Moms on a Mission
The Entrepreneurial Spirit Catching Women Nurtures an Offshoot of Eco-Friendly Businesses
photographs by raya ward
A funny thing happened somewhere along the June Cleaver–Martha Stewart continuum: Women discovered a new way of balancing the joys of a fast-paced career with those found along the mommy track. Rather than trying to do it all at once, however, some women in our community have been opting out of the professional arena altogether to devote their energy and considerable brainpower to running a household and raising kids. And once their delicate flowers have taken firm root in their own lives, these moms turn once again to the business of nurturing their own professional personas.
Yet after a self-imposed five-, ten- or even twenty-year time-out from the pressure cooker of corporate culture, many of these one-time wunderkinder are experiencing full-on cognitive dissonance, and they’re not quite sure what the digital revolution and the post-2008 economic meltdown have wrought. After years of climbing the corporate ladder, these postfeminist moms are finding they would rather climb their own. They’ve learned another way of acting on their good ideas: namely, their way, with their hours, their values, their connections and their rules. Holly Hurd—in naming her own company (which helps other moms manifest their entrepreneurial dreams)—provided the perfect moniker to this unofficial movement: Venture Mom.
Here we meet some entrepreneurial Venture Moms who are motivated specifically by their own green streak, having realized that green isn’t only the color of money or a word to describe something young and growing, but is also a way of living in concert with nature and treading with a smaller footprint on this precious planet.
Waste Not, Want Not
Taylor Tait and Alicia Hart
No secret here: We all have too much stuff. But two New Canaan women decided to do something about it. Alicia Hart was an at-home mom with four kids (a now twenty-year-old daughter and three boys; seventeen, fourteen, and twelve) and an irrepressible venture-mom spirit. That spirit led her into a variety of businesses, including selling jewelry and designing tote bags. “But I was never passionate about any of them,” she says. “So I asked myself what I really wanted to do, and I realized I always loved organizing. When I was younger, I thought I’d be a teacher; then I realized I could teach people to organize.”
That’s how she hit upon her perfect business—and the perfect name: Simply Organized by Hart. In 2008 Taylor Tait, who had gone to school with Alicia’s husband, moved to New Canaan with her family (three boys, now eight, eleven, and thirteen). The women met at their kids’ hockey games and started talking shop. Tait had been thinking of creating a similar organizing business, called Straighten Up, and “wanted to find a way to not overlap,” she says.
There was enough work to keep them both busy, but as they became better friends, they had what they like to call their “kismet moment”: the realization that many gently used items could, and should, have a second life with needful schools, youth groups, religious organizations, and nonprofit or charity organizations. So they teamed up to start Rid It Right, a website directory that helps people donate, resell, recycle or repair items they no longer want.
Riditright.com helps users find organizations that are in need of the very things they’re looking to get rid of, from computers to clothes to furniture. “You enter your zip code and the item you want to get rid of,” Tait explains, “and a list of locations and a map will pop up, telling you where to take it.” This includes nonprofits, recycling centers, repair shops and consignment stores.
“Our mission is to keep stuff out of landfills and get it into the hands of people in need,” adds Hart. Right now their budget comes from “grocery money,” and they’re looking for an angel investor to help them grow, and create a nationwide directory of resources. “The best part for me is helping people get rid of things when it’s hard for them. When they have a better understanding of where their stuff is going, it makes the process of ridding easier. If clients can feel a connection to helping others with their donations, or knowing they are recycling properly, it becomes a win-win-win situation. We love to think that we’re at the forefront of a real grassroots movement.”
She killed every houseplant she ever owned, but that didn’t stop Noelle Henderson from wanting to spend all her free time outdoors, in nature. But with baby girls just twelve months apart, it was hard to get quality time anywhere. So the minute she moved to Darien in 1998, after seven years in urban San Francisco and New York, Henderson turned a six-by-ten-foot plot of her yard into a small but high-yield tomato- and-herb garden—as a “fun family experiment. I didn’t want the kids to be afraid of getting dirty,” she says. “They wound up loving it. They’d eat cherry tomatoes off the vine and pretend they were living in the wilderness.”
While living on the West Coast, Henderson had been inspired by Chez Panisse and locavore-movement founder Alice Waters to be mindful of the heavy carbon imprint of cross-country food transport and to eat locally. “Local is more important than organic,” she says, “though the ideal is local and organic.” With a real yard of her own, she got serious about gardening. Friends turned to her for help with their gardens, and suddenly Henderson had a bona fide sideline career, which she named Design by Noelle. “I started the business to help friends but mostly to support my own addiction,” she says with a wink. “I barely charged above wholesale to create a portfolio, and started donating container gardens to silent auctions in 2006 to build word of mouth.”
She recently created an offshoot venture, Edible School Garden Initiative, which aims to get gardens into schools (among other things). “Through my garden-design business this spring, I will offer a beginner’s backyard family garden course, with simple weekly e-mail instructions and fun activities to bring the family together outside and to reconnect them with the earth and good food. With the schools initiative, I hope to introduce the children of Darien to gardening and to foster a respect for the earth. We need to get kids outside, interacting with each other, not texting or sitting in front of a screen.” Her mantra: Start with gardening, and the rest will come.
“We’ve turned into a packaged society,” she continues. “People don’t know or care where food comes from. If you haven’t had a local tomato, you don’t know what you’re missing. And it can’t get more local than your backyard.”
“There’s a dangerous misconception,” says Rhonda Sherwood, “that if a product is sold at the store, it must be safe. But only five chemicals have been banned in the U.S. Asbestos is still legal. People think you have to ingest these products to be affected, but absorption through the skin or lungs also causes exposure to these harmful chemicals.”
