Creating Jobs One Cookie at a Time

Shahira MareiShahira Marei is the Founder and CEO of The Dirty Cookie, a gourmet dessert company renowned for its one-of-a-kind cookie shot glasses. The concept was inspired by Shahira’s favorite dessert — cookies and milk. Having worked as a project manager at Boeing, she admits she is not the Betty Crocker type. After witnessing poverty during a trip to her native Egypt, her father’s words inspired her to create Shot for Education, a program supporting education-focused nonprofits that provides resources, tools, and access to education for children in underserved communities.

In 2021, Shahira opened the first international franchise in Egypt. Since its inception, The Dirty Cookie has been featured on the Today Show, Good Morning America, Shark Tank, the Food Network, and the Cooking Channel and recognized by Forbes as one of the Next 1000.

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Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • Shahira Marei shares the origin story of The Dirty Cookie
  • Finding a community of peers
  • Transitioning from a brick-and-mortar to an online store
  • Keeping up with industry trends
  • The importance of open communication
  • Shahira talks about her appearance on Shark Tank
  • Stress management and other advice for entrepreneurs
  • What’s next for The Dirty Cookie?

In this episode…

Have you dreamed of being a business owner but don’t know where to start? Perhaps you’re struggling to scale because of a lack of experience. Starting a business is difficult, but the challenges, self-doubt, and mental stress do not end once established.

That’s why entrepreneur Shahira Marei recommends finding a community of peers. Having peer support provides knowledge and expertise to avoid making mistakes early on. Furthermore, they share resources and can refer you to a network of entrepreneurs, investors, and potential customers. In addition to peers, seek mentors through acquaintances or platforms like LinkedIn who will encourage and hold you accountable. Mentors also furnish tools and coping mechanisms to help you manage stress and anxiety. Entrepreneurship can be isolating, but having a village to depend on offers a social connection and an outlet to grieve insecurities.

In this episode of the CPG Troublemakers, Aalap Shah welcomes Shahira Marei, Founder and CEO of The Dirty Cookie, to discuss insights and learnings about creating a dream business. Shahira shares The Dirty Cookie’s origin story, why she transitioned from a brick-and-mortar to an e-commerce store, and advice for aspiring and established entrepreneurs.

Resources Mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode…

This episode is brought to you by 1o8 Agency. At 1o8 Agency, we are a holistic digital marketing agency that cultivates brand growth through creativity and innovation. We jump right in to create solutions with measurable marketing intelligence. 

The result? Our clients see increased engagement and increased e-commerce traffic, which equals more sales and profitability for our clients.

Intro  0:01  

Welcome to the CPG Troublemakers. The place where brands and makers, food and beverage nerds, and investors all gather to cause a little bit of mischief. We welcome industry leaders, whitespace thinkers, and channel partners to come together to turn problems into opportunities. Or, at the very least, have a little fun along the way.

Aalap Shah  0:26  

Welcome to the show. Our startup CPG Troublemakers podcast, we’re excited to have Shahira, the Founder of The Dirty Cookie, on our episode today sharing her insights and learnings in her journey of creating the dream cookie business. Shahira, welcome to the show.

Shahira Marei  0:40  

Thank you. I’m so excited to be here.

Aalap Shah  0:43 

Thanks so much. It’s been great to get to know you over the past year plus, and just seeing your success. Tell us a little bit about The Dirty Cookie and how it came about.

