South Florida mompreneurs turn their parenting solutions into businesses

 

MomsMiami.com

Talk about multi-tasking. These days, many modern moms are juggling running a household with managing their own business. They are taking problems they encounter with their own families, finding unique solutions, and turning them into business models.

Mompreneurs, the term coined in the late 1990s by Ellen Parlapiano and Pat Cobe, co-authors of Mompreneurs: A Mother’s Practical Step-by-Step Guide to Work-at-Home Success and founders of www.mompreneursonline.com, are a growing group.

According to the National Women’s Business Council, about 30 percent of U.S. companies are owned by women, and a third of the trademarks granted to individuals and sole proprietorships went to women.

“The engine that has been driving the mompreneur movement is the societal change that now says it’s OK for women to be a mother and a wife and a powerful businesswoman,” said Liliana Paez of Miami, author of Female Power: A Women’s Guide to Becoming a Millionaire. “Technology has made it possible for women to manage their families and work life, while being a mompreneur has made it possible for them to be the owners of their own time.”

Teana McDonald of Margate, a mom of two and president of the local chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, said women have realized that they can make a difference at home and in the office.

“Am I at every event that my kids have? No. But, I am always the one to drop them off at school or camp and pick them up,” she said. “We have finally figured out that we can have it all and be successful in the process. We are leading by example and creating a healthy environment for our kids.”

Here are five moms who turned their clever solutions to everyday family dilemmas into viable businesses. Find more moms taking care of business in the Mom, Inc. series on MomsMiami.com, the Miami Herald’s online parenting community, where these stories originally ran.

Tutti Bambini

Lourdes Leon-Vega of Coral Gables got pregnant with her second child 10 years after the birth of her first, and was faced with a dizzying array of new baby products. Then after several weeks of bed rest and the premature birth of daughter, Alexa, the Type-A mom was forced to rely on friends and family for help.

Leon-Vega thought there should be a system to help new moms before and after the birth, and created Tutti Bambini, www.tutti-bambini.com, a maternity concierge service and baby boutique. She rented a facility to offer personal consultations and classes for new and expecting families, such as Baby 101 and prenatal fitness. Prices range from $45 for an individual class to $250 and up for a package.

Leon-Vega had previously worked in the family business, Leon Medical Centers, which offers everything under one roof for Medicare patients. It inspired Leon-Vega to offer a one-stop shop to new and expecting families.

Leon-Vega found a 1,500 square-foot space to lease in South Miami. “I wanted a place where moms could go and be comfortable and talk about their needs,” she said. She flew a certified baby planner in from Colorado to certify herself and two staff members.

Tutti Bambini opened its doors in August 2011. Classes like sibling training and preparing for multiples were added. A baby and children’s boutique was set up in the facility, along with a mock nursery. Leon-Vega now has a staff of three that offers custom packages, like helping international clients who move to the U.S. for their birth find apartments or cars.

About $15,000 to $20,000 was invested in certification, leasing and initial inventory. The business serves 10 to 20 families a month and is not yet profitable.

But Leon-Vega sees potential. Tutti Bambini is expanding to a 12,000 square-foot facility in Coral Gables in the coming months. The first floor will include a baby gear and maternity showroom, breastfeeding room and event room. The second floor will have two spa rooms for pre- and postnatal treatments, fitness rooms, a photo studio and meeting rooms. “It’s everything a mom could want, pre- and postnatal,” Leon-Vega said. “They could find it there.”

Ready. Set. Cupcake!

Professional baker Carolyn Shulevitz started experimenting with dairy- and egg-free recipes when her son, Harley, 18, was diagnosed with food allergies as a pre-schooler. Her cupcakes became so popular that she started freezing batter to keep up with demand. In 2010, Shulevitz and Leslie Kaplan, a friend in the hospitality industry, founded Ready. Set. Cupcake! by The Piping Gourmets, www.readysetcupcake.com, a line of frozen, ready-to-bake all-natural batter and icing.

The preservative-free products come packaged in pastry bags to defrost and use. The batter, available in varieties free of gluten, casein and eggs, makes 24 mini cupcakes or one seven-inch cake and sells for $5.99. The buttercream icing is $6.99. The products are sold in freezer cases at Whole Foods Markets, as well as Epicure Market in Miami Beach and Sunny Isles.

Shulevitz graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York and has worked as a freelance caterer. Kaplan has worked in her family’s business, The Carousel Yacht and Great Bay Yacht Charters. The women, both Miami Beach residents, met at a Mommy and Me group 20 years ago and remained friends. The two were working together on The Carousel Yacht when a surge in business led Shulevitz to start freezing cake batter to keep up. The women saw a business opportunity, and jumped in.

Frozen cake batter fills a void for people who want to bake, but didn’t want the mess, Shulevitz said. “Everybody wants fresh-baked goods, but some people don’t know how to bake. They’re intimidated by the process,” she said.

Shulevitz froze the product at different time intervals to test quality, shelf life and freshness. They handed out frozen batter samples to friends to get feedback. They sent samples to a professional testing lab to get a nutritional and shelf-life analysis.

They found a production house in Hialeah. A website was launched and the product hit the shelf in October 2011. They do demos at food trade shows and participate in community and charity events. The line was named Own It Ventures Best Product 2013.

The partners initially spent $100,000 on research, product development, packaging, testing, marketing and inventory. They sell about 600 units per week.

“Believe in yourself, because there is a perception that women can’t do it, and that moms won’t have the time,” Shulevitz said. “But if you focus, you know you will.”

Book N Cookin

Robyne Friedland was used to an action-packed schedule, first as an elementary school teacher, then as a stay-at-home mom with two boys. But when her youngest, Dylan, entered preschool in 2007, the Coral Springs mom began to get a little antsy.