By 2004 the Purdue-trained biomedical engineer and mother of three (a daughter, now eighteen, and boys ages sixteen and thirteen) had become so convinced of the relationship between toxic chemicals and children’s health that she wrote a book about it. But without a platform from which to sell it, she couldn’t get it published. So she rethought her approach and began building that platform by lecturing at local Connecticut schools about such dangers as microwaving in plastic, feeding kids tuna, and using nonstick cookware. “Toxic exposure, especially in a baby’s first trimester, may not reveal itself until later in life. It may appear in childhood or when a person is in their thirties, forties or even later,” Sherwood says.
“Think about it,” she continues. “Our parents’ friends rarely had cancer in their childhood or in their twenties or thirties. But look at the spike in the cases of cancer and ‘spectrum disorders’ among young people today. Cancer, after accidents, is the leading cause of death among children; and testicular cancer, which is a young men’s disease, is up 60 percent since the 1970s. My attitude toward environmental toxins is that the absence of data doesn’t indicate safety, so let’s take a precautionary approach.”
Sherwood’s work experience in radiology equipment and corporate food packaging, coupled with her “crunchy DNA”—her parents didn’t allow white flour or sugar or junk food in the house—uniquely qualified her to lecture on the harmful effects of government-sanctioned ingredients. (“‘Strawberry’ shampoo and ‘mountain-fresh’ air fresheners contain petroleum-based artificial fragrances,” she notes.)
In 2006 Sherwood had her “serendipity-times-100” moment. On her way to a conference in Colorado, she wound up sharing a ride with Wall Street honcho David Wasserman, and, predictably, the subject turned to environmental toxins. Three weeks later Wasserman called her with the offer of a lifetime. “I’ve been asked to start a board for Mount Sinai,” he told her, explaining that it would raise money for research on toxins in the environment and children’s health. Then he invited her to join him. “It was literally the answer to my prayers,” she says.
Today Sherwood is vice chairman of the executive board of the Children’s Environmental Health Center (CEHC) at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Medical Center. (Wasserman is its chairman, and medical direction comes from pediatrician Philip Landrigan, M.D., chairman of the hospital’s department of preventive medicine—and the man whose research led to the removal of lead from gasoline and paint.) One of Sherwood’s first initiatives as board member is still her greatest source of pride. She founded an annual fundraiser, called Greening Our Children (GOC). In its three years it has netted CEHC more than $750,000, which in turn has funded pilot research projects conducted by scientists at Mount Sinai, the results of which have generated another $6 million-plus in grant money from such institutions as the National Institutes of Health. In addition to research on pediatric cancer, asthma, obesity and early-onset puberty, Landrigan is focused on identifying nongenetic causes of autism and learning disabilities, creating a list of suspect chemicals and testing them one by one.
“Ever since I was a child,” Sherwood says, “I’ve had an interest in creating businesses from scratch. Founding the CEHC board and GOC combines my lifelong belief in the benefits of chemical-free living with my passion for starting businesses. If the money we raise helps to identify the cause of autism or childhood cancer, I’ll feel I’ve contributed to that in some small way.” She suggests that if you want to contribute in a meaningful way, call your congressmen to express support for new legislation to replace the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.
Holly Hurd, the Original
I’m a serial entrepreneur,” says Holly Hurd, whose latest brainchild, Venture Mom.com, might just be her favorite—though it’s a far cry from anything else on her impressive commodities-trading CV. Hurd’s father taught her to trade when she was in her teens, and she started her first company in her twenties. Early on she was ranked as a top-ten trader, and Fortune dubbed her a “Person to Watch” in 1985. In the ’80s and ’90s, she ran small investment firms and hedge funds in Boston and New York. She sold the last of them in 2002, seven years after moving to Darien to raise her three children.
Hurd’s other huge passion is motivational books, especially Barbara De Angelis’s Secrets about Life Every Woman Should Know. “Where other women love to shop,” says Hurd, “I am happiest building businesses and moving forward. And I love to motivate others.”
In fact, Venture Mom started life as a motivational book, which Hurd began to entertain herself on long ski-weekend car rides. “My social circle is full of successful women who left the workforce to raise kids but got bored after elementary school. I meet moms everywhere, and I always ask them, ‘What’s your business? How’d you get started?’ It’s my cocktail-party conversation. And I started writing up their
While entertaining the idea of publishing her book, Hurd got her Realtor’s license and developed a line of high-end glass coffee tables, but she was already envisioning VentureMom.com as a much bigger concept. Eventually it morphed into something more accessible and useful: an information-rich website with business advice. Scores of local women (including the four in this story) have availed themselves of Hurd’s services which are currently gratis (that will change when the company eventually goes national). One of the site’s most popular features is the Venture Mom stories. “A lot of visitors aren’t even moms or future entrepreneurs. They just like reading about what others are doing.”
“Venture Mom is my passion; it makes me so happy!” Hurd says with such enthusiasm, it’s easy to see why people are attracted to her and her business. “I know I can help anyone make money from her passion.” Every day more women are finding VentureMom.com, and Hurd helps them navigate their entrepreneurial path—even as she continues to follow her own advice. “I didn’t know the first thing about website design when I started,” she says. “But I did a barter with a woman who taught me and gave me the confidence to just get something up there. It isn’t perfect, but I do something every day. After five years of trying to get the book published, I changed direction and realized that the Web is a much better way to go, anyway.” Waxing philosophical, she offers one last morsel: “I’d much rather start something and fail than look back at age seventy-five and say, ‘Too bad I never tried.’ ”