The Bra That Changed My Career

Ali CudbyAli Cudby teaches a proven method to transform the customer culture for retail companies and other businesses that sell primarily to women. She’s also a bestselling author and has been featured on TV and in print and online publications.

Most women put shopping for bras and root canal surgery right at the top of their “least fun things to do” list. For a long time, I felt the same way. Then in 2004 I had an experience that changed my mind – and my career.

Before 2004, when I went bra shopping it felt like an act of masochism. The largest bra I could find at our local department store was a DD, and it didn’t come close to fitting. When I did find a bra that sorta, kinda worked, it always somehow resembled a flak jacket. I was sure the saleslady felt sorry for me. As a teenager, all I wanted was lacy lingerie in pretty colors, but there was nothing available in my size.

I felt humiliated by those shopping experiences, as if each bra that didn’t fit was communicating a larger message: that I didn’t fit. I excelled in lots of areas, but failing to feel good about my body compromised my self-esteem and undermined my confidence. As I transitioned through my twenties, I figured out other ways to feel good about myself. I focused on my career and friends and eventually came to embrace my curves.

I began dating a charming Englishman who, before long, insisted it was time to meet his family on the other side of the pond. On a whirlwind weekend in England, we were walking through lovely, historic Cambridge with my boyfriend’s family when I spied the marquee of my dreams: Bravissimo—For Big-Boobed Girls. It was like a beacon of light entering my body, drawing me in. I veered closer to look at the window, and couldn’t help myself. Without thinking, I went inside, leaving my boyfriend’s family standing on the sidewalk.

The store was filled with bras that were pretty, lacy, feminine—and all in large cup sizes. I received a professional fitting and discovered I was a size I never knew existed. Even better, the lovely fitter brought me a dozen gorgeous bras to try on. With each new garment, I felt more and more whole. All of a sudden, I noticed myself standing straighter. “My girls were lifted for the first time ever, in a bra that actually fit, was nice to touch and pretty!”

That fitting changed my life.

“We were walking through lovely, historic Cambridge with my boyfriend’s family when I spied the marquee of my dreams: Bravissimo—For Big-Boobed Girls. It was like a beacon of light entering my body, drawing me in.”

On that day, I knew I would never wear uncomfortable, ill-fitting bras again. I got home and began talking to my friends, only to realize that whether they had grapes or melons, almost none of them had bras that fit. In fact, most of them said, “I know my bra doesn’t fit!” When I heard them, I was floored. For all those years, I had suffered in silence, thinking I was the lone oddball. How could so many smart, successful women have ill-fitting bras? Then it struck me — as women, we never really learn how a bra should fit.

That stroke of inspiration became the basis of my company, Fab Foundations. I created a methodology Fab Fit Academy Logofor helping women find bras that fit which became a book, Busted! The Fab Foundations Guide to Bras That Fit, Flatter and Feel Fantastic (no longer in print). Busted! was a bestseller and stayed on the bestseller list for a year! Next, I developed a curriculum for training – and certifying – lingerie retailers in the art and science of bra fitting. My methodology has been used by lingerie pros on six continents around the world … just Antarctica to go!

But a funny thing happened as I was working with all those amazing retailers. As much as they got great at providing fittings, their businesses didn’t always grow. I realized that fit excellence was not the ultimate foundation for creating the best possible business.

I went back to the drawing board.

Your Iconic Brand LogoPulling from my corporate background as a Marketing Executive at companies like The New York Times Company and Animal Planet TV Network, I investigated. A pattern emerged – if women didn’t FEEL good about their fitting experience, they wouldn’t become loyal customers. Period.

I shifted gears and started focusing on helping small business owners develop a foundation for customer relationships that transcended bra fittings. All of a sudden, the one-two punch of fitting/customer relationship started getting results. Clients were growing their businesses by 20%…35%…500%! Even my traditional, bricks-and-mortar retail clients were seeing incredible growth. I was so excited!

On top of that, clients were reporting that their employee engagement was improving, turnover was dropping, and (here’s one I didn’t see coming) a number of clients shared that their marriages were better than ever!

Simply focusing on the customer experience was the key to building the businesses they dreamed of owning.

It’s like the theme song for that 80s TV show, Cheers: You want to go where everybody knows your name. When businesses create that, they get customers for life.

Ali CudbyIn today’s disconnected world, having a place where you feel truly appreciated as a customer is rare and special. When businesses form that bond, they become Iconic in the eyes of customers. This fundamental truth goes far beyond lingerie. Today I love having the opportunity to work with clients in a growing mash-up of industries.

I used to think my AHA moment was when I turned around and saw my reflection in the fitting room mirror at Bravissimo. Now I know differently. When I got that amazing bra fitting, my relationship with my body changed. The day I made the pivot to customer experience, my mission in the world shifted forever.

Every day I wake up (of course, I put on amazing lingerie) and feel ready to make the world a better place – one Iconic customer interaction at a time.

Ali Cudby teaches a proven method to transform the customer culture for retail companies and other businesses that sell primarily to women. With Ali, businesses lay a strong foundation for building the deep relationships customers crave as the antidote to isolation in the modern economy.

The result? Customers are inspired to buy more often and refer like crazy, while businesses thrive and change customers’ lives.

Ali is a bestselling author and has been featured in TV, print and online for publications such as Cosmopolitan and Essence Magazine, among others. She holds an MBA from Wharton Business School and spends her spare time in her pottery studio.

Find Ali at

Nichole Montoya: “Nacho” Ordinary Payment System

Nichole Montoya and Molly DiCarlo at National PTA EventAccording to the Urban Dictionary, the go-to source for the definition of all terms hip and cool (or in our case, slang we hear our kids using) to “Cheddar Up” is “to gain money through legal or illegal means.” As in “Man, I gotta get my hustle on and cheddar-up.” No small irony then that two moms in Colorado, by way of the Iowa and Nebraska plains, should settle on Cheddar Up for the name of their venture, the latest and most innovative arrival to the stage of group payments.

