Since the time she was 10, Jennie Dundas’s life was all about acting. Her big break came in 1996 when she starred as Diane Keaton’s daughter in The First Wives Club, and she’s since been bouncing between the big and small screens and theater stages, landing steady work most actors could only dream of.
Then one day, she gave it all up for ice cream. Today, Dundas is the CEO and cofounder of Blue Marble Ice Cream, New York City’s only certified organic ice cream company.
Back in 2007, Dundas’s friend and subsequent cofounder Alexis Miesen came to her with an idea of starting a high-quality, organic ice cream shop in the Brooklyn neighborhood Cobble Hill. Blue Marble has since expanded to two more scoop shops in Brooklyn, with a new mini-storefront unveiling in 2015 at the company’s headquarters/factory in Sunset Park. Dundas and Miesen have also landed their specially made mini cups in Jet Blue’s premium class, Mint, and launched their nonprofit initiative Blue Marble Dreams.
Dundas spoke with Fast Company about trading in scripts for spreadsheets, learning to compete with Big Ice Cream (and beating them), and how her record-setting grandmother inspired her to be a first-time entrepreneur.
Your creative life has sort of been in reverse: Why did you give up acting for business?
It was not intentional, but I like to say there was more of a pull factor than a push factor. It wasn’t that I was miserable as an actor. I really feel proud of my accomplishments and I didn’t feel like I failed. It was like this crazy idea happened and I became obsessed with it. The big overlap I had was when we opened Blue Marble and I was doing an off-Broadway production of Crimes of the Heart directed by Kathleen Turner, starring me, Sarah Paulson, and Lily Rabe. I found myself being so passionate about the ice cream shop. Even during the show at intermission, I would call the shop to see how it was going. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
How has your experience as an actor translated to the business world?
That unwillingness to give up–you have to have a fundamental belief in yourself that creative people have to have in order to survive. Being a great team player is critical in business, and that’s really important when you’re an actor. Also, the element of presentation: Backstage, you’re running around getting everything together and you present to the customer. In order to have good customer service, there’s an element of performance there. Not giving up when things get tough: That’s something that all artists have to have and that’s not something to be taken for granted. Another thing is creative problem solving–being able to go, “I’m going to figure this out and stay positive.” The number of rejections you get in acting for the number of successes and being able to bounce back and think positively, all of those things are skills you use in business and entrepreneurship.
I’ve come to believe that creative people can make great businesspeople–but I’m still very messy!
Be honest: Do you miss acting?
I actually still have an agent! Bless them–they’re very patient. They haven’t given up on me. I would say, “Okay, I’ll go on this audition.” But at the last minute I’ll say, “Oh, I can’t go on this audition–I have an interview with a new staff person.” And the secret is, I would have rather be interviewing the staff person. There have been a couple of jobs I’ve turned down over the last few years. I would say that I do miss acting. I’m hoping the door isn’t closed completely–in my heart it isn’t. But this is really my passion now.
What is it about the ice-cream business that you’re passionate about?
For the first time in my life, I’m involved with something where it feels like there are results measurable to the amount of work you put in. In acting, that wasn’t always the case. You could be brilliant in something but if you don’t happen to get a great review from a specific person, it would be a short-lived run or it wouldn’t have the recognition that you felt it merited. Or you could do a show that was a great production, but it wasn’t in New York so not enough people got to see it. But with the ice cream shop it’s like, “We’re hitting home runs! We’re making this great product and people are loving it.” It’s just very gratifying in that way.
Starting a business is challenging for anyone, let alone a first-time entrepreneur. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
When we first opened in 2007, we had a little sign on the register that said, “Please be patient with us as we learn how to run an ice cream shop.” That really said it all. I would say 2010 to 2012 were really hard learning years for us because we knew nothing about business. I had never opened Excel in my life. I knew how to scoop ice cream, make a latte, and run a cash register.
But once we launched our wholesale division, it was a completely different animal. You’re dealing with more upfront costs. You’re dealing with receivables. You’re dealing with hardened buyers who have been in the business for 30 years and don’t care about anything but the bottom line. It was like going into business school with no preparation but having the stakes be super high. I’m reminded of the Winston Churchill phrase: “Play the game for more than you can afford to lose…only then will you learn the game.”
You recently launched a rebranding effort for your pints–what’s the story behind that?
For a few years we had this blue packaging and we just switched it to a totally different look. We did a few focus groups and realized people didn’t know we are organic. So we did a rebrand where we put “organic” in all the flavor names because in the retail marketplace for our pints, it’s very important to us that people know we’re certified organic. In that space it’s really a key differentiator that we do want to lead with very clearly. You see people’s purchasing habits moving like a snowball effect toward organic certification.
“Organic” seems like a buzzword companies slap on products to capitalize on a craze. How is Blue Marble rising above the fray?
Folks can say they use organic ingredients, but we’re the only organic ice cream company in NYC, which means we’re the only ones who use all organic ingredients and go through the certification process to prove it. I was an artist–I created things that were ephemeral, things that you couldn’t put in a garbage can. I thought, “Geez, if I’m going to become part of the world of commercialism and products, the only way I can do it is if I can do it in a way that feels ecologically responsible.” So we were also the first ice cream company in New York City to serve ice cream in biodegradable (utensils), which now everybody does and it’s fantastic.
Speaking of competitors, have you ever felt out of your element?
When we went into our meeting with FreshDirect it was really exciting for us because it had the potential to be our biggest pint client, which has become true. Right before us, Talenti had their presentation and these two guys came out of the meeting. They were in their late 40s. They were dressed in suits. They had leather briefcases. They looked like very official businesspeople. A few months later, Alexis and I had a conversation. She said to me, “Maybe we’re supposed to look like the Talenti guys. We’re supposed to have MBAs.” My response was, “We don’t have to be those guys.”
I came out of the womb with just as much ability to learn how to do this as they did. It’s not like they were born with suits on. Okay, maybe that’s their background and maybe I don’t know everything. But we can do it as ourselves, and, in fact, maybe we can even do it better. What we bring is something that has so much heart and so much vision. We’re doing something that no one has ever done before, actually. We’re two women who bootstrapped our own company and we had the audacity to open two locations in a year and then we went to open our nonprofit, and we’re the only ones putting our money where our mouth is by being certified organic. All of that is because of who we are on the inside. And we’re not those guys in suits, so let’s not underestimate the value we bring.
I hear you have a pretty unique role model–tell us about her.
My granny Barbara Washburn was the first woman to climb the summit of Mount McKinley. My grandfather was a mountaineer and photographer and she went up out of the sheer will of wanting to keep her husband company. When people asked her how she trained she said, “My training was pushing a baby carriage around the block.” This was in the 1940s when they didn’t even make parkas for women–she wore a teenaged boy’s parka and in negative 30-degree temperatures. Maybe it was a little insane, but my point is if you put your mind to something, even if you’re just a tiny 30-year-old woman from suburbs of Boston with three little kids at home, and you want to get to the summit of Mount McKinley, you can do it.