Meeting of the Moms
Three Greenwich women who are building empires
It’s a struggle many successful, ambitious women face: how to balance family life and work life. For these three Greenwich women, each of whom took time off from their corporate jobs to raise their families, the answer lay in starting a company that would allow them to call the shots. One has a passion for chocolate; another has a soft spot for teddy bears; and the third believes something beautiful can be forged from something that has the power to kill. One thing they share in common is an entrepreneurial spirit, and the vision and drive to see their dreams through.
A True Character
Mary Beth Minton, Zylie the Bear
Two years ago, Wharton School graduate and former banker Mary Beth Minton decided to make her living selling stuffed bears. And not just any bears. The ones she’d been thinking about for years, inspired by watching her daughter Sarah play with her toys. “She would dress up her teddy bears as if they were dolls,” says Mary Beth. It gave the accomplished seamstress an idea: What if she combined the two into one huggable, plush package?
“I imagined a cross between a doll and a bear, but with a flatter tummy and longer legs,” she says.
She tucked the idea away and focused her attention elsewhere. “I had a very busy and rewarding life,” she says. Nearly twenty years went by. It wasn’t until Mary Beth attended a business school reunion in 2007 that she got the nerve to move forward with her dream. “I realized there were a lot of resources available to graduates,” she says. “It gave me the sense that I would have what I needed to start a company.”
She decided to sew a prototype, which was more difficult than it sounds. “The face was hard,” she says. “Plush is a difficult fabric to work with.” When she got stumped—how do you put together a jointed teddy bear, for instance—she turned to YouTube. “I don’t think I could have done this in another era,” she says. “Everything is so accessible now.” She enlisted the help of her three children, Matt, Sarah and Kate, all of whom were enthusiastic about the project.
“My kids were so supportive,” she says. “When I was first contemplating doing this I was kind of ready to throw in the towel.” In fact, it was twenty-six-year-old Matt who convinced his mother to take her idea to the next level. “He helped me see that it wasn’t just about creating a product. We were configuring a brand.”
Matt left his job working for an Internet company in Boulder and moved to Manhattan in 2010. They leased a small office space in a Chelsea collaborative, but worked primarily from Mary Beth’s home. Together he and his mother set about creating a marketing plan and a mission statement. They introduced the bear, then named Sophie, to an intellectual property attorney who advised them to make up a name, like Pepsi or Xerox.
Returning home, they tossed a bunch of Scrabble letters on a table and started playing with combinations. After about three months they had whittled their list down to ten choices, including Zylie. They organized focus group testing. “What we noticed is that when people said the word Zylie, they had to kind of smile,” says Mary Beth. “We realized it was sticky. Once they knew how to say it, they’d remember it.”
From there things unfolded serendipitously. In order for Zylie to work as a brand, they realized she needed a backstory. Sarah, now twenty-four and a freelance writer in Stamford, suggested travel as the unifying theme. Mary Beth, the daughter of an airline executive who spent part of her high school years in Singapore and Hawaii, loved the idea. She and Sarah wrote the first book in the Zylie series, Zylie’s Adventure in the Big Apple. The book has since been reworked by a prominent writer and producer from the children’s entertainment industry, and there are now two more titles in the series—Zylie’s Silk Road Adventure, China; and Zylie’s Adventure Down Under, Australia.
“It makes Zylie more engaging,” she says. “And it gives us opportunities to introduce new bears from other cultures.” Like Shen, the wannabe–rock star panda that Zylie meets at a street fair in Chengdu; and Kiki, a surfer-chick koala bear that Zylie and Chen meet in Sydney. When she’s not on the road, Zylie lives in New York with her Aunt Willa and her brother Theo. Unlike other famous bears—Winnie the Pooh and Paddington—Zylie is a fashion-forward bear who favors tunic tops and skinny jeans. Her Adventure Kit includes her signature outfit, an orange purse, whose color evokes another iconic brand with a distinctive orange box; a passport; a diary; and a map. Early on, Mary Beth hired a learning scientist from Stanford’s LIFE Center to advise on educational content.
