No one can lead your company better than you! You may be green when you first start, but if you have passion and vision, nobody can replace that.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Carlson.
Jennifer Carlson is a Founder of Slammers and Baby Gourmet, Canada’s leading organic baby food. Jennifer has won numerous awards and her inspirational entrepreneurial story has been featured in countless media outlets. In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, she is the mother of two well-fed children, an innovator and inspirational speaker to women, entrepreneurs and students with big dreams.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Inspired by my six-month-old daughter, I founded Baby Gourmet because I wanted parents to have delicious organic baby food they could feel good about feeding to their baby. I believed if you would eat it yourself, then you’d feel so much better about feeding it to your baby. When I started the company 15 years ago, there were not a lot of “gourmet” options, so we created recipes that mom wouldn’t have time to make herself, to give her a way to expose her baby to a variety of ingredients. As my own babies grew into school-aged students, they refused to take packages that said “baby” in their lunches, but still loved the products. So my sister and co-founder Jill Vos who also had four school-aged children, and I, decided to package similar organic fruit and veggie super-food blends in cool, aged-up packaging.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
There are almost too many to count! There were long, hard early days with a baby strapped to my chest, while we made all of our food ourselves in a rented kitchen and sold out of a busy farmer’s market. There were also a lot of greedy partners that tried to take advantage of our well-intentioned rapidly growing company. Despite all that, Baby Gourmet is “the little company that could”, just like the little engine that kept going despite so many challenges.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I truly believe our purpose of feeding babies and commitment to quality is what kept us going when times were so challenging early on. Although the journey has been hard at times, I have always been committed to living my purpose and seeing my vision through.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things couldn’t be going better for my company, and me. After being removed from the day-to-day operations of the business by the board and a previous CEO a few years ago, I was reinstated back as CEO late last year, and I finally feel I have my baby back. I have built my dream-team, sales are strong as we continue to deliver on the plan, we have a strong US growth plan, and I have led many exciting new initiatives including a complete brand refresh of both Baby Gourmet and Slammers.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the early days when we were making all the food ourselves and things often felt a bit chaotic, I had a mishap with our organic mangoes. We used to call fresh mango ‘liquid gold’ because it took so long to peel and process it with very little return. So even a small pail felt like gold to us. At the end of a long day processing mango, I was carrying two pails of liquid gold to the fridge (the equivalent of 8 flats of mangoes), when I saw my daughter in the distance tumbling down a small set of stairs. Mother’s instinct kicked in, and I threw the pails up in the air to go rescue her, and in doing so, coated my walls, floor and myself with mango puree.
Jill and I used to refer to ourselves a “Baby Gour-mess”, as we were always covered in baby food and looked like a mess. Thankfully when we scaled our business, while we still developed all the recipes, we could leave the messy work to our amazing manufacturing facilities.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think we stand out because we are truly authentic. We are not a big corporation or just someone with a good idea; we are entrepreneurs who founded a company with the true purpose of helping other moms. We are real moms who care about making quality organic food for other moms.
A good story from when we were starting out is, we used to be on-site at the manufacturing facility for EVERY production run. We wanted to make sure the final product tasted and appeared exactly how it should, so we would attend these production runs which would often continue through the night. On many occasions I would sleep in my car outside the facility until they called me into the trial on the next run. Once approved, I would go back to my car and sleep for a couple hours until they came knocking on my window again. I remember thinking, I doubt the executives at Gerber care this much about their food! That is part of what makes us unique.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Finding balance has really helped with burn out. I make sure I turn off my phone and am present most nights so I can spend quality time with my kids. I ensure I get a workout in the morning or find a bit of time to myself during the day to reset my mindset.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My mom is my greatest supporter and a key to my success. She has always encouraged me to find a passion and accepted that I work outside the lines. She has never tried to jam me into a box or expect me to follow a certain path; she simply accepted me for me and trusted my journey. I have had to travel a lot with my work and whenever I go away, she will come to my house and do all the little things I never have time to get to, but appreciate more than anything. For example, she will wash my windows, clean cupboards and organize drawers. It’s a gift to have her in my corner!
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Eight years ago, a woman reached out to Baby Gourmet for guidance on feeding her six month old baby. Her baby had recently undergone heart surgery and was having trouble with food. She had heard of Baby Gourmet and only wanted the best for her recovering baby. Jill and I decided to make her a bunch of baby food and personally deliver it to her house. This was not for PR, there were no cameras or photos, just us doing what we believed to be the right thing to help another mom. After we left her home, we felt so good about what we had done to help someone in need, that we were inspired to create the Heart of Baby Gourmet. This initiative was born out of a simple company-wide conviction that Canada’s most vulnerable population: babies, toddlers and children, have access to the highest quality organic food and snacks available. To date we have donated more than 700,000 meals with a goal of 1 million by 2025.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- No one can lead your company better than you! You may be green when you first start, but if you have passion and vision, nobody can replace that.
- You are going to get knocked down 1,000 times. You need to get up every single time and fight on.
- People are going to try to take advantage of you and when they try, you need to get legal advice on how to protect yourself.
- It will take longer than you think, be patient.
- Surround yourself with the right people that support you and share your vision.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I feel like I have started it with the Heart of Baby Gourmet. I only want to set my sights higher and reach further to help even more people since properly nourishing our children is one of the most important jobs in the world.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
@slammerssnacks (IG and FB)
@babygourmetfoods (IG)/@organicbabygourmet (FB)
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!