Tanya Van Court: Sowing the Seeds for a Brighter Future

tanya Sow

Tanya Van Court’s great idea, the one that would become not only her next business venture but her all-consuming passion, began simply enough. Her daughter, the older of her two children, was turning nine. When Van Court asked her what she would like for her birthday, her daughter replied that she wanted only two things: a bicycle and money to open an investment account. Van Court thought these were laudable goals, but she knew it wasn’t going to happen. She knew – we all know – that well-meaning relatives and party guests were likely to brings a few arts-and-craft kits, maybe a board game, and several versions of the fad-of-the-moment (rubber band bracelet, anyone?)

“Sometimes we walk down a path because it’s easy and comfortable. We may never meander, and consequently miss the new opportunity right in front of us. Change doesn’t have to be bad; change can be wonderful.”

Van Court saw a problem – a broken gift-giving system – and thought she could come up with a way to fix it. She had always taught her children the concept of Share/Save/Spend as a way to handle the money they earned. It occurred to her that she could set up an online system that would allow gift-givers – friends, grandparents, aunts, uncles, anyone – to contribute directly toward these goals. More personal that simply writing a check, the gift giver would view a child’s profile and see their specific saving, spending and donating goals, and then decide how much and to what fund they’d like to contribute. “My daughter very much appreciates the gifts people give her,” Van Court says, “but it doesn’t necessarily mean she actually uses them. I wanted to fix what I see as a broken economic exchange, and just as importantly, teach our kids the value of all this money that’s being spent.”

It happened that right around the time of her daughter’s birthday, Van Court had been trying to decide on her next career move. She received both her undergrad and master’s degree in industrial engineering from Stanford University in the early 90’s and after trying out various engineering jobs she began working her way up the corporate ladder, first at CableVision, then at ESPN and later Nickelodeon, which suited her well because of her passion for children and education. From Nickelodeon she moved on to her most recent position at Discovery Education, where she helped launch the first digital textbooks. But Discovery Education had just gone through a major restructuring and Van Court found herself out of a job and trying to figure out her next career move.

Slide1Van Court had been planning to look for another corporate position, but the more she thought about her online gift giving idea the more she started to think that maybe she didn’t want to continue on the corporate ladder, after all. “I’m not one of these perennial entrepreneurs who’s always seeing opportunity wherever I look. I wasn’t looking for a business venture.”

Still, she wanted to explore the possibilities. She read a book called The Lean Start-Up, by Eric Ries, and followed the book’s recommendation to talk to as many people as possible. And when Van Court did that, she was floored by the positive feedback she got. “People said, ’Do this. Not today, not tomorrow, but yesterday.’ I have friends from every socio-economic background, and it didn’t matter if the person was a working-class mom, or a person with millions of dollars in the bank. They all felt that their kids had too much stuff, and that kids weren’t learning lessons about healthy financial habits. They thought that this could fix the problems that they were experiencing with gift giving – both in terms of their own kids and as far as buying presents for other kids.”

So in early 2015 Van Court made the decision not to return to the corporate world but instead to turn her idea into a reality. Naming her company Sow, she put together a website using all the feedback she had received. Her company was officially launched on December 3, 2015, one day before her son’s 6th birthday. Naturally, he has his own Sow account. Van Courts says, “An amazing proof of concept came when my son got $250 for his birthday towards meaningful goals, instead of receiving meaningless goods.”  The site has already signed up hundreds of young people and parents during its first month.

Van Court's daughter
Van Court’s daughter, Gabrielle

Financially, there have been and continue to be many sacrifices involved in not collecting a regular paycheck, but her family and friends have been extremely supportive, including her ex-husband (she refers to him as her Wasband) with whom she maintains a great relationship. Still, she cautions others to be careful. “You have to be realistic about your prospects. It’s likely you’re not going to go a couple of months without income, you could go a year or more.” Still, the financial sacrifices, which have not been insignificant, haven’t deterred her. “Sometimes we walk down a path because it’s easy and comfortable. We may never meander, and consequently miss the new opportunity right in front of us. Change doesn’t have to be bad; change can be wonderful.”

