From Law to Doughnuts: Pursuing Your Passion with Leslie Polizzotto

18 minute read

To listen to this episode on Spotify, click here. To read more about how Leslie made her business standout, read the blog post here.

Leslie (00:00):

I got a part-time job while I was a senior in high school at this construction management firm as a file clerk. And when I graduated, they offered me a job in the payroll department. And at the time, I didn’t have anybody encouraging me to go to college or to dream big, or you can do anything you want. The fact that I had an office job was like, I was set, that’s all that anyone ever expected at that time. But it ended up being a really long journey and I grew and learned so much with that organization. That’s why I stayed with them for so long. I did so much training. I learned the whole PC — that was when the PC was released. They would send me to these training classes and I learned how to do word and Excel and PowerPoint, all this stuff.

Leslie (00:46):

I got promotions and I moved up the ladder and I got to travel and see a lot of the country with them. It just was an education. And then I finally, when I was around 29 years old realized, you know what, I really do want to go to college. I want to get an education. So I just started going to community college part time at night and eventually transferred into UCLA after I moved across the country, which is another huge change. Then graduated and then went to law school in California. When I was in UCLA, I still worked for the construction management company part-time, but when I went to law school, it was full time. And so I finally cut the ties and then went to law school and then was an attorney for four years before starting The Doughnut Project.

Sydney (01:35):

I feel like you also mentioned the move from, were you originally on— Was it the east coast?

Leslie (01:43):

Yes. Yes. I grew up, yeah. I grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina deep south. Never really liked it and always knew I wanted to go somewhere else, New York, LA, I, they were always in my sights. And so when I had the opportunity to move to LA, I jumped at it and continued going to community college there and then transferred into UCLA, like I mentioned, and I was so proud that I could graduate with such a wonderful degree, but then I wasn’t, I was like, I’m not done, I want to do even more.

Anjana (02:14):

What were you studying at UCLA?

Leslie (02:18):

Um it was a combined major of history art history. So I did a lot of mainly art history and I had intended to go to law school to practice art law, which, it was a fantasy, but never really came to reality.

Leslie (02:32):

I graduated law school in 2008 when the world financial crisis happened. And so you were lucky if you got a job. A lot of people in my class did not get jobs for a very long time. And I my first year internship guys, I worked with a small partnership and they actually submitted me to a large firm and gave me a huge recommendation and I got the job so ended up getting this big law firm job. And I loved it. It was wonderful, but very stressful. I worked on huge cases that were millions and millions of dollars and it was just very high pressure. So I never really wanted to leave law, but it was, it was very, very stressful. And so when the opportunity came my way to become a business owner, I was actually reluctant, but my husband encouraged me to do it.

Leslie (03:24):

He said, I’d be really good at it. And I think I am.

Anjana (03:27):

Well, obviously! Well, we we also graduated last March through June, so we know what it’s like to go into a jobless market.

Leslie (03:39):

Yeah, yes. You guys are even worse off than we were in 2008, to go through all of that and spend so much money in law school and to not get a job. I mean, it was, I was very fortunate.

Anjana (03:52):

We definitely want to know too what your mindset was like with these big shifts in your life, you know, you were sticking with this first job for so many years and then decided to go to law school and then dropped this high paying job to start your own business. And I think a lot of us would love to drop everything and start our own thing, but there’s so much fear holding us back. And for one it takes a lot of introspection to say, “Hey, I’m unhappy. And it’s because of my job and the work that I’m doing.” But it also takes a lot of bravery to, once you come to that conclusion, to just up and leave. So could you walk us through that decision-making process for you at each of those forks in your life?

Leslie (04:37):

You know, I’m, I’m very much a person that likes everything scheduled. I like things being the same every day I could eat the same thing every day. I could work out this time, do this [at] this time, do this at that time and I’d be happy. So I don’t take making huge changes very lightly. And therefore I don’t make a lot of them.

Leslie (04:57):

I just make very huge ones, every, so many, many, many years. I, I am also a goal-setter and if I set a goal to do something, I’m going to do it. So I set a goal to graduate college. I did it, I set a goal to go to law school, took the LSAT and didn’t do well. Took it again. I didn’t just say, oh, it’s not for me. I kept trying. So I’m just not a quitter. I’m highly motivated. And once I have a goal, I just keep moving towards that goal, taking the baby steps. The whole thing of leaving law is a big, big deal because I spent a tremendous amount of money getting an education. It’s kind of what I had worked towards is that prestigious, corporate job that I was very proud of, but, I was in the process of moving to New York because I practiced in California.

