As young mothers on a mission to help kids and families everywhere "eat smart," Alexandra Buckley Voris and Maggie Jones Patton are out to revolutionize the way kids eat. Enter Bitsy's Brainfood, a natural foods company committed to the idea that healthy bodies and healthy minds are connected, and learning to eat smart should be fun.
With nearly two decades of combined experience working with young people, Alexandra Buckley Voris and Maggie Jones Patton have long been passionate about the development and wellness of kids. Voris and Patton met while working at Children for Children (CFC), a New York based nonprofit dedicated to empowering and mobilizing young people to solve real world problems through service. Patton served as the executive director while Voris served as the director of programs. In 2008, Patton took CFC national through a merger with the Points of Light Institute, establishing GenerationOn, the largest youth service organization in the U.S., for which Voris went on to serve as the VP of Strategy. Among the groundbreaking, nationally recognized programs created under their tenure was Building Healthy Communities, a childhood obesity prevention initiative that was endorsed by The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a partnership between the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation. It was among the first federally funded programs of its kind.
Voris and Patton left GenerationOn in 2010 having established a five-year, multi-million dollar grant from the Hasbro Children's Fund. They decided to pursue their long-time dream of creating products that would address our nation's health crisis by making healthy fun and speaking straight to kids.
How has your life experience made you the leaders you are today?
We're big believers that life is equal parts what you make of it and what it makes of you.
There are a lot of similarities in our journeys. Both of us pursued acting after college - you know, just a couple artists illuminating the human condition - before ultimately opting to follow another shared passion which at its core is about making the world better for kids. Another thing we share? Our ideas, well, tend not to be limited by what's "reasonable" or what falls easily within our grasp. But we'll come back to that.
Somewhere along the way working with kids, we coined what continues to be a defining mantra (and working title of the book we'd like one day to write): Love is A Strategy. We've found that this applies in almost every scenario - whether with kids, at work, with the important relationships in your life, or at the post office - because as it turns out, kindness counts. So yeah, for us, love definitely is a strategy. And there's nothing we love more than having fun. And by "fun" we're not talking about waterslides and balloons. For us, fun is in the challenges: it's in untangling problems, hitting goals, coupled with finding the humor in it all.
Ultimately, however, the single biggest life experience that has defined who we are as leaders is becoming mothers. We're not the first to say it, but becoming a parent changes pretty much everything. It's funny, nothing focuses you like having a baby - not just on being the best mother you could possibly be for your children, that's the obvious part - but on doing what you feel is in your power to make the world a better place for them. And with that comes a real sense of urgency, a feeling that there isn't time to waste. From a broad perspective, you could say it's made us a lot more driven to succeed.
How has your previous employment experience aided your positions at Bitsy's?
Working in nonprofit is so similar to life at a startup: resources are limited, and there is always so much to do. Ultimately, in both scenarios, you're selling a vision, and you've got to come at it with a spirit and understanding that no task is too big or too small.
Beyond that, we both worked as assistants early in our career - Maggie in film production and Alex in magazine publishing - and that experience, so often undervalued, gave us a lot of tools that have been meaningful at every stage of our careers. For example, even if you're not naturally detail-oriented, those jobs teach you to focus on the nitty-gritty and learn how to problem-solve... fast.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenures at Bitsy's?
We joke constantly that the text message chains between us would make a brilliant comedic novel. There have been so many moments when one of us has earnestly asked... "IS THIS FOR REAL?"
Recently, we were tasked with painting the precious faces of hundreds of children at an outdoor event, where the temperature was roughly negative ten. (What can we say? Bitsy's wacky superfoods characters are that good, and even cold kiddies want them on their cheeks.) Anyway, turns out it's tough to face-paint in winter gloves (read: we could not wear them), and frostbite was a legitimate concern throughout the day. But we did it. We didn't pack it in. It took all night for us to get the feeling back in our fingertips, but not a single member of the Bitsy's team thought about closing up shop that day. And we've got dozens of stories just like that one. As a team, we do whatever it takes.
Operations, however, are hard. When we started, were we totally in tune with the seasonality and availability for bulk purchasing US grown organic vegetables? Uh, no. But we learned. Same way we've done in so many situations. We've run headlong into so many hurdles, been surprised with so many curveballs, and just decided at every pass that it simply is not an option to fail.