One big change for Van Court was learning to ask for help. “When you are working as an executive you have a lot of leverage and power to help other people, and you don’t need to ask for as much. When you are an entrepreneur that whole paradigm gets completely shifted upside down. You ask for help with everything.” One neighbor helped her get together a focus group of kids in the neighborhood. She reached out to another friend who had expertise in branding, another with marketing experience. A friend who is a graphic designer helped her develop a logo. “I literally reached out to almost every person I could think of in my network to help with something. I was so grateful, and continue to be so grateful, that people were so willing to help. I was almost in awe. I’d never asked for so much help in my life; it’s just not in my nature. It was a real growth and learning experience for me.”

Despite the hard work and financial sacrifices, Van Court, 43, has no regrets and remains passionate and upbeat about her mission. “I have not wavered from the belief that this is the right product and I am the right person to bring it to market. I believe that this has the potential to be a great business and have real social impact. It’s the opportunity to leave the world a little better. Where I sit today, there is nothing that I would rather be doing and nothing I could be more excited about.”

Van Court’s startup tips:
    • Be realistic about your prospects and about how long you will go without a paycheck (hint: probably longer than you think). Be clear on what sacrifices you will need to make.
    • Read the book, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries. Then talk to people and get as much feedback as you can.
    • Ask for help. You might be amazed at people’s willingness to help, but you have to ask.
    • Don’t minimize the power of networks, and know that you’ll need to grow and expand yours to succeed.
    • If you have the grit, the toughness, to endure the sacrifice, doing something you believe in is wonderful.



Leslie Fishlock: The Geek on a Mission to Take the Terror out of Technology

Leslie Fishlock Geek Girls

Leslie Fishlock is an unrepentant geek and self-declared rabble-rouser who loves nothing more than to disrupt.

Questioning her tactics for getting more women into tech, a smug woman once criticized her for “teaching old ladies how to open PDFs.” She was far off base in terms of what Fishlock and her organization Geek Girl is actually doing, but the 50-year-old founder admits if that’s what it takes to help them understand technology, then she’s all for it.

“She totally missed the concept that if you don’t start somewhere learning how to do things for yourself, you’re never going to get into more advanced fields like aerospace or engineering. Maybe I’m not training astronauts of the future but I certainly am making technology accessible.” (more…)

Aurora Anaya-Cerda: Moving her Community Forward, One Book at a Time

Courtesy of Johnny Ramos
Courtesy of Johnny Ramos

Opening an independent bookstore at time when most were shuttering their doors against the Amazon giant might seem like a risky and even foolish venture to some. But not for Aurora Anaya-Cerda. The determined California native spent six years working multiple jobs before she realized her dream of opening a literary hub in the heart of East Harlem, New York.

“I wish every neighborhood had an independent bookstore. There are stories at Casa Azul that are not told anywhere else in the city; that’s what’s magical.  Customers realize how important La Casa Azul Bookstore is for our community, how our buying power can ensure our stories remain in El Barrio. My dream of opening a bookstore has become my community’s dream.” (more…)

Helping Women Business Owners One Class at a Time

Jenn AubertLife does not follow a straight path or one’s best laid out intentions.  It weaves. It dramatically shifts. It surprises you and, if you’re lucky, you’ll look back and say, “Boy was that fun!”

No one wakes up and brightly declares, “Today I will build my own business and call myself an entrepreneur.”  Usually there are several small steps and circumstances that leads someone to launch a business.

Unlike most people I know, I’ve always felt deep in my gut that I wanted to own my own business. This feeling has danced in the back of my mind ever since I was a kid.  The trouble was I never knew exactly what that business would look like, what I’d sell, or the service I would provide. (more…)

Carrie McIndoe: A Passion for Creating Opportunity

Carrie-McIndoe-head-shotCarrie McIndoe read a great quote once and, although she doesn’t know who said it or if she’s even quoting it right, it spoke profoundly to her: “‘Savor the time you spend with the people you love and on the parts of your life that matter the most, so much so that it makes you so happy you could dance in the street.’”

After a long career in strategic business planning and financing for start-ups, McIndoe is living those words as the founder of Economic Ventures, a not-for-profit dedicated to entrepreneurship. “I’ve learned a lot of lessons, many the hard way, and want to share these to help others transform their lives. I can’t imagine doing anything better.” (more…)

Lubna Rihani: From School to Sweet Success

Lubna What’s a girl to do when she’s got a sweet tooth?  For Lubna Rihani of Amman, Jordan, baking has always been a passion, but it wasn’t until she turned 40 that she found a way to turn it into more than a hobby.