For Mary Beth, who “retired” at the age of thirty-one when she and her then-husband moved to Greenwich, the transition from homemaker to small-business owner has been thrilling. “I did a lot of volunteer work and always assumed I would go back into finance,” she says. “But one day I realized I enjoyed all aspects of business.” That realization led her, eventually, to the Red Ribbon Foundation where she served as executive director from 2005 to 2009. Two years later, she introduced Zylie to the world at the Toy Fair at the Jacob Javits Center in New York.
The learning curve has been steep. Mary Beth used her own money to fund her business while she was still in the prototype and testing phase. “I had initially thought why not hire someone to help me sew fifty bears. You can do that with clothes,” she says. “But not with toys, because of the rigorous safety standards and testing that is involved.” Last fall, she and Matt sold 20 percent of the company to outside investors. “Beyond just the capital, we wanted to bring in strategic investors who had experience in the fields of business we’re pursuing,” Matt says. So far, their efforts have paid off. This August FAO Schwarz will introduce an exclusive Zylie line in 600 Toys “R” Us stores throughout the country. In fact after twenty-seven years of living in Greenwich, Mary Beth recently sold her home and moved into Manhattan where she and Matt set up bigger office space in the Flatiron District. “As with most start-ups it takes a while before you get a big break,” she says. “This year we got our big break.” zyliethebear.com
Jessica Mindich, Jewelry for a Cause; Caliber Collection
One year ago Jessica Mindich had an urge to stop for coffee and a donut while driving down a darkened street in Newark with two police officers from the department’s ballistics lab. “It was 4:30 a.m.,” she recalls. “I hadn’t slept all night.” When she mentioned it to Sgt. Luke Laterza, he replied: “This isn’t Law and Order. We don’t stop for donuts.”
The reality of her situation sank in: This was no scene from a fictional crime show. The police were escorting Jessica to a metal shredding facility in Jersey City, along with boxes of illegal guns—pistols, rifles, semiautomatics—and shell casings that had been collected from crime scenes and released from evidence. Jessica, whose company, Jewelry for a Cause, raises money for charities and nonprofits, had arranged for the guns to be shredded, melted down and, eventually, repurposed as bracelets and introduced as the Caliber Collection. Proceeds of the sales would then be used to fund a gun-buy-back amnesty program—the first in Newark since 2009.
“Ultimately I want to have bracelets that represent cities with large homicide rates,” she says. “So that they become a symbol of solidarity and strength.”
A 1997 graduate of the Cardozo School of Law in New York City, Jessica was the in-house counsel for an Internet company when she got pregnant with the first of her two children in 2001. While on maternity leave, she watched the Twin Towers fall on September 11. “It was a wake-up call,” she says. For the next six years, Jessica stayed at home to raise her family. By the time she was ready to return to her profession, the dot-com boom was over; alternative energy sources was the hot new field in the legal profession. She was no longer willing to put in eighty-hour weeks. “After an extended absence, it’s very hard to become relevant again,” she says.
She decided to pursue other interests. “I had this desire to create something that would enable me to give back and connect with the community,” she says.
Jewelry for a Cause came out of the economic downturn in 2008. “The nonprofits were no longer getting big checks written to them,” she says. “I wanted to find innovative fundraising tools.” A preppy at heart who “loves a good signet ring,” Jessica knew that even in an affluent town like Greenwich there were plenty of kids that couldn’t afford a class ring. She imagined taking a school crest—in this case Brunswick, where her boys were students—and attaching it to a simple rope bracelet.
She mentioned the idea to a friend during a walk at the beach. She convinced Jessica to make one as an auction item for an upcoming school fundraiser. Jessica watched a YouTube video to learn how to tie a slipknot. The bracelet was a hit. Soon orders were rolling in from schools up and down the East Coast. “It was perfect for the times,” she says. “Chic, hip, eco-friendly, inexpensive.”
