Disillusioned with a corporate management career, Debbie Pierce sought something different.

She wanted to own her own business and to have time to spend with friends and family during the holidays. The seasonality of Rita’s Italian Ice piqued Pierce’s interest in becoming an owner-operator; her love for the product—Italian ices, cream ice, gelati, custard, and more—sealed the deal.

Shortly after she acquired her first location, though, Pierce was diagnosed with breast cancer. After chemotherapy and surgeries, Pierce was cleared to return to work in early 2015 and has remained cancer-free.

The diagnosis and subsequent treatments changed how Pierce approached her business and her life. Already an empathetic leader, she now makes a point to appreciate each day while also encouraging her staff to do the same. Here, Pierce talks about what’s inspired her career—and how she strives to motivate her team.

1. Take a leap

I knew I was going to take a pay cut and that I was probably going to work five times physically harder than I did at my desk job. I took a leap of faith, and here I am four years later with four stores and two Rita’s trucks. It’s been amazing growth.

For my first store, I bought as an existing location in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It opened in 2001, and I’m the third owner. I’ve turned the store into something that’s my own. The previous owners did not get involved like that. They did not have people from the Amish community working for them, but I turned that all around. In Lancaster County, we get huge support from the Amish community. The Amish people love their Rita’s; they comprise about 40 percent of our sales.

Even though you’re a franchisee, I feel like Rita’s gives you a lot of flexibility and freedom. There are guidelines and rules, but you want that because it builds the brand.

2. Inspire and be inspired

It was a little bit of an adjustment period coming here because I was used to working with adults—not a bunch of 16-year-olds. It’s a whole different mentality, but it’s the most joyful part. They are innocent, they are formable, they are trainable, and they want to learn. And if you reward them, you can have a great experience. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I hear how great our customer service is. Our kids are so friendly, and you can tell they like what they do. That’s huge. They’re the face of the stores, because I can’t work at four stores and two trucks every day in every location.

How you make them feel is how they make the client feel. We pay them well, and we try to build the future for these young people. When you work with adults in corporate America, they already have their bad habits. I was in management, so you learn a lot through your human resources development plans. One of the things I like the most in my leadership is not being afraid of change. My leadership style is not to dictate, but to listen. These kids think differently than I do. And they know what sells, especially with social media. In the past, I didn’t like it when I was thinking outside the box and then a manager said, “Nope, we don’t do it that way.”

We like to think outside the box. If there’s something new, we’ll go after it. We’re among the very few stores that offer 10 flavors of custards. We bought a custard machine for two of our four locations. You have to invest in the business in order for it to be successful. It’s a lot of work. It’s seven days per week, and you have to be hands-on to make it successful. You can let your employees be creative, but you should not put the weight of the world on their shoulders.  

3. Savor each and every day

Before cancer, I was neurotic and anxious. If I had gotten cancer in corporate America and had to work during those treatments, I just don’t even know how that would’ve been. I felt the lump at the end of September, and I was able to close our stores—because we close for the fall and winter—to get my treatments. I was ready to open up again in February. I had to have chemotherapy, and I lost my hair and all that, but what it taught me was that you have to trust that there’s always a silver lining. When my hair fell out, it was poker straight, and I’ve got beautiful curls now. So what’s taken away will only come back better.

I feared cancer my whole life because my mother got breast cancer, and she died when I was 16 years old, so I watched her suffer. I thought about it and checked myself every day. But what it taught me was you can’t fear anything. You have to live life.

Before cancer, I never focused on each day; I was so busy worrying about tomorrow. As I’m driving, I normally thought about the next thing I need to do, but then I think, “Look at these beautiful cornfields.” It makes you appreciate life, and it makes you appreciate people. It’s a reminder that your life could change at the drop of a hat. I was sitting there doing my schedule like I did every Sunday night and then my life changed forever.

Franchising, Restaurant Operations, Story, Rita's Italian Ice