The founder of Cupcake Fashion, which imports decorating supplies and baking tools from all over the world to Jordan to help fellow bakers have fun with their craft, started her career in the classroom.

Majoring in English and Political Science at the University of Jordan, Rihani knew she wanted to do one thing after graduation – become a teacher.  “As soon as I graduated, I actually got a job teaching at the school that I myself had gone to as a child. It was a really lovely experience, and I stayed there for five years.”

During the last two of those five years, Rihani got married and she and her husband went to the UK to pursue their masters. “I had developed an interest in special needs education when I was teaching so I decided to study IT in  Education. I found all the new ways to use technology to teach special needs kids fascinating.” (more…)

Samantha Razook Murphy: Creating a Movement from a Summer Camp

Beth_Samantha_Melisa_SillyThey say that necessity is the mother of invention, and no one knows better than Samantha Razook Murphy.

Running a residential summer camp for teens, far from family and friends, this creative mom launched her own day camp for young girls to occupy her daughters while she worked round the clock. With a focus on hands-on science and project-based fun, Curious Jane was an immediate success and has evolved today into a highly successful camp, after-school, and community-events business aiming to empower girls to solve problems and experiment in unexplored subjects.

“We take a STEM approach but it’s also creative. Really my goal with the girls is to remove fear of failure as they tend to have greater internal and external pressure to get something right. I want girls to fail. I want them to see it’s totally fine and they can learn from it. I want them to use their hands, look at the world in a different way, open the kitchen drawer and see tools and resources for their creativity, and, best of all, know they can do it themselves,” she explains with enthusiasm.

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Razook Murphy always did well at school. Academics were a top priority, and she didn’t disappoint when going to Yale. But her choice of major – graphic design – at an ivy league school was non-traditional. Graduating a year early, Razook Murphy moved home and did some work in the field only to discover it wasn’t really her thing.

She married young, at 23, to an entrepreneur who was building a computer camp business in which she was very involved. But the day after her honeymoon, the newly pregnant Razook Murphy was initiated into the very grown-up world of financial strain and endless worry: “My husband, Doug, was in a very serious car accident. He survived but the recovery process took a year. The business went into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. We were wiped out and basically had nothing.”

With her options limited, Razook Murphy felt her best shot was to retrain and – thanks to her parent’s support – she returned to school to get a Masters in industrial design. With their one-year-old daughter and not much else in tow, the couple moved to Brooklyn, NY, where she started studying at The Pratt Institute and Doug began to rebuild his business. “It was pretty tough going. We were lucky enough to have a lovely older woman across the street who looked after Eleanor while I studied and worked on Doug’s business. We had to take a lot of loans and drained our financial resources, but we managed.”

With her degree in hand and another baby joining the family, Razook Murphy ramped up her involvement in the business. While this was the family’s main bread and butter, she still found time to teach at Pratt and do some industrial design freelance projects.

Fast forward a few years and with the recession going strong, Razook Murphy and her husband needed to get a little more creative about making money in order to stay in their increasingly expensive Brooklyn neighborhood. The plan was to establish a new overnight program – Blue Tree Camp – for teenage girls on the Bryn Mawr campus outside Philadelphia that Razook Murphy would run while her husband remained in Brooklyn.

But what about her daughters? What to do with them while she worked?

With her daughters Livvy Grace and Eleanor

“I didn’t have anything in my mind. I was in pure panic mode. I was only thinking, ‘We have to be able to pay the rent so we’re going to call Bryn Mawr and rent space there to run a teen girls’ summer camp. Maybe I can set up a day camp on the side for younger girls where I can put Eleanor and Livvy Grace while we work and work and work. Curious Jane is a fun name. Yeah, let’s go with that.’ It was as simple as that,” she laughs.

And so Curious Jane was launched purely out of necessity, as so many service-oriented business are.

Before taking it to Bryn Mawr campus later in the summer, Razook Murphy rented some space in Brooklyn, signed up a few of her friends, and got started. “We ran a few weeks of Curious Jane in early summer then I packed up my kids, packed my stuff, moved to Bryn Mawr, lived in the dorms for six weeks, ran Curious Jane there and then ran the teen overnight program,” she recounts breathlessly.

Starting small, Razook Murphy hired one teacher and did everything else herself, from driving the camp van to designing the classes, all the while being responsible for Blue Tree. She created an umbrella entity, Girls Dream Out Loud, to house Blue Tree and Curious Jane. “So I won’t lie, it was incredibly stressful that first summer. My kids were there, other kids were there. I look back on it and it creates panic in my stomach. But you put one foot in front of the other and just keep going.”

