By Kathryn McMackin
Portraits by Shawna Simmons
There’s something about a horse — and a barn, for that matter — that teaches lessons and builds character. From focus and drive to empathy, the traits honed from a partnership with a horse can translate across a variety of scenarios and spaces. These skills nurture relationships and businesses, and transfer to kitchens and boardrooms.
For Tracey Noonan, her time with horses helped her become the successful businesswoman she is today. Tracey is the CEO of Wicked Good Cupcakes, a multi-million dollar bakery she founded alongside her daughter, Dani Vilagie.
“When you’re in the barn, there needs to be a level of professionalism,” Tracey said. “You need to be sensitive to how your horse is feeling, or sense when to push, or back off, or investigate further. The same goes with running a business; it’s about thinking outside of yourself.”
And these skills seem to have served Tracey well, as evidenced by the growth of Wicked Good Cupcakes. Not only has the company reported sales of upwards of $22 million and earned the title of the biggest shipper of cupcakes in the U.S., but the company boasts a roster of loyal employees — not unlike a barn family.
“We’re so proud of who we are and what we stand for,” Tracey said. “Our co-workers are like family; we have people here who started with us seven years ago. That’s unheard of in the food industry.”
A late bloomer by equestrian standards, Tracey started riding as an adult in the early 1990s. And she started the way most people do — with weekly riding lessons. But she was eager to learn more about the creatures she’d admired since childhood.
“My love affair with horses started when I was a little girl,” she remembered. “Their manes, their tails; it was the beauty of the horse that drew me in. There was some sort of mystique about them.”
Soon, she and her two daughters were riding at a small stable in Canton, Massachusetts. It was there that she met Scott, her future husband. Scott’s a former show jumper, who ran Stoneridge Farm in Wrentham, Massachusetts, where Tracey and her daughters moved to continue their riding journey. Together, she and Scott purchased Stella, Tracey’s horse of a lifetime.
Jet black, Stella was purchased as a 9-month-old filly. Maturing to around 17 hands high, the Hanoverian mare became Tracey’s best friend. Together, they rode in both dressage and jumper arenas. Stella’s 2010 colt, Quoi de Neuf, ranked second in the Dressage at Devon’s Colt Class as a foal.
“Stella was very curious,” Tracey said. “She was very gentle, very patient, and for a big horse, she was mindful of her body and who was around her. I trusted her with anybody.”
Sadly, Stella died following a bout of severe colic in 2010. “It was so devastating for me,” Tracey said.
Tracey still holds a special place in her heart for horses, but admitted she doesn’t think she could ever own a horse again. “But horses taught me so much,” she continued. “It was an amazing opportunity to be around such beautiful animals. I’m so grateful for that. Around the time Stella died, my daughter Dani started having some issues. We weren’t sure what it was at the time, but found out she has bipolar disorder. Dani had recently moved out, so to see her once a week, we signed up for cake decorating classes.”
With Stella gone, Tracey threw herself into the cake decorating classes with her daughter. Before they knew it, their passion grew into a business and requests started coming in for the duo to ship cupcakes around the U.S. But there was a problem: Cupcakes didn’t ship well.
Out came the mason jars and in went layers of cake, filling and frosting. In the jar, the products could be easily shipped and could remain fresh for an extended period of time. Tracey and Dani knew they were on to something.
“This company is meaningful to me for a couple of reasons,” Tracey commented. “But first and foremost, it was started in my kitchen with me and my daughter. We had no college degrees, no formal culinary training and no money. That we were able to overcome all those obstacles and still be a success is crazy.”
In 2013, Tracey and Dani appeared on the ABC TV show, “Shark Tank.” The pair struck a deal with Kevin O’Leary.
“Kevin was the last shark I thought would invest in us,” Tracey said with a laugh. “We sell a commodity, but what differentiates us is that we did something that hadn’t been done. We solved a problem; cupcakes are hard to ship because they are delicate and perishable. By putting them in mason jars, and literally changing the packaging, we created a whole new industry.”
