Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Entrepreneurial Mom Jessica Brekke: Making Healthy Foods Palatable

Jessica Brekke and her sister, Stephanie Williams, started a business with a simple act of kindness. When a friend was undergoing chemotherapy and struggling to find nourishing foods her body would tolerate, the sisters created an assortment of whole-food popsicles that were both soothing and packed with nutrients. Today, The HopeFULL Company provides kits and supplies for making the popsicles (known as HopeFULLS) at home. HopeFULLS have found fans among everyone from cancer patients and others who have trouble eating to parents of picky eaters and folks who want a healthy snack on hand. I interviewed Jessica about how she helps her kids make healthy food choices and how starting a business impacted her self-image.

Nesting Doll Project: You've created a business by making healthy foods palatable. How do you do this in your own home?

Jessica Brekke: It helps to live across the street from the farmer's market! My sister/business partner and I use our local farmer's markets to inspire our recipes. We love bouncing ideas off each other and playing around in the kitchen. We've always been foodies, and our passion to cook and make culinary creations together began when we were making homemade baby food for our daughters and swapping recipes. It also helps to have great kitchen counter space, which is something I just acquired in June. Before that, prep work (and recipe development for The HopeFULL Company) was always a bit frustrating.

NDP: How do your daughter's eating habits differ from your son's, if at all? Do you think this has anything to do with gender?

JB: My daughter used to eat anything I offered her, until she turned about 4. Now at age 6 she's rather picky. I'm not sure it has much to do with gender. I just think she doesn't have nearly the appetite my son does. My son is a more adventurous eater and has a less picky palate. I think this is because he's just so dang hungry all the time! My daughter will give everything a try, but she's definitely in a finicky phase. Both of my kids love frozen BellyFULLS [a HopeFULL Company product] and prefer to get their veggies in popsicle form. They know they're in the pop, but mixed with the other ingredients it all tastes good to them. And they love eating things on a stick.



NDP: How do you model a healthy self-image for your children?

JB: I grew up with a mother and grandmother who shamed themselves out loud when they ate ("Oh, I should never have eaten that piece of cake. I'm not going to eat for a week now.") and made negative statements about themselves in front of the kids in my family. ("I have such a big nose!" or "Look at my ugly feet!") Yes, they were being dramatic and trying to elicit a laugh but that taught me self-loathing, not acceptance and self-love. Do I have negative thoughts about my body? Sure, but I keep them to myself when they crop up. I also walk the walk. I exercise and eat and drink healthy. I don't drink alcohol, I eat a lot of whole foods and drink a lot of water, and I avoid sugar. I feel better when I am doing these things for my body. My kids see me making these healthy choices, and I believe that it empowers them to make healthy choices for themselves. They need to advocate for themselves now that they are 6 and 8. I'm not always there to say, "You shouldn't have that soda, especially this late in the day." I also do my best to accept compliments graciously and remind my children that we are all beautiful, inside and out, just the way we are.

NDP: How has being an entrepreneur affected your self-image?

JB: I am proud of what my sister and I have accomplished. We've learned so much about ourselves since starting our business. We've learned that while some aspects of running a business come naturally to us, other times we're feeling our way around in the dark. We've learned to be patient and be persistent. We've discovered that we have big ambitions and that we're willing to sacrifice a bit of ourselves to leave our world a better place for our children.

Since launching The HopeFULL Company we've had the honor of being invited into many people's lives. We get to hear how our products have helped someone's sister eat when she's going through chemotherapy. We celebrate with families when their children move from a feeding tube to our frozen meal pops. We get to hear about the father who's now putting on weight with our products after struggling with Alzheimer's.

Any success we've encountered or will encounter in the future belongs to all who have supported us along the way. It truly does take a village!

NDP: Why do you think the media loves stories about entrepreneurial mothers?

JB: People love stories that evoke emotion. They love to hear about sacrifice, perseverance, and beating the odds. The story of the entrepreneurial mother is all of this and more. We are both relatable and inspiring. Most entrepreneurial mothers are out there doing incredible things and forging big change, and they're doing it for their children. That makes a good story!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Not Your Daughter's Jeans and the Before-and-After Narrative

If you want mothers to buy your product, take a cue from companies like Baby Einstein and Airborne and adopt a before-and-after narrative. Make transformation your history, your mission, and your unique selling proposition.

Consider Baby Einstein's before-and-after narrative. Stay-at-home mom Julie Aigner-Clark wanted to expose her infant to the arts. She set up a studio in her basement and created a baby-friendly video combining classical music and visual arts. Having transformed her baby's world, Clark began sharing her videos and related products with other parents. Though Baby Einstein has backed away from claims connecting classical music and neurological development, that connection was part of the original narrative—show your arts-deprived infant a video and transform her brain. Even if such claims are no longer explicit, there's a reason the company invokes Einstein's name (for hefty fees to the late physicist's estate).