The following summer, she saw the pay-off. While the Bryn Mawr Curious Jane camp remained small with the focus being on the teen Blue Tree program, the1973956_10151955129636516_1973352057_o Brooklyn camp took off. “We went from 78 camper weeks in 2009 to 520 one year later … 700% growth! What happened was that the girls came, they loved it, their moms loved it and we had an audience.”

And who wouldn’t love classes with names like Guerilla Art, Spa Science, and Gadgets + Gears. You can even learn how to create your own graphic novel or made quiz boards with conductive paint in Wired 101.

Growth came mostly through word of mouth and there was a huge response from the community. Within another summer, Curious Jane opened a Manhattan location and today offers its camps in eight locations.

While it initially subsidized Curious Jane, after six years the Blue Tree teen residential camp has run its course and this summer was its last. “Basically Curious Jane proved to be the much stronger brand. It was able to support itself. It’s unique in that it’s all girls and based on themes like toy design or electronics. These 6-11 year olds are so jazzed to be in the classroom working on their projects because the staff is just so awesome. Curious Jane’s approach has attracted the most phenomenal young women as staff members. It’s a very collaborative and inspiring environment,” Razook Murphy explains.

Curious Jane got a big boost in 2014 when it won a generous small-business grant as part of a nation-wide competition. “It was tremendous! There were CJ_Mag_Cover_BlackOutlinesome debts that needed to be cleared but most importantly we were able to engage a business development group. We’d always grown organically and didn’t have a strict game plan. Frankly we were a little all over the place and they helped us narrow the areas we wanted to move into, to lay a path should we wish to pursue additional funding. We also secured a new office space which allowed us to accommodate more staff and supplies and therefore do more outside of the office. And finally we launched a magazine for cool creative girls. It’s advertising free, full of fun stuff to create, and just awesome!”

And how does she feel now from those heady camp days in 2009? “I’m thrilled, I love waking up every single morning and coming to do what I do. That’s an enormous blessing. I love the people I collaborate with and the fact that I do something good for girls, especially my own girls. They can see a role model, a strong confident woman. Success for me has been being able to grow and develop resources at every state, and frankly to have developed a little bit of grit. People respond so positively to Curious Jane and I get to make a living from that. How great is that?”

Tips from Samantha Razook Murphy

  • Don’t let fear of failure hold you back.
  • Connect strongly with your first customers, value them, learn from them, serve them, they are by far your best tool in growing your business.
  • Mind your time and your energy — throw yourself in but take a moment to step back
  • Reach out for feedback — it’s scary but critical
  • Put one foot in front of the other
  • Remember that “balance” has no momentum… chaos does. Get comfortable with that, use it!

Rebecca Klemm: Counting Her Way to Entrepreneurship

Rebecca KlemmWe all know that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France and that Lady Liberty carries a torch, right? But quick, can you tell us how many spokes the crown has, and what that number represents?

This might be a simple one… the answer is seven, representing the seven seas and seven continents. The single torch represents unity. The date on the book is the birthdate of the United States. So collectively, the symbols tell the story of people from all around the world coming together to the United States – immigration. But this is just one of many stories that Dr. Rebecca Klemm gets excited about telling children and adults as part of NumbersAlive!, a small business she started quite by accident in 2011 at the age of 61.

Forty years prior, Dr. Klemm was a junior in college preparing to teach math. She secured a position teaching 9th grade while still in her final year as an undergraduate. At the end of that year, she was admitted to the PhD program in Statistics at Iowa State University. (more…)

Dr Phil Pizzo: Founder of Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute

Phil PIf Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, two of the founders of PayPal and still two of most influential Silicon Valley investors, believe life extension technologies are the next wave of hot Silicon Valley start ups, then it’s a good thing that other forward thinkers in Silicon Valley are spending their time focusing on how to improve the quality of our longer lives.

As a medical doctor, researcher, and educator, Phil Pizzo has always been drawn to the transformative power of research.  Earlier in his career, he led changes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the treatment of children with cancer and AIDS, pioneering techniques that are still used today. And he used those examples to persuade a new generation of aspiring doctors to consider the field of pediatric research when he served as Pediatrics Chair of Harvard Medical School and then Dean of Stanford Medical School.