“Every time she hears me explain that ‘cheddar’ is slang for money, my co-founder Molly can’t keep a straight face. There is just something about two moms, handing out cheese cubes and company flyers at a school carnival that doesn’t scream Jay-Z,” laughs Nichole Montoya. (more…)

Marlo Scott: The Sweetest Revenge is Just Being Happy

Marlo Scott

Everyone’s job stinks from time to time, but if you find absolutely no joy in what you do then it’s time to get out. Some of us are lucky and can do this sooner rather than later but others, like Marlo Scott, bide their time, planning and preparing for the day when they can bust out of the toxic work environment once and for all.

“I spent seven years in a hostile industry. The media business is full of bully bosses, but this was only fuel for me to figure out how to work for myself. When I was passed over for a promotion that I should have gotten, I swore I would get my sweet revenge on my bad boss. It was only a matter of when.” (more…)

…And then it hit me

R&D-2I was walking in my neighborhood one sunny Saturday morning with my 7-year-old daughter when out of nowhere a Hummer driving recklessly hit me head on.  The driver, a local mom, didn’t slow down before impact because she simply wasn’t paying attention.  The police report said my first words were, “What happened to me?” It was August 4, 2012.

I’ve never scared away from a challenge or been fearful that my mind or body would let me down.  Until that day, I’d never really been scared about anything.  It probably stems from being raised in a large family with a big brother who used to torment me with Navy-Seal-type vigor, like being made to tread water with my hands while my feet were raised about the water level. In the past, without much anxiety, I flew planes, zip-lined, repelled, ran marathons, entered ski races, water-skied, passed a UPS driver road test (with parallel parking), built websites, gave presentations and started my own company.  You could say I handle stress pretty well.  That’s because I always believed that things would work out. However, I wasn’t planning on getting hit by the front end of a Hummer. (more…)

Tiina Zilliacus: From the Security of Tech Giants to the Competitive World of Gaming

Tiina ZilliacusTiina Zilliacus’ last name brings to mind the long-gone days of gladiators and Greek warriors. And in many ways, the Finnish tech entrepreneur has launched herself into a battle of sorts. Leaving the security of the corporate world, with three years of hard work and preparation behind her, Zilliacus has suited up to enter the male-dominated fray of gaming. “What I have initiated is not currently in the scope of most game developers. Within the next five years, instead of Coke and pizza, I hope more of them will become genuinely interested in health. When this happens, we’ll be there with cool employee opportunities,” she adds with a smile.

Following the career path her parents valued, Zilliacus knew she would go work for the big brands. After receiving a business degree from the Helsinki School of Economics, Finland, the dutiful and driven daughter did just that and spent 11 years at the Finnish tech giants, Nokia and Sonera, focusing purely on business-to-consumer (B2C) services such as management of online shops. A consistent thread of supporting consumers in mobile, online and digital environments has run through all her positions.

And yet, despite a clear future of fulfilling and secure corporate opportunities, Zilliacus knew her personality type was meant more for the smaller start-up environment. “I’ve always had something of a fearless adventurer attitude and love a certain amount of risk, so by my early-to-mid 30s I started seeking out CEO roles in the start-up world.”

For the next five years, she moved seamlessly among three start-ups, one mobile phone photo and video service (Futurice) and two gaming firms (Apaja Online Entertainment and Ironstar Helsinki), where she was Managing Director and CEO, respectively.

During her corporate life and especially the stressful years of start-up management, Zilliacus turned to yoga as a form of release. “First it was just a hobby, but quickly became a way of life. I’ve always made time for yoga and been on a lot of retreats. I’m even certified as an instructor.”

The gaming sector in Finland, as in most places around the globe, is male-developer driven. While this bothered Zilliacus, who herself is not a developer, she saw a clear opportunity: “They make games that they would like to play although 55% of casual and mobile game customers are female. I realized that I actually could use my professional competence and understanding of what women like in terms of entertainment to fulfill the needs of a major target audience that the market was not addressing.”

Zilliacus decided to start a business driven by her own values and her devotion to yoga provided the spark of inspiration. “Not many people have the digital and management experience that I have and understand yoga and the well-being world as much as I do. I decide to merge my professional knowledge with my passion to create a gaming business targeting women 25 years and older.”

And so as the next iterative step in her career, she set out once again but this time to found her own gaming studio focusedTiina Zillacius on fun mobile “free2play” games aimed at women with the unique underlying theme of wellness.

The last three years have not been easy. They were spent building a strategy, laying the groundwork, seeking angel and seed investment, and recruiting former colleagues to the team. As the 40-year old Zilliacus explains: “I’ve been married to this company. It wakes up with me on Saturday morning, my weekends, my nights…when you are so invested in bringing something like this to life, you give up not only your time but your mind space. As a yogini and wellbeing enthusiast, it took me two years to accept that there is a time that I just need to let all of this happen to me even though it’s work. But because it relates so much to my personal experiences, I can never describe it as work. It will simply take as long as it takes as long as I am where I want to be. That’s the attitude and mental model I needed to adopt and once I did that, everything fell into place.”

But the hard work has paid off. Gajatri Studios’s first simulation or management game, Yoga Retreat, is just recently available from the Apple App Store. Along the lines of Animal Farm, the mechanics of the game are familiar. Zilliacus has intentionally aimed to keep it accessible and not so difficult that it becomes hostile for the user. Players can access yoga poses, unlock small daily meditations, and challenge friends as they manage, expand, and customize their very own yoga retreat on a paradise island.