Leslie (05:54):

I did practice a little bit here in New York cause my husband and I moved here and I had intended to stay in law and took the bar, did the whole thing all over again, passed it, was going to practice, and my law firm that I worked for in LA was a national law firm. And they had a New York office and they didn’t have any work for me right away. So I was kind of on hold and I was doing contract work and, you know, it was just kinda, it wasn’t fun. I didn’t like it. It was kinda, I just felt unstable. And the opportunity had presented itself. I met this guy who was a bartender and we became really good friends and he told me he wanted to open a doughnut shop. And I pulled up my phone and I showed him pictures of doughnuts on my phone.

Leslie (06:37):

And I said, I love doughnuts. They make me so happy. Anytime somebody brought them into the firm, I would just, it would just like change my whole day. And he was like, yeah. And I was like, well, I’m moving to New York and I, maybe I’ll help you. And I think he thought I was just going to be like, throw money at it or something, but it was kind of like that perfect storm where I didn’t have the work with my law firm I had a really supportive spouse who was like, “Hey, you’d really good at owning your own business. Why don’t you give it a shot?” And because I was “office girl, structure, job descriptions, promotions, raises, recognition, move up the ladder.” That was me. And so this is totally different because nobody cares about what you’re doing.

Leslie (07:19):

You have to figure it all out. You don’t get recognized, nobody pats you on the back and it’s a totally different can of worms. So if you thrive on that, that recognition and promotions and all that, it’s really hard to just all of a sudden start doing your own thing. And nobody knows what you do, nobody cares. You just have to be successful. You know, the outside looking in, you have to look like you’re successful. So, making those big changes was huge, but it kind of was just a perfect storm. And I took the leap and now I could never go back to working in an office and sitting in a room, writing and reading for 10 hours a day and going to […] and stuff like that. I mean, it’s, it was, I like it…

Leslie (08:02):

I would like to do it maybe one day a week, but it’s just too much fun being your own boss and specifically what I’m doing, because it’s so fun because we get to make people happy versus making people unhappy because they’re eating food.

Sydney (08:17):

Yeah. It’s so creative. Like the, some of the creations that you’ve come up with for your doughnuts too. I feel like that ideation process is just…

Leslie (08:25):

Yeah, to summarize my big decisions are very well thought out. They’re very well planned out. And there’s also the support of people around me saying, go for it. It’s not like I had resistance to, to making such a change. So it’s one of my things I recommend for people who do want to make a change is to make sure you have friends or family or whoever just that, that, that support, because it, it really makes a big difference.

Sydney (08:52):

Right. Yeah. And so when did your love for food begin? Like, was this kind of something always in the back of your mind. Like I know for me, like Anjana was saying, it’s like, yeah, I do have this dream. It’s like, I would love to open my own bakery or cafe one day. Was this something that like, you know, always kind of dwelled in the back of your mind?

Leslie (09:12):

To open a bakery? No, but I was a huge foodie. And it all started when I was going to law school and I was an attorney. I was huge fanatic for Food Network and all the food competition shows and all the cooking shows and, and that really like influenced me. I, when we would come to New York on business trips, I would plan where we were going to dinner, where were we going to lunch, and oh, and this is that chef, and this is that chef. And this is a popular dish. And I mean, I just became obsessed kind of with food and the culture of food. So when I moved to New York, I was like, I would love to do something in food. And so my husband was like, maybe you could be a lawyer for restaurants and, all this, that and the other. And I’m like, nah, I don’t know. But having a restaurant is the hardest thing in the world. And so there was no, I even knew that knowing nothing. And so I was like, well, I’m not going to try to start a restaurant, but this doughnut thing happened. And I was like, “Well, I like doughnuts and it is in the food world. So maybe let’s start with that.” And that’s why I kind of agreed to do the doughnut thing.

Leslie (10:20):

And then what was most important is that we took our flavors… Were inspired by food and cocktails. So it wasn’t like we were making doughnuts with candy and sprinkles on them. We were using ingredients that you would find in a restaurant and, and making doughnuts inspired by restaurant dishes. So I kind of turned it into more than just a doughnut shop by focusing on it being restaurant quality doughnuts, so to speak.

