Sandra Shorter ’15 EdD says, “Try a Naked Cupcake”
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a frosted cupcake, says Sandra Shorter ’05MA ’15EdD. “I mean, I would never turn one down,” she laughs.
But when she was dreaming about her business, “The Naked Cupcake,” Shorter knew that she wanted her flavorful cupcakes to be able to stand alone. Frosting and other toppings are delicious, but a good cupcake must start with the cake.
The idea for the business had been baking for a while. She learned the art of cakery as a young child from her aunt, who taught her how to cream the butter and sugar just so, and how important it was to follow exacting steps to ensure confectionary perfection.
When the simple cake would come out of the oven, warm and redolent of vanilla, Shorter’s aunt would dive into a big piece and enjoy the frosting-less experience.
And even though her aunt had a profound influence on Shorter’s culinary education, she had a much longer route to her current profession.
Passionate about Education and Service
As the daughter of Colombian immigrants who met in the United States, Shorter, who is very mathematically inclined, initially wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, an engineer, she says.
As Shorter’s interests began to lean more toward human development and psychology, she pursued a degree in education at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
After she received her degree, Shorter joined AmeriCorpsVISTA, a national nonprofit organization that places volunteers in local organizations to alleviate poverty.
Shorter was placed in Jumpstart for Children in Fresno, CA, a national early education organization that recruits and trains college students and community Corps members to serve preschool children in low-income neighborhoods. There, she served as an assistant program coordinator for a little over a year. VISTA provided a small “living allowance,” and Shorter says that year was one of the best experiences of her life.
When she came back to Florida, Shorter realized the experience in Fresno had changed her life, and that to have a bigger impact on the children she taught, she would need to earn a master’s degree. So, she dived back into teaching, and into her graduate studies at UCF.
Making her Mark
Shorter became sought after for her teaching and was asked to serve as an instructional coach for other educators at the district level. Soon, she began getting positions at the state level to teach new standards across Florida.
“I was just so passionate about teaching and helping teachers become better,” Shorter says. “I think that passion must have come through during training, and after I received my national board certification, I began to realize that I wanted to go back for the next item on my bucket list – a doctorate degree.”
It was a crazy, busy time for Shorter. She had applied to the doctorate program at UCF, and she was also teaching the core members of Teach for America at their summer institute in New York. While she was teaching, she learned that she had been accepted.
Shorter admitted that it took a little longer to finish her doctorate than she planned.
Along the way, Shorter met fellow UCF alumnus Nicholas Shorter ’09PhD ’06MSEE ’05. “We got married, and then I finished a year after.”
Life was sweet for Shorter, until it wasn’t.
A Bittersweet Ending – and a New Beginning
She had been teaching at a fast clip for 13 years, eight of them in the classroom, when she realized the tools she had used in her career as an educator were no longer working.
“Whenever I coached my teachers, I told them that when you aren’t being effective anymore, then it’s time to leave. We are certainly not teaching for the money, and when your passion and your love are no longer there, then you can no longer be there for your students.”
Shorter’s last year in the classroom was 2015-16. There was no “final straw,” just a prayerful change that led her to realize her work in the classroom was finished, and she needed to embark on a new journey.
Shorter began reminiscing about the good times she’d had with her aunt at her grandma’s house.
“She taught me how to spoon the flour and level it, and how to warm the eggs to room temperature,” Shorter says. “And it was just a really sweet memory that I had, and I kind of fell in love with that.”
Shorter’s aunt always made just one kind of cake. It must have been some tradition that had been passed down to her, and that was part of the charm for Shorter.
“I’ve always been a sweets lover,” Shorter says. “And sometimes I would just make something for myself because I wanted it, you know?”
Making Sweet Memories – and a New Business
When she was growing up, Shorter’s home had an unused shed in the back yard. She decided it would one day be her little shop where she could make her favorite treat, chocolate chip cookies.
Her love for baking ebbed and flowed throughout her life, but one constant for her was the special relationship she had always had with her sister, Dr. Veronica Sampayo ’13. Veronica knew the desires of her sister’s heart. And so, one year, Veronica gave Shorter her very first stand mixer.
If you know, you know. If you don’t know why an electric appliance is important, Shorter would be quick to tell you.
“It changed my life,” Shorter said. “It was red, it was beautiful, and I still have her.”
Shorter then began in earnest her quest for the perfect chocolate, red velvet, and vanilla cupcakes. She hearkened back to her early love of math and science and began experimenting with various recipes. She kept cupcake logs. “Too dry.” “Needs more chocolate flavor.” “Bad crumb.”
After she felt she had the perfect cupcake, she talked with her husband about the feasibility of opening her own business.
He asked me one question, Shorter says. “‘At the end of your life, when you look back, will you regret not having done it?’”
Getting her “Baking Degree”
After receiving his enthusiastic approval, Shorter continued on her quest for more education about entrepreneurship. She read books, took free classes and sought out expert advice from SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives). She enlisted her family as field representatives and began bringing the results of her experimentation into her class for her colleagues. She would tell them, “You can have one, but you have to give me feedback.”
Before too long, Shorter’s colleagues began commissioning her for celebrations. Could she make a fancy birthday cake?
“I had no interest in decorating whatsoever,” Shorter recalls. But Veronica stepped in again and urged her to try. At the time, Veronica was a nurse, and the two of them figured out how to color, roll, and apply fondant and buttercream frosting. Later, Shorter debuted her first commission for a client: The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.
After she launched her business, one of her SCORE mentors asked her about what she wished she had known.
“I made a mistake about how much money I was going to make,” Shorter says. She had gone to food truck events and counted how many sales were happening at a cupcake truck. She lurked by the truck all night until the owner sold out. Shorter estimated how many cupcakes she had brought, and how much she had made based on the traffic.
Later, when she opened her own truck (adorably named “Trixie”) she found her projections were way off. Ultimately, she figured it out. Once the truck became profitable, Shorter began planning for her own storefront by learning from people who had already blazed the path for her.
“I was listening to business books while I was driving Trixie, I was listening to podcasts, because I realized that the most valuable resource on the planet is a human resource,” Shorter says.
One of her resources was a mentor from SCORE who helped negotiate an amazing deal for her new storefront, The Naked Cupcake, on Narcoossee Road in Orlando.
“Even my Realtor didn’t think the owner would accept it,” Shorter says. “But I stood firm and told them to go and ask for it. And the owner said OK. They said OK!”
Today, when Shorter is invited into local schools for Career Day (they love her, and not just because she brings them cupcakes), she tells the class about the math and science of baking, how important it is to learn their fractions and nerd terms like capacity and volume.
“What I want these children to know – and for everyone to know, really – is that you need to always stay a learner. There is always a way. We have the most amazing pool of resources all around us, and if you look left and look right, there is always someone to help us keep Charging On.”