Sonal Gerten: Making a Business of Being Playful

KFP_6974_v2 (1)Over the sound of her baby’s gurgles and giddy shrieks, Sonal Gerten acknowledges she never expected to be an entrepreneur. Even today, three years into her Indian-inspired, vibrant play-friendly kids’ clothing line, the Pittsburgh native and mother-of-two is surprised at how far she’s come. “I’m risk averse and not adventurous by nature, so starting my own business was not something I remotely considered …  Even today, it still feels very overwhelming to call myself an entrepreneur,” she laughs.

So, how did she end up here? At the start of her career, Gerten had two great passions: marketing, which tapped into her creative side, and education, which fulfilled her love of working with and improving the lives of children. A graduate of Johns Hopkins who had tutored young children during and after college, Gerten initially followed the education path and moved to Arizona where she was involved in the establishment of charter schools. From there, she went to Los Angeles to do an MBA at UCLA. Specializing in marketing, Gerten lent her skills over the summer to Head Start, the early childhood education program, “I loved contributing to their work. The fact that I was applying my business school skills to helping children was a great motivator for me.”

The experience was so fulfilling in fact that she found herself at a crossroads after graduation, still torn between marketing and education. But love stepped in to offer some guidance, and Gerten followed her now husband, Allen, to Minneapolis where they both took up positions at General Mills. Working as a marketing manager for three years, Gerten learned the nuts and bolts of the business, but felt something was missing.

She welcomed a second chance to return to the education field when an opportunity popped up to work for Teach for America managing a team that focused on recruitment partnerships. “It felt like I was making a big leap from corporate America to non-profit, not only a different career trajectory but a financial one too. But it seemed like the right opportunity at the right time, especially working with an organization that aims to close the achievement gap.”

While Gerten loved her time at Teach for America, she found that period of her life challenging. “I had my son, Deven, then and found it increasingly difficult to be ‘in the moment’. I was so wrapped up in work and thinking about the future and then this little person came along who taught me how to be playful again.” Her new role of mother provided lots of food for thought about her lifestyle and more generally how to “let go” more in the parent-child interaction, she wondered if there was an opportunity there somewhere.

The busy new mom started looking into ways to integrate spontaneous play into family life and, driven by her interest in education, did some research on the benefits of unstructured play. As her own mindset about having a more open and playful parenting style evolved, Gerten had her eureka moment while out shopping for baby clothes one day. She found the clothes so dull and traditional and couldn’t find any organic fabrics or unique designs. “It was kind of disappointing. Shopping for clothes adds to the fun quotient of having a small baby and I couldn’t find anything that I loved. Organic clothes that would let my son crawl and move around unhindered. I knew there was a niche there, I just needed some time to figure it out.”

In the last year of the three she spent with Teach for America, Gerten mulled over the idea of starting an eco- and child-friendly clothing line. She held back and forth conversations with herself and discussed her idea at length with her husband, friends and even colleagues.

Her ideas and vision came together slowly. “I wanted to merge the concept of a clothing business with unrestricted playfulness. The clothes should facilitate movement and freedom, be comfortable, organic, colorful and easy to wash.”

She found a creative designer, a friend of a friend, who helped visualize her thoughts. She hired a graphic designer to create the logo and branding elements, but mostly she turned to people she trusted. “One of the best things I ever did was to enlist my family and friends. For my first kick off meeting, I invited my ten closest friends for Indian food and a brainstorming session. It served as a way for others to get invested and for me to get inspired and motivated but more importantly it made me feel accountable … I had a deadline to work towards.” Assembling a bunch of magazines, they talked about the name and vision of living in the moment and celebrating the joys of parenthood.

And so Tumblewalla  (Hindi for “the one who tumbles”) was born.

Hedgehog_revisedThe feedback from her friends was so positive, it gave her the confidence she needed to move forward. “That was the springboard. I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to do this. I can do this.’” Gerten recalls.

Within a few months, then 34-year-old Gerten left Teach for America to focus 100% on the business. Despite claiming to be risk adverse, the decision was not an uncomplicated one: “You know, it’s so easy to get comfortable. If we don’t challenge ourselves, we never know what our potential is. I don’t want to have that regret. I finally got comfortable with the idea that if I failed, it would be OK. It gave me the freedom to say, ‘I can do this now. What’s the worse than can happen?’”

