Libby Zemaitis: The Climate Scientist Turned Sustainable Entrepreneur

Libby MurphyWarning! This is not a traditional Career 2.0 story. This woman did not plunge into a new profession after years pursuing another career. This is a story about doing what you love, finding your passion and going after it, no matter how big or overwhelming it may seem. It’s also a great business idea that we just can’t resist sharing.

For someone who is intent on revolutionizing the manufactured housing industry, it’s pretty ironic that Libby Zemaitis lives in the same house where her grandfather was born in New Paltz, not far from the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York.

But really it isn’t all that surprising that a woman who aims to bring affordable, modern and eco-friendly homes to the masses cherishes her old home and the sense of belonging.

“Our housing market is so broken, environmentally, socially, and economically. I want to build homes that are light on the earth and on your wallet. We are not aiming for niche. Everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy a beautifully designed and sustainable home, not just higher income people. This is our chance to change all that.” (more…)

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.

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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?