When it comes to highlights, we're grateful for the chance to work with an incredible team. To share our story! Seeing our products go up on their first shelves at Wegmans, too - that felt good.
The truth is that so often, the best moments are linked with the worst - those times when we look at each other and all we can do is laugh. And so ultimately, we try not to get too overwrought by the highs or the lows. They're both central to this journey, and neither means that much.
How is Bitsy's giving back to the community, particularly through its Youth Advisory Board?
The opportunity to give our products to schools and youth organizations underlies everything that we are. The Giving A Bitsy Back initiative was born from our own experiences working in schools and nonprofits and our firsthand understanding that it's actually insanely hard to get delicious, healthy foods into the hands of kids. So we try to make this simple. We're still small, but this is so central to who we are, and we'll continue to invest in kids, schools and communities in this way.
At its core, Bitsy's Brainfood is about empowering kids: giving them the tools to make healthy choices and the opportunity to help us build this brand. So whether it's taste-testing our products, working on designs for characters and packaging, or determining where we should make product donations, we involve young people at every turn. Because this is for them.
What advice would you give to women who are looking to start their own business?
This is, of course, a whopping generalization, but it does seem that women suffer at a rate higher than men from a specific type of insecurity - this idea that if they don't somehow have a clear-cut, finely honed skill that's specific to whatever it is they're going after, then they have no business doing whatever that is. Know that most entrepreneurs have no idea what they're doing, at least at first. So embrace not knowing! Ignorance can be an entrepreneur's secret weapon, and the need to improvise can be a source of remarkable inspiration and creativity.
Oh, and just know that setbacks - even major ones - are inevitable. Calamity will surely strike but most of the time, when you step back (sometimes really far back), you'll see how to use it in a way gives you an edge.
Finally, if at all possible, find a great partner. (Ideally one of you will be experienced in Excel.)
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
At this point, we're not sure we even understand what "work/life balance" means. We all work, whether we're starting companies or running a home, and we all search for balance within that. There does seem to be something specifically difficult about this moment in time, in that our devices make it virtually impossible to shut it down and there's something about the constant noise that's just hard to take. (We're always talking about how we're only able to think straight in the shower... although we know people who put their phones in the SOAP DISH and so to them, we say, enough is enough.)
We work a lot, but we work for ourselves. Like everything, this has both its ups and downs but at the end of the day, if we wear the same shirt for a week, no one notices or much cares. (Plus we support one another, our families are awesome, and our kids are still portable.)
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It's hard to generalize -- tempting but hard!-- if we had to say, it seems that often, women spend a lot of time worrying about how everybody feels. (If this isn't an issue for other women, we apologize: it has however been one that's consistently present for us.) Ultimately, we're not sure if this slows us down and keeps us from dealing effectively with tough situations, or if it makes us better leaders and managers overall. Both?
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has made an enormous difference for us. One of the most important things we've learned is to reach out and be unabashed about saying, "I'm new at this; I need help. Can we talk?" It's deeply heartening how willing people have been to share their time and experience and while ultimately, our decisions have to come from our own learning and our own gut, it is such an enormous gift to connect with those who have gone before.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
There are so many women who we look up to but it's funny--we just glanced at each other from across our desks and came up with exactly the same two: Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, and Shazi Visram, who founded Happy Family.
In as much as there are scads of women who we admire, there are just as many reasons for marveling at these two. To distill it down, I'd say this. On a very basic level, we love the products they've created (thank you, Shazi, for feeding our babies and thank you, Sara, for encasing our thighs after they're born). Beyond that, it's both about their guts and what seems, at least from a distance, the total joy that infuses their brands. Finally, each of them cites failure as a secret to their success, and it's hard not to admire that kind of tenacity and strength.
What are your hopes for the future of Bitsy's?
The big dream for Bitsy's is that we're on your breakfast table, in your kids' lunchbox, and being enjoyed by families everywhere.
We hope Bitsy's will be a game changer in the grocery aisle when it comes to innovation in packaged foods for kids: making healthier options FUN. We hope our products will change the way kids define "yummy" by creating tastes rooted in the naturally delicious flavors of organic fruits and vegetables versus typical sugary, empty calorie snacks and cereals. And we've got a pipeline of other great products that we're excited to roll out. So to all the Brainfoodies out there who share our belief that healthy bodies and minds are connected, keep picking up your Bitsy's Brainfood. We'll keep working to make healthy fun.