Money & Career

Mothers of invention

The new 'mompreneurs' prove they mean business

Chalk it up to a potent combination of maternal instinct and entrepreneurial chutzpah: More moms across the country are dreaming up lines of child-inspired products – and their ideas might make them millionaires, too.

Consider the case of Sandra Wilson of North Vancouver, who in 1994, after being laid off from Canadian Airlines, started a home business making cute leather baby shoes that stayed put on little feet. In no time, soft-soled Robeez became indispensable for parents of tots, and, in 2006, Wilson sold the company she launched at her kitchen table to a U.S. firm for $30.5 million. With that, she became the alpha mom of a very big trend.

Scores of mompreneurs, as they’ve come to be known, are now marketing dozens of clever new products and services: a leather bib that won’t stain, for instance, or healthy food for daycares. Ask each mom how she got her idea and the answer is the same: “I couldn’t find it, so I decided to make it myself.” Ask them why and the reply is more emotional, about a waning interest in corporate life, a craving to do something closer to the heart, wanting to spend more time with their kids but still make their mark in the world. (It’s a feeling I understand well; I joined their ranks when I opened an online children’s shop, Honeybunch, for exactly those reasons.)

And now an introduction to 12 such ambitious, talented women and their nifty inventions. If you haven’t heard of them yet, you soon will. After all, one of them might just be the next Robeez.

WHO: Nicole Garza, Mission, B.C.
IN A FORMER LIFE: A designer of retail displays.
KIDS: Son Kyler, 5, and daughter Malia, 3.
THE BUSINESS: Colourful leather bibs that are guaranteed not to stain. Launched in 2005.
PRICE POINT: $33 to $39.
EUREKA: “I call it my lucky spill. I was feeding my daughter when a big spoonful dropped on her leather shoe. It cleaned up so easily I wondered why no one had thought of making a leather bib. So I did.”
MY, HOW YOU’VE GROWN: Growing from a few dozen in the early days to 1,200 bibs a month, Mally Bibs are now sold in 300 stores around the world. This spring, Garza’s husband, Gerardo, quit his job and joined the company full-time.

WHO: Sisters Elizabeth and Roberta Cottam, Vancouver.
IN A FORMER LIFE: Elizabeth was a teacher and Roberta is still a graphic designer.
KIDS: Elizabeth’s sons Andrew, 6, and Nathan, 4.
THE BUSINESS: Launched in 2006, the line features cute and fashionable T-shirts with printed allergy-alert messages, such as “Don’t horse around. Nuts ain’t for me” and “We steer clear of the milky way.”
PRICE POINT: $23 to $25.
EUREKA: When her youngest child was diagnosed with a chronic food-related illness, Elizabeth and her sister joined forces to design a line of clothing that would alert adults to a child’s medical needs but would be fun for kids to wear.
MY, HOW YOU’VE GROWN: Originally targeted mainly at the toddler set, the line has expanded with products for children as old as 12. Plus: There’s a new line of tees in French.

WHO: Lifelong friends Tamar Wagman and Eryn Green, Toronto.
IN A FORMER LIFE: Wagman was an event planner and Green, a management consultant.
KIDS: Wagman has a son, Jonah, 3, and a baby on the way.
THE BUSINESS: Frozen organic baby food in flavours (like root vegetables) you won’t find in a jar. Launched in 2005.
PRICE POINT: $7.49 to $8.99 for 12 servings.
EUREKA: As new parents, Wagman and her chef husband, Jordan, made their own organic baby food, freezing small portions in ice-cube trays. Finding the process time-consuming after returning to work full-time, and with nothing comparable in the grocery store, Wagman explained the dilemma to her best friend, Green, “and a light bulb went off.” Before long, they were turning kids into healthy-food connoisseurs. “We sold 7,000 pounds of broccoli last year. Kids love it.”
MY, HOW YOU’VE GROWN: “Our goal the first year was to be in 50 stores, but at the end of 2006 we were actually in 200 across Canada.”

WHO: Jennifer Torres, Toronto.
IN A FORMER LIFE: Receptionist for a marketing firm.
KIDS: Daughters Daisy, age 3, and Paloma, 5.
THE BUSINESS: Salsa dance classes for Mom (with Baby strapped on in a carrier), a novel way to get back into shape and socialize with new mothers. Launched in 2002.
PRICE POINT: About $12 per class.
EUREKA: After her employer said no to her request to work part-time, Torres quit her job. Needing to make money while caring full-time for her daughter, she was inspired by a friend who suggested she incorporate her love of dancing into a career.
MY, HOW YOU’VE GROWN: From five classes a week in 2005 to 15 licensees in Canada and the U.S. teaching more than 100 classes weekly. Original Latin music CDs for babies, a DVD and an accessories line (including baby maracas) are among recent additions.

