The "Sweet" Life, Nadja Piatka Finds Success Through Adversity

Nadja Piatka’s life changed forever the moment she and her daughter hid under a table in their house to avoid being seen by a bill collector knocking at the door.

imagesFor the single mother of two, it was a humiliating moment that gave her the resolve to take a $100 investment and grow it into a multimillion dollar food company supplying some of the world’s biggest companies—Subway, McDonald’s, Sodexho and many others.

Since then, Piatka has not looked back, and she has not backed down. She competed against corporate giants, and she won. She battled cancer, and she survived. And the story she has told to America’s most popular entertainment shows, including the Oprah Winfrey Show, Today and The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch, she will tell to women of the Hudson Valley as this year’s keynote speaker at the Eighth Annual Key4Women Forum, "Now Is Not the Time to Retreat," which is being held on June 4 at the Westchester Marriott in Tarrytown.

Here Piatka shares some of her thoughts about staying positive in a down economy, overcoming adversity and growing a successful business from a $100 investment.

Ruth Mahoney: The title of your presentation is "Now Is Not the Time to Retreat." Can you talk about what that means for you and for the women you will be speaking to at this year’s Key4Women Forum?

Nadja Piatka: A lot of people are scared right now. There is so much uncertainty and in the search for answers it’s easy to be influenced by the beating of the drums telling us how bad it all is. It’s become impossible to read a newspaper or turn on the television without hearing how terrible things are. It can be demoralizing, and I believe it affects the way people think and feel. So the message is to keep a positive attitude, because if you’re going to sell your product, services or business, you need to be positive.

I also think it’s important not to roll over and give up when things get hard because adversity is an opportunity to discover your strengths. Things are going to get better, and what you do now positions you for success when they do. Thomas Edison said it so well: "If we all did the things in life that we are truly capable of, we would literally astound ourselves." But if we don’t dig, if we don’t challenge ourselves in difficult times, we will never get there.

RM: You went through your own adversity to get to where you are. In fact, there was a turning-point moment for you, when things go so bad that you knew you needed to take charge of your life. What happened?

NP: I was a divorced mother of two with no income, no money and no training. In life, we have embarrassing moments. They’re sometimes funny. We talk about them. Then there are humiliating moments. We don’t talk about them. They are not funny. And when you have a humiliating moment in front of your child, there is nothing worse, because they are part of it. My moment was when a bill collector came. I had a drill. When they would come I would hide under the table, which was under the window, so that they would peer around, not see anything and eventually leave.

One day a bill collector came and my daughter was home for lunch. So I said to her, "Veronica, let’s get under the table. There’s a bill collector." And I remember, we were on the floor, nose to nose, hands to hands, and I made her sit with me for 15 minutes. I’ll never forget the way I felt, the way she looked at me, and I decided no one was going to make me feel this way ever, ever again.

RM: So you resolved to make a change. But finding a job wasn’t easy?

NP: I was out of work for a long time. I sent out 30 resumes and only got one interview. It was a dreadful interview. Really. I decided that the only person who was going to hire me was me. I had a passion for baking, and I love sweets. I thought there was room for guilt-free options.

RM: Yet you had no business experience? How did you build such a successful company?

NP: I just started working. I was down so far that I had nowhere to go but up. And I think that’s the lesson. You don’t need a lot. I had $100. Too many people wait for things to be perfect, to have all the assets they think they’ll need. Also, there’s not as much to fear as people may think. The terrible outcomes we imagine happening if we fail aren’t really so terrible. I never could have imagined losing my beautiful house, but I did, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The fear was worse than the reality. It goes back to adversity. Going through it takes away a lot of fear. You realize you can dig in or give in.

RM: I think it’s easy for people to see stories like yours and say, "I can bake. How did she get so lucky?" But you didn’t get lucky. You were passionate, disciplined and committed.

NP: There really aren’t any overnight success stories. I started by working at 4am in my kitchen. Did I want to? No. But I had to. It was hard work. Eventually, I contracted a local bakery to do my baking and deliveries for me. That’s when it became a different situation. I realized the power of me. I started working on the business instead of working in the business.

RM:You have made appearances on Oprah and The Big Idea. On both shows you talked about the importance of having a passion for what you do. Why is passion so important?

NP: I believe to be successful you have to be passionate about what you do, especially in a recession, when things get hard and people get discouraged. Passion is what gets you through it, because if you love what you do you can still be enthusiastic about it even when things are bad. Enthusiasm is contagious. It will make you stand apart from the competition.

RM: You’ve been able to build a life by embracing your passion. You have shared your worst and best moments with your daughter. In a way, you’ve come full circle together. What does this mean to you?

NP: We really have come full circle. She is graduating with her MBA and will be working with me full time. It is the most rewarding thing for me. The bill collector experience was something we didn’t really talk about, but years later I was being honored as a Woman of Vision at a luncheon, and my daughter was there, and I looked at her and said, "Veronica, today we’re sitting at the table instead of under it."

RM: What advice do you have for other women?

NP: See adversity as an opportunity to discover your strengths. Do what you know and love. Be creative and diversify. Take your product where it fits. And remember: you’re never defeated until you decide you are.

Ruth Mahoney is a senior vice president and market manager for Key Private Bank in the Hudson Valley/Metro NY and Capital Region NY districts.

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About the Author: Ruth Mahoney