A former advertising executive, Vicki Esralew of Chicago decided to switch gears after she became a mom. Her brainchild? A software game called Jack's House (named after her firstborn), which she delivered to vendors from the front seat of her Jeep. Ten years later, she now oversees Vickilew Inc., a multimillion-dollar business that specializes in CD-ROMs, music, and videos.
Esralew is just one of a new generation of moms inventors who are discovering ways to capitalize on their newfound -- and favorite -- talent: parenting. Some left jobs for the home front but took their skills with them; others were new to the market but used their mom smarts to brainstorm products. In the end, all have one thing in common: They love what they do.
The Diaper Guru
Marlene Dunwoody, Macon, GA
Aron, 2, and expecting another at press time
BabyNaturale.com, an online diapering resource that specializes in cloth diapers and other natural products and clothes
How it began: Soon after Aron was born, Dunwoody began to research some facts about diapers. Calculating that the average baby goes through 7,500 changes in two and a half years, she became sold on the benefits -- from economic to ecological -- of cloth. That's when she launched her site, which offers a full range of products and services for cloth devotees.
Toughest moment: Like most business newcomers, Dunwoody found the early going frustrating. "Developing an Internet presence wasn't easy, and I had to find appropriate places to advertise," she says. But soon she began to build a customer base -- by signing up with a company that submitted the name of her website to various search engines and by participating in Internet message boards for parents who use cloth. "After a couple of months, I began to get repeat customers and referrals and the orders started rolling in," says Dunwoody.
How to find it: Go to www.babynaturale.com or call 877-714-6287.
Brooke Cohen, Weston, FL
Jared, 3, and Jamie, 5 months
BabyBargainsUSA.com, an online shop that specializes in both new and used products for babies, children, and pregnant moms
How it began: "I had a relatively expensive stroller I wanted to sell," says Cohen, who used to teach seventh-grade English. "I thought, Wouldn't it be great if there was a website just for moms who wanted to buy and sell?" So she wrote up a 70-page plan that described the look and function of her online dream in click-by-click detail, handed it over to a designer, and her website was born. When sellers log on, they list the item they want to sell, name their price, and select a shipping method from a list. If someone purchases their item, they ship it to the buyer, who pays in full for the sale and the shipping. "I make my money by deducting eighteen percent from the sale. The rest of the profit goes to the seller," says Cohen.
Toughest moment: Just after the site launched, things got harried for Cohen. "I was nine months pregnant, the business was brand-new, and I was spending a lot of time shipping out many of my own things to buyers -- which meant there was a ton of boxes piled up in my living room," she says. At the same time, she was wondering whether her venture would actually pay off, her friends were questioning the wisdom of starting a business with the birth of her second baby just around the corner. "In the end, though, I made the right choice -- I decided to trust my heart instead of listening to others," she says.
How to find it: Go to www.babybargainsusa.com or e-mail email@example.com.
Jill Avery-Zuleeg, Saratoga, CA
Tanner, 6, and Autumn, 3
All By Myself children's video and DVD series
How it began: "Tanner wasn't quite three when one morning he dashed into my bedroom and said, 'Look, Mom, I got dressed all by myself!'" says Avery-Zuleeg. Never mind that the outfit was actually on backward -- it was one of those landmark moments for him and his mom.
Later, she browsed through a video store for a tape that would reinforce her son's emergence into big-kidhood, but she found nothing. So she wrote a script and, along with two fellow moms with whom she'd worked previously at Apple Computer, Michele Free and Carmela Zamora Robertson, decided to create a video series to promote self-motivation. One year later, All By Myself: Getting Dressed had been shot, edited, and released at a national trade show. Another video followed the next year, and three new ones are scheduled for this year and next.
Toughest moment: Avery-Zuleeg and her partners got a crash course in juggling childcare and work as the cameras rolled on their first video. "We brought our kids to the set -- one newborn, one four-month-old, and three toddlers. There we were, in between takes, hormonally whacked-out and sleep-deprived, trying to shoot a film -- which, like everything else in our company, we did on our own with no experience -- and chasing after our toddlers, who were running around the set wearing only their underwear." But that's what made it all worthwhile for the trio: "It's real, it's mom-made, and it's ours," says Avery-Zuleeg.
How to find it: Go to www.allbymyself.com or call 866-408-KIDS.