Shahira Marei  0:52 

Yeah, so Dirty Cookie started in 2015. In Orange County, California. I used to work for Boeing as a program manager for about seven years. And I’ve always wanted to start my own business since I was really young. And it was actually when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter that I kind of was like, oh my god, I’m not ready to have a kid right now. It’s going to stop me from like, starting my own business, which is what I’ve always wanted to do. And then I kind of took it as a challenge. I was like, No, it’s not. As soon as she like pops out. I’m going to start that business. I’ve been wanting to start since I was a little kid. So that’s literally what happened five months. After she was born. I signed a five year lease to a storefront in Orange County, California. And I didn’t really know what I was going to do. Like, I just was so eager to start anything. And I met someone that introduced me to this landlord of the mall. And she had one store left that she wanted to get rid of. She’s like, do you want it? I’m like, Yes, I’ll take it. She’s like, What are you going to put in there? I was like, no, no, yeah. Give me a few days. I’ll figure it out. And she’s like, listen, we’re missing dessert. If you can come up with a cool dessert concept. I’ll give you the store. So that’s what happened. I was like, yeah, yeah, so just just happened. It was really crazy. And then I spent a couple days like on Pinterest trying to come up with like, I was like, What’s my favorite dessert, which was milk and cookies? And like, so how can we like innovate that. And I saw this lady molding cookie doable bowls, like cereal bowls on actual cereal bowls, with chocolate chip cookies. And I was like, Oh my gosh, I can do that as a cup. And so that’s what that’s kind of what I did. I called my engineer back at Boeing. I’m like, can we make molds for cookie cups? He’s like, Yeah, of course. I’m an aerospace engineer, I can make anything. And I was like, alright, let’s make it. So we ended up making these molds. But it wasn’t really a cup. It was like a shot glass. And just for engineering purposes, it had to be like a shot glass. So yeah, we,

Aalap Shah  2:53  

I mean, that’s super inspiring to like, really start with a blank canvas, know that you want to be an entrepreneur, and then come up with an idea that has been incredibly successful over the past five years. Talk to me a little bit about that first store and opening it up. Did you have any experience or background in entrepreneurship?

Shahira Marei  3:09  

No, not at all. I mean, my dad is a retired entrepreneur, and he kind of planted the seed early on. If you want to make a difference in the world, you you know, the best way to do it is through entrepreneurship. You can help people you can give people jobs that was kind of like the seed that was planted from a young age, when I was back visiting my home country, Egypt, he was like, I felt bad for you know, I was my first time seeing like a third world country and the poverty and I’m like, we gotta give these people money, we got to help them. And he was like, No, you want to help them, like, give them jobs. So that was kind of the seed that started at all from a really young age. So. So yeah, I didn’t have any background, I wish I would have talked to people who were in the business before opening up a full blown store, you know, because I definitely could have saved a lot of time and money. But there’s also something fun about getting into it, and just figuring it out along the way. expensive, but fun.

Aalap Shah  4:07  

I couldn’t agree with you more. My first business was like a toy shop. And it was a franchise. But still, I was like 23 and a CPA by training and had like no experience other than my parents being entrepreneurs in running like a retail business. And looking back, I wish I had reached out and gotten that support, right from mentors and peers. But I didn’t have that. How did you kind of find that community for you as you as you built into that business?

Shahira Marei  4:33 

So my first experience actually, I got invited to go to Forbes 30 under 30 event in Boston. And that was like mind blowing for me to see all these young people doing amazing things and like I would talk to them about my problems and they had solutions. I’m like, wow, there’s a community of people that can you know, help me with this. So that was because for like three years I was working by myself in a bubble. And then when I went to Forbes, it opened up my eyes This whole new world of actual people aren’t other entrepreneurs that are willing to help. And then I got back from Forbes, I started asking for help, I ended up across someone from EO Entrepreneurs Organization. And they told me about the program, I immediately, like signed up for the accelerator program. And then that just opened up like so many doors for me because I learned, you know, it’s all about kind of who you know, and kind of shortcuts a lot of things like, I need help with this. Just go talk to the person who’s done it already. So EEO was a huge life changing. Always just changed my life on so many times in business. So it’s, I love it. So

Aalap Shah  5:41  

good to hear on that side of things. So talk to me a little bit. So you have a store, as you’re building and growing it, you’ve probably made some, you’ve learned a lot along the way, how did you transform it into like an online business

Shahira Marei  5:53 

COVID. That was the big one. COVID really played a big role into pushing us into e-commerce. We’ve always had like an online store, but it was kind of like a mom and pop online store. And when COVID hit, we had no choice but to go online. So I had to learn email marketing, I actually took like a 30 day email marketing class, and I started doing all our newsletters ourselves. And it was actually really cute. I tried to design them myself, and I’m not any kind of designer. So I yeah, I just learned all the e-commerce stuff. And it’s still very, it’s overwhelming. It’s a lot of it’s a lot. But that’s how we got online. It was because of COVID we launched these DIY kits with the cookie shot glasses. And if people don’t know, that’s what we are known for is the Cookie Shot glass that you can fill with like milk coffee, Bailey’s. So yeah, when we did the DIY kits, it really like took off online. And it was amazing. And we’ve been online since then. I have like this dream of opening up like franchise store locations in the next couple of years. Because we are very experiential. So I feel like sometimes we miss out on that being online.