Anjana (10:48):

Right. and, going back to this, you know, you’re a planner before you make these big jumps, you have everything planned out, but it’s like you said, it’s not like you had restaurant experience. It’s not like, you love food, but it’s not like you knew how to even start a business, or make doughnuts. What would you say— well, I guess what’s your advice to people who want to start something they have absolutely no clue about? Where did you even start?

Leslie (11:12):

Well, you don’t start from zero. Everything you’ve done up to that point is knowledge and experience that you’ve had. I worked in a corporate environment. I worked in payroll. I knew there was accounts payable. I knew there was accounting, so I knew the structure of how a business works. And then obviously from my legal career, I knew you’d have to read the fine print. You have to, you have agreements in place and you have to review them and make sure they’re not unfair to you. And so where whenever you decide to make a change, just know that everything you’ve been doing up to that point, you’re going to use in your, your next journey. One thing that I always carried along with me was speaking in front of people when I, this is another thing I always recommend to people is you have to be comfortable to talk to people and talk in front of people and explain your story and your journey and who you are and why you want that funding.

Leslie (12:06):

And what, what’s your business idea and why is it going to be successful? All of my careers have, I’ve had to speak in front of people. In the first career, I taught training classes for quality and HR, and then in my legal career, I had to speak in front of a judge and my doughnut shop, now I have to talk to customers all the time and I’ve been on TV shows and I have to do interviews and I do podcasts to tell my journey. So you just have to be comfortable. And that’s a skill that a lot of people don’t have, and they’re very uncomfortable, but I just think it’s one thing, if you’re going to practice something, it’s being able to talk to people and tell your journey, especially if you’re wanting to try to raise capital or anything like that, because people invest in people. So you have to, you have to convince people that— you have to make your case, so to speak. So that’s a skill I highly recommend.

Anjana (12:57):

That’s really great advice. Especially, well, I think if you speak in front of a judge, you can probably do anything. That’s awesome.

Leslie (13:07):

Very intimidating.

Anjana (13:09):

Yeah. Yeah, no that’s great advice. Despite how prepared you could be, you know, you could have years of experience and decide to start a business, there’s always those things that you didn’t know that you didn’t know. Was there anything that kinda like hit you in the face when you started this business that you were just not expecting at all?

Leslie (13:27):

Yeah. Yeah, definitely. We knew nothing. I mean, neither one of us had owned our own business before. And so outside of running a business, just the restaurant world and ordering ingredients and like we would, you know, somebody, one, one of the first things that kind of light bulb went off was, somebody ordered like four coffees and they asked for a coffee carrier and we were like, “Oh yeah, I guess we need coffee carriers…”

Leslie (13:56):

I mean, you just don’t, you don’t think about everything and you, you wrote a business plan where you kind of think you know, and you put things on paper, what you’re going to do and what you, what you think you’re going to need, but you don’t know, you’re just kinda making it up. And so it really is learn by doing scenario and every day, you, there’s a new thing to learn and you learn it and then it’s in your back pocket and it won’t happen again. So those are the, you definitely, every day there was something new. And as a business owner, you have to be willing to do everything. I used to be a fancy lawyer, driving a BMW, wearing expensive shoes. And I now am washing dishes and cleaning a bathroom and carrying boxes and delivering doughnuts all over the city.

Leslie (14:43):

And so you have to, just when you want to do your own thing, you gotta be prepared to do everything no matter what, because you’ll be doing it at some point.

Sydney (14:54):

Right. And in addition to all of those responsibilities, one of the hats that you also get to wear is concept creation, coming up with all of these new specials for the doughnuts every week. Could you walk us through that process and what that looks like?

Leslie (15:10):

It’s a little cycle every week that I communicate out what’s going to happen and then people start ordering. And it’s just every week we have to come up with something super creative. We also do a lot of collaborations and partnerships with other brands. One of the weekend specials this week is, we like to work with restaurants and we’re doing a doughnut inspired by Quality Meats, their corn creme brulee dish. So we’re doing a corn creme brulee doughnut, which, we’ve worked with them in the past. So we just, we always have something fun and exciting. We worked with Hi-Chew, we’ve worked with many alcohol brands. And we worked with Hormel and we made pepperoni pizza doughnuts that were amazing and— it blew people’s minds. And so we’re always just kind of pushing the envelope on what a doughnut could be, but they have to make sense. It’s not just for show, they actually have to taste good.