Friedland turned her experiences as a teacher and a mom into Book N Cookin, which offers customized, themed entertainment that incorporates cooking, storytelling and games. Designed for birthday parties, fund-raisers, even corporate functions, Book N Cookin goes anywhere in the tri-county area. Programs range from a Tinkerbell party for a 3-year-old to a French cooking class for adults. Sessions are 45 minutes for up to 25 people and range from $100 to $200.

Friedland said her first idea was to start a Mommy and Me class. The class started, no one came, and Friedland decided to take her show on the road.

“I knew I had some good stuff, so I kept the cooking, storytelling and games” to put together a program that could go to a customer’s venue, she said.

The first step was assembling inventory. For cooking, she needed blenders, measuring cups, mixing bowls and the like. For storytelling, she collected books, puppets and craft materials. For the games, she bought hula hoops, scooters, music and obstacle course supplies.

Over time, Friedland developed a running list of packages. Today popular themes include nutrition, in which Friedland will read a nutrition-based book, exercise to music and make a healthy snack like a fruit smoothie or crepe. For a Thanksgiving theme, she’ll make cornbread from scratch and homemade butter, decorate placemats and do turkey races. For Valentine’s Day, she’ll make homemade fudge or chocolate fondue, read poems and do three-legged races.

During the school year, she does about 12 events a month, mostly after-school activities. In the summer, she’s busy nearly every day with camps and library programs.

Initial capital outlay was about $1,000, for business expenses and licensing, party inventory and office supplies. Friedland’s husband, Steve, a computer programmer, built the company website. It took about three years to become profitable, she said.

Friedland showcases her business at vendor fairs for preschool, camp and library directors and hands out brochures at kids’ events.

“Don’t let people tell you no, that you can’t do it,” Friedland said. “And don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Greenie Tots

Jilea Hemmings started looking for all-natural prepared foods for her son, Jayden, when he was diagnosed on the autism spectrum. She and her husband, Jamie, both worked full-time, and it was hard to make traditional home-cooked meals every night.

When she couldn’t find anything to her liking, Jilea, who loves to cook, created Greenie Tots, a line of frozen organic vegetarian meals for kids. She developed her own recipes, putting a healthy spin on traditional kids’ favorites. The all-natural meals can be microwaved or baked and are $6 each.

Greenie Tots tested products on kid focus groups, and launched its initial product line at the end of 2009. They sold the products at farmers markets on weekends and online.

They used a New York kitchen for six months, then found an Italian restaurant in Sunrise that could lease them their kitchen at night. Jilea and Jamie did everything — cook, package and ship.

Things changed when they began talks with Whole Foods in March 2011. They revamped the product line and downsized product offerings from 12 to five. At the end of 2012, they started using a New Jersey manufacturer because they could no longer handle the volume.

The Hemmings sample products at schools, kids’ events and grocery stores. They use Facebook and Twitter to advance demos and engage with customers. They also developed a Greenie Tots app on Google Play to provide brand information, product updates and a link to their website.

The couple spent about $40,000 getting the product off of the ground, and have invested $152,000 in total, self-funding from retirement funds. Greenie Tots sells about 2,000 units per month and is not yet profitable.

“We want to do a lot more, but we have limited time,” Jilea said. “There’s only so much two people can do.”

Jilea worked as a pharmaceutical sales representative before joining Greenie Tots full-time in January 2013. Jamie worked as a health insurance agent before joining Greenie Tots full-time in June 2012. The brand is sold in Whole Foods stores, Giant Eagle supermarkets, independent grocery stores, and at www.greenietots.com The couple also is in talks with Costco and Safeway.

Baby K’tan

After Michal Chesal’s son, Coby, was born with Down syndrome in 1999, she wanted to carry him with a wearable baby carrier. But a physical therapist told her it wouldn’t give Coby, who had poor muscle tone, the right kind of support.

So Chesal, of Hollywood, began playing around with the baby slings on the marketplace, crisscrossing and wearing two of them together. She took the slings to a seamstress to connect them, eventually marketing the wearable baby carriers as Baby K’tan, www.babyktan.com, a play on words that means “little baby” in Hebrew.

The carriers can be used for kids from birth to 35 pounds. They come in adult sizes and a variety of fabrics, and range from $50 to $60.

Chesal partnered with a family friend, Isaac Wernick, to start the business after Wernick tried the product for his own son.

Chesal and Wernick developed the carrier in an all-cotton fabric with no connectors or snaps. They connected the over-the-shoulder loops with an adjustable back support band and a waist sash.

“No one had a design background, but it was a simple idea,” Chesal said.

For more than a year, the partners ordered samples from factories, rejecting fabric that was too thin or straps that were too wide. A prototype was ready in 2007, and the partners placed an initial order of 200. Since then, they have tinkered with different fabrics and sizing.

The product is now manufactured in China and Guatemala and warehoused in Davie, near the company’s offices.

Chesal and Wernick spent about $50,000 initially on setting up the business, patents, samples, testing, trade shows, marketing and initial inventory. Baby K’tan sells about 110,000 items a year and became profitable in 2011. The partners have five full-time and three part-time employees. The product is sold in 900 U.S. retailers and distributed in 10 countries.

To promote, Chesal partners with other mom entrepreneurs in press releases, advertising campaigns and trade shows. A Brand Ambassador System allows moms who demo the product and distribute brochures at parenting events to earn points toward merchandise.

They also have expanded the line with the K’tan Cloth, which attaches to a baby carrier and can be used as a burp cloth, nursing cover or blankie.

“Follow your heart. If you have an idea and keep putting it off, somebody else is going to come up with that idea,” Chesal said. “If I had to do it over again, I would have started so much earlier.”

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