Pizza, Purpose and Passion: Ooni Co-CEO Darina Garland on Women in Pizza and Leadership
Every year, March brings with it not only the beginning of spring but also a global celebration of women. Women's History Month (including International Women’s Day) happens annually in March. So does Women’s Pizza Month — a month dedicated to spotlighting women in the pizza industry.
We may be a little biased, but we really believe that few people personify women in the pizza industry better than Ooni Co-CEO Darina Garland. Recently, we sat down with her to talk about women in business, female representation in the workforce and the pizza industry, and the role of business as a force for good in the world.
Darina has been at the helm since the very beginning of Ooni. She and her partner Kristian are an entrepreneurial power couple who founded their first business, Suklaa, a change-making company that designs education events, back in 2007. When Kristian fell in love with pizza-making, they saw an opportunity for innovation and started Ooni (then Uuni) with a backyard prototype (and a dream) in 2012.
Since its launch on Kickstarter, Ooni has grown into a multi-award-winning business with offices in Edinburgh, Scotland; Austin, Texas; Cologne, Germany, and China. As Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Darina has had an integral role in shaping the future of Ooni and has been instrumental in creating a company that operates with its values of ambition, rigour, innovation, kindness, and passion.
We talked with Darina who shared her experience of sexism in the workplace, how to connect and connecting with potential mentors, as well as a list of some of her favourite female pizza makers. Read on to get the scoop on all of that — and find out which song she just can’t stop listening to (spoiler — it’s awesome).You’ve created a safe working environment at Ooni. Can you talk about being a woman CEO in the less “safe” — and more male-dominated and male-oriented — pizza and business worlds?
Sexism is everywhere. As a leader, I’ve noticed it in moments where I've been sitting next to bankers at dinner and they are very dismissive. Even when they realise I have a serious role at Ooni, the instant thing is to dismiss me — and it's very obvious. I know that doesn't happen in the same way with male executives. This is pretty sad and mostly, it makes me think, "Well, fool you, you won't be our banking partner."
That kind of sexism can be even more apparent for people in the sales team, as the outdoor cooking industry is traditionally very male-dominated so I do a fair bit of mentoring about how to navigate it, and how to be taken seriously in general when you are a woman.
The other important thing is to make sure that you have strong allies — both men and women —who understand sexism and who you can talk to about how to overcome it. The men on our executive team are indeed strong allies and take gender inequality very seriously. In fact, Andrew, our CFO, is organising an event for our Ooni staff for International Women’s Day as he recognises that it shouldn’t be a glib celebration of women in the team (and how badass they are, which, of course, they truly are!) but, instead it should be an opportunity for all genders to work together to recognise the systemic issues and work on overcoming them to create a level playing field for all.
What advice would you give to women who are trying to succeed, advance their careers or battle sexism in the workplace?
It's about believing in yourself and being yourself. Imposter syndrome is a real issue. I learned in my early-ish thirties to have confidence, care a bit less about what other people thought, and I realised that actually, everyone fakes it until they make it!
Quite often I advise women to talk to themselves the way they would counsel their friends. Usually, it's not me saying, "This is how you should do it." Instead, I encourage them to give themselves advice. And they come up with great answers.
Are there any women who you especially admire in the pizza world?
Several women stand out. Miriam Weiskind is an energetic human being on every level — ultra-marathon runner, business owner, pizza maker — and she’s working on opening her own shop in New York City. She's an absolute pioneer.
Then there’s Shealyn Brand-Coniglio, who brings a unique, female perspective to the pizza world (like running a pizza fashion show at Pizza Expo 2022).
There’s also Christy Alia: She's a New York-based pizza maker and an Ooni Ambassador who started Women’s Pizza Month, a month-long celebration of women in pizza with events, recipes, live streams, and other events.
Nicola Jackson-Jones is fantastic. She had a job in insurance for over 18 years but quit it all to open her own pizza shop and now she’s gone on to win national pizza awards!