Pizzo attributes his mission-focused approach to his fundamental belief that anyone can produce great change when it’s needed. As a child of the sixties, he witnessed significant cultural transformations take place, and he believes we are on the cusp of yet another — we are no longer living in the era of a single career that leads to retirement at 65, but rather people can live two or perhaps even three professional lives. And at 69 years, Pizzo has launched his own second act, leading the charge to help people, corporations, and educational institutions make that cultural transformation a reality.

The brainchild behind Stanford University’s Distinguished Career’s Institute, Pizzo has foreseen his own reinvention for nearly four decades. “As a young intern in Boston, I met some extraordinary people in medicine who had had great careers but weren’t really ready to move on or in other directions. But they had nowhere else to go; so they were hanging on, and it was then that I vowed I was never going to do that.”

Born in the Bronx, NY into a working class family – his mother was a part-time beautician and his father worked two jobs, selling women’s coats and as a check out person at the race track – Pizzo was the first person in his family to graduate from high school. “So I was immediately a success,” he jokes “a relative success of course.”

He earned full scholarships to undergrad at Fordham College in New York City, and then another full ride to the University of Rochester Medical School.  He moved to Boston for his clinical training, and it was there that he became much more interested in the fundamentals of research as he specialized in hematology/oncology and infectious diseases. In a few years, he was recruited to work at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland.  It was a supposed to be a 2-year stint but ended up lasting 23 years.

“That was a big part of my life. I had the opportunity to put together the pediatric department at NIH, and we played a large role in developing AIDS and cancer treatment protocols in children. And it provided a significant imprinting for me about the power of research to improve lives.”

Pizzo loved his work in Bethesda and could have stayed for longer, but a new  challenge was concerning him in the mid-90’s…the lack of pediatricians who were focused on careers in science.

“Everything I’ve done in my life has been mission oriented. I’ve always been led by the question, ‘how can you do something that’s going to change the world in some way?’”

So for the first time, Pizzo sought out a job rather than being recruited into one. He decided to return to a medical school teaching assignment, and wound up in Boston as chair of the Pediatrics Department at Harvard.

Happily ensconced at the ivy league university, a call in the Spring of 2000 came totally out of the blue asking if he would be interested in becoming the Dean of Stanford’s Medical School.  “I said no at first. It seemed so foreign to me.”  But he eventually agreed and served as Dean for the next 12 years. “It was a terrifically exciting time — leading a medical school and center that was going through a lot of transitions.”

Stanford was an exhilarating change for Pizzo. “It’s a very exciting and entrepreneurial campus and the acceptance of failure around trying new things is very much in the culture. It’s about trying to be transformative.”

But even as Pizzo loved Stanford, he remained committed to his own career 2.0 always remembering his pledge as an intern to acknowledge when it was time to move on. We spoke with Pizzo about his decision to finally take the leap.

Phil P_2You loved your role at Stanford, so how did you decide to leave?

After 10 years there I made the decision that I wouldn’t go beyond 12. Even though I had stayed in medicine and science my whole career until that point, I had moved around a lot. I like change and I like to engage in new activities and challenges whether it’s in research, academia, advocacy or public policy.

Going back to my time in Boston, the seeds were sown for my career transition early on.  I witnessed incredible individuals being moved aside and I made a resolution at that point that I would not let that happen.

How did you figure out what that transition would be?

When I began thinking about it a long time ago, I thought I would do a PhD in history. So for 40 years, I have read history as a hobby. But fast forward to when I really began thinking about it more seriously, I had this epiphany that I probably wasn’t alone. When your career has run that 20- to 30-year gamut, which is the traditional amount, you oftentimes don’t have a clear path to follow next. And that’s what really led to the formation of what is now Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute.

Why do we need a program like the Distinguished Careers Institute?

Frankly, because everyone is out of sync with reality – not just traditional businesses but everyone. We’re caught up in the 20th century narrative that says you do something for a career, and then retire at 65. That may have worked when most people died at 68, but those days are gone. That’s not the narrative that the people living through the experience are having today. Many people have to continue working because they need the money, but – even if they don’t have to – many people want to keep working and they want to try new things.  They want the intellectual stimulation, the community and the sense of purpose.

What are the goals of Stanford’s program?