Aalap Shah  7:03 

I mean, there’s nothing better than milk and cookies or or Bailey’s. Right. So yeah, along that way, you probably had some challenges around manufacturing, co packing. I mean, this is kind of a novel idea, making cookie shot glasses. How did you handle those challenges? Or how did you find it by partners to to make your product,

Shahira Marei  7:21 

it’s still after nine years, almost nine years or so. My biggest challenge is manufacturing the cookie shots. We more manufacturing in house for seven years in Huntington Beach, California. And then our landlord basically kicked us out. We got a new landlord, so we had no choice but to move to a co-packer. So it wasn’t really planned. We found a co-packer in Las Vegas, the challenges were cost was a big one, they just couldn’t, you know, they just couldn’t do it affordably. And understandable. Also the we launched stuffed cookies, which are very, like, easy to make you just put them on the machine and bust them out. Um, but yeah, that didn’t work out either. So it just co packers, you just really it’s like a marriage, you know, you gotta find the right one. Or it’s just going to be painful. So we unfortunately we had we went through a painful one. After our move, which was extremely expensive. We lost a ton of money on that move. And then two months ago, me Yeah, we moved to Arizona, to another co packer, which seems like a really good fit really, like people know what they’re doing. very open and honest. So I’m very optimistic about this partnership. It’s definitely gonna work out a lot better than the other one. So I think there’s always challenges with co- packers in general, costs is a really big one, because they’ve got to make their markup too, right? They’ve got to add their 20 to 30%. And we are already an expensive product. So it just takes away from our margins.

Aalap Shah  8:53 

Talk to me a little bit about that, too. Because you you had a physical kind of store. You’ve transitioned online because of COVID. How do you stay up on like the latest trends and innovations? Like how are you thinking about products? How do you think about using innovation store? I know you have cookies, like amazing cookies now? Like how did you come about that? And and why? If the shot glasses were kind of central to your to your opening thesis?

Shahira Marei  9:16  

Yeah, well, the shot glass is very seasonal, right? They’re very holiday driven, gift driven. And I realized, well, we need something all year round. So that’s where you know, you can buy just stuffed cookies for yourself, and you’ll be very happy with them. So that’s why I launched the stuffed cookies. And about two years ago, I actually opened a store in Egypt. And it’s kind of become my like r&d kitchen, since we don’t have like a physical store anymore. And we’re the co-packer so it’s not like I can just walk in there and make whatever recipes I want. So that huge implication has become my r&d kitchen where I was like, well, let’s test this. Let’s test this and if it’s good, I’ll just launch it in the US and send them the recipe. I’m like, busted out. So that’s kind of how you Do it and like we’d love to launch a lot more flavors, sometimes, again, limitations of a co packer, there’s minimum order quantities per flavor. So if I want to just do something and test it out, I don’t have that flexibility like I used to have when I was making it in house. But yeah, you never know, like, I feel like one day we could possibly go back and house just depending on how much control we want back, you know, and how difficult it becomes

Aalap Shah  10:25

completely. And as an entrepreneur, how do you balance kind of being in the US and Egypt, I mean, that’s got to be a lot for you personally, and, and professionally.

Shahira Marei  10:35  

It is. So I do split my time between Egypt and the US. I, it was a personal decision I made because I am Egyptian, I didn’t get to live more than like five years in Egypt. So kind of wanted to explore that and my roots a little bit more. And plus that we have this r&d store here that I like to play with. And I just time boxing is a huge one for me, like I have to manage my time. So well. I work nights time in Egypt. So to work to be on the same timezone as the US, which is a little annoying, because everybody’s going out at night, and I’m home working. But you know, there’s a price to pay for the, the life you want, right? So I want to spend more time in Egypt, I have to work at night while everybody’s going out. But in the mornings, I’m free and I can go see people and enjoy my day. And it’s nice and and like when I’m in the US I’m just because our whole company is virtual now and all our team members or virtual or agencies are all virtual, so it doesn’t like it’s only for like really important meetings that have to be in person, like big partnerships and stuff will I will, you know, go out there and, and meet with people I’m managing.