Zilliacus’ company has attracted the support of two Finnish female angel investors and a family-owned investment office that are drawn in by the health features within games. Her two co-founders are from Rovio, the makers of Angry Birds: “Games guys are open minded. They like to do stuff that reaches out to people so the first motivation is that they like the plan that there is a different type of business strategy and therefore also leadership style in what you do”.

Gajatri Studios’ business model is sustainable and incorporates a wide theme of health and wellness that can molded into different content. Future games will look at food for instance and there is an opportunity for synergies with the forthcoming IOS8 platform and its Health Kit. “As the Apple platform evolves, we plan to utilize different opportunities in our games. For example, we could offer yoga challenges that we can verify have been completed because the user is wearing an iWatch or something like that. Essentially integrating some real life activity into a game, that’s the wider idea,” Zilliacus explains.

The female gaming entrepreneur, one of few in Finland, is optimistic of what lies ahead but acknowledges with these types of companies, funding must be sought out all the time. “It’s a continuous process and depending on which stage you are in, you know the sums are dependent on that. That’s part of the entrepreneurial life, until you are successful, you are every once in a while almost out of funding and when you are successful, you don’t need it any longer. You just need to go on until you reach that certain critical point.”

Zilliacus will know in a few weeks if she has hit that critical point as sales stats from Apple App Store are reported. But regardless the journey is what counts and of that she can surely be proud.

Tips from the Finnish gladiator of gaming:

  • Really be clear that the core of what you interested in is what you strive towards. It’s so much hard work to launch a business, make sure you like what you do and that you are good at it. Understand your strengths and weakness. If those elements are present, then it will be easier. Be grateful of what you get to do, not many people have the same opportunity.
  • Be persistent. Don’t get easily discouraged. There are so many people who are not going to help you, you need “sisu” (uniquely Finnish expression for grit) to get past the non-believers and be able to do things on your own. You won’t always get approval, but you must sustain.
  • Surround yourself with people with integrity.
  • Find a way to relax every day, clear your head in an efficient way. This enables you to focus on what is essential the next day.

Linda Picard: Film Distribution Phenom to Immigration Specialist

Linda2Born into a French-Italian family in Budapest, Hungary, Linda Picard was left to her own devices at the tender age of 16 when both of her parents walked out of her life. “It was a volatile marriage, a romantic drama. They had wed and divorced twice, and there was a lot of blame. When my father moved with his new family to the countryside, my mother left without me as I reminded her too much of what had passed between them.”

Staying in the family home alone with some money her father left her, Picard survived by teaching English and drawing to school children until she finished high school. It wasn’t easy, especially as she was unknowingly suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome, which causes infertility, compromises energy levels, and generally slows down metabolism. On turning 18, a time when most of us are dreaming of college, she was able to sell the apartment and invest in a small studio where she lived while she worked as a media planner at MindShare, the global media agency. From there she did a brief stint as a researcher manager for a music TV channel until McCann Erikson hired her.

Twenty years of age at the time, the independent Picard knew she needed to secure a degree if she was going to make a go of it so she enrolled in Kodolányi János University of Applied Sciences to study economics while she mastered marketing by day at McCann. “It’s all a blur. I don’t think I really slept for five years. I went to work at 9am, worked 12 hours and then hit the books until about 3am every morning. Somehow, I did it but it’s not an experience I would like to repeat.”

While still in university, the perfectly English-accented Picard headed to InterCom Ltd where she managed overall marketing communication for Fox, Sony, Warner and Disney titles in Hungary. After three years in film distribution, she moved to London as a freelance producer in the entertainment industry organizing music and film events. Discovery Networks recruited her as an on-air marketing planner. “It was a brilliant opportunity for me, but I just got a bit depressed with the weather and the mentality.”

An invitation to an international film festival in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), became a turning point for her. Picard was surprised at how at home she felt. “It’s a beautiful here. People are very friendly and it’s all so new.” That newness wound up speaking to Picard in ways beyond the shiny modern high rises of Dubai. “I got the feeling I could start over and do something completely different and interesting.” On her return to the UK, she sent her CV to a local film distributor, Empire International, which represents the biggest Hollywood studios in the region. After a second visit to Dubai for an interview, Picard joined the family-owned business as their marketing manager for the UAE, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Syria, and Ethiopia. “In the beginning it was a bit tough. Upper and mid-management were very welcoming, but there were a lot of challenges for me especially being a woman. I disrupted the equilibrium somewhat. While women are respected in the region, they are not taken that seriously although things are rapidly changing for the better in the UAE today.”

After three years and a few marketing awards, she felt it was time to move on: “Dubai is such an exciting place to be. Everything is developing, growing out of the desert. But at the same time, because so much is new, the employment legislation and contract law is evolving. So career moves always come with potential risk but nevertheless, I decided it was time to jump to a new opportunity. Unfortunately I jumped into a big hole.”

Picard signed on with a licensing agency that had a contract with some major studios. At the time, licensing was not well established in countries like the UAE and the dynamic Picard felt she could make her mark in the up-and-coming field. By three months, she realized something was seriously wrong. Despite having closed a $100K deal with a large local company, she failed to receive any commission and her salary was not forthcoming. With her employer holding her passport, which he needed to apply for her work visa, Picard had had no alternative but to wait the situation out. It turned out the agency was not processing her visa but rather holding her passport as collateral. “It’s hard to say why I waited so long before acting when it felt fishy from day one. I guess I thought I was just being paranoid. After all, the visa process can take up to two months so I just hoped it would all be fine.”

With no other recourse, Picard reported her employer to the Ministry of Labor. Although the authorities were helpful, there was a language barrie2014-07-01 17.10.32r and misunderstandings on both sides. “Everyone was following procedure, but I couldn’t decipher what was happening around me. In the end, the authorities invited me to the Ministry eight times for mediation to resolve the situation, but each time my employer failed to show.”

