Ally Svenson ’89, Co-Founder of MOD Pizza, Leads with Purpose

February 8, 2019
Ally Svenson and her team at MOD Pizza
Credit:
MOD Pizza

Imagine a company where all employees, no matter their background, are empowered to develop their potential, where creativity, collaboration, and contributions to society are valued over profit and zero-sum competition. A company that strikes a balance between capitalism and the common good.

This idealistic vision was part of the genesis of MOD Pizza, a fast-casual pizza business co-founded in Seattle in 2008 by Ally Svenson ’89 and her husband, Scott. Having successfully run two businesses in Europe, Seattle Coffee Company (later bought by Starbucks) and Carluccio’s, the Svensons wanted to create a dining option that went beyond pizza, and beyond profit.

They began by asking a counterintuitive question: How could they charge customers as little as possible and pay employees as much as possible? Since then, their purpose and people-centric approach has fueled MOD Pizza’s growth. Today, it is the fastest-growing restaurant chain in America, posting 80 percent year-over-year sales growth in 2018 with more than 400 locations across the U.S. and U.K., and more than 6,000 employees in the U.S. alone. Fortune magazine has named MOD Pizza one of the best workplaces for diversity and best workplaces for women, and one of the best workplaces in retail.

At the heart of MOD’s success are its employees, or “MOD Squadders,” according to the Svensons. Early on, they noticed that a number of their hires who were ex-convicts looking for a second chance were among their most effective and dedicated employees. Soon, impact hiring, or employing people who might face barriers to economic opportunity due to histories of incarceration, homelessness, drug use, or disability, became a MOD commitment. They kept hiring for social impact, believing that employees given a second chance who are treated well in turn treat customers well.

Stories of how employees spread simple yet extraordinary acts of kindness (which they call “MODness”) abound. At a Seattle MOD, for example, an employee noticed a homeless man digging through the restaurant’s garbage, and offered him a fresh pizza made to order. Impressed by the gesture of compassion, a customer tipped the employee $20, which she immediately loaded onto a gift card to give to the man. When an employee’s bike was stolen at another MOD location, his colleagues bought him a new one, inspiring the company to launch a rainy-day fund organization-wide for employees to access during emergencies.

On the eve of National Pizza Day, which is February 9, the Daily Shot spoke with Ally Svenson about servant leadership, her Wellesley experience, and balancing purpose and profit, life and work.

 

Q: Why did you decide to launch a pizza chain during the depths of the 2008 recession?

Ally Svenson: Truth be told, we really had no intention of starting another business, but sometimes a need is so clear that you can’t ignore it—and this was one of those times. Scott and I were raising four growing boys, and like many busy families, were often shuttling between various activities with a car full of hungry kids. We saw a need for quick, affordable, and healthy dining options, and we became inspired to offer pizza in a new way.

Launching a company and a brand-new concept during the recession of 2008 wasn’t part of the plan, but in the end, it helped inform many of our key decisions, including our “one price” offering (one price regardless of number of toppings), and commitment to fair wages. We wanted to carefully consider both our customers and our employees during a time of widespread financial precariousness.

Q: Why the name MOD?

Svenson: That’s a bit of a story! We like to say that MOD represents a way of life, a lifestyle, an attitude. We often use the word “mod” as a verb, a noun, or an adjective. How do you MOD? What’s your MOD? Are you MOD? Spreading MODness. MOD is also a nod to the mods—the slightly rebellious ’60s-era movement in the U.K.—something Scott and I loved when we lived in London. It can also refer to a modern twist on traditional pizzerias, a way to modify your pizza, as well as pizzas and salads being “made on demand.”

Q: In a 2017 interview with Huffington Post, you mention meeting Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks, to whom you sold your first business, Seattle Coffee Company, and from whom you learned about “servant leadership.” What does being a servant-leader mean to you? 

Svenson: MOD exists to serve people, both customers and employees. As a servant-leader, I’ve come to understand that I exist to be of service to our people (the “MOD Squad”). This entails providing them not just with wages and benefits, but with training and tools to help them realize their potential, and succeed. Scott and I have learned that if we serve our employees well, they will serve their customers well, and MOD will inevitably grow and thrive. Ultimately, the business model of our purpose-led business is that simple.

Q: How have Wellesley’s values and your time at the College informed or complemented your entrepreneurial experiences?

Svenson: My time at Wellesley did much to inform me and my approach to working with, and supporting, others. I was a political science major, and my advisor was Alan Schechter. No matter how challenged or overwhelmed I may have felt at times, it was remarkable how much care Professor Schechter took to connect and support me as a student. I have a distinct memory of a small group dinner he hosted in his home. He seemed to authentically care about how we were doing and how he could help. It made me feel valued and believed in, and as a result, I felt capable and inspired. I’d like to think (and certainly hope) that this is the approach I’ve taken with my parenting and leadership positions.

Q: What have been some of the rewards and challenges of running MOD?

Svenson: Hands down, the biggest reward is seeing, again and again, how resilient and kind the human spirit can be. The purpose of our business has developed organically—people finding ways to use the platform of MOD to make positive impacts. This is so inspiring and motivating! The biggest challenge now is working to ensure that everyone who comes into contact with MOD continues to be aligned with and inspired by this greater purpose.

Q: You probably get this question a lot: As a mother of four boys, how do you manage the work-life balance?

Svenson: Sometimes I don’t think I’m doing a great job managing the elusive work-life balance. But, the older I get, the more forgiving I am of myself, realizing this is a lucky tension to have. There is a lot that I care about and, frankly, it’s a privilege. I’m also lucky because building a pizza business and raising four boys can be intertwined! For the last 10 years our boys have been active participants—having first jobs in the dish room, spending spring breaks visiting new markets, attending tastings and sampling countless pizzas. We’ve taken full advantage of having an ideal in-house focus group, and I do believe this has helped us strike a reasonable balance.

Q: What would you tell Wellesley students or alumnae interested in starting purpose-driven businesses?  

Svenson: I believe the absolute key when considering starting a business is to ask, how deeply do you believe in this or need this to happen? We’ve found that when the desire and belief run deep enough, failure is no longer an option, and this can become a powerful and essential driver. Choosing who joins you on your journey, the people you serve and work with, is also a paramount consideration.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years?

Svenson: We’ve never measured the success of MOD by how many locations we open, or how many pizzas we sell. Rather, we measure our success by how many people we can impact. Our hope for the future is that many more deserving and passionate people will join us and continue to use the platform of this business to positively impact as many lives as possible.

Q: Last but not least, how will MOD celebrate National Pizza Day on February 9?

Svenson: I’d like to think that at MOD we are celebrating Pizza Day all year long!

Photo: Members of the MOD Squad hanging in one of the Seattle locations. From L to R: Scott, Karen (MOD Pizza's FIRST employee ever!), Ally, Wesley, and Justin.