WHO: Cathy Patterson, Calgary.
KIDS: Son Spencer, 6, and daughter Kendall, 3.
THE BUSINESS: Baby-wearing slings made to size. They’re a contemporary take on a tribal look, coveted by young hipster moms for their bright graphic patterns. Launched in 2005.
EUREKA: “The traditional workplace is not supportive of mothers, so I stayed home after my children were born, but I still wanted to succeed professionally. When I couldn’t find a stylish sling for my own use, I decided to make and sell my own.”
MY, HOW YOU’VE GROWN: Production has shot up 400 per cent in the past two years. Patterson’s goal: to have a store in every major city in Canada by the end of 2007 and keep the fair-trade production in Calgary.

WHO: Lulu Cohen-Farnell, Toronto.
IN A FORMER LIFE: “A business and marketing background. And I’m a passionate cook.”
KIDS: Son Maxime, 4; another baby on the way.
THE BUSINESS: Homemade and healthful catering for daycares and schools, launched in 2004.
PRICE POINT: From $4.25 to $6.50 per child for lunch and snacks.
EUREKA: Shocked by the menu at her son’s daycare (hot dogs, cookies and chicken nuggets), Cohen-Farnell insisted on bringing her own home-cooked food. It caught the attention of the daycare director and eventually led to her catering the centre’s lunch program. Her proudest moment? “Hearing a kid say, ‘Mom I ate Brussels sprouts and quinoa and real fish today and I liked it.’ ”
MY, HOW YOU’VE GROWN: In three years, RFRK has built up its client list, and now provides meals to 45 Toronto daycare centres and schools.

WHO: Tracey von Dehn, Kamloops, and Lisa Will, West Vancouver.
IN A FORMER LIFE: von Dehn was a geologist; Will, an MBA.
KIDS: von Dehn has Alexander, 8; Sophie, 6; and Sterling, 3. Will has Lachlan, 4, and Mikayla, 20 months.
THE BUSINESS: A line of winter baby booties, launched in 2004.
PRICE POINT: $45 to $48.
EUREKA: Unable to find warm boots that stayed on her kids’ feet, von Dehn made them herself. She showed them off during a chance encounter with Will in Whistler, when she noticed Will had wrapped scarves around her baby’s cold feet. A partnership was born.
MY, HOW YOU’VE GROWN: Now available at 50 stores across Canada, and enjoying online sales in outdoorsy Norway. The bonus: “Our booties are made locally by home-based sewers who set their own schedules. That’s important to us. They have kids, too.”

WHO: Carol Pitre, Toronto.
IN A FORMER LIFE: Graphic designer.
KIDS: Sons Campbell, 6, and Leighton, 4, and 8-month-old daughter Adèle.
THE BUSINESS: Clever boys’ clothing featuring Pitre’s retro-cool illustrations on bowling-style shirts and tees. Founded in 2004.
PRICE POINT: $17 to $38.
EUREKA: Finding boys’ clothing “disappointing or overpriced,” Pitre took matters into her own hands. Betting there were others who felt the same, she designed and sewed a boys-only collection that debuted at Toronto’s One of a Kind, a premier craft show. “I promised my husband I’d go back to full-time work if Kid Brother wasn’t a success after three years, but I actually had a tiny profit that first year.”
MY, HOW YOU’VE GROWN: Sales have more than quadrupled since the company launched, with a loyal following across Canada.

Dimpleskins Naturals (formerly Munchskins) WHO: Jennifer Casey, Vancouver.
IN A FORMER LIFE: Makeup artist.
KIDS: Son Ashlen, 5, and daughter Rosabella, 2.
THE BUSINESS: Founded in 2001, the company makes natural baby-care products with cute monikers – Bum Bum Balm, for instance, to soothe a diapered bottom.
PRICE POINT: $6 to $22.
EUREKA: “After my son was born, I experimented with my own bum cream and eventually found a mix of vegetable-based oils that worked better than anything else. I started giving it to friends, and the business grew itself by word of mouth.”
MY, HOW YOU’VE GROWN: With babies from Singapore to the U.K. using Sweet Cheeks and Boo Boo Goo, Casey sells to 100 stores across Canada and plans to launch in the U.S. this year. Sales have doubled annually since the business began.

WHO: Catherine Hiscocks, Calgary.
THE BUSINESS: A waterproof and buoyant baby carrier for use in swimming pools, launched in 2003.
HER DAY JOB: A production engineer at an oil-and-gas company.
KIDS: Five- and 7-year-old boys Ryan and Zachary.
EUREKA: After a scary incident while supervising a toddler and a slippery infant at a public pool, Hiscocks tried to find a baby carrier that could be used in water. Finding nothing on store shelves, she designed and manufactured it herself. “After I had three offers in the first week to buy the sample, I made an appointment to see a patent lawyer.”
MY, HOW YOU’VE GROWN: Now in stores across Canada, WaterKiD has secured a European distributor and is currently negotiating to have its product sold in Australia, South Korea and Israel.