The Cookie Lady Of Silicon Valley

A British baby nanny catches the startup spirit

Jean M. McGraw is a 60-year-old grandmother of four, looks like a thin Mrs. Doubtfire, and has made her living for the past 13 years as a baby nurse to some of the richest, most famous families in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Time, one would think, to settle leisurely into her golden years. But McGraw, a Nike-shod Englishwoman, is running as fast as any entrepreneur in the Valley. The difference: Her sleep deprivation stems from making cookies, not writing software. And the 800-pound gorilla she faces isn't Microsoft Corp.; it's a baker in Scotland.

Her two-year-old business, McGraw's Shortbread, launched with $10,000 in personal savings, has been nibbling its way into such fancy shops as Dean & DeLuca, Draegers Markets, and Neiman Marcus, which charge $18 to $24 for a one-pound tin. "We clicked because she's not pushy--she's bubbly and English, and she has a good product," says Richard W. Rachfal, a buyer for Draegers.

THINKING BIG. McGraw recently signed a deal with British-owned W.H. Smith Inc. to sell cookies in 10 of their California hotel shops; she's also selling on the Web and in catalogs. McGraw is projecting sales of $150,000 this year, up from last year's $30,500. But for a crumb-size business, she's thinking big. Eventually, she hopes to take a bite out of giant Walkers Shortbread Ltd.

Her secret weapon: her grandmother's recipe, which yields a buttery biscuit with a light, crumbly texture. (She has also added such flavors as chocolate chip, lemon, and English toffee.)

How did McGraw move from baby nurse to successful entrepreneur? "I'm self-motivated and self-taught," she says. After completing high school at 15, in England, she worked for Philips Electronics as a data processor, took care of her sick mother, married, and raised three children in Britain. In 1980, she visited the U.S., fell in love with the San Francisco Bay area, and moved there permanently in 1983. McGraw first worked as a nanny and later developed a specialty in newborn care. One referral led to another.

Besides tending babies, she baked cookies for her clients--many of whom are now her biggest boosters. "I'm a sucker for entrepreneurial activity, and her cookies are awesome," says Halsey M. Minor, CEO of CNET, the Web technology publisher and broadcaster. "Somewhere else, she might not have received encouragement, but there is no more entrepreneurial culture than the Bay Area."

Indeed, for years, says McGraw's son and partner, Barry R. Nash, 36, "people would tell me and Mum that we should start a business." But they pooh-poohed the suggestions until October, 1996, when McGraw's friend, Greg G. Eisenman, a regional manager for The Honeybaked Ham Co., gave her a 400-tin Christmas order. McGraw took the plunge, renting a kitchen by the hour. Her relatives, still living in an English village, thought she was crackers starting a business at her age--until she sent them her shortbread in a stylish gold tin.

PICK BRAINS. Soon, McGraw was attending seminars offered by the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) and picking the brains of former clients, such as Nancy J. Pedot, former CEO of Gymboree Corp. "She'll call me and bounce ideas around, but she knows where she wants the business to go."

Besides baking, McGraw and her son design the packaging and make the sales calls. And they still rent a kitchen by the hour. But now, McGraw is seeking a $50,000 Small Business Administration loan to expand and lease a bakery-and-warehouse space.

As if that weren't enough, half the week, McGraw goes from patting dough by day to patting babies' bottoms by night. "It is difficult to find the time to do everything," she concedes.

Like the tech startups of Silicon Valley, McGraw and Nash have plowed all their dough back into the business; in four or five years, they hope to sell out to a larger company. "But what would I do then? Probably start another business. It's exciting. Silicon Valley has rubbed off on me," laughs McGraw. Her chips may be chocolate, but the Valley spirit has clearly baked in.

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