Karen Vazquez is a talented cake artist from Naples, Florida with over 15 years baking experience and numerous accolades including starring in Food Networks' Cake Challenge and 10 national and international awards.
Her gorgeous wedding cakes have graced the fronts of magazines including The Knot, Bride's Magazine and Occasions, to mention a few.
Karen's interest in cake decorating was first sparked in a high school class; however, in between discovering this passion and pursuing it, Karen spent many years working in the marketing industry.
Karen launched her cake career by training with many of the well-known cake artists in the industry: Elisa Strauss, Collette Peters, James Rosselle, and master sugar artist, Nhora de la Pava.
I spoke with Karen about her journey in the cake decorating business and her decision to leave a career in marketing behind. Here is my interview with the very talented, sweet and humble, Karen Vazquez:
What made you decide to give up marketing?
I loved marketing, enjoyed being involved in the creative process of a product and seeing it grow, but back in the day, certain practices were not as highly regulated as they are now. I come from a very honest household and hold myself to very high moral standards…I had passion for my career but couldn't conceive being part of some of the practices. I also had passion for non-profits and found myself disappointed when some of the "big corporations" I was working for were reluctant about giving back to the community unless there was some sort of "publicity" profit from doing so.
From marketing, I went into Human Resources for what was, back in the day, National City Bank. There I found I could have more of an impact on society and the banking culture by developing a one-on-one relationship with the employees, helping them grow through school/training opportunities, and help advance their families. My team and I then geared forces towards making our bank a community leader which motivated other companies to volunteer and serve as well.
How has your marketing experience helped you in your business?
It has helped me in the sense that I feel I have a better understanding of what our customers are looking for and which mediums they prefer to be contacted through which makes them feel more open and welcoming to your ideas and approach. It has also helped me in knowing how to turn a negative into a positive. Listening is key to every relationship.
What were the challenges you faced in getting your business up and running?
My first challenge (like most people in this industry) was getting the capital to begin my business. Everybody suggested I go to the bank first and follow up with the local business group. They all said I had two things on my side: 1. I was a girl, and 2. a minority. To be honest, I am never one to try to get help this way; I like to be treated as an equal to those who are not girls and are not a minority. I did have one thing in my favor; I had previous banking experience and my marketing would come handy in helping me stay on task.
I knew the bank wouldn't let me borrow money without the appropriate 2 year "successful financial history" of my business, and if they approved of it, they could only give me 80% . The local business group would only give 20% "if", and only "if", I could get the bank to approve me for 80%. So, pretty much I didn't stand a good chance to win this battle, unless I could convince them both, so I went to plan C.
Plan "C" consisted of asking my family and extended family for support or help with the payments of the refurbished equipment I had set my eyes on and any other donation I could come across with. So I made a business plan (more for myself) - one that listed step by step all the things I needed to get started, including licenses, inspections, and all. And that is how it all started.
What are your favorite types of cakes to design?
I love designing any type of cake, but as every baker knows, we all have our strengths and areas of improvements (I learned this from Human Resources ;-), so I would say that my favorite types of cakes are wedding cakes and my areas of improvements are sculpted cakes ;-). I am also very honest with myself and an open book as you can see…and a bit of a chatter box :-).
What would you still like to accomplish?
I am very content with what I have accomplished so far. I set goals I can realistically attain within a realistic timeframe. I do love challenges but have a problem saying "no" to people. So as far as my immediate goals, I would love to continue teaching, continue to advance my staff and myself in all the new techniques, continue to develop trends and techniques, and ultimately, write a book based on my experiences in the industry, more like a "Cake Novel" with tips and stories.
What do few people know about you that you would like to share?
Boy, this is a tough one….so I will try…
- I have done basically every job you can think off, including being a clown for a kids cancer unit, perhaps why I try to make people laugh in tough situations. I can't help but to give a glimmer of hope.
- I believe in giving credit to all involved in a project. I love giving "my girls" (=my staff. We are all girls) credit when they assist with a project. I believe, that even if all you did was help carry that cake, your contribution was as valuable as having worked on the design. Because of you, that cake made it safely to that table. So in my studio, all get credit as long as they pull their weight :-)
- I am extremely OCD when it comes to cleanliness, cross contamination, and perishability of items. I was raised by a doctor/army guy, and a lab technician, so that sort of sums it up, but I like to run our kitchen like I would like the kitchen of the restaurants I visit, to be run…SAFE and CLEAN.
- What I know, my students know. I am a different kind of teacher from those I had over 20 years ago. I know when the day I die comes, I can go safely knowing all that I learned I have passed on. It helps our knowledge spread. If I know the answer, you bet, I will give it to you.
- Although I LOVE to talk to people, I am really shy when it comes to cakes. I have a hard time accepting/taking a compliment, and I also worry like crazy about each cake, even weeks after it has been delivered and consumed.
- I clean the toilets in my studio, the grease trap, and I am on AC filter duty. Being OCD and the tallest girl on staff has it's advantages and disadvantages :-). Lol!
What has been the most difficult challenge to overcome?
Talking about me in this interview :-). I am where I am (whichever place that is :-), because of the support system that surrounds me: my family, my friends, my teachers, customers, students, and cake peeps.
What is your best tip for cake decorators?
BE PASSIONATE - If you do not have passion for this art, you are in the wrong kind of business.
HONESTY - Be honest and your customers will respect and support your business.
BE KIND & RECOGNIZE - Be kind and recognize your staff. Without them, you DO NOT have a business.
DONT LET YOUR SUCCESS GET TO YOUR HEAD - I am involved in every step of my business from meeting the customers, to cleaning the toilets, to everything. We are all equals at my studio.
LISTEN - so that you understand and avoid misunderstandings.
STICK TO YOUR WORDS - This one is self explanatory.
STAY INVOLVED IN YOUR COMMUNITY - Give back to the community that supports you.
SHARE THE KNOWLEDGE - Pass on your knowledge so that others can learn from your mistakes and keep the art alive.
And last, but not least….
I always tell my students, "I would much rather teach a student who has passion but has not quite develop his/her skills than teach a skilled person with no passion."
SUGAR HUGS TO ALL!!!!!
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