Aalap Shah  11:43

Tell me a little bit about that, too. Like, so do you have any partners or co founders in your business?

Shahira Marei  11:49  

Yeah, my best friend Nadia joined like four or five years ago, which was amazing, because she’s so good at everything I hate, which is like the perfect partnership like she’s attention to detail. She likes the operations, I don’t. I love marketing and sales. I love just vision, bigger vision picture stuff. So we we work really well together. I’m very grateful for her. And so now she’s my only only partner for the most part. Yeah. And our team members, all my team members are all partners to and wait because we can’t survive without them.

Aalap Shah  12:27 

Absolutely. I think about it the same way with my team too. When you think about a partnership, and whether it’s balancing time, you know, between Egypt and the US or or having that partner relationship in your business? What are some tips and tricks to success in managing conversations or outcomes or responsibilities?

Shahira Marei  12:46  

Well, one of our core values is open, honest communication. For me, like communication is key to everything, like everything is resolvable, and communication, everything. So I like one of our team members doesn’t like to talk. So I’m like, Okay, we are going to talk about whatever is bothering you, if there is something bothering you, and this is your space now to just like let it out. And she’s not comfortable really sharing or talking about if something’s bothering her. But I also don’t want it to like last, you know, for sorry, so I don’t want it to, like ruin our relationships. So I usually kind of force her into talking to us every month or so I’m like, so what’s going on any anything that’s bothering you stressed out about? Like, no, I’m like, I keep digging deeper and deeper. And, and, and a lot of stuff come up. And I’m like, Okay, this is good. Because I don’t like people bottling stuff up. So open, honest communication with everybody, even our customers is so important to me. Like we screw up an order. We call them, hey, we screwed up an order. That’s what we did. And we take full responsibility for it and we fix it right away. And that’s like a big thing for me, of course,

Aalap Shah  13:55 

and I being in partnership on our side, we really value that too, right? Like having open honest conversations, seeing how we can resolve the problem and move forward to me like that’s a sign of success because we’re here to win together, right? On all fronts. Shahira, I know, a big moment in the dirty cookie was your appearance on Shark Tank. Tell us a little bit about how it happened and how you work through that.

Shahira Marei  14:22 

Yeah, so for about four years, I was applying to Shark Tank from I think 2017 till 2021 And I was a finalist in 2017. I was like up ready to pitch miked up and everything but it just didn’t work out. And that moment I was very upset. I was super. I was like super devastated. But in hindsight, I believe it was a blessing because we weren’t e-commerce back then. And we had no e-commerce experience and we probably could have gone bankrupt with what happened. You know what happens with the online sales with Shark Tank. So I was very, very lucky that we didn’t air in 2017 and we didn’t really get to pitch If it took me I kept applying from 2017 till 2021. And then I finally got, you know, the opportunity to go again and pitch. I was a little scared in the beginning because I was like, what if it happens to me again, I go on, I’m ready to pitch and then they like cancel it last minute. So, but I talked to the producer, I was very open and honest with the producer. And he was like, You know what, we’re just going to get you up right away, like I was the third company to go up and pitch to get away from that fear of being canceled again. And even when you pitch, there’s this chance that they might not air you. There’s 30 companies that don’t get aired because they overshoot so it really depends on how entertaining is your episode. Yeah, there’s 30 companies that don’t they overshoot by 30 companies. So then after the shooting, I was like, oh my god, am I gonna get aired? You don’t know for like six to eight months. So you’re just like, I like checked in three times. Like, I reread my episode. Do we have anything like I was just so nervous because we were in a really critical stage to where we really we didn’t have any marketing money. And I needed some visibility and you know, things were really getting very expensive to play online. So but the miracle it, I got an email saying it was going to air April 8 2022 as like, oh my gosh, I started crying. I was like two weeks before the email, they literally email us like two weeks before to get ready. But luckily, we had inventory in the freezers. And we were ready to go. So it was amazing, like amazing visibility. So many people like reached out wanting to help and support the company. Even retired people, they’re like, we’ll be your salespeople will go out there and help you sell this product surgical product. I’m like, Oh, you’re so sweet. So I had like all these calls with like, these are retired people at home that just wanted to help because they saw me on Shark Tank.

