It's not about the recipes, or vanilla spongecake versus chocolate, or square layers versus round. For Elysia Root, cake is the medium to create memories and happiness. The satisfaction of being a cake designer is hearing love stories, making kids smile and contributing to people's happiness.
Elysia Jiang Root left the insurance industry in 2011 to pursue her passion, baking. She enrolled in Chicago's French Pastry School to earn a certificate and credentials in baking and cake decorating. Root's goal was to raise her hobby to a professional level, then open a specialty cake business. Leaving the corporate world, where she was a strategy consultant for three Chicago-based international companies, was a leap of faith.
The native of Southfield, Mich., was raised in Wheaton, the eldest of three daughters. Her parents, from Taiwan, raised their children in a bilingual household (English and Mandarin).
"I've always loved to do crafts, such as knitting and crochet, and bake," says Root, 38. "Cakes are fun. You see it, you eat it. Cakes make people happy."
She married Nate Root, 45, also an executive in the insurance industry, in 2005. The couple lives in the Logan Square/West Bucktown neighborhood with their two wheaten terriers. She owns Elysia Root Cakes (elysiarootcakes.com), a 2,000-square-foot kitchen in the West Loop, and has two full-time employees. Following is an edited transcript.
Q: Why did you leave a successful career in insurance?
A: I got bored. The job felt routine. In one position, I had to travel up to seven months a year. I wanted to work for myself. People advised me against it. My mom was worried if I could afford it. But I had to do it.
Q. Any advice for someone considering leaving a stable career to open a new door?
A: Really do some self-reflection, and answer the following questions: Know why you are making the change — is this something you really want to do? (Are you) really willing to start over from the bottom and work your way back up? Can you make the financial sacrifice to make the change? Will you regret it if you don't make the change?
If the answers are "yes" to all of the questions after you've given it some serious thought, then I would say you are mentally ready to make that change.
Q: Is there a book that inspired you?
A: "The Pumpkin Plan: A Simple Strategy to Grow a Remarkable Business in Any Field" by Mike Michalowicz really helped me learn to not be all things to all people, find my niche in custom wedding and special occasion cakes, and be OK with not pursuing every opportunity that came my way once I understood what I wanted my business focus to be.
Q: What one skill is necessary to start a business?
A: Definitely being able to multitask, as you wear so many hats as a small-business owner, and the ability to listen, learn and take constructive feedback. Perseverance as a personality trait helps as well — you'll definitely hear more "no" than "yes" as you are starting out.
Q: How do customers find you?
A: My clients come by customer referral. I have a presence in social media, network among professionals and hotels around Chicago.
Q: What credentials helped you transition to your specialty cake business?
A: I have a business background. I got my Bachelor of Science degree in business administration from the University of Illinois (at Urbana-Champaign) in 1998, and an MBA from University of Chicago in 2005. My career in insurance included management positions in Chicago with CNA Insurance, IBM and Accenture.
Q: What skills from your business background apply to your pastry business?
A: I'm analytical. I like numbers. Baking requires an understanding of chemistry, of weights and measures, of ratios. Designing a cake is like being an architect. That precision appeals to me. In my business career I solved problems for clients. ... Now, I work with people who want cakes. I listen to their stories, their ideas. Then I strategize, based on interviews. I sketch ideas on how to make their ideas work through baking, design and cake decorating.