After eight weeks, the Ministry finally launched an investigation and uncovered the extent of the agency’s fraudulent activities. Picard was not the only employee to be deceived. She ended up filing two cases with the courts, one to recoup the owed salary and fees and another to get her passport back. “I couldn’t leave the country without a passport. I couldn’t work as I had no visa. I didn’t have any income. I had not done anything wrong. I had simply signed a contract and became a victim of the system.”

It took ten court hearings over the course of a year for Picard to see justice. She drained her savings, resorted to freelance marketing work, and finally ended up sleeping on friends’ sofas. A Latin and Oriental dancer of more than ten years, dancing helped see her through the tough times. She won her case with the help of an Emirati lawyer and – despite not receiving back-pay from her bankrupt employer – got the recognition that she had been wronged.

The damage was done, however. Any potential employers in the film and entertainment industry were nervous about her status and so she found it difficult to find a job. As luck would have it, a friend put in a word for her at a well-established British law firm, which was looking for someone to manage a visa and immigration system they were establishing. “They were interested in my experience as I had been through the ringer so to speak. The good part was that they understood my situation and where I was legally so it worked out well. As I had gone through a terrible year, struggling to understand with the legal system, I really felt I was in a good position to help others navigate the process. Unfortunately, the only way to learn the legal system here is to experience it.”

Despite all she has been through, Picard is keen to stay on in Dubai for now although she has images of Singapore in her future. Ever the optimist, she sees her experience as just that – experience. “My life would have been a lot easier if I had stayed where I was but I’ve learned a lot from the highs and lows. I never expected to end up as a specialist in visa and immigration policy but things have a funny way of working out. What might seem like a blow at the time, can turn out to be a pivot point from which many new opportunities become available once you open yourself to the possibilities. Just don’t give up. I’ve worked hard to get where I am today and, for the most part, I’ve done it on my own, more by necessity than choice.”

It’s been an interesting ride so far, let’s hope those possibilities are a little smoother in Picard’s future.

Tips from Linda Picard

  • Never take anything for granted!
  • Fight for your rights and whatever you believe is right.
  • Find the time and place to give back, there is always a need and a cause.
  • Don’t forget to be grateful and thank everyone who has ever helped you. If there is no one to thank, then don’t forget to be grateful to yourself and the universe.
  • There is no such thing as impossible, never accept it as an option.
  • Dance and sing as much as you can…

Angela Parker: From Sweater Sets to Signature Pieces

oliveyew3If the key to success in any task is practicing more than 10,000 hours, then it’s no wonder Angela Parker’s jewelry company Olive Yew has gone from a small hobby in her den to an international business in just three short years. The artist, who has a self-described minor case of OCD, attributes her success in selling her designs to 80 boutiques around the world to her obsessive pursuit of perfection in everything she does. It was the very same devotion to an unfulfilling corporate job, where she was paid to master the all-powerful search engine optimization (SEO), that partially paved the way for her accomplishments with Olive Yew.

Growing up outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, Angela always knew she wanted to work in a field where she could do something with her hands. She studied sculpture in college at Appalachian State University and then, after graduation, got a job illustrating children’s books at a local publisher.

Although she loved that job, as it fulfilled her need to create, after 15 years and a promotion to creative director, she saw the writing on the wall: the print industry was not doing well and a small publisher like HighReach Learning was unlikely to make it. She was right but fortunately she had lined up another job – this time as a graphic designer at a large company: “I moved on to web design but never really liked it. I didn’t enjoy coding and I didn’t like working in a cube. I knew I had to do something more creative.”

As she was considering what that creative pursuit would be, her to-remain-unnamed company enrolled her in a web design class and also paid for professionals to come in and teach the designers SEO. The year was 2009 and, although not “new”, SEO was still being discovered.

“Although a Fortune 100 company, it was awful – the room we worked in was above the servers which made it hot in the first place. But also, the air conditioning would go out frequently, and the roof was made of metal. It was sweltering and we had a lovely dress code that featured sweater sets. But the one good thing I can say is they spared no expense in hiring the best and brightest to train us in SEO. It was painful working there but I learned a lot more than in any other company.”

After 15 years of broken AC and other challenges, Angela finally decided to make a change. She left the company, but continued on as a contractor. With a little more time on her hands, she signed up for a local metal smithing class: “I didn’t have anything in mind other than the fact that I wanted to make something – I needed to make something – with my hands.”

The class was not the kind of place to inspire the launch of jewelry empire: “It was held in a place that was part pawn shop and part jewelry repair store. It was in sort of a rough part of town, and there were bars on the windows, but they taught me the basics of what I needed to know and I loved it.”

oliveyew4 It was April 2011, and Angela was still committed to her SEO contract, but in her spare time, she started buying equipment and set up a little studio in her house. Four months later, when Parker was 39, she quit contract work all together and with a small personal loan, and the money from sales that were already starting to come in, she started making jewelry fulltime. For Parker, “fulltime” meant sometimes staying up until 1 or 2 in the morning crafting delicate cursive and block letters and the bangles made of rose-gold-filled and sterling silver that would become her signature pieces.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that these big changes come around the time when you’re turning 40 and for me it was definitely true. I had climbed the corporate ladder and gotten to the point I wanted to, and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t what I signed up for…it was meaningless to me. I had to do my own thing.”

Parker started slowly with a few styles. She could see the “internal eye roll” of her family and friends when she told people she was launching a jewelry business. “Everyone and their cousin seemed to be making jewelry,” Parker laughs. “So I just sort of trudged along and didn’t say much for a while.”