Jessica started her company with a $5,000 loan from her husband, which she paid back after three months. The goal was simple: to design and create inexpensive yet fashionable pieces of jewelry, which could be sold at a profit to raise money for various schools and charity organizations. She expanded her line of offerings to include necklaces and bracelets and contracted with artisans worldwide. The items range from simple necklaces—some with talismans, others made of recycled newspaper and bark cloth beads—that cost from $32 to $60, to do-it-yourself fundraising kits that cost $100. There are exceptions: statement pieces such as the 100-carat sapphire Drop of Water necklace that sells for $5,000, with 20 percent of the proceeds going to support the Thirst Project (thirstproject.org). Since its inception, Jewelry for a Cause has been responsible for donating more than $400,000 to a variety of organizations from the Alzheimer’s Association and the Red Cross to schools such as Greenwich Academy and King Low Heywood Thomas.
“Most sane people would have written a business plan,” she says. “It was just an organic process that unfolded as it went along.”
Nothing could have prepared her for what came next. In December 2011, Jessica and her husband attended a conference in San Diego, where she had the opportunity to talk to Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark. After he described the problem of gun violence in his city, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the U.S., Jessica told him about her company. “We started talking about ways we might work together,” she recalls. “I suggested using the metal from guns that had been seized off the streets and turning it into jewelry. He said, ‘Let’s do it.’” Three weeks later she was driving to Newark and talking about designs. “He had a vision,” she says. “He’s very focused on positive imagery.” The concept they came up with was simple but stylish: an oval-shaped bangle meant to evoke the trigger cage of a gun.
It was a huge undertaking, Jessica says. The department donated the guns and shell casings, which she arranged to have shredded for free by Sims Metal Management in Jersey City. That first batch provided enough raw material for 250 bracelets—cuffs and bangles in brass or steel, some with diamonds. They range in price from $135 to $350; those that are embedded with eight diamonds cost $1,275. Each is stamped with a serial number taken from one of the shredded guns.
Jessica launched Caliber on November 28, two weeks before the Newtown shootings. On January 16, Booker appeared on the Rachel Maddow show and spent most of the segment describing the collection and Jessica’s vision. Sales soared. Orders came in from Japan and Holland. There was even a story about Caliber in the Malta Times.
To date, Jessica’s company has already donated $60,000 to the Newark Police Department, which held its first gun buy back at the end of April. “It was a good amount of money,” says Director Samuel Demaio, who is a big supporter of Jessica’s efforts. “That got a couple hundred guns off the street.” And getting illegal guns off the street is a high priority for Demaio’s department. “Gun violence is our biggest problem,” he says.
Since the initial launch of the Caliber Collection, Jessica has added cufflinks as well as a limited-edition MTV x Caliber bracelet, created in collaboration with Snoop Lion and the folks at MTV. She has also set up the Caliber Foundation; its sole mission is to give money to families and communities that have been affected by illegal gun violence—to help cover medical expenses, for instance. Jessica designed a line of T-shirts ($40 each), with 100 percent of the profits going directly to the foundation. MTV recently awarded the foundation a $15,000 grant.
“This past year has felt thrilling and scary because I realize just how much of an impact I can make as long as I don’t mess it up,” she says. “I have been given a rare moment.”
Jackie Ekholm, Moo Chocolates
Jackie Ekholm was a rising star at a Fortune 500 company in Europe, when she became pregnant with her first child in 1992. Although it was rare for female executives to take extended maternity leaves at that time, Jackie negotiated a six-month absence. She had every intention of returning to her job as a brand manger for one of the company’s largest divisions. Fourteen years, three kids and five moves later, Jackie was ready to step back into the workforce. By then, her priorities had changed. She was no longer willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of her career.
“I thought about it for years,” she says. “I’d sit down and think, ‘what can I do? How can I make this work with my kids? How can I do something and make my family life a priority?’”
The answer came to her seven years ago during her family’s annual summer holiday in Switzerland. “My kids asked me why I always brought home a suitcase full of Swiss chocolate,” she recalls. “I told them I couldn’t find good chocolate in the U.S.” She pauses and smiles. “I love chocolate. I have to have a little bit every day.”