Well, I began formulating this idea about three years ago and then two years ago I heard about Harvard’s Advanced Leadership program. It’s a very seminal program that broke ground, but there are pretty big differences in the way the Stanford program will work. What we have in mind is much more about personal transformation. It’s a year-long program, initially for 20-25 participants or fellows. We’re going to take them on a scholarly path in a chosen field – there are nine potential paths to choose from like education, energy, engineering, health and healthcare, the arts and more—they cover a whole array. Once you pick a path, senior faculty members mentor and guide you to probe deeply into a field that is quite different from where you’ve gone in the past.

The other part of our program is community building. We will bring people together for faculty forums, transformation series, deep-dive think tanks and more and couple that with evening social events as well. We are really aiming to build a community among the fellows. And then we’re building into that counseling and career placement services with Stanford and external search firms. We will also look at ways of making this a multiyear experience. If we’re successful and personal transformation later in one’s career becomes a national effort, then you can envision that the dialogue can shift and change around this topic.

Why is a University the right body to spearhead this kind of cultural change?

The way I see it is that universities and higher education play a critical role for younger people today. And I’m interested in universities scaffolding that experience for midlife – meaning from the 50’s to early 60’s. If you look at it that way, people have almost as much time for their second career as they did for their first career.

But here’s where universities can and should play a role.  Without a path, many people panic and don’t know what to do, they hang on longer than they should in their current jobs, or they retire early and squander their time and just react to things that come at them rather than actively shaping the next path.

I’m really interested in the transformation of higher education at large, and the program at Stanford is just a start.

How can and should other educational institutions play a role?

By necessity, to begin with, the Stanford program will be very small and elite to a certain extent, but the bigger issue is how we can use what we learn at Stanford to engage community colleges and other institutes around the country. Most people will not have the opportunity to take a gap year at Stanford. I have many family members approaching retirement age who would be unable to do it.  But they ought to be thinking of other ways to approach retirement, and we should be thinking of how to use all kinds of higher education to help people reroute and recalibrate their thinking as they get older.

As a medical doctor, what role does your interest in public health and medicine play in this?

People are going to be living into their 90’s and beyond, and I’m interested in paving the way for what’s going to happen in 2050 when that’s the norm. I won’t be around then but I’m interested in creating a legitimate, clear path where people can say, ‘I’m going to take time and probe deeply and see where I’ve been and where I’m going.’ The second part of the Institute’s work will be to look at the public health angle or repurposing your life and career in middle age. If you couple a new direction of purposeful living, value-based and goal-directed, with a recalibration of health and wellness programs, you could potentially attenuate some of the chronology of things that occur over time.

So that’s the big question – is this the start of something that can have an impact on how people live and their health in old age?

That is the big question indeed. Will programs like this make life in older age happier, and healthier and less debilitating?   From a public health point of view, I think if we can change the paradigm, I believe it will have a huge public health impact.

Who else needs to be on board to really change the culture?

What we need to do is change the narrative for employers across the board and that’s the next phase of this. At DCI, we are now beginning to meet with corporations and having dialogues with them. Right now they are in the mindset of ‘we need to get rid of people at certain points to make room for new people.’ But what I’m envisioning is that these people will broaden the pie – they won’t take jobs from new entrants. They may create new jobs some of which we haven’t thought about yet. New opportunities will unfold and people will approach them with different needs.

What can you accomplish starting this at Stanford as opposed to somewhere else?

Stanford is a great place to be doing this… if I were at a state university in the middle of the country, the chances of having this kind of engagement with corporations, the public health world and others would be much different. Being at Stanford helps tremendously in the facilitation of that dialogue. We’re very fortunate to be a part of that. But we don’t want to limit these opportunities to just few places. We hope for novel programs emerging from those universities and colleges across the country and around the world.

So what’s next?

We are ahead of the curve right now. The way change happens is that ideas transform behavior and we’re currently already beginning that transformative phase. Twenty percent of the US population will be 65 by 2030, and that’s a plurality of people whose views are going to be important. I’m focused not on what happens in the next five or ten years but paving the way for what happens in 2050 or 2100. I’m obviously not going to be around to experience it personally but I’m interested in planting the seeds.

If you are interested in becoming a fellow at the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, the 2015 Class is now filled but positions are available for 2016. See  http://dci.stanford.edu/ for more details.

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.

