Anne Beiler, the founder of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, says she’s still a little Amish girl at heart.
While speaking at Ursinus College’s Lenfest Theater Wednesday night, Beiler attributed her success in business and triumph over personal struggles to the values instilled in her while growing up in a Lancaster County Amish community, coupled with a drive to achieve her purpose.
“This little Amish girl travelled the world selling pretzels. That’s funny to me!” she said, prompting some laughter from the audience. “And I didn’t go there in my horse and buggy; I actually flew there!”
Beiler, who sold her business in 2005, was invited to speak as part of the college’s U-Imagine! The Center for Integrative and Entrepreneurial Studies speaker series, U-Inspire!
After thanking everyone for braving the frigid temperatures, Beiler began her presentation with a question.
“How many of you – and you must be honest – how many of you have never had an Auntie Anne’s pretzel?” Beiler asked. Of the roughly 200 present, four hands hesitantly went up.
She feigned offense, receiving some laughter from the audience, before promising those four individuals coupons for free pretzels after the presentation. It was a fitting way to begin the talk, which was titled “Give to Get to Give Again,” focusing on the importance of giving back and finding purpose.
“We don’t truly begin to live until we learn to give,” she said. “I believe that giving is a condition and a matter of the heart.”
She stressed that giving doesn’t guarantee financial success, but does guarantee satisfaction in life. She also elaborated on the old adage “you can’t take it with you when you die.”
“I’ve been to many funerals, and I’ve never seen a casket with cash or bonds or stocks in it,” she said. “It’s true – you can’t take it with you. So why do we as entrepreneurs amass this wealth? I believe it is so we can make this world a better place.”
Not everything in her talk was cheerful, however. Beiler also talked about the low points in her life, beginning with the death of her 19-month-old daughter in a farming accident in 1975. She also addressed the struggle to keep her marriage together shortly after the accident and her struggles to make her business work early on.
What kept her from giving up, she said, was her purpose. As the couple worked through marriage counseling together, her husband Jonas realized he wanted to become a marriage counselor himself.
“That’s when I decided I had to get to work and make the dough. That’s right – the pretzel dough,” she said. And so she took her Amish values and baking experience and began building her business, without capital, a business plan or a formal education beyond the eighth grade.
She said she cried a lot and prayed a lot in the early days of Auntie Anne’s. She had to learn everything about business as she went along.
“We had purpose before we had a business,” she said.
Her message and story seemed to resonate with many in the audience. Kailey Tuhacek, a senior at Methacton High School, and her friend Helena Mancini, a senior at Perkiomen Valley High School, both found Beiler’s story inspirational.
“I thought it was really cool to hear how far she’s come,” Tuhacek said. “I didn’t know she started out Amish, making all of those pies in her basement. […] She went from housewife to CEO of her own company.”
Marie Mancini, a Schwenksville resident and Helena’s mom, said Beiler’s story also carries a powerful message for young girls.
“There are very few women with businesses that are international,” she said. “She took something as simple as pretzels and made it grow. It shows that it doesn’t have to be complicated.”
Beiler herself said that “purpose doesn’t have to be grand and it doesn’t have to be huge.” And because of the drive she had to fulfill her goals, she refused to quit when things got tough after opening her first stand in Downingtown.
“If I stopped there, if I stopped in Downingtown, could you imagine a world without Auntie Anne’s pretzels?” she asked, before stopping and chuckling. “Well, four of you can.”
Gary Puleo contributed to this story.