Anjana (16:05):

And you were put on the map with the “everything doughnut”.

Leslie (16:09):


Anjana (16:09):

And that’s kind of, when everything blew up with the news, media, [they] took your story. Before that, and even after, did you ever feel like quitting?

Leslie (16:18):

Well, we actually, we opened in October 2015. In January of 2016, we won a doughnut competition. We were three months old and we won for our beet and ricotta doughnut. And then the very next month is when we released the “everything doughnut”. And it literally changed our life overnight. I’m not exaggerating in any way, any shape or form. Literally overnight our life changed— that can never happen today. It was just, again, another perfect storm of things coming together where food on Instagram was starting to become popular. The whole food mashup thing was really big, like the rainbow bagel. And I don’t know, the cronut. And for some reason, this really resonated with the media of New York, because it was, you know, literally from a social media post, it was picked up and that doughnut was on every TV show. Kelly and Michael, The Chew Rachael Ray… It was in every newspaper from here to London.

Leslie (17:22):

It was insane. You can Google the “Everything Doughnut” and it will blow your mind. It’s like newspaper article after newspaper article. I mean, it was in the Wall Street Journal, like it’s insane. And we didn’t even plan it that way. It just happened. It never happened again ever. It just was just the right time, just the right product. And it put us on the map and we got so much free press and so much publicity for that, that it kind helped us carry over. And so there’s always lulls and dull times where you get nervous and scared, but then something would always happen that would be positive and would be, it would change things and make things better. And so, when we first opened, we were extremely under-capitalized. Our lease— we had four free months rent and the renovation to our space was supposed to take three months and it took six months.

Leslie (18:15):

I was paying rent for two months without any revenue. I didn’t take a salary for a year. Like it was very tough, but we would always, something would always happen. And we would like keep, keep going and keep going and keep going. But like I mentioned, when the pandemic— right before the pandemic, I was kind of at my wit’s end because we weren’t making money. It was very stressful. I had to depend on all these people who were not dependable and it was just, for my personality, it was just, it didn’t work. It was like, I was starting to get very upset and depressed and the pandemic happened and then everything changed. And I’m back into the business and I’ve got control over it and I’ve got great team and it’s better. So, you know, even in the dark times, you have to keep plugging through and moving forward, you can’t give up. You just can’t, you have to keep moving.

Sydney (19:07):

Wow. One of our, I feel like everything you said too relates so well to like our— our theme for this season of the podcast is really on like, re-imagining your timeline and what your path can look like outside of the traditional like corporate world. And I feel like, especially as women, we are kind of told to just like, as it’s like society or cultural expectations to go to college at 18, land a job after you graduate, work your way up the corporate ladder for maybe 10 years, and then get married and it continues. What, what would you say is your advice to those who feel like they are kind of bound to these expectations, but maybe deep down they would kind of like to go against the grain? But they might just be too afraid to?

Leslie (20:01):

Well, I, I would say, A. Don’t ever do anything you don’t want to do. Um I did a lot of that when I was in my early twenties. And it got me to a place where I was not happy. And then I started to make changes. And with that said, it’s never too late. You can go down a path. And if things aren’t working out the way you want, you’re not happy, you can make changes at any point. And there’s no, if I never made any changes, I would still be working at that construction management company and living in North Carolina and my life would be completely different. You, you just have to A, go down journeys that make you happy or are of interest to you. And then if you go down that path and it ends up not being something you like, you can make a change— you can’t be complacent. You can’t be like, oh, well, I don’t want to find another job or, oh, no, I don’t want to go back to school.

Leslie (20:54):

Or, oh, this would be just so much easier if I just married this guy or whatever. Like you have to stay strong and realize that this is your life and you don’t want to waste a lot of it, a huge chunk of it doing something that, that you’re not happy with. So it’s never too late and definitely do what you want to do. Don’t be influenced. I know that’s hard for some people with families, but parents that tell you what to do… Nobody told me what to do and I just did what I wanted and I’m totally unconventional. I didn’t start college until I was 29. I started law school at 38. I started my business at 45. So you can do it at any time. You just have to keep moving forward.

