Career Profile: Stephanie Middleberg, Founder of Middleberg Nutrition

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Stephanie Middleberg, MS, RD, CDN is the founder of Middleberg Nutrition, a health and wellness practice in New York City. Stephanie helps her clients establish a better relationship with food. She has helped thousands of clients, editors and writers and is currently one of the city’s most popular health experts. Stephanie is consistently featured in some of my favorite publications including Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Fitness, Glamour, Shape, Self, Cosmopolitan, Women’s Health, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Women’s Day, MSNBC.com, and more.  Stephanie is also a member of Cosmopolitan’s Health Advisory Board, she is the magazine’s nutritional expert and has contributed to some of their books. I am so thrilled to share her story and advice with you today!

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What inspired you to start Middleberg Nutrition?

It was never a grand plan to start my own practice in or after graduate school. I was working at another private practice for several years and it came to a point where I couldn’t grow anymore.

I think being challenged and having the opportunity to continue to learn, share and grow is so important in any profession, and since I had hit a ceiling it was time to take a different route.

How would you explain your philosophy in a few sentences?

Helping clients cultivate a healthy and sustainable relationship with food. Every person that walks through my door is different, from his or her body chemistry, to his or her lifestyle so I craft individualized care that helps him or her achieve their goals, whatever they may be.

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 What advice do you have for someone who wants to start their own business?

Put yourself out there. It’s a scary proposition, as you can’t hide behind an Instagram or Twitter handle; you have to be physically present and physically out there. Go meet with as many people as possible, especially in the beginning. You never know who can help you or who they know that can help you. Patience is also mandatory. It took me about six months before things started to click and people are very quick to remind me that six months is nothing in the course of a business, but let me tell you those where a long six months, especially since I launched at the lowpoint of the recession.

Running your own business is a lot of work. You have to think short and long term, strategically and operationally every moment. I had various markers for success most of which weren’t financial. I’ve found from other entrepreneurs that if you lead with passion people will pick up on that. I also want to say that sometimes it’s important to just go for it. I never wrote a business plan. I don’t give that advice for everyone, but sometimes over thinking it will just make it all the more daunting.

What is a typical day like for you?

The base is of my day is client work. I see about 10-15 per day so there isn’t much room for anything else, which makes sense because they keep the lights on. I also do a lot of media work so am I writing or speaking to an editor almost daily, which is always a lot of fun for me. I make sure to carve out some time every day to read the news, and not just in my field. I have a PR background so that comes very naturally. I also carve out some time for social media which I have a love hate relationship with. Lastly, I work on reviewing journals, answering questions, calling new clients, doctors, taking notes, oh and billing of course. I now make sure I have at least and hour lunch break. This took years to be okay with. I am also in the midst of a rebrand for the business, which is a lot of work! Last, but certainly not least, I make sure to spend one hour ever week with the entire team, typically first thing on Monday. That way we can set our priorities for the week, see what is going right, what’s going wrong, and catch up. It’s a small office but because each of us have very little time these meetings are vital to keep the business humming.

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What are some of the best things, and on the flip side the most challenging things, about starting your own business?

Best thing hands down is helping people achieve their goals. Seriously, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a client have the “aha” moment, or receiving a simple thank you note. I see clients years later that still refer me to their friends and family, there’s nothing better than that.

Next up, being able to meet other business owners, people in the health and food world, whether it be trainers to those launching a new food company, to brand strategists, to chefs, to writers, etc. I also love the opportunity to help others in the field, as it tends to be a somewhat competitive career with no clear path. More and more people are getting their masters in nutrition but there are very few jobs in private practice.

The most challenging thing is juggling and prioritizing and carving time out for myself. I used to work 15 hour days pretty consistently, but I learned pretty quickly that being burnt out was only making me worse at what I do. Learning to be strategic with my time and stay present is always an ongoing challenge and, of course, not being so tough on myself.

What are some of your responsibilities as the founder and nutritionist behind Middleberg Nutrition?

Well, think of any business, typically there are three primary areas: 1. Client Services 2. Administration (finance, HR, operations) 3. Marketing. Well, I’m responsible for all of that. While I have a fantastic team that is hugely supportive, I need to be on top of everything, from billings to bookings, to employee reviews and marketing. My team is hugely important to me and I truly want to see them grow and be successful and to open them up to all the opportunities I have. I also stay on top of trends, products, etc. in the health world to make sure I know, and am providing my clients with, the best advice. After all that there’s the marketing piece, so back to the media work, developing a newsletter every month, and planning executing our social media strategy.

How did your career path lead you to founding your own company?

I’ve always been very independent and have seen the big picture in most things I do. I like to get to the point quickly and I think that translates with how I work with my clients. This is a second career for me and I pretty much fell into it – although looking back it makes complete sense. I was always very involved in sports and health loved being one-on-one with people and always looked forward to my MD appointments (which I know is completely weird). Not really knowing what I wanted to do after college, my first career was in health care public relations where I worked in big corporations on large projects. This was a tremendous base for me. It taught me great business skills, organization, communication (speaking and writing), how to become a mini expert on a topic pretty quickly, how to be creative and resourceful, and how to pitch to media and be able to get their attention quickly, etc. I remember looking at my boss and thinking, “I don’t want to be her one-day.” I realized it wasn’t the account, the company, the manager that needed a change, it was me. At the same time, I had a lot of stomach issues and saw a lot of doctors. Changing my diet became a top priority, which led me to think more holistically about my health. So I literally opened up US News and World Report top grad schools and started to read what was out there. I fixated on Berkley (I love California) and discovered public health. I started to meet with various schools in New York, as well as students, started studying for the GRE’s at night while working, and applied to various programs. I chose NYU because it had a great joint degree that awarded you a Masters in Public Health and an RD. I didn’t know being a nutritionist was a career and I had never been to one. Once I was in grad school my advisor suggested I may enjoy the nutrition-focused route more and she was completely right. So I changed course again and graduated with an MS and RD.