But Parker’s business training had taught her something critical. “You can make something all day long, but if it doesn’t sell, then it’s a hobby. If you think there’s a market for something, then there’s marketing for it that has to be done.” Fortunately, Parker found the marketing for her business just as much fun as the making of the jewelry. So during her days she spent hours crafting the metal, and then she spent just as many hours optimizing her site online, studying the analytics and figuring out how to improve them. “There were many 20-hour days. It was crazy and it was definitely hard on my family,” she remembers. “But it paid off.”

Parker, who had taken a personal loan from her husband to fund the initial start up costs, paid the entire loan off by December of the same year she launched. At first she was selling just on her website and in an Etsy boutique. But in December of 2011, a pair of her earrings was featured in a holiday gift guide in Self Magazine, and the rest is history: “Pretty soon I was up to five employees, and we expanded from the den to the dining room to the living room, and then my husband politely suggested that it might be time to look for a facility.”

The Self Magazine mention was indeed a boom for Parker’s “little jewelry business.” That article combined with a follow-up feature in Women’s Day “really started everything.”

Parker expanded her product line, and opened a facility to house her employees more comfortably. Despite the boom in sales, it wasn’t all easy: “Growing the business was a headache,” she says. “We had to go through several accountants, a few lawyers and others before we found the people that were right for us.”

Just eight months after first toliveyew2aking the metal smith class, Parker was able to replace her annual corporate salary. In two years, she quintupled her annual sales, and the next year she tripled them. Three years in, she is starting to breathe a little easier. For Parker, that means, only working 12 hours a day instead of 20. “I used to be a lot more of a workaholic than I am now. Today, I give myself the freedom to take mental health days just to do something else for a bit. But I do like to stay busy.”

Despite all her hard work, the rapid path to success in a creative venture that Parker adores surprised her but her staff even more. “It was funny to watch my accountant when I hired him. I could also feel him patting me on the head and saying, “Oh you and your cute little jewelry business.”

With three years of dramatic growth behind her, her accountant has taken notice. What’s next? “I have a number that I keep to myself where we’ll cap the growth. We’re close but we’re not there yet.”

Tips from Angela Parker

  • Look at your collective experience (jobs, school, hobbies) and how they can aid you in your new business. I majored in sculpture but wound up in marketing/design. Both help me daily in my current role.
  • Invest your time in marketing. You’ll be able to invest the dollars in it later, but at the beginning, you have to market your product to sell it. In this day and age, that means learning a little about SEO & SEM.
  • Follow the proper steps in setting up your business. If you have employees get a worker’s comp policy and all of the proper insurance & legal documents in place (business bank account, business license, etc.).
  • Finally, have a good lawyer & accountant to whom you can refer when questions arise.

Have a question or comment for Angela of Olive Yew? Post it here.

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.

Lisa Allen and Trish Drennan: Friends, Partners, and Sweat Gurus

BBF co-ownersFor Lisa and Allen and Trish Drennan, it took a dramatic life event to make them recognize it was time for a change in their personal and professional lives. For both, the death of a mutual friend was a wake-up call that brought them together to support each other in becoming healthy and strong and to make it their lives’ work to help others to do the same.

A graduate of the University of Delaware, Lisa Allen had had a long-term career in communications, representing various trade associations in D.C. The work was interesting – everything from issues management to crisis communications – but when she had her first child at age 31, she decided it was time to work for herself and “own” her time a bit more. For years after she hung her own PR shingle, she found herself being able to devote more time to working out, something that had played an important role in her life since graduating from college.

Allen remembers herself as a chubby kid, who put on even more weight in college. “I had an “a-ha” moment soon after I graduated and realized I needed to do something different. I started running a lot and lost the college weight and was actually pretty proud of the fact that I got and stayed fit. Ever since then, exercise has become a real passion of mine.”

But Allen never really intended to make a career out of her love of health and fitness until she met Trish Drennan.

Drennan also worked in the field of communications after an unexpected detour as an engineer. After graduating from Wittenberg University with a degree in international relations, she thought she would pursue a career on Capitol Hill.  But when she found herself jobless between election cycles, a temporary job launched her into a new career as a wireless technology expert.

“I got placed at this technical engineering company, and it was at the time when wireless was really booming. It was a brand new trade so the company invested in training us. Within a year, I went from being a liberal arts girl to a wireless engineer trainee at George Washington University.”

Soon, Drennan was shipped off to Germany and found herself designing wireless networks for LCC International. She stayed there for almost five years but when the company decided to go public, they looked internally for people who understood good communications in addition to the technical side of the business. Drennan found herself tapping into those liberal arts skills in the sales and marketing department and later in investor relations.

In all, she spent nearly 22 years at LCC, eventually managing a team of 300 communications professionals around the world.

But with each promotion, the former college athlete found her commitment to fitness woefully waning.

“Once I started working, I went hard and heavy into my career. Unlike Lisa, I never had a weight problem until I had kids. By the time my third child was a year old, I was 45–50 pounds overweight. I was travelling internationally, juggling the needs of three kids and had a husband who also had a big job. It was a crazy time in my life and I was really soul-searching.’”

Although she was coaxed into contracting with the company to help them through another transition, Drennan, like Allen, decided to go out on her own. Now that she too owned her time, she started working out on a regular basis with her new friend.

In the Fall of 2009, for Drennan’s 40th birthday, the two decided to train for a marathon.  With loads of time to chat during long training runs, the “what if” conversations intensified as the pair discussed how they might make a go of it in the fitness industry.

During that time, a friend who ran a local boot camp in Ashburn invited Allen and Drennan to help her run the boot camp a couple mornings a week.  This was the opportunity they had been looking for – running an already established fitness class and seeing how it went.  At this point, the two friends had become such health and fitness junkies that they not only ran marathons but also competed in triathalons and spent the rest of their spare time reading up on the latest health, nutrition, and fitness trends. Drennan had lost forty pounds and was feeling fabulous, and Allen was determined to continue to help other people meet their fitness goals.