Aalap Shah  16:49

That’s incredible. Incredible. I mean, it’s one of the episodes that I showed my two girls to showcase confident leadership. I think you did such a great job in terms of like, stepping into your greatness, right and advocating for you and your company. And it’s it’s, it’s very inspirational. How did you feel like in that moment, like on the show, though, as you’re negotiating, like, I mean,

Shahira Marei  17:13  

well, you know, where they make you stand behind these big doors? No, that moment felt like, I think it was five minutes, but it felt like an hour. Because my heart was racing, I was so nervous. And I remember like talking to myself saying you need to calm down. These are just normal human beings, you know that doors gonna open and you’re gonna walk in there, you just gotta be normal and confident. And I remember I said a little prayer, and I’m like, you know, please, God stay next to me. And make me treat them like they’re normal human beings and nothing more and give me the confidence I need. And literally, I just like when that door open, like I forgot everything. And I just walked in, and I looked at them as completely normal human beings, like friends and family. And I just had a very casual conversation. I’m like, This is my company is what I do. And they’re actually pretty nice. Like they, you know, they weren’t really that bad. Yeah, I’m

Aalap Shah  18:04 

sure it’s a lot of it. It’s just reality and

Shahira Marei  18:08 

entertainment. Like, yeah, but they were very, they were actually very, very sweet.

Aalap Shah  18:12 

How do you kind of deal with that anxiety as an entrepreneur? Like, what are some of your coping mechanisms? Because it’s intense. Like, I think when I think about you talked about that door, sometimes it’s like waking up and it’s Monday morning, right? Like and know that you have so many things to get through through the day. Any tips or advice for entrepreneurs that you you have in your arsenal?

Shahira Marei  18:35

Yeah, meditation. I love meditation. I think it’s been such a lifesaver for me. I started meditating because someone from EO I met in Los Angeles told me that was the key to their success about five years ago. And it was, I mean, I’ve been a daily meditator for five years now, since that moment, and I swear it’s transformed my life. Like I used to be super stressed out 24/7 I had panic attacks, you name it, everybody thought I had ADD, and it just like who I am today, I owe it all to the fact that I meditate. And now I meditate about an hour and a half every day. So yeah, like that just started in June. So I used to do like 20 to 30 minutes a day. But I went to a meditation retreat, Dr. Joe Dispenza retreat, which was absolutely life changing. We meditated for about 40 hours in the week, and I saw the benefits and I saw like, things just start to happen for me and things I wanted, were just like literally happening, like, it was crazy. So then I just became even more of a believer. So I’m like, alright, well I’m upping my 20 to 30 minutes an hour, an hour and a half every day. So that’s what I do first thing every day when I wake up and it really does set the tone for my my life. I love it.

Aalap Shah  19:59  

That’s good to hear. It’s inspiring to hear that you started that practice, because I can imagine how crazy and busy your day is right? Like on a minute by minute basis. So that time blocking that you talked about earlier really comes into play. Exactly. For sure. As you think about kind of the next like three to five years for your business, The Dirty Cookie, and you What are you seeing? What are you imagining? What are you envisioning out,

Shahira Marei  20:20

I envisioned Dirty Cookie as the global brand, like I want to be worldwide, we have so much interest from Canada, I had no idea like the Canadian market was so big. But it’s, it’s crazy how much interest we have from Canada. So I really want to open up that door, like by by January. And then we already have like, the Egypt location, and I want to, like expand more into the Middle East. So I just see dirty cookie being like this, you know, really big global brand. And, for me, I I mean, I love the journey. But I also know that I have a bigger calling, which is it’s to help people you know, heal from, you know, life because I’ve transformed my life through all these tools and stuff. And I feel like, eventually, when I get Dirty Cookie where it needs to be, that’s like gonna be my next chapter in life where I just go and kind of share these tools that I’ve learned along the way to transform my life with other people. One of them is definitely meditation, because a lot of people have this like, mystical, I don’t know, they just think it’s woowoo meditation, but if they just know, it’s just relax your body, just That’s all we’re doing. We’re just relaxing our body and calming down our mind. So there’s the iron one, I’d like demystify, like all these things about all these tools that can really help you and show people how it could help transform their lives. So like, that’s my bigger calling in life. So I think

