Startups

How I Got Here: Margarita Womack’s cross-industry moves, from scientist to empanada empress

MasPanadas, Womack's DC-based frozen food company, creates about 20,000 empanadas every day. Before that, her career wound through biology, education and even real estate.

Margarita Womack, founder of MasPanadas.

(Courtesy photo)

Margarita Womack did not spend most of her working life thinking she’d eventually launch her own company.

The former doctoral-level scientist, middle school teacher and real estate agent instead turned to entrepreneurship in 2017 because she wanted to retain some community in the region. At the time, the mother of three was helping a family friend from Colombia remain in the US on a business visa.

“We started with, ‘Well, we’re going do modern Latin American catering out of my kitchen at home, and there’s a business, and you’ll be the chef and we’ll sell to friends and neighbors and there, we’ve got a business, right?'” Womack told Technical.ly. “And of course, it’s not that easy.”

These seeds germinated into what is now MasPanadas, the food company of which Womack is now CEO. After starting the business, she and her friend ended up in the Union Kitchen accelerator, which helps launch local food startups. There, they realized that their real opportunity wasn’t in catering. It instead lay in frozen versions of the company’s most popular item: empanadas.

Changes to visa laws meant that the company ultimately couldn’t keep her friend in the US. Still, the empanada business survived. Fast-forward to today and her company is making about 20,000 empanadas per day, works under a private label for another company and sells its products at Whole Foods stores throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions. Womack has plans to take the company nationwide next year.

The company’s staff and workplace culture also reflect its products’ cultural context: Almost all of her hires have been Latinx immigrants, with 75% being women. MasPanadas additionally offers its workers English lessons and childcare benefits.

“It’s the funniest feeling to walk into supermarkets and think, ‘Oh my god, we made that,'” Womack said. “That’s so crazy.”

Womack, who moved to the US from Colombia as a teenager, launched her career in a very different field. She studied biology at Tulane University before completing a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University. Womack always saw herself as a scientist, she said, until realizing just how challenging a scholarly career could be — especially for those with children.

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She then taught middle school science for four years at the National Cathedral School before pursuing an MBA at Georgetown University. She also spent a few years working as a real estate agent with Keller Williams Capital Properties. Ultimately, as she finished up her MBA in 2019, she figured out that empanadas were way more exciting than real estate.

Womack acknowledged that over the years, bit by bit, she felt like she was reinventing herself with every new position and opportunity.

“Every day is a new challenge,” she said. “It’s a roller coaster and the bigger you get, the higher the ups and the lower the downs, but the trend is still upwards.”

One thread linked all these reinventions: the need for problem-solving, be it scientific research, how to connect to students, finding a client’s ideal property or developing the best way to freeze a regular empanada. All of these pivots, she said, have made her quite nimble and adaptable to whatever comes her way. She thinks this agility goes all the way back to her late teens, when she changed her whole life by emigrating and mastering English in a new country.

“Now, these changes are just so much easier because I realized how adaptable and really accountable you can be, how you can always figure out a way and not be scared of something new,” Womack said.

Companies: Union Kitchen
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