to work with the customers, both in the bakery as a cashier, and manning my Farmers Market booths in the summers. It's so much fun being able to involve my family with my business ad show them you can do anything you put your mind too!

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think the biggest issue for women in the workplace is recognizing what you want and how to get it. As females, we know firsthand not everything is handed to us and we have to work really hard for it. It's important for women to know their counterparts and know how to get ahead in the industry they're working in.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My business has different focus areas and target audiences, and I've discovered that reaching out to professionals that are experts in their niche fields' works best when looking for a mentor. This approach to mentorship works better for me than having a single formal mentor. For example, if something seems to be going wrong with a recipe I'm working on, I'll consult or research advice from a seasoned pastry chef. That same pastry chef will likely not be able to help figure out whether it's best to use UPS or USPS to ship Harvard Sweet Boutique food gifts to consumers who order through the ecommerce site, so I find someone else for that. I also look to other successful businesses for examples on strategies for implementing social media campaigns and newsletter content. Overall, I keep in touch with many different mentors for a variety of advice.

Which female leaders do you admire and why?
I really admire Joanne Chang, the owner of four Flour Bakery and Café locations throughout Boston. She has earned my respect over and over again as I watch her businesses blossom. She also wrote two fabulous cookbooks which have provided a great deal of inspiration for my bakery. I have met her several times at various charity events in Boston where we were both donating goodies. She is charming, humble and always willing to share advice and a smile.

Another female leader I admire is my mother. She taught me everything I know about life, not through her words, but through her actions. She is a quiet person who leads by example.

My dear friend Terry is also someone I look up to. She is wise beyond her age and has mentored me in every aspect of my life. She is an unsung heroine in our town, reaching out to everyone in need and always working behind the scenes. Terry is most definitely part of my support system. She is always willing to step in when help is needed and that's what I admire most about her.

What do you want Harvard Sweet Boutique to accomplish in the next year?
The Harvard Sweet Boutique retail shop is doing so well that I'd really like to add more seating to transform it into a breakfast and lunch café. We have become a top choice for those looking to send memorable, high-quality, delicious gifts. And, right now we're on track to becoming the go-to destination specifically for special occasion cakes, so that's a big goal for the business as well.