So donning their marketing hats again, the pair branded their own boot camp, Motiv8Me, and launched a new program.

“My husband joked that I went from an expensive clothing habit to an expensive equipment habit,” said Drennan.

In March of 2010, they launched the business with eight clients, each of whom had to commit to an eight-week session. It was important to them that their customers follow through with their commitment to the program and their own personal goals. The closer they worked with their clients and researched what was out there, they more realized they had hit on an idea that added value in the fitness world. “As students in lots of fitness classes ourselves, we were really frustrated with the fact that you could be doing moves wrong to the point of hurting yourself, but no one would tell you because the group fitness instructor was incentivized to come in and teach, not to take care of the people.”

Allen and Drennan took their plan a step further and became certified fitness instructors, quickly realizing what they really wanted was not just a boot camp, but a full-service gym that was different from any of the other fitness offerings available. Something that would offer everything they had learned and believed was critical to a lifetime of fitness – high intensity interval training, core work, strength training, and yoga. On top of that, they wanted a gym that didn’t sell shakes or powders or any hint that weight could fall off easily with short cuts. “Although we are not certified nutritionists, we wanted a gym where we could talk with clients about the importance of long-term good nutrition habits, and where we would commit to them if they would commit to the program,” explains Drennan.

With those goals, the pair came up with a tagline that would be the centerpiece of their gym:  Sweat. Nourish. Commit.

Again, the fitness junkies found themselves leaning on the skills they honed in their former lives to ensure their new venture was a success. “We really come into this industry from a very different perspective. Most people who want to open gyms are former trainers, but we take a business perspective. We wrote a business plan, we did a competitive analysis, we knew how much money we had to raise to make it work.”

They opted to turn to their own families to borrow the money rather than taking out a small business loan.  Each side put in equal amounts, and Allen and Drennan have opted not to take a salary until the loans are mostly paid back. They also decided to rebrand the company to something stronger and came up with BlackBench Fit, in reference to the eight black workout benches they purchased during their earlier outdoor bootcamp days.

Three years later, and BlackBench Fit is humming along and the two are ahead of schedule based on the original projections in their business plan.  “We were able to make a small dent into loan repayment this year, AND put a little bit of money each into our 401ks.”

But more than feeling satisfied at their business savvy, Allen and Drennan count it a blessing that they’ve been able to launch careers in a field that is so meaningful to them.

“One of the most rewarding parts of our job is also the most surprising,” shares Trish. “I had no idea I had a teacher or a therapist in me, but I love that part of the job.”

“I feel like what we’re doing now is a real calling for me,” adds Lisa. “It’s so gratifying to help people reclaim their bodies because I’ve been there and know what it’s like.”

Have questions for the owners of BlackBench Fit on their success to date? Write a comment and we’ll be sure they see it.

Viv Oyolu: Giving Women’s Stories a Voice

Viv Oyolu-3 (hi res) (1)London-based Viv Oyolu’s infectious laughter vibrates down the phone line, compelling you to smile along as she shares the twists and turns of her extraordinary life. Even through the scratchy Skype connection, you find yourself gravitating to her voice, drawn in by her larger-than-life personality. Being profiled on Career 2.0 is rather ironic for Oyolu because, as a radio presenter and audio and podcast consultant, her “thing” is to give other people the opportunity to share their words, “My purpose is to give people’s stories a voice! I am in a position to do that but really it’s a gift to me to resurrect my life.”

Born in the UK to Nigerian parents, Oyolu returned to Benin city in Nigeria at the age of four. She studied marketing at Rivers State University and worked for about five years at Citizens, a commercial bank in Nigeria. In 1994, the adventure-seeking Oyolu relocated to the UK with her best friend to do an MBA at Durham University, “It was something completely different.”

Post-graduation, Oyolu oversaw marketing for a London business school. She eventually became a free agent and shopped her marketing services to big brands like BMW, Walt Disney, NatWest, and Barclaycard for many years.

It was all going swimmingly until she hit her 39th birthday, “I think I was having a mid-life crisis. I guess I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I knew something was off. I just felt so dissatisfied.”

Around the same time, she read Bill Wilson’s Whose Child Is This?, a harrowing book about abandoned children in New York’s projects. Fascinated viv-oyolue-2by book, in 2005, on the spur-of-the-moment  Oyolu rang Wilson’s Metro Ministries in Brooklyn, a faith-based organization which works with inner-city kids. Discovering they offered internships, she saved up for six months and raised funds from generous friends to support her stay in New York.

It was a decision that would forever change her life. Working for five months at the hardest job she had ever done, Oyolu recalls, “I had never known people living in such abject poverty in a developed country. It just changed my whole perspective. For no reason whatsoever, I was born into the family I was born into …. That’s given me opportunities, given me a life I can be proud of. These children haven’t done anything right or wrong, they’re just born into poverty … after seeing that, you really appreciate what you have.”

She returned to the UK a different person. With the help of start-up business grants, Oyolu decided to establish a social enterprise, Divine Communications Trust. DCT offered the Bina program designed to teach young people (11-13 year olds) about integrity and making good decisions. She also developed workshops lesson to help 16-19 year-olds headed for the workplace.

After about six years of operation, DCT lost a huge contract due to the economic downturn. Licking her wounds out one night with friends, Oyolu got chatting to a guy sporting a rather large camera. “He had a job but was training to be a better photographer so he could become a travel journalist later in life which I found really interesting. He asked me ‘So, what’s your thing?’ I was about to say, ‘I love to read’, but then surprised myself by blurting out ‘You know what? I’ve always wanted to be a radio presenter!’ ‘So why aren’t you doing it?’ he asked. I shrugged my shoulders, saying ‘I don’t know’ but thought, ‘Yeah, Viv, why aren’t you doing it?’”

