In The Boss, successful women share how they reached the top and the lessons they learned along the way.
Ever since I was a little girl, I knew that I wanted to work like every other woman in my family — it’s just what we did. I was also a big dreamer, despite growing up in communist Russia and everyone telling me that life was not for dreamers and that the reality of the world would hit me hard and force me to abandon my aspirations. But I was fortunate to be raised in a loving and supportive family that gave me the courage to keep chasing my ambitions. I also recognized early on that I was always a little more curious, loud and daring than my peers.
At 15, I dreamed of traveling far, far away and competed in an English language contest that allowed a number of students to study in the U.S. I was awarded a scholarship to study abroad and live with a family in Oklahoma. I spent that year falling hard for American culture — and it’s where my love for entrepreneurship was born.
I returned to Russia to complete high school, but quickly returned to U.S. where I attended college and graduate school and met my husband, who was from Dallas and where we eventually relocated to. Along the way, I worked as a grant writer for immigrants in New York and became the business development director for Miroslava Duma’s popular lifestyle site, Buro 24/7, which exposed me to the fashion and design industries. Duma and I quickly became best friends, and when we became pregnant at the same time recognized a problem, or gap in the market for safe, organic and non-toxic baby products in one convenient place.
I researched tirelessly about how I could keep my baby safe as I read about toxic dyes in toys, BPAs in bottles, flame retardants on car seats and petroleum and alcohols in baby lotion. I was shocked and terrified, but through endless internet searches was eventually able to find toys made from sustainable woods and products without harsh additives. Soon, my friends started asking me to share my list of products with them for their children. I never intended to become a “mompreneur,” but due to this interest, Duma and I decided to launch The Tot — an online resource and shop featuring safe and innovative products for eco-conscious families.
Initially, when we launched our site in January 2016, our focus was editorial. We found and featured experts in every field including pediatricians, lactation consultants, nutritionists, early childhood educators, doulas and sleep specialists to help create content and answer the burning questions that many moms-to-be and new moms have. Then we focused on adding e-commerce, and combined a highly curated range of coveted products with a seamless digital shopping experience that prioritized mobile. Our first product — the world’s smallest stroller, the Pockit — went on sale in March 2016. In the beginning, we invested our own funds, but as we grew, we gave friends and family the opportunity to invest as well, and brought on some angel funding.
Another first step was hiring a CEO to help us put together a small team that could carry out our mission and bring our vision to life. Together, we tested out and purchased products, created the website, developed content and set up a warehouse to ensure seamless delivery to our customers. We officially launched in June 2016, and leveraging our connections in the fashion world created a luxury diaper bag with British designer Mary Katrantzou and an exclusive apparel collaboration with Oscar De La Renta. Offering unique items to our customers is what sets us apart, and more recently, we collaborated with Levi’s for one-of-a-kind denim jackets.
We never intended to launch a physical store, but after a holiday pop-up in Dallas’s Highland Park Village was a huge success, we decided to stay open permanently. That location was such a big hit that we opened The Tot Playhouse, which focuses on more community events, this May; we’re also scheduled to open another outpost in London in 2018.
Even though we’re rapidly expanding, The Tot is still a startup and we have a lean team of 20 employees. Everyone pitches in wherever they’re needed, and it’s not unusual to see me or our CEO Kathy, head buyer Alline or CMO Amy unpacking boxes at one of our stores or hanging clothes on hangers. Our core goal of providing safe products for families is reached by rigorously testing all of our merchandise to make sure it meets our standards of being high quality, safe, stylish, sustainable and non-toxic.
What started as a conversation between two friends has now evolved into a physical and virtual destination for families embarking on one of life’s most altering experiences, and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of that. Before I became a mother to my two kids, Thomas and Daniel, I never thought that the baby market would be something I could be so passionate about or involved in. However, just as I refused to stop dreaming big as girl growing up in communist Russia, I’ve never been one to limit myself. When you’re open to opportunities and embrace them wholeheartedly, they’ll often lead you to amazing places.