Jere Brooks King: Redefining Retirement for Herself and Others

Jere King Portrait 2014Jere King is speaking from personal experience when she tells you there is more to retirement than sitting on the porch or playing golf every day. “At the age of 56, I wasn’t ready to retire in the traditional sense.  I was ready for a chance to reimagine what my next career would be. ”

In 1977 when Jere graduated from Kalamazoo College with a liberal arts degree, she thought she would have a career in medicine or education.  When weighing her options, a family friend (a physician) advised against pursuing a medical degree. “He said, ‘it’s a huge commitment, and the medical field may soon become very bureaucratic … why don’t you try something else first just to make sure there’s nothing you are missing out on?” And it was hard to find a teaching job at the time.

Encouraged by the president of a local software company, King went to work for a burgeoning IBM. “The high technology field was creative, innovative, growing, and fast paced.”  Thoughts of public service vanished quickly in the golden era of technology, where King forged a path as a skilled technology marketer at a range of high tech companies – first IBM, later SDRC and Autodesk.  She even got an MBA along the way before finally landing at Cisco Systems in 1996.

King had what she describes as “a fabulous career” at Cisco, grateful for being part of one of the most influential and high-profile companies of the Internet Age.  She liked the work and her colleagues, but as 2012 approached, King started thinking about retirement…but not in the traditional sense.

“I thought, ‘I’ve had a great career, but I need something different.  I wanted to spend more time with my family and work fewer hours, but I also wanted to contribute back and do something for the local community.”

She was determined to shape a second act for herself, one where she could return to one of her early career aspirations. “I needed to return to where I was when I got out of college and transition into public service. I had already served on several nonprofit boards.  Perhaps my best work was still ahead of me.”

As luck would have it, someone else had the same idea in mind for her. Literally on her last day at Cisco, a colleague approached King and asked,  “Have your heard of the Encore Fellowship Program?” King had not but was intrigued by what she heard. An Encore Fellowship is a one-year program for those who have been in long-term careers and have a desire to engage in the nonprofit world. The program offers a structured “bridge” to the nonprofit world by facilitating a 1000-hour internship supported by a $25,000 stipend.

King investigated the program, and – when she learned more – jumped at the chance. Many of the people in the Encore program were like King and had retired from corporate careers, or just had a deep desire for a significant change and needed support through the process.

After considering a number of worthy local organizations, King was placed with Abilities United, a Palo Alto non-profit that has been working on inclusion programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities for 50 years. It was a mile and a half from King’s house and everything she had hoped it would be – giving back and playing an active role in her own community.

She began her fellowship in February of 2012 and completed her 1000 hours of service nine months later. “With all my years in the high tech sector, I had the executive skill set to lead the design and completion of many projects effectively. Still, I had to learn the ropes within the nonprofit world, with its wide range of stakeholders and strong mission orientation. It was at times both frustrating and exhilarating to be charting new waters.”

Upon completion of her internship, King continued with Abilities United as a member of the Board of Directors

For King, the internship proved to be invaluable in helping her launch what she calls “the next stage of life.” Rather than being retired, King views this as “life reimagined” – a movement that’s gaining traction as life expectancy increases, and people have a desire to stay in the workforce longer.

This year, Stanford University approached King to ask if she would serve as an advisory board member for their inaugural Distinguished Careers Institute.

“It’s a year-long residential program of personal renewal in an academic setting for those who have already experienced a successful 20–30 year career,” says King of the Stanford DCI program.  With the inaugural class beginning in January of 2015, King is helping Stanford recruit 20 Fellows who will spend a year on campus while attending classes, shaping their own curriculum, and networking with luminaries about how people with “distinguished careers” can embrace new fields and help change the future.

King remembers what someone said to her when she took early retirement from Cisco to participate in the Encore Fellowship program. “What? You’ve had a long successful career in high tech, and you’re shifting into nonprofit? You should go relax and take a break.”

There are rich rewards in launching a second act. Lucky for Abilities United and all the future fellows of Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute.

Tips from Jere King

  • Rethink what retirement means for you.  Start now!  The accepted norms around length of career and age of retirement are changing fast.
  • Reimagine a second act that gives you the chance to pursue your passions.
  • Realize that what we regret most in life is not what we did, but what we did not do – so go for it!

If you are interested in the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, which is currently accepting Fellows for its inaugural 2015 program, you can learn more at www.dci.stanford.edu If you would like to try an Encore Fellowship, be sure to visit the www.encore.org site.

If you have more questions or comments, add them below and we’ll be sure to get them answered.