Belinda Wasser, Jamaica Plain, MA
Emily, 2 1/2
Blueberry Babies, which specializes in presents for mothers, babies, and siblings
How it began: In 2001 Wasser was laid off from her managerial job. With a 3-month-old daughter at home, she decided she needed to reevaluate her priorities. She drew up a business plan for a mothers-and-children gift company, using her management skills and setting her own hours. "I took a class for entrepreneurial women and learned how to think like a CEO," she says. "I also hired a business coach to help me through the early stages of the venture." Her coach, who had formerly been a business executive herself, taught her how to prioritize her goals throughout the process. "My problem has always been that I try to do too much," says Wasser. "She recognized that I was a nursing mother who was trying to run a business, and her pacing advice was very valuable to me -- because, obviously, I could no longer judge my stamina according to the standards of my prebaby life." The support -- and the hard work -- paid off: Within a year, Wasser was presiding over Blueberry Babies, with a full array of high-end items -- including baby stationery, gift baskets, clothing, and sterling-silver pacifier clips.
Toughest moment: For Wasser, the success of her company actually led to one of her most difficult decisions: "The business had grown so rapidly, I realized I had to move it out of my home." Yet the idea of relocating it was an emotional jolt. "I loved tucking Emily into bed at night and going into the Blueberry room to work," Wasser says. After all, spending quality time with her daughter is what prompted her to start her own company in the first place. Fortunately, she found a good compromise: an office space just a mile away, which allowed her to move freely between her work and her family throughout the day.
How to find it: Go to www.blueberrybabies.com or call 877-258-2379.
Special Skin Care
Lisa Price, Brooklyn, NY
Forrest, 8, and Ennis, 6
Carol's Daughter, which specializes in beauty products for women, with a line just for moms and babies
How it began: "I started making fragrances and creams in my own kitchen, as a hobby," recalls Price. "When my first baby, Forrest, was diagnosed with eczema, I created a moisturizer I called Honey Pudding. By the time he was two, I realized I'd come up with a remedy that actually worked." Concocting other products and calling her line Carol's Daughter (in honor of her mom), Price and her husband, Gordon, began to sell her wares at local crafts fairs, then moved on to mail-order and online outlets and a storefront shop in Brooklyn. In 2002 the story of Price's home-brewed elixirs caught the ear of Oprah Winfrey, who invited her onto the show. "That was it!" says Price. "After that, my website practically exploded." Price's memoir, Success Never Smelled So Sweet: How I Followed My Nose and Found My Passion (written with Hilary Beard), hit the bookstores in April 2004.
Toughest moment: For all the obvious advantages of working out of the home, Price notes that there are still those moments when her business's productivity runs up against parenting. "Unfortunately, children don't always understand when Mommy says she has to get to work," she says. "I'd be busy in the kitchen and I'd hear one of them say to the other, 'Mommy doesn't know how to play.'" Those words, concludes Price, provided a valuable lesson: "My children taught me how to prioritize. Now, when it's five o'clock, I just stop working."
How to find it: Go to www.carolsdaughter.com or call 877-540-2101.
Natalie Walker, Palos Verdes Estates, CA
Graham, 7, and Nicole, 4
Aquaswimwear, a line of coordinated Mommy-and-me swimsuits, sarongs, and sportswear
How it began: Formerly a designer for such companies as Speedo and Nautica, Walker retired after the birth of her second child, with the intention of devoting more time to the home front. "But in 2001 I chaired a fund-raiser for my son's preschool. To help them generate some money, I designed swimsuits for little girls," she says. Walker raised $6,000 for the school. Her one-time-only fund-raising effort made her realize that she missed the creativity of her former career. So within a year, she'd developed Aquaswimwear, which soon became a lucrative business.
One reason for its success may be her postbaby-body-friendly bathing suits, with their built-in shelf bras and adjustable straps. As she says, "Not all moms are built the same -- some have shed all their baby weight, and others are still struggling with it."
Toughest moment: Without a doubt, Christmas 2003 was the craziest time for Walker. She was organizing another fund-raiser for her son's school, and there were three others scheduled for the following week. Meanwhile, holiday orders for Aquaswimwear -- including those for last year's popular custom-monogrammed mother-daughter baseball tees -- were pouring in, so in between filling the orders, she was running back and forth to the monogrammer. "One day, my son had a friend over who looked around our living room and asked, 'Do you celebrate Hanukkah, Christmas, or Kwanza, because there's no Christmas tree here?' That's when it hit me that I'd been so busy, I hadn't even remembered to go out and buy a tree for our house!"
How to find it: Go to www.aquaswimwear.com or call 310-544-5559.
Bruce Kluger is Parenting's video/DVD reviewer; David Tabatsky writes plays and essays. Each is a dad of two.