Live & Learn: Renée Unger

The co-founder of Renée's Gourmet Foods on persistence, raising a family and surviving gender bias.

Born Dec. 11, 1942 • Co-founder of Renée’s Gourmet Foods Inc. • Mother of three

In order to relax, some people do knitting, some people do crossword puzzles, some people do jigsaw puzzles. Cooking was my way of relaxing. In the evening, I would read cookbooks. I would always be thinking of something new or interesting to make.

In the winter of ’84, instead of going out and buying Christmas and Hanukkah presents, I made poppy seed dressing and candied almonds. My husband, Arnie, and I put them in bottles and labelled them “From the Kitchen of Ren裮” We gave them out, and about three weeks later people started to say they wanted more.

I’ll never forget one girl at the bank who said, “I’ll pay anything.” That was like a light bulb went on. I remember going home that night and saying to Arnie that this is going to be a good business because there is nothing else like it. I went to bed that night and I saw my bottle on tables.

I spent a lot of time at home with the children, always cooked for them. I used to give them salads to take to school. I would wash out old film canisters and they would take a Tupperware container and a little film roll of dressing. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s why today you can buy the portion packs for take-away.

When I was a kid, I used to go to my friend’s place after school, and I’d go in and her mother was making chocolate cakes — that kind of Leave It To Beaver, Ozzy and Harriet kind of mom. I was used to a working mother. Today, it is very normal to have two parents working; at that time it wasn’t. It was because of my mother working that I decided to stay home in my children’s formative years. It was very important for me.

Life is a learning experience, and that’s how we should approach everything. It sounds like I’m talking to my kids, but I say it to myself: OK, what did we learn from that today so we don’t repeat it?

Persistence is one of the strong qualities entrepreneurs need, along with discipline and vision. It’s like actors and actresses who go for an audition and somebody says, “I’m sorry you’ll just never make it.” They have to have that belief in themselves that says, “I sure will.”

I believe if you do something for the right reasons, money follows. It just makes sense. I’m not saying occasionally you don’t waver, but if you believe in it strongly enough, you’ll sell it.

In 1985, there was still gender bias. I found that men were automatically accepted and then they had to prove they were idiots. Women came from a score of zero and had to prove they were smart.

Our business was run like a family business. We knew almost everybody’s name. We had 100 employees, and we knew everybody that worked on the line at the back. Something that I was adamant about was that everybody be treated the same. A suggestion could come from anyone.

Our children were involved from the very beginning. We all delivered product in the heat of summer with a car that didn’t work, and carried cases around in the freezing cold of winter. They were just part of the team. They used to go around saying, “There’s no nepotism in this place.”

I enjoyed working with my daughters. It gave me the privilege — and I have to use the word “privilege” — of seeing them in a different setting. Usually, parents aren’t privileged to see their children in these roles. My other daughter is a criminal lawyer, and I’ve never seen her in that role.

I had a heart attack in 2005. That wasn’t what stopped me. There was a shift. We were handing over more and more of the company to the infrastructure we had created. The hardest thing to do as an entrepreneur is make yourself dispensable so that the company can run without you.

When my marriage failed, I made a vow that while the marriage failed, the business wasn’t going to. I became even more determined to make it work, and it was kind of a 24/7 thing. I would come home at 10 o’clock and then I’d be answering e-mails until 12. I’d be eating supper really late. It wasn’t balanced at all.

I’m working quite intimately with Heinz on creative innovation. I’m fortunate to have a president that wants me to get more involved. Even though you are a large company, sometimes you have to think like a small company.

My dream was to open up a diner. I don’t know how much I’d want to work full time again, but if I were younger, that would be what I would do. It would be my biggest pleasure.