And where did this come from? “Back in Nigeria when I was young, I always loved music. I listened to the radio all the time, made my own cassettes, created my own playlists. And, as you may have noticed, I love to talk … I always knew those two things went well together. Being a radio host is something I knew but I always felt it was so far out of my reach.”

A few days later, at a meeting with a friend to “resurrect” DCT, Oyolu recalled the conversation at the party. Serendipitously, her friend knew of a radio station looking for non-experienced presenters. She knew immediately what her pitch would be, “The focus would be on someone like me who had a dream and wanted to follow her passion.” At the interview, which turned out to be a live radio show, Oyolu came into her own: “I was talking as if I had done it all my life. I went on and on and on. [The presenter] barely got a word in. I had found myself, my voice. I never knew I had what it took to do the show, but I did.” And Dream Corner was born.

viv-oyolue-3In its third year of operation, Dream Corner profiles female entrepreneurs, mostly “ordinary women doing extraordinary things, in a small way, big way or however. But no one will hear about them if I don’t interview them,” Oyolu explains. The 300 stories shared to date are mostly by referral only. She is not paid for the show and, despite its revenue-earning potential, she has no intention to turn it into a business. “The women on my show have built me up, opened up my world. It just makes me love my job even more. If they have never believed in themselves and I have allowed them to communicate who they are in a way that they are proud of and begin to see themselves in a new light, I think that’s just amazing. What I have gained non-monetarily is exceptional, their journeys have inspired me. I cannot quantify this,” she adds.

Interestingly, Oyolu observes that while her radio show is a platform where women can talk about themselves without any interruption, most of them have to be guided into the conversation. “Women can talk endlessly about their job, being a mum or a wife, but they never focus on who they are or what they have achieved personally. Dream Corner allows them to do this and reconnect with who they are.”

The multi-tasking Oyolu edits a radio show once a week and runs an audio and podcasting consultancy, Audio Byte that helps clients build a rapport with their audience and communicate better through audio channels. She is also starting to promote the Bina program again. “Because I am not solely reliant on it, I feel liberated to work on it. My ultimate goal is for independent schools to buy it and use it as a tool.”

And why not go after the high profile stories on Dream Corner? “I like the ‘ordinary’ woman who is just like me, who can believe in her dream and be successful. Success is what you make it to be. Some people would say I am successful. In a way I am because I am doing exactly what I want to do. It brings me so much joy to share people’s stories … Sometimes I interview a guest and go lie down. I want to keep the warm, fuzzy feeling I get from talking to these amazing women as long as possible.”

At the risk of being redundant, the common theme running through all of Oyolu’s projects is clearly her mission to help other people. “I think it goes back to my experience in New York. I’ve learned so much and been given so much why not give back? It’s rare for someone to find what they love and do it but giving people’s stories a voice has done just that for me. If I died tomorrow, that’s what I want on my tomb… ‘Here lies Viv Oyolu, she gave people a voice’.”

Here’s hoping Oyolu’s no predictor of the future and sticks around to draw people out of their shells, bring a smile to their faces, and act as an inspiration for others to follow their dream and find success.

Interested in learning more about Viv Oyolu? Listen to a 6.37-minute- audio version of this interview … learn why she does what she does and how you too can find your true purpose.

Watch an introductory video on Vimeo. Subscribe to her iTunes channel, or follow Audio Byte on SoundCloud.

Viv Oyolu’s Tips for Success:

  • You never know the fullness of your potential until you stretch yourself.
  • In hindsight, I should have made it easier for myself and had a job or other source of income when setting up my business. I was under a lot of pressure to succeed.
  • Being a risk taker does have its disadvantages. I recommend not trying to do too many things at the same time.
  • Surround yourself with people who will cheer you on – rejoice with you for good news and cry with you when things don’t go according to plan.


Have you ever considered doing some significant volunteer work as a means to find more fulfillment in your life?


Jo Braun: From Anthropologist to Artist

jo braunYou hear about people being born into politics or show business, but what’s the precipitating factor that stirs an interest in anthropology?  For Jo Braun, she believes the seed was sown for her first career at birth. Born into a fundamentalist Christian family, “the Jerry Falwell kind of fundamentalists,” Braun always felt like she was missing out on what was happening in the world beyond. “We were very isolated from the outside world; even for South Dakota, we were the conservative of the conservatives! We were taught to ‘be in the world but not of it.’ Anthropology gave me a model for understanding subcultures and enabled me to accept that I was from one.”

She precociously began to suspect something was “abnormal” about her church community at 10 or 11 years of age thanks in part to her frequent visits to the public library. Despite having no access to television, movies, secular music, or any popular culture, she was given carte blanche at the library. “When you’re raised without television but have free access to the library, you seek out the ‘dirty books’ at an early age. I was that kid who brought Judy Blume’s Forever to school. But even more subversive, I discovered scholarly theology that cast doubt on Christianity’s most basic tenets. By 12 or 13, I was pretty sure I didn’t believe in it.”

But Braun kept her secret discoveries and observations to herself. “I was very quiet about my questions with everyone except my brother. I was biding my time until I was old enough to go find the ‘normal’ people.”

But the rules loosened up a bit when Braun was approaching her teenage years. By the time she was ready to begin high school, she was able to convince her parents to send her to a new school, one that was less stringent, and more challenging academically than the non-accredited Christian schools she had attended up to then. The alternative? The local Catholic High School. “When my Catholic friends tell me they went to strict schools, I laugh! The nuns I encountered were into liberation theology and seemed so open minded to me.”

