Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, July 22, 2022

New CO.LAB CEO carries strong, varied resume

Tasia Malakasis is the new CEO of The Company Lab, a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating startups in the greater Chattanooga area. - Photograph provided

Tasia Malakasis says the most invigorating moment in the life of a business is not the end, when its owners reap the benefits of a successful exit, but the moment of creation when courage, optimism and brilliance have combined to form a startup.

Malakasis, 52, has helped to nurture several embryonic businesses beyond that stage and to a lucrative exit for their founders, but nothing she’s done has matched the exhilaration she’s felt at the beginning of a venture or the satisfaction of spurring its initial growth.

“I’m a great starter,” she says. “I love getting something going and growing. And then I need to find a new product at the same company or something entirely new.”

Malakasis spent several years helping to lift software startups from Silicon Valley to New York City off the ground. She then traded her high-powered business suits for an apron and a broom to “give gourmet goat cheese a down-to-earth makeover,” as an article on Oprah.com describes her purchase and subsequent cultivation of Elkmont, Alabama-based Belle Chevre.

Now Malakasis finds herself not too far from her native Alabama as she begins a new job with an enterprise whose mission is to stimulate growth.

Malakasis is the newly minted CEO of The Company Lab (CO.LAB), a nonprofit dedicated to accelerating startups in the greater Chattanooga area.

Malakasis says her new role is a great match for her passions and skills.

“I don’t care what the industry is, it takes a special kind of person to be crazy enough to start a business and to be crazy enough to attempt to scale it – and I love people like that.”

For CO.LAB, these individuals have included the founders of companies that went on to experience tremendous success, such as Bellhop and Variable, as well as dozens of smaller concerns.

As CO.LAB shifts its focus to scalable companies – i.e., businesses with a viable product that’s earning revenue and that have the potential for significant growth – Malakasis is thinking big.

“I see myself as being responsible for bringing the next Tesla to Chattanooga,” she says. “No one has said, ‘Tasia we need this many companies in this amount of time,’ or, ‘We need this kind of company,’ but from my perspective, that’s my charge.

“My goal is to make sure founders want to come to Chattanooga and work with CO.LAB because we’re the organization that will propel their company to the next level.”

If CO.LAB’s search committee wanted someone who thought smaller. Malakasis has made a career of helping to grow acorns into towering oaks.

But as the committee searched everywhere for CO.LAB’s next CEO and engaged dozens of local stakeholders in the process, it became clear the organization needed someone who could look at a sapling and see what it could become.

“As CO.LAB looks to attract and support more scalable companies, as well as market itself regionally and even nationally, we were looking for a leader who could help fulfill this mission,” says CO.LAB Board Chairman Charlie Brock. “We feel fortunate to have attracted Tasia’s interest.”

When Malakasis entered college, her interest was tuned far from the world of commerce. Instead of majoring in business, she studied English literature at The University of Alabama in Huntsville with an eye toward following her father into academia.

While applying to Emory University, Malakasis took a sales position with a company that developed software for libraries. She’d worked in retail while at UAH and had a flair for selling things, so it seemed like it would be a good side hustle as she tackled graduate school.

When Malakasis excelled at the work, she adjusted her bearing.

“I had no idea what enterprise sales was and was shocked to discover how much people would pay me to talk with other people,” she recalls. “I went from there to another internet company and forgot all about my master’s degree and Ph.D.”

Malakasis discovered her love for startups during this nascent period of her career and consequently changed companies several times. When the founders for whom she was working secured a profitable exit, for example, she’d join them on their next venture and begin again.

As Malakasis built her resume, she expanded her skillset and added product management and marketing to her resume. She also began to hear a voice in her head asking a pointed question: What makes you happy?

“I love the startup environment, but if you found me happy, I was in the kitchen,” Malakasis explains. “So I took a sabbatical and enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America.”

As Malakasis attempted to forge a new path, she learned something important: She didn’t want to be a chef.

“Finding out what you don’t want to do is just as important as discovering what you do want to do,” she suggests.