Jackie, whose mother is Swiss and father is Dutch, also loves what she calls “real food,” without chemicals or dyes. And she loves cows. “When I’m in Switzerland, I talk to the cows,” she says. “I call them mes amie.’”
So it really wasn’t much of a stretch when her children told their mother she should start a chocolate company and name it Moo.
She loved the idea. “We talked about it a lot. I used it as an opportunity to teach them what it would be like to start a company from the ground up.”
If anyone knows how to do that, it’s Jackie. She went to work for Proctor & Gamble in Geneva right out of college. Her timing was perfect. It was the early 1980s when P&G was developing new markets in the Middle East and Asia. When she wasn’t working, she spent as much time as possible in her beloved Alps—skiing in winter, hiking in summer.
After a couple of years, she moved back to the U.S. where she was hired almost immediately by Jeanette Wagner, then the president of Estée Lauder International. “She was grooming me to ship me back to Europe,” Jackie explains. “I spent time in every department in New York learning the cosmetic industry.”
In 1990 the company sent Jackie to Amsterdam, where she became the acting manager for the Estée Lauder brand in Holland. Two years later, she married a former P&G colleague and the couple settled in Rome. Jackie returned to P&G to head up the skin care division for Switzerland. Within a year she had captured 50 percent of the market share with Oil of Olay. “I’ve had some really great experiences with work,” she says modestly.
More to the point, she had enough big-picture experience to understand the challenges of launching a small company. In her spare time she started pulling together a business plan. She dreamed of making a good, creamy whole-milk chocolate for kids. It had to be organic and made of top-quality ingredients. And it had to be moderately priced (the 3-ounce bars retail for $3.99). While she was toying with the idea, she dabbled in real estate. “And then it was crunch time,” she says. “I had to make a choice, chocolate or real estate?” One afternoon three years ago she saw an ad for a chocolate-making class at the Bruce Museum. She took it as a sign. Real estate was history. That night at the Bruce, she met Fritz Knipschildt, the chocolatier behind the South Norwalk-based Chocopologie. “We’ve been best buddies every since,” she says.
Working with Knipschildt in his test kitchen, she spent a year developing recipes and learning the business. “The food industry is very generous with time and energy,” she says. “It’s full of people who are very passionate about what they do.” She recounts a phone call she had with a gentleman from Newman’s Own, whom she’d never met. “He spent about an hour and a half with me,” she says. “He recommended starting on a smaller scale, focusing on specialty stores and outsourcing as much as possible.”
Jackie used her own money to cover all the costs associated with a start-up, including lawyer fees, packaging and creating inventory. She found a chocolate company in Vermont. She drew on her marketing background to come up with a concept for packaging that would appeal to parents and kids—a smiling good-natured cow, one hoof raised in greeting. From the start, Moo has been a family affair. She and her oldest son Alex spent the first year going to stores and handing out samples. Her daughter, Linnea, soon to be a freshman in college, works on promotional material, while Nicholas handles the tech side. “After the first year and a half, we decided we were a brand and a product that worked,” she says. “Then we went into investment mode.” For that she turned to outside sources, one of whom was a friend from her P&G days who founded Thai Kitchen and sold it to McCormick. Although she declined to talk specific numbers, “it takes millions to build a grocery brand in the U.S.,” Jackie says.
Her goal is simple: “I want to be the next go-to kids chocolate in the U.S.,” she says. Moo is already available in more than 600 outlets throughout the country, including Whole Foods and Balducci’s. And while she doesn’t tweet or spend much time on her personal Facebook page, Jackie understands the potential of social media to help her brand grow. “TV advertising used to take the biggest chunk of my marketing budget,” she says. “Now we do everything on social media. We have close to 13,000 Facebook fans alone.”
There have been some hiccups: The word “kids” originally appeared on the label, but Jackie quickly discovered that was a deterrent to some buyers. “They made an assumption that it had more sugar or less sugar or that it was filled with vitamins,” she says. But for Jackie, the highs and lows, the fits and starts are all part of the process. “This has been a wonderful opportunity for me to show my kids that a problem doesn’t have to stop you in your tracks. You just figure it out and move on.” moochocolates.com