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You’ve been featured in publications such as US WeeklyWomen’s Health, BuzzfeedHarper’s Bazaar, Shape, Cosmo, Well + Good, and more. Do you work with a publicist? What tips do you have for getting press and being seen as a thought leader in your field? 

This is a great question. All my media happened organically. My first career was in PR so I am fortunate to have been on the other side and have a sense of what journalists are looking for. I learned the importance of communication and organizing thoughts into key points. You can have all the information in the world but unless you can communicate it effectively, that information is of little use. I was fortunate to be introduced to a few great journalists. I helped them with a few pieces and then it has just built from there. I have learned a lot along the way. I tend to do most of my written work via email to prevent being misquoted, which did happen once. I also have learned to find my voice and help shape the piece and how I would like to be quoted. I will tell the journalist honestly if I’m uncomfortable speaking on a certain subject. And that’s actually one of my best pieces of advice, don’t provide a quote just to get in the news, be truthful to your beliefs, trust me the journalist will appreciate it and will more likely come back to you for something else. Remember they’re real people with very difficult jobs and the more helpful and honest you are, the more they’ll trust you and want to work with you.

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What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?

Nothing. Just be yourself, be passionate about what you do, be flexible and open to new ideas, and work your butt off.

 What advice would you give to someone who is in the first five years of their career?

Listen to yourself. I tend to ask different people for advice (whether it be my husband, family or friends) but at the end of the day I make my own decisions. There are times that a more “business” approach would have made business sense but it didn’t feel right. At the end of the day, the clients are my priority and I always ask what would make me feel good. Keep going to lectures. You can always learn SOMETHING, even if it is a presentation style or a one liner that resonates with you. Find some people who you feel are worthy mentors and reach out. Be aggressive. I always appreciate someone contacting me out of the blue.

How would you define your professional style? What are a few staples?

Downtown uptown. I work uptown but live in Brooklyn so my style reflects that. I like to be comfortable (because I sit in a chair for most of the day) but I also like to have fun with my clothes. It’s always evolving just like the way I counsel and my food finds. I like to keep it comfortable and fresh.

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What is on your desk right now?

I try to have an uncluttered desk. I have a photo of my husband and I, a pear pen holder that my in-laws purchased for me in Italy, a water bottle (either a mason jar with a glass straw or a bottle like Swell), print-outs of food journals to review, a phone, my laptop, a candle, and tissues.

Where do you turn for inspiration?

I have a great combination in my family. I turn to my husband for every day stuff (I probably do this too much) and for his design style and editorial skills, my dad for the big picture business insights, my mom for advice from a consumer (I like to know if this is fair, would this turn her off), and I also turn to my friends who are business owners because ultimately they are the best to learn from (what’s worked for them, what mistakes they made, what questions to ask), etc.

 Who is your mentor?

  1. Dietitian: Joy Bauer. She was really the first dietitian to grow a brand and a true nutrition practice and has been wonderful and generous with her time with me. She is open and has always conducted herself and her career in a very true and honest way. I respect her tremendously.
  2. My father. He’s successfully built two major businesses from scratch and has made little to no enemies along the way. People gravitate to him because of his fairness, instinct, and decisiveness.

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What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

From my Dad: When running a business it’s important to be fair, firm and compassionate. I try to live up to that daily. I also am a firm believer in breaking out of your comfort zones.

What is a fun fact about you?

I was the pickiest eater when I was younger and I didn’t start to like food until I studied abroad in college, which is a bit ironic considering what I do now. I was (and many would say still am) a tomboy. I grew up falling asleep to ESPN yet I also was in love with my Barbies. I’ve always had that combo of soft and hard, feminine and masculine.

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What advice do you have for other young professional women?

Be yourself but know your audience. I get a ton of cold emails a day from young women who want advice, an internship, a job, etc. Some are very well researched and thoughtful, and others are clearly a copy and paste job. Also, it’s always nice to tell people how much you love them (in a sincere way of course).

What is your favorite quote?

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

What is your #1 tip for eating healthier this year? 

Ditch the diet, processed, artificial foods and start to cook or assemble meals 1-2 times a week. I did not grow up cooking and pretty much had a bachelor’s refrigerator. I didn’t start until I started dating (my now husband). He loves food and loves to cook and literally had to walk over his kitchen supplies to my apartment because I had nothing. He made cooking together fun and relaxing and I started to experiment slowly. I think cooking can be super intimidating and fearful but really if you can read you can cook. It is such an important piece of getting to know and appreciate food, quality, etc. and it definitely helps strengthen your relationship with food.

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Thank you so much, Stephanie!

I love reading about what nutritionists eat and Stephanie’s Instagram and Twitter are two of my favorite accounts to follow. I love getting inspiration from her pictures and the articles and facts she shares!

P.S. A huge thank you to Katherine Feiner for connecting us. I met Katherine though Courtney Grace Peterson and now Katherine has connected me with Stephanie. I’m so lucky!

Images via Stephanie Middleberg Nutrition and Stephanie’s Instagram. Featured image via Toby Amidor Nutrition.

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