By the time she decided to go to The University of Minnesota, Braun was more certain than ever of her field of study. “In anthropology, I had a paradigm – there were other groups of people who isolated themselves from the outside world for various reasons; it made me understand that my religious upbringing fit into a larger pattern. We were unusual, perhaps, but not ‘abnormal’.”

Braun’s studies carried her through undergrad at the University of Minnesota and then on to the University of Iowa for a PhD. She was especially attracted to the cultures of the South Pacific and conducted research in both Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. In the former, she was surprised to discover fundamentalist Christians who believed in doctrines that were similar to those she was taught as a child. For her dissertation, she spent a year in the Solomon Islands comparing five Christian denominations. She assumed throughout that she would go the path of most anthropology majors and become a professor.

“I loved the experience. I had great professors and mentors. I was doing well and was treated like someone who was going to be successful.”

Despite loving her field, Braun never considered the practical side of becoming a professor – actually landing a job. “I didn’t really realize until I passed my comps that jobs were few and far between.”

In addition to that not-so-minor detail, Braun was growing uncomfortable with the political climate in anthropology, which was characterized by a culture of guilt. “Everyone agonized continuously over being a white Western scholar studying these so called ‘others’. Then by the 1990s, Pacific Islands scholars were getting social science and humanities PhDs and maintaining that they should study their own cultures instead of being objectified by others. I saw their point.”

Hearing rumors in anthropology circles that many big companies liked to have anthropologists on staff, Braun attended seminars on “how to use your anthropology degree outside of academia.” But Intel was the only example anyone ever cited. Or was that an urban legend? “No, it was true that Intel had an anthropologist on staff because I met her. What wasn’t true was that lots of companies were desperate to hire anthropologists.”

So, while she searched for that elusive corporate anthropology gig, she and her boyfriend moved to Seattle and got married. In early 2002 Braun found a job at Starbucks, but it was in a traditional marketing research department that employed anthropological methods only occasionally. One day, as she sat behind a one-way mirror listening to a focus group of women talk about their cravings for sweets, she could no longer deny that she was using her research skills in a way that conflicted with her values. “It felt slimy, working to leverage people’s desires for things that aren’t good for them. I knew I couldn’t stay there forever.”

At the same time and with her dissertation behind her, Braun felt she had endless amounts of free time, even while working a full-time job. So she started experimenting with art as a hobby in the evenings. Surrounded by empty walls in her new house, Braun decided she’d make a mosaic.

“I have no idea why I started with the mosaic medium,” said Braun. “I would have to explain it with something hokey like a past life; there’s no rational explanation. I had never been to Italy or even seen a classical mosaic in a museum.”  An inspired mystery…

Her first mosaic, Two Trees, was made from glass tile purchased from an art supplies store. The result was remarkable. “When I look at it, I can see that I intuitively used the rules of classical mosaic, the rules the Romans used, using quadrangular tesserae,” says Braun. With no formal training whatsoever, Braun realized she had a knack for the medium and she wanted to make more.

In January 2004, at age 32, she attended her first meeting of the Society of American Mosaic Artists (SAMA). It was her coming out.  She felt a sense of her true Self. “I came home and told my husband: ‘This is who I truly am. It’s why I’m here. I have to do this.’”

Together they agreed on a “five-year plan” where Braun could slowly build up a portfolio while still working at Starbucks and her husband developed his law career. That plan got a turbo injection 18 months later when Starbucks eliminated its entire marketing research department and Braun was laid off. At first, she didn’t know whether she was ready to take the leap. “But my husband said, ‘Jo. Do it,’” she recalls.

“When you get the layoff notice, people in the office avoid you. They treat you like you have a communicable disease, but I was happy because I knew I was going to become an artist, and I told everyone,” says Braun. One of Braun’s coworkers handed her a book called The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield. It turned out to be one of the most catalyzing forces of her new career, a manifesto for how to succeed in a creative field.

Braun initially considered taking a more gradual approach, perhaps finding a job at a tile store, but it turned out that she didn’t have to do that. She applied for a few small public commissions and landed her first within a year. It was a mosaic of a small creek for a transfer station near Seattle. Soon after, more sales and commissions started coming in until her schedule was full.

Today Braun works full time as an artist, working in her studio, giving lectures, and traveling to install her commissions. She recently installed artwork in a secure unit at a juvenile detention facility in Anchorage, AK. “It’s the most meaningful project I’ve completed to date,” she states, “because the people who will live with it are at such a critical juncture in their lives.” Does she carry anything from anthropology with her into her visual arts career? “I think so,” she answers. “I grew to appreciate humanity in a profound, big picture sense, with all our paradoxical craziness. Anthropology was the bridge I needed to go from religious-based cultural isolation, to being a creator of visual culture in my own right. I came to understand that human beings need beauty. We need the connection it fosters. That’s what I want to contribute.”

Jo Braun’s Tips for Success

  • If you’re laid off from your job, know that the severance package they’re offering you is hush money. They want you to take it in exchange for signing a contract promising you’ll go away quietly. Don’t be afraid that if you ask for more, that they’ll send you away with nothing. They won’t, because then you’ll be a loose cannon over which they have no legal leverage.
  • If you feel compelled to pursue a creative field but don’t know where to begin, start by maximizing the resources you already have, even if they’re just the corner of your garage and a leftover can of latex primer (or whatever). Use what you have to get a feel for your creative impetus, to see if it resonates on a cellular level. Just don’t invest any serious dough until you’ve read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.
  • Don’t expect your creative work to be fun. Creative work is work. It’s lonely, boring, exhausting, and thankless. If you find yourself doing it anyway because you’re inexplicably driven, you’ve nailed it. You’ll have a sense of satisfaction, even if you end your day with nothing but an overflowing trash can.


Have you ever had artist inklings that you considered testing out as a possible career?