That moment of discovery occurred when Malakasis stepped into a high-end New York City gourmet shop called Dean & DeLuca and spotted Belle Chèvre, a brand of goat cheese made just down the road from her childhood home.

“I knew it was time for me to do something else,” she says.

Malakasis quit her job teaching Gannett’s newspapers how to monetize the internet and became an apprentice at Belle Chèvre, which is French for “beautiful goat.” For six months, she swept floors, learned how to make cheese and worked for free.

Malakasis also convinced the owner, who was on the verge of retirement, to sell the company to her.

“I understood how to take brands national. The cheese had a presence in a dozen of the country’s most prominent cheese shops. It also had national and even international recognition. But it didn’t have distribution. Someone from Alabama had to go to New York to find cheese that was made 15 miles from where she grew up.”

Malakasis says Belle Chèvre was a recipe for fun. “It was a product, it was food and I was able to take it and grow it.”

As the new big cheese of her own creamery, Malakasis spent a year rebranding and repackaging Belle Chèvre and studying the market. She wanted to maintain the brand’s high-end reputation but also expand distribution to Whole Foods, Publix, Costco and even Walmart.

During the 12 years that followed, Malakasis did just that.

She also became the face of Belle Chèvre. From Oprah.com to The New York Times to Gun & Garden magazine, she was everywhere. Two cookbooks for Southern Living followed, and County Living named her its 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year.

“The focus on the maker was interesting for a while. I didn’t set out to be the face of the brand but that’s what happened.”

While the attention was warming, Malakasis says she doesn’t live to be in the spotlight but to place others there. So the day eventually came when she did what she’d helped many other business owners do: Take a bow.

Marriage to a Chattanooga man and a move to the Scenic City followed. She says her new home has surprised her.

“I used to think of Chattanooga as the city you drive through to get to Atlanta. I never stopped to get to know it. But I’ve been living in Chattanooga for about six months now and I’ve come to love it.

“I’ve also become an evangelist for the city, which is what I do. If I get turned on to something, then I want everyone to know about it.”

Malakasis recalls walking past the Edney Innovation Center on Market Street – the home of CO.LAB – soon after she and her husband moved to the city and wondering what was in there.

She found out when she learned CO.LAB was looking for a new CEO.

Although the nonprofit cast a wide net in its search, Malakasis won the board over with not just her experience and expertise but also her willingness to take a carefully calculated risk.

She explains how she worked this into the interview process.

“The board asked me to present a plan for how CO.LAB could grow a pipeline for scalable companies. It was the perfect assignment and it required a lot of homework, but I told them I believed it was premature and I wasn’t going to do it.

“The term ‘scalable companies’ is very broad, so I said CO.LAB needed to first define what they are. Only then could it figure out how to attract them. It would know what they looked like, sounded like and smelled like, and it would be able to find them.”

Malakasis’ gamble paid off when the board extended her an offer to become CO.LAB’s new CEO.

While Malakasis’ duties more than adequately fill her days, life in the Scenic City is about more than work for the new Chattanoogan.

As she and her husband, Ethan Hix, a nurse anesthetist, arrange furniture and unpack boxes at the Southside residence they recently purchased, she’s discovering more reasons to love her new hometown.

“We’re outdoorsy people, so we do a lot of hiking and biking. I love that you can do those things in the urban environment but also in the surrounding landscape. We’ve explored a lot of trails and spent time on the water.”

Malakasis is also a fan of the walkable lifestyle downtown Chattanooga supports. Treks across the Walnut Street Bridge to shop at Publix and to eat out have take her past the abundance of public art in the city. Many of her discoveries have become talking points as she speaks with out-of-towners.

“Every corner has a sculpture or mural or small park. We live near a park that has poetry written into the sidewalk. It’s impressive.”

Even during those serene interludes, Malakasis is unable to keep her thoughts from drifting to her work. Each day connects her with people who were – as she says – crazy enough to start a business and are crazy enough to believe they can scale it.

And each day immerses her with those people in one of the most invigorating phases in the life of a business: the point at which the courage, optimism and brilliance of the founders combine to sculpt a greater vision.

“There’s nothing more exciting to me than helping someone who’s in the super fast growth stage. This is fun.”