Airborne's founding narrative is similar. A school teacher was tired of getting sick and concocted a drug-free tablet that transformed her immune system. Now Airborne can boost your immunity, too. (Coincidentally, both Baby Einstein and Airborne have come under fire for making false claims. The mother-turned-entrepreneur might attract customers, but she'd better find an expert to vet her ad copy.)

It's surprising that it took the apparel industry so long to offer mothers a pair of jeans with a before-and-after narrative. According to a Reader's Digest article, Lisa Rudes Sandel didn't mind her poochy stomach until low-rise jeans came along:
"I couldn't fit into my regular size six," recalls Rudes Sandel, who had to go three sizes bigger to find a pair that fit. "They were uncomfortable, and they felt like they would fall down. I wondered, Why isn’t someone making nice, hip jeans for women with a figure like mine?" Like many entrepreneurs, Rudes Sandel turned her complaint into a business opportunity. The founder of Not Your Daughter's Jeans (NYDJ) has created a multimillion-dollar business simply by designing jeans for women with womanly bodies.
To launch NYDJ, Rudes Sandel and her sister "lured their father, George, out of retirement" from running a women's sportswear company. It was George Rudes who came up with the name "Not Your Daughter's Jeans." Rudes Sandel told Reader's Digest, "I thought he was crazy. And he said, 'Watch, my darling daughter. I know what I'm talking about.'" Indeed he did. With a name that identifies a problem and offers a solution in the same breath, NYDJ hardly needs a relatable founding narrative. That's a good thing for them because, as a transformation story, this one falls apart pretty quickly.

Though the company markets to Boomer-aged women, Lisa Rudes Sandel  was in her thirties when she founded NYDJ. Not Your Daughter's Jeans are the antidote to unflattering "mom jeans" (remember the SNL sketch?) but Rudes Sandel was not a mother until several years after launching her company. While Lisa Rudes Sandel is NYDJ's public face and author of its founding narrative, her father was much more than an advisor. George Rudes served as CEO until the company sold a 50 percent interest to a private equity firm in 2008. He knows his customers and what motivates them. Here's what he told PBS NewsHour about why Not Your Daughter's Jeans never go on sale:
I'm dealing with a demographic that has the most disposable income. Women over 40 who've been neglected in the fashion scene...They want to be comfortable in their jeans. So the most important thing about my company is we sell fit.
So what's the point of all this? It's not to complain about Not Your Daughter's Jeans. While I don't love their "look and feel a size smaller" marketing appeal, I applaud the company for bringing style to a broader range of sizes. And while NYDJ's $100+ sticker price is considerably more than I spend on a pair of jeans, the cost doesn't strike me as exorbitant for high-quality, U.S.-made clothing worn multiple times a week for several years.

My complaint is that when we feel insecure about our bodies or our age or our parenting skills, the solutions we're offered are products to purchase. Before-and-after marketing narratives rely on our insecurities and fuel our feelings of inadequacy. Who felt uneasy about their infants' lack of exposure to Van Gogh paintings before Baby Einstein defined arts immersion as a developmental need?

Women certainly feel insecure and overwhelmed. A 2008 survey of more than 12,000 women found that: "Women everywhere intensely feel a lack of time in their lives and the pressure of trying to contort time to accommodate everything they want to achieve." Almost half of survey respondents said demands on their time were their number one challenge. Almost half of respondents identified managing household finances as another significant source of stress. Almost half said they rarely or never feel powerful. On top of all that, women feel insecure about their appearance. More than two-thirds of respondents believe they're overweight and almost half rarely or never feel beautiful.

What do the survey designers conclude about these findings? Reporting on the results, author Michael Silverstein said, "Very few companies are realizing the full potential of this incredible opportunity." Silverstein, who coauthored a book based on the survey (Women Want More: How to Capture Your Share of the World's Largest, Fastest-Growing Market), said in a press release: "Our research shows that women are struggling to balance the 'job at the job' with the 'job at home'...They do the majority of chores and most of the tasks involved in child care. But they don't have the option not to work, because the family depends on their income. They want companies to help them save time, providing 24-7 access, easy information, appointment selling, and a responsive sales force."

I am sad to read that so many women feel overwhelmed, powerless, and unattractive. I am angry that the people most invested in understanding us want not to help us, but to sell us something. I'd like to think we can find more substantive, lasting solutions to the pressures in our lives than a pair of jeans with patented Lift Tuck Technology. (Here's a good place to start.) In the short-term, whether or not we buy the jeans let's not buy the narrative that says we need transformation and something we buy can provide it.