Aalap Shah  21:44  

it’s everyone I’ve talked to, right, like we all have, we’re already imagining what our next thing is going to be. I’ve rarely met someone that is like, even for me, like I’m imagining of, of owning some sort of e-commerce or consumer brand in my next, like opportunity to do so. I love what I do on a daily basis, I love waking up going to work doing marketing, all the stuff that you were talking about, like around email marketing, and those are all things that I love thinking and doing. But I’m also in the back of my mind. Like, I’d love to just do this for a brand. And I, I have. And it’d be just as fun, I think, what are some, like resources that you feel entrepreneurs, especially those that are just starting up? Like, are there any books that you recommend? Absolutely. I know, you’ll recommend meditation. But any resources or, or tools, as someone who started on their journey?

Shahira Marei  22:42 

Yeah. Really talking to people and getting a mentor was really big for me, like, talk to people in the industry of what you’re doing. I think I was really surprised how many people actually want to help start startup entrepreneurs, I would reach out to random people on LinkedIn. I mean, I got the CEO of Mrs. Fields as my advisor through LinkedIn.

Aalap Shah  23:03  

That’s incredible. Because I

Shahira Marei  23:05

just sent because I never thought that anybody’s out of reach. Like I always, I never believed that there was anyone out of reach. I just believe if you’re open and honest about where you’re at in your journey, and why you’re reaching out, someone will understand and help you because everybody needed help along the way. So LinkedIn has been miraculous for me, I cannot tell you how it’s changed my life. The person that introduced me to Yo, I met through LinkedIn, I just messaged him on LinkedIn. He’s the one that opened that whole email door for me was transformed my whole life. So yeah, definitely utilize LinkedIn if you’re not using LinkedIn. What else get a mentor for sure. For sure. Like I need one now, because I haven’t had one in a while then I realized that recently, I was like, oh, shoot, I should get a mentor now. And yeah, I think those were the really big ones for me. Don’t be shy. I think asking was really hard for me in the beginning asking for help. But now I like ask every single person I know for help. I’m like Help. Help.

Aalap Shah  24:11 

I think about like back to my like, first early innings it like owning an agency like as like I would never want to sell for example, like I felt super shy and like nervous and like hesitant. Yeah, it’s just like, you have to start somewhere. And it’s like, the worst someone’s gonna say is no. And that’s how I think about my day, every day. Now. It’s like, okay, the worst case is going to be a no, because I struggle

Shahira Marei  24:34  

with sales. I struggled with sales for a really long time because I was naturally a very shy person. Growing up, I was super shy. I was mute in school. And this business made me like an extrovert and extremely extra extra first like, it forced me into things like and that’s why I love entrepreneurship because you have to get uncomfortable to succeed. Like there’s no way like I hated sales. I hated that. You idea of sales. And I hated picking up the phone to call people, I would just like, I’d rather like throw up, then pick up the phone and call somebody and try to sell them something, right. And now, I had a meeting today with someone this morning. And I was like, Dude, I’m an amazing salesperson, I can sell anything. And I didn’t even recognize myself when I said that because like, damn, in 2019, you hated the idea of sales, like you couldn’t do it can pick up the phone. And now you’re like, the way you view yourself. You’re like an amazing salesperson. So it’s just transformed again, just by practice getting uncomfortable doing stuff you don’t like to do, and I owe all to this business is just transformed my life. And I think that’s what entrepreneurship is really about. It’s not about getting somewhere as much as that who you become on that journey. Like, I am not the same person who started the company nine years ago, for sure, for sure.

Aalap Shah  25:52

I love actually ending on that note, that’s super inspiring. And I really appreciate you coming onto the show and sharing your journey and experience. And where can our audience find you online?

Speaker 3  26:02 or The Dirty Cookie OC on Instagram. So, yeah.

Aalap Shah  26:07 

Thanks so much, Shahira. Wishing you much luck today and beyond.

Shahira Marei  26:11 

Thank you. Thank you.

Outro  26:13  

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