After six months working on Tumblewalla, Gerten was taken aback by how much capital and time was needed. Having invested her own money and taken bank loans, she decided to return to the job market to bring in more funds. She took a marketing position at Activision, a video-game firm, figuring she could work on her clothing line at night, but after one year she realized the impossibility of the situation. “I had ordered my first inventory from India but quickly saw I didn’t have the capacity to build my fan base, call on boutiques, or go to events. So all my inventory was literally sitting in my basement. I just had time to maintain the website and answer emails but I was clearly not moving forward.”

Becoming increasingly frustrated, Gerten finally understood that if Tumblewalla was going to succeed as a business she would have to devote herself 100%. “Starting a business is so challenging. I understand why I did things the way I did and to some extent I’m even glad. It’s like dipping your toe in the water to make sure the temperature is right and this is what you really want to do. But there is no way I could have gotten to the point where I am today if I was still working. If I was ready before, after one year of holding down a full-time job and trying to run my business, I knew I was really, really ready,” she laughs.

Gerten worked out of her home in the beginning but as the inventory took over the house and the line between work and family time became blurred, she decided to rent a space in Minneapolis’ art district with some other artists. Now she works with a Minneapolis-based designer and hires interns from the Apparel Design program at the University of Minnesota. It works so well that Gerten hired her first intern as her creative manager and right-hand help. “Working with interns has been a great asset and wonderful discovery. They bring passion and fresh perspective. They are very familiar with the industry and even teach me about new stiches, cuts, and trends. We are building this business together.”

Sonal Gerten -- Amelie2
Here’s a sneak peak from Tumblewalla’s new Fall collection which features more traditional Indian-inspired prints and recalls the flavors of an Indian bazaar … paprika, nutmeg, mango.

And she has been resourceful in growing the business in other ways too. Last Fall, she reached out to MoolaHoop, a crowdfunding platform by and for women, to help produce her Spring line which had to be pre-ordered and paid for before it was sold. Moolahoop were great in coaching her through the process, and Gerten not only exceeded her $9000 funding goal but also got the word out about her business.

The design-for-play Tumblewalla is not just about creating joyful clothing for kids. Gerten and her team work with non-profit partners to eradicate what they call “the play deficit” globally, 5% of sales goes directly to these projects. They also develop free parent resources and offer easy playtime activities and tips for parents. This includes workshops on why play is critical to a baby’s growth and development. And the company is committed to sustainability. Gerten sources her organic cotton-based materials from a supplier in India and works only with small manufacturers to produce the garments. Her family in India found an intermediary who serves as Tumblewalla’s advocate. This woman ensures all suppliers meet high the company’s standards in terms of quality and employee working conditions. “There’s been a lot of trial and error, but I think we finally got it right,” Gerten admits.

Three years in and Tumblewalla continues to blossom. Orders and sales are increasing each season and while there is always more she wants to achieve, Gerten acknowledges she feels excited “about what we’ve accomplished so far. I say ‘We’ because it’s not just me. We are a team. I might be the one carrying the risk but together we carry the business.”

Sonal Gerten’s Tips to Starting Your Own Business:

  • Understand your strengths but more importantly your weaknesses and find people to fill that gap. Enlist people who can offer good ideas because you’ll never have all the answers
  • Be prepared for the highs and lows. They are so much more extreme than in the corporate world because they are personal.
  • You are going to make mistakes, there are never enough hours in the day. You need to know where your priorities are. Don’t forget your family. You will regret the cost in the long run. You don’t have to run on a treadmill and work yourself crazy to be successful.

Have we tickled your fancy? Check out Tumblewalla’s Fall catalog.

Judy Masucci: From Biotech Executive to Bra Whisperer

If you had asked Judy Masucci when she was majoring in biology at Smith College if she could ever see herself becoming a specialist in maternity wear and large cup bras, she’d have laughed in your face. But more than two decades later, it’s no laughing matter. Masucci left a successful career in the corporate science industry to turn her own difficult experience as a newly breastfeeding, working mom into the basis for a business, launching A Mother’s Boutique, a highly successful storefront and online retailer of nursing bras, breastfeeding clothing, and maternity wear.

judy M
Judy and her son

After Smith, Masucci earned a Ph.D. in genetics from Colombia University, followed by a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Washington. Deciding to take the corporate rather than academic route, she moved to Boston where she spent six years at biotech firm Perkin Elmer, “helping scientists but not actually doing the science myself.” She held a variety of positions in sales and marketing and management. From there she moved to Pittsburgh with her new husband, keeping her position at PE, but the demands became unmanageable: “I was on the road 5-days a week, on a plane every night and in a different city every day. It was just grueling.”