Sydney (21:36):

Right. Keep pushing for it.

Leslie (21:38):


Anjana (21:39):

It’s funny because we have these podcast meetings every week with our, with our team. And it’s usually just a venting session about how much we don’t like our jobs or whatever at the moment. And then it’s like it’s like, why do we spend so much of our time of our lives doing things we don’t actually like to do? You know?

Leslie (21:56):

I know, it’s funny. I mean, I spoke, I spoke at a MBA program that for NYU, one of their classes, their online classes recently, and the professor was like, you know, all, a lot of these students, they think they have to go into banking or they have to do these things. And, and I got the question, “Do you recommend not just jumping into owning your business?” And I told them, I said, “Go do banking!” You’ll learn a lot. And you’ll take that knowledge with you. I mean, nobody works at one place for all their whole life. I mean, it’s, that’s not, that’s a thing in the past. And now even more than ever, work a bunch of different places and figure out what you like, what environments do you like? Do you like working with people? Do you like working by yourself? Do you like working with your hands? And just keep notes of what you like and then work towards jobs and careers and paths that take you down the road with those qualities. You don’t have to stay unhappy, you just don’t.

Anjana (22:54):

Yeah. Yeah. I feel like, I feel like there’s this idea that you need to have all that figured out by the time you graduate at 22, like, oh, you should know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life.

Leslie (23:03):

No, when I was 22, all I wanted to do was party. I didn’t care about anything. And, and I did that for a very long time. And then I realized maybe I do want to get a more serious life. And I don’t care— if I had gone to college at 20, who knows where my life would be. I’d probably have dropped out and it just wouldn’t have went well. Everybody’s different. And you’re going to do things at your own pace. And you can’t think that somebody else’s path is going to be your path. Everyone’s path should be different because we’re all different and you have to keep doing what makes you happy or what you think you’re interested in and not get pigeonholed into doing something that other people want you to do.

Sydney (23:46):

Right. Right. I feel like that’s such a good reminder too. When you just see like your peers that are maybe like reaching the milestones that you think you should also be reaching, or they seem really happy and comfortable. So yeah. It’s a really good reminder that we’re all different. And it is so much like a constant learning experience about what you like and what you don’t like, like what Anjana said, it doesn’t end once you get that degree in your hand.

Leslie (24:12):

Nope. Your whole life you’re figuring out what you want and what you don’t want. I mean, even now things that I used to love to do, I don’t like to do anymore, you know? I mean, it’s just, we change. That’s the, that’s the point of life and growing is that you’re going to change. And so why would you think that for the rest of your life, you would want what you wanted when you were 22. You’re not, you’re going to change a lot.

Anjana (24:37):

Right. Would you have changed anything in your path? Would you have started The Doughnut Project earlier?

Leslie (24:45):

I don’t think so, because I just don’t think I would have been successful in any of my paths or careers if I had mixed them and done them a different way. I just think my twenties of having fun and partying and just being kind of crazy and wild, I think that served a purpose. And I learned a lot and I learned a lot of hard lessons during that time that it made me kind of whip my own self into shape and say, you know what, I do want to go to college and I do want to make something of myself. And so, I mean, that caused this, this caused that. And it’s just like, it’s kind of a chain reaction. I think that’s living your life. And I don’t think I would change anything really. I mean, if I did, my whole life would be different because I wouldn’t— each step wouldn’t have happened. So no, I’m happy the way it went.

Sydney (25:33):

You kind of mentioned this but is there like any specific piece of advice that you would give your 22 year old self or that, or maybe something that back then, like, you know, you would wish you would have had somebody telling you?

Leslie (25:48):

To dream bigger. It’s not this little bubble of where you live right now. I mean in my twenties, when I was in my twenties, there was no internet. There was no, you didn’t see the world. It was very in your little bubble. And I know that’s different now, but I grew up in a time where you didn’t know what was going on all over the world. And so I guess I would just tell myself to maybe get serious a little bit more soon, you know, sooner and realize you’re not going to work for this construction company and payroll department, the rest of your life that, you could maybe even be a lawyer or you can maybe own your own business. And I guess just put those ideas in my head because at the time I didn’t think anything like that was possible.