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Young Ones to Watch: Alejandro Souza, Founder & President of Pixza

Souza spoke with 1851 Franchise to discuss how he entered the franchise industry, what advice he has for up-and-coming business owners and more.

Alejandro Souza, founder and president of Pixza, a social empowerment platform disguised as a pixzeria — a Mexican spin on the word pizzeria — developed his vision of a movement toward sustainable inclusion after meeting Joe, a homeless person who helped him understand and empathize with the experience of homelessness. In 2015 the first Pixza opened with the mission to serve the first and only blue corn pizzas made with 100% real Mexican ingredients and exclusively employ people in a profile of social abandonment. The brand hasn’t begun to franchise yet, but they’re making strides and continuing to grow with a mission of empowering people who fit the social profile through a 12-month program.

1851 Franchise spoke with Souza as part of our Young Ones to Watch series in order to learn more about his story.

1851 Franchise: How did you get into franchising?

Alejandro Souza: I was born in Mexico City, and when I was two years old we moved to the States. My dad started a company in Tijuana, and I came back to Mexico when I was nine. I went to college in Boston, and that’s where the social entrepreneurial things really came to life for me. Right after I graduated, I went to Rwanda and worked on a consulting project after helping them launch their first language institute. Afterwards I returned to Mexico; I wanted to get a sense of how development worked and how it impacted mission-driven ideas, so I made the decision to go to grad school at Columbia.

While attending Columbia, I was at a bar with a friend of mine, we were reminiscing about a traditional Mexican dish that we love — huarache  — which literally translates to “sandal.” It’s basically a huge piece of blue corn with a lot of delicious stuff on top of it. I thought, “There’s no such thing as a blue corn pizza  —  I'm going to create the world’s first pizza with only Mexican ingredients.” 

While that idea was brewing, I was taking a journalism class out of interest, and the professor asked us to find a person that had an interesting story to tell and follow them for the semester. I’d always been fascinated by the homelessness crisis and wanted to find someone who could help me understand that situation better. That’s when I met Joe, who’d been living on the streets and in shelters for 25 years. He taught me a lot. I spent a few nights on the streets and spent nights in shelters to really empathize with the situation and understand it further. That’s when I made that decision that I was going to only hire homeless people to work in the pizzeria I’d eventually open. After I got my master’s degree, I went back to Mexico and started Pixza. 

1851: What do you love about the industry?

Souza: I think both the restaurant industry and social entrepreneurship are very creative spaces. Plus, it’s super flexible as far as working hours, as well as in terms of capability and competencies — it has this sense of altruism. It’s kind of an emotional experience. Social entrepreneurship works to normalize and democratize social change. At the end of the day, that’s what Pixza’s program does. 

1851: What makes someone a good fit for the industry? 

Souza: It all comes to having a unique mindset. Share the same mindset that is focused on being innovative and being comfortable dancing with uncertainty. Social entrepreneurship is just that, mixed with a profound desire to solve a social problem at the same time. You have to be reinforced by a sense of purpose. You can find that in regular entrepreneurs as well, but for social entrepreneurs it's not just about making money  —  it's about making the world better than you found it. It’s a different mindset, one that requires people be patient about the profit and the problem they're going to solve. It goes with having that touch of humility and knowing that what we're trying to do, and that the goal of the business is providing a vehicle for social good. 

1851: How do you feel about the industry's response to the coronavirus crisis so far? Are there challenges or opportunities that the industry still needs to address?

Souza: What customers love most about our concept is the dining atmosphere and interacting with the agents of change while they’re in the restaurant. So that hit us really hard. During the first two weeks of the pandemic, we went down in sales almost 100%, and those four shops turned into two. We had a decision to make, and the decision was to remain mission-first. First, we weren't going to fire anyone and stop the empowerment process — but that meant finding new ways to make money. We made ourselves available exclusively on delivery platforms, launched a new website that invited the community to help us navigate the pandemic. We sold merch, books and entrepreneurship classes, and we encouraged people to buy pizzas in advance that they could later redeem in person. We also sold frozen versions of our pizza so they could be distributed all across the city. We even cancelled our salaries. 

Overall it has solidified our mission and community, and we’ve come out stronger as a result. Well, we haven’t come out yet, but we’ve been able to pivot to change. Now we’re responding to current pandemic trends so we can keep on going. 

There’s a lot to consider about opportunities that have come out of this. We’ll continue the trend of pivoting to more delivery-based value propositions. Brick-and-mortar restaurants will still have the space, but I think that more and more the delivery aspect is going to become a bigger player. For many, the pivot to ghost kitchens and dark kitchens will become the creative solution to continuing to make money — those trends are opportunities. We have to make sure that we have value and drive our enterprises, and, in doing so, it’s our responsibility to have proper empowerment and inclusion. 

1851: What advice do you have for other young up-and-comers in the space?

Souza: There’s a phrase I repeat to myself: You should have enough ego that you can change the world, enough humility to know you can't do it yourself and enough motivation to act. Start with the “why” and what motivates you to achieve that. That’s the only way these enterprises are going to be authentic and genuine. Right now, it’s a competitive advantage to be a part of a social enterprise, but soon it will be a necessity. Think of us as agents of change.