By: Kaitlyn Thompson (BSJ11, IMC17)
In 2018, Medill alumna Sierra Tishgart (BSJ12) left her dream job as a food writer and editor at New York Magazine for – cookware.
About a year ago, Tishgart had what she thought was a simple desire to become a more confident cook. She knew in order to motivate herself to cook more, she first had to replace her chipping set of pots and pans. Her instincts as a trained journalist led her to research first. A few Google searches later, she found herself quickly overwhelmed by the many cookware options available. From the type of material, to number of pieces, to the colors, Tishgart learned the possibilities for cookware were endless. In addition, most of the options she found were unnecessarily cost-prohibitive, too complicated to use or downright ugly.
Tishgart couldn’t accept the fact that finding the perfect cookware had to be so complicated. So, she took the matter into her own hands. Tishgart invited her friend (and co-founder) Maddy Moelis to help create a better cookware solution, one that was custom-built down to every last detail. They named it Great Jones, a line of beautiful yet practical pots and pans intended to help people, “feel equipped and empowered to cook more frequently.”
Over the course nine months, Tishgart and Moelis worked to bring Great Jones to life. In November 2018, they launched Great Jones online with a five-piece cookware set – the basic pieces Tishgart believes every cook needs in order to cook successfully at home. Since launch, the entrepreneurs have been celebrated by Forbes (named to their “30 Under 30” list) and others for modernizing the cookware shopping experience from start-to finish.
Kaitlyn Thompson (BSJ11, IMC17) recently spoke with the co-founder and Medill alumna about what it was like to go from magazine journalist to accidental entrepreneur. This is what Tishgart had to say about the adventure, condensed from an interview and in her own words.
Thompson: I think it’s fair to say you’ve been on quite a journey over the past year. If you could sum up creating Great Jones cookware, how would you describe it?
Tishgart: Our primary goal in creating our own line of cookware was to make people feel more confident cooking at home. For me, many things make me feel insecure when I try to cook at home. I’ve struggled with not knowing what pan to use, how to prepare the dish, or even just trying to get the perfect Instagram shot of my food. None of it left me feeling very confident in the kitchen. The irony is before I even tried to start cooking more, I couldn’t even find good tools to start – the right pots and pans. I knew if I didn’t feel confident in the kitchen, I was probably not alone.
Thompson: In the article you wrote in March 2019 for Bon Appétit, you talk about what it was like to quit your job and build a business (later to be called Great Jones) but to have to keep the business a secret. Now, the secret’s out! What’s it like to see people talking about your company?
Tishgart: It’s simply wild. It still feels a bit surreal to see Great Jones living and breathing. One year ago, no one held our products in their hands. Now, people are using the cookware, and it’s so fun to see the many ways they make the products work for them. For example, I love to see people use our cookware as bakeware. All of our pots and pans can go in the oven, so it’s fun to watch others make them multi-use.
Thompson: Early on, you decided to bring on a business partner – your friend Maddy Moelis. What made you decide you wanted a co-founder to help launch Great Jones?
Tishgart: I knew I had certain skills that Great Jones would need, like my journalism background and my relationships with chefs and other food editors, but I also knew I had some gaps. I brought Maddy on board because I knew she could fill those gaps, having learned lessons from working at Warby Parker and Zola in particular. As co-founders, we’ve put a lot of work into learning what we thrive at, what we do best independently, and what we do well together to make ourselves the best business leaders. Our company is changing rapidly. Our first hire was someone to run our social media accounts, but since then, we’ve brought on operations, customer experience, experiential marketing, data analytics. It’s been a great ride to see the growth and change with Maddy by my side.
Thompson: What do you think your time at Medill and Northwestern did to prepare you to start your own company?
Tishgart: I believe journalists make for great entrepreneurs. At its core, being an entrepreneur is about approaching strangers and pitching ideas. One of the first skills any journalist learns is how to ask total strangers for time, advice and help. Medill pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me how to sell myself and my ideas. I also think Medill instilled in me an ability to do really thorough research, something I use daily in my work on Great Jones.
Thompson: What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself in the process of launching your own business?
Tishgart: I’ve learned the extent of my work ethic. Creating and running a company is so much work. I’ve also learned how rewarding it is to have the opportunity to not just create a set of products, but a strong workplace culture where people can feel supported. We have a team of all women right now, and I love that Great Jones is a safe workplace where everyone can grow and thrive. Finally, I have actually become a better cook! Perhaps more important than just improving my skills, I cook more. Our cookware has opened up the door to do exactly what I had always hoped: to make cooking a part of my everyday routine.
Thompson: As we close our time together, what advice would you give to Medill alums looking to start their own businesses?
Tishgart: I would encourage any potential entrepreneur, whether they are connected to Medill or not, to ask themselves why they are the right person to start the business or tell the story. I believe every entrepreneur needs to have a very compelling answer to that question. Ideas are everywhere, but what positioned Maddy and me for success with Great Jones was that we really made sense for this project. I spent five years immersed in the food world, and Maddy had a deep knowledge of the startup space, plus she knew cookware. When you know the answer is that you are the best person to bring that company or idea to life, then there’s one thing left to do. Go for it!
Tishgart and her business partner Moelis both reside in New York City. For more on Great Jones’ line of modern and accessible cookware, click here.
Kaitlyn Thompson is a marketing strategist, passionate storyteller, global citizen, green tea connoisseur and chili cook-off champion always asking “why.”
Cover photo: from left: Sierra Tishgart and Maddy Moelis