Nicole Russell is the amazing, self-taught frozen craft pizza entrepreneur behind Last Dragon Pizza. We’re working with her on First We Feast’s online video series, “Pizza Wars.” Speaking of imposter syndrome, she had a bit of, "I'm just Nicole!" when she started out. But when you watch the show, you see her realise, “No!” — that she's something special and she's made this all happen herself. It’s been a joy to be a tiny part of her rise to the top of the pizza world.
Coming from Italy, Giorgia Caporuscio has genuinely faced a lot of sexism and being told that she’s no good. She is so young and is a total boss. She's absolutely married to the craft and is beautiful to watch.
And there’s the whole Women in Pizza movement, which challenges us to champion women all the time!Are there any specific books you’ve read or people you’ve gone to for advice, mentorship, or inspiration?
My background — and many of my business contacts — are in the global education world. That centres largely on how to prepare for the future, which is something very important to me. I’m constantly inspired by female educators. There are lots of brilliant women that have inspired me. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jacinda Ardern, Mackenzie Scott, Brené Brown, Beyoncé, and Dolly Parton (at least the last 2 have Oonis!).
I recently read a book called Machiavelli for Women by Stacey Vanek Smith, which talks about how women have to learn how to succeed in the business world now while we also try to overhaul the whole system. To be honest, it’s a pretty tough read because it calls out just how much things have regressed for women during the pandemic. We all have a lot to do to create fair systems for everyone.
I also look up to my mom and the women around me in my business network. One of my skill sets is to reach out to — and make connections with — people I'm impressed by. I love constantly checking in with mentors and peers and that helps me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself.
How have you gone about that?
I've done it every way, from LinkedIn cold reach-out to inviting someone to talk at an event I’m hosting. The biggest thing is to do research. Be authentic. Don't be self-serving. Ask yourself: “What is mutually good here?” People are generally flattered if you're authentically interested, but they might be time-poor. So ask yourself, “Is there something I could do for them?” Define your reason for connecting and then design your “ask” properly.
You mentioned education’s importance in building the future. Ooni wants to evolve as a forward-looking company that cares about its environmental impact and the future of the planet. Can you share more about that?
Part of the Ooni DNA is about being environmentally conscious. If you don't have a planet, you don't have much else. I don't even want to use the word “sustainability,” because we don't want to sustain what we've got, we want to regenerate and we need change.
Beyond sustainability and green issues, we think about how Ooni can be a company for good. For example, we give 1% of our global annual revenue to social and environmental causes. We are privileged to be at the helm of a company and that means we have a responsibility to make the world better.
It’s all net positive. If you're genuinely building a company with purpose and making good decisions for your community and your team, people will stay, they’ll be genuinely connected and invested and we can build things together.
Inclusivity is part of that. How can we invite more women into the pizza world? How will Ooni focus on inclusivity going forward?
It’s about putting a spotlight on people who are already demonstrating inclusivity and diversity and giving them a boost with our platform. Having more women on the executive team is important. We’re working on that agenda with new hires and promotions.
In terms of women in pizza, it’s about doing things like supporting Nicole and Miriam (among others), asking them what they need to survive and thrive, and putting in the time to make sure that their unique voices cut through.
We have the privilege of having platforms that people notice. We have to think really carefully about how to use them for good. The pizza community is an incredibly passionate, beautiful, and nurturing world where women absolutely can — and should — thrive more and more.
How about a lightning round?
Favorite pizza topping?
Chilies of all kinds. I like it hot.
What book is on your nightstand right now?
The Storyteller by Dave Grohl.
Favorite song to listen to while you cook?
“Crowded Table” by The Highwomen. It's about gathering everyone and connecting over food. I’m so excited to be going to my first SXSW in Austin later this week so it makes sense to be immersing myself in Country music.
Are you watching anything right now?
Succession. Massively obsessed with that. I'm sorry it's over. Darkly comic and so well written. It’s a lesson in how not to do business!
Where's the last place you ate pizza?
In my house. I made pizza topped with kale. I'm obsessing over kale salad at the moment and I mixed it up as a pizza topping and it was amazing.
Darina named some of the women pizza makers she admires, but if you’re hungry for more, follow #womenspizzamonth and @oonihq, or check out @womeninpizza to find even more amazing pizza makers.