Not only did they walk away from “Shark Tank” with a deal, but they were able to execute on the opportunity. The year after they appeared on the show, Wicked Good Cupcakes grew 600 percent.
“I mean, how do you even plan for that?” Tracey said. “But we were able to execute and get everything out the door, all while maintaining quality and good customer service. Just getting through the growth was pretty amazing in and of itself.”
Lessons From Mom
As with most risks, there’s struggle. Tracey likens it to riding. Not only does riding and business help to develop focus and discipline, but there’s the added element of chance and danger.
“It’s the epitome of starting a business: you overcome risk and you can’t be risk-averse,” she explained. “And if you’re riding too tentatively, you’re probably going to end up getting hurt. It’s the same in business: If you’re not flung into that business and bleeding in that business, or you’re not believing in yourself, then it’s not going to work.”
For Tracey, learning how to succeed and how to fail is an innate skill. And it seems to be one she’s passed along to her business partner and daughter, Dani.
“The greatest lesson I learned from my mum was to just go for it; to follow my dreams and not let anyone get in my way,” Dani remarked. “Nothing was too big or small for me to tackle.”
Working with family isn’t always easy, and Dani and Tracey are the first to admit they’ve had challenges to overcome. In addition to learning the ins and outs of a successful business, they had to learn when to be a mother and a daughter, and when to be confident, courageous businesswomen.
“Some issues were created by me,” Tracey said in earnest. “I wouldn’t turn off my mom gene when we went to work. Dani approached me one day to tell me she needed me to recognize her as an adult and a businesswoman.”
For Dani, communication is key. Not only for her personal relationship with her mom, but for their business partnership as well.
“We’re always there to talk to one another and it’s not hard to talk to her,” Dani added. “It’s nice to know she’s there for me. And it’s nice that she knows what’s going on in my work life to help me if I’m struggling with anything. Yeah, we butt heads every once in a while, but at the end of the day we leave our problems at the door and go home as a family.”
Women Supporting Women
In January, Tracey was the keynote speaker at the inaugural Equestrian Businesswomen Summit in West Palm Beach, Florida. She spoke of her personal struggles as a businesswoman to one of her favorite crowds: a room full of businesswomen. For Tracey, businesswomen supporting other businesswomen creates a support group — a network of women who have gone through hard times and lived to tell the tale.
“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women in business,” she remarked. “We’re all going through the same thing; we face the same risks and overcome similar obstacles. We all balance jobs, kids, horses, dogs and families — we’re in it together.”
Women are inclined to have the characteristics that make for successful leaders, CEOs and innovators, Tracey added. She explained that as wives and mothers — and as horsemen — women know how to listen, how to inspire, how to bring young coworkers along, how to focus on the task at hand as well as how to develop and nurture relationships.
In the horse world, she added, the great equalizer between men and women is the horse you’re on and the connection that has been formed. “It’s not like a man and a woman running a race, where a man has an edge based on his testosterone, his size and his speed,” Tracey said. “Riding is such a mental sport that I would put any woman up against any man in that stadium. Women have just as much skill and finesse as their male competitors.”
Do What You Love
Tracey’s desire to support other businesswomen is showing no signs of slowing down in 2019. Along with focusing on continuing to grow Wicked Good Cupcakes, the company has developed a new program that would support female wanna-be entrepreneurs. She couldn’t spill too many details, but said she’d like the program to debut in 2019.
She may not find herself on the back of a horse anymore, but Tracey’s curiosity for life hasn’t wavered. With her business in a more established position, she is taking the time to explore other passions like drumming and travelling. She and her husband hope to visit Italy this year; she’s been eagerly learning Italian to prepare.
That said, she always has an eye on Wicked Good Cupcakes. Tracey is an entrepreneur to her core.
“I do what I love,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like work; it feels like an extension of me. It feels like I’m free and I’m being the person I was meant to be. It’s exciting and inspiring, and I wouldn’t trade all the rough times for anything in the world.”
For more information, visit www.wickedgoodcupcakes.com
Photos by Shawna Simmons, www.sasequinephotography.com