She moved to a competitor but shortly thereafter was headhunted by her former boss to become Director of Marketing for a small biotech firm, Cellomics. As the only woman and director on the Board surrounded by male VPs, it was lonely at the top. Masucci found this to be particularly the case when she discovered she was pregnant at 37 years of age. The company was being sold and her job took her all over the country.

Awaiting her post-maternity leave was a new boss and poorly disguised jabs about her reduced hours (from 14 to 9-hour days) and lack of approachability and involvement. Like so many women, Masucci struggled to continue breastfeeding while working. “I already felt like I was neither doing a good enough job at work nor spending enough time with my son but then I had to deal with the comments.” On one occasion, her boss nonchalantly noted “It seems like you spend a lot of time with the door closed” to which her riposte was: “Well … there are two reasons why this might be the case. I am either having a meeting with one of my 11 direct reports or I am pumping…so which would you like me to stop doing?” The silence was deafening.

But the calling was loud. Quitting at the age of 38, Masucci negotiated a severance package, including health insurance (key, since she was the family’s main bread winner at the time). While breastfeeding had been such a challenge for her and contributed to her decision to leave the business, it also became the inspiration for what she might do next. “As a new mom I was facing every obstacle a new mother could encounter. My son was nursing all the time … on every park bench in my neighborhood, every café, every bookstore, you name it, I’ve nursed there. I scoured the Internet for clothing to help me breast feed in public comfortably and always came up frustrated.” She knew she wanted to help new mothers be successful at breastfeeding but just wasn’t sure how she could make money out of it. Figuring it out “was center stage in my mind.”

After leaving Corporate America, Judy spent a few months catching up with her son and in January 2007, started formulating her business plan for a breast-feeding boutique. Critical was the 8-week Self-Employment Assistance Course Masucci took through a local small-business development group on how to launch and run a business. She worked with an advisor, who followed her for three years, and – critically – this program enabled her to collect unemployment while working from home on her new business.

Four months later, A Mother’s Boutique was born. Primarily online, it focused on clothing, until Masucci expanded into nursing bras and breast pumps, becoming a “one-stop source for new mothers”. She even offered virtual bra-fitting: “Over the years, I have become a bra expert. Bra fitting is more of an art than a science.” Who knew? After three years, Masucci opened a retail presence, and spent three days there and the other days seeing clients by appointment. Last year, she opened a more prominent location and hired two employees … business is looking up.

But it hasn’t been easy. Sacrifices were made and, as she stepped back from her role as main breadwinner, her husband had to step up and find new employment. But clearly Masucci is no shrinking violet and has zero regrets about leaving Corporate America and its boards and prestigious salaries behind. “It’s a different level of success. I work more hours than before but I can do this from home. I schedule work around things I need to do with my family. I’m as much a workaholic as ever but everything I do now, I do for me. I’ve come a long way and am proud of it. I own a 2200 ft2 retail store, have a nice following on Twitter, Facebook, and my advice blog, and even own a baby shirt company.” And happily, her business is finally at the point where she can start giving back to the family.

“This business is very personal for me. I overcame my own breastfeeding challenges and want to help other women do the same. Apart from my product line, I offer lots of advice through my blog and social media, host a mom’s support group and print up brochures on breastfeeding tips. I am passionate about giving back and this, I truly believe, is the reason for my success.” That, and her talents as bra-fitter extraordinaire.

Judy Masucci’s Tips for Success:
  • Expectations? Keep them low with respect to salary. Masucci pays herself very little, most of the profit is reinvested into the business. It’s harder to grow the business if you have to live off profits.
  • Be ready to commit. Initially Masucci invested $20K from her savings. Be prepared to spend but do as much yourself as possible. She designed her own website, packaged and shipped goods etc.
  • Roll with the punches … your original plan will evolve, evolve with it.
  • When starting a new business, take the low risk route. Avoid investing too much in (brick and mortar) retail, instead focus online, spend a little on marketing and inventory but be sure you always can take the loss should one occur.
  • If you have a degree, use it! Masucci’s still prominently displays her hard earned Ph.D. on written materials believing it gives her credibility with customers.

Discussion

Did your experience as a mother, trying to balance work and family, encourage you to look for a new career?