Author: Sarah Podolsky

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About Sarah Podolsky

Born and raised in New York City, I am a student at Olin Business School. I'm majoring in marketing and entrepreneurship and minoring in computer science! I also write for Her Campus, am an Olin Peer Ambassador, and am in Pi Beta Phi.


Jennifer Labit

Jennifer Labit had many forces working against her—an unfinished high school diploma, the tech crash of 2000 and a new baby on the way—but she had a vision and was determined to see it through.

For this week’s Defining Moments series, an MBA and undergraduate class taught by Stuart Bunderson, Jennifer Labit shared how her company, Cotton Babies, was born.

As she explained, “I started a company by accident.” Labit’s company, Cotton Babies, grew out of all of the things working against her. A self-taught coder found herself as one of the only women in a company full of men. This job didn’t last long, as it was washed away with the 2000 tech crash.

Around the same time, she moved back to St. Louis. As she was just figuring out how to make ends meet with her husband working at minimum wage, Labit got pregnant with her first child.

She asked the class, “How much do you think a box of diapers costs?” The class filled with undergraduate and MBA students, many of whom didn’t have children, guessed around $10. When Labit responded that a box of diapers cost $25, the class immediately got behind her vision of reusable diapers.

The idea was born through struggle: Labit and her husband only had $30 after paying the bills for both groceries and diapers. They had to start using cloth diapers because they had to eat. Even still, Labit found a solution to her problem at home, but didn’t see a possibility for a business.

It wasn’t until she’d walk down the street carrying her baby in a homemade sling, having mothers stop her constantly asking where they could buy it, that she knew she had something.

Labit had $100 in her bank account and sold the sling to friends for just $5 above wholesale. She would strategically put a business card in each sling and tell her friends that if people asked about the sling to have them call her. Her phone began ringing off the hook. Every dollar of earnings she put back into her bank account.

Cotton Babies grew so quickly that Labit was forced to move into a retail space for insurance purposes and before she knew it, the company had 600 individual retail accounts.

“I’m an inventor; that’s what I’m good at,” Labit explained. “I’m an idea person.” Labit’s creativity and passion for her company truly radiated through the room as she lectured.

Labit explained that offering a diaper solution to parents struggling economically has a much broader impact than you’d imagine: “I equate a diaper solution to adding a well to a village doesn’t have clean water. It’s just as important but we never talk about it.”

Having too few diapers leads parents down a slippery slope. It leads to using a diaper for too long, which can lead to diaper rash, which then causes increased stress in the home because the baby cries often. Labit shared that not having enough money for diapers creates this cycle of embarrassment and guilt for the parents. Even more extreme: it’s linked to an increased likelihood of childhood abuse.

It’s not only Labit’s passion that landed her a successful business, but also her grit. Labit got emotional as she shared that a Chinese manufacturer knocked off her diapers and sold them on Amazon. The counterfeit product remained on Amazon as Labit begged them continuously to take it down.

She realized direct communication wasn’t going to work while Amazon turned the other way. She needed their attention, so she turned to the power of the Internet. Labit wrote a powerful blog pouring her emotions into words. Amazon responded immediately. The support she received only confirmed the power of having an incredible reputation with high quality products.

Feeling strength within herself, Labit turned the tables to take on China. She recognized their main advantage was their reasonable prices so she went to the drawing board to create high quality products at a competitively low price. Her line Elemental Joy was born, which will be sold at Walmart in just a few weeks. “And that’s how you disrupt China,” Labit triumphantly concludes.


John Mozeliak, CEO and president of the St. Louis Cardinals, starts his Defining Moments talk by reflecting on the baseball industry’s incredible growth: “When I began in baseball, it was less than a $1 billion industry. Today it is $10 billion.”

Mozeliak had to find ways to keep up with this 10x growth. Through advocating for change, keeping to his business philosophy, and redefining the team’s competitive advantages, Mozeliak kept the Cardinals winning.

Change

If you’re in the baseball industry, you know it’s often resistant to change. Mozeliak explained many small changes that he’s pushing for that could increase the baseball market as a whole and bring in more revenue.

For example, he revealed a current debate within the industry over increasing the size of each base by 1 or 2 inches. This small change would allow for more steals, translating to a more interesting game for viewers. However, something that sounds so simple is met with a lot of opposition.

Baseball is a game of tradition and the bases have never been changed. With Mozeliak’s supervision, the Cardinals will have a day this year to test out the larger bases. Mozeliak attributes small changes such as these to remaining competitive.

Philosophy

Mozeliak sticks to two main philosophies to keep business in line. The first is a metaphor: “Baseball is like a table, if any of the legs is un-sturdy, the table is un-sturdy.” Mozeliak focuses on four “legs:” international scouting, amateur scouting, player development and the analytical department. This table model allows Mozeliak to keep a holistic view of the business, making sure each department remains in check.

The second philosophy is Mozeliak’s management philosophy focusing on teamwork. The management philosophy works to break down silos, and above all else emphasizes the process. Mozeliak stresses that once you find a process that works, you have to stick to it: “If you remain disciplined and true to your process, you tend to make fewer mistakes.”

Competitive Advantage

Lastly, Mozeliak focuses on the team’s competitive advantage. Mozeliak explains, “It’s easy to be short-sighted, focusing on your day-to-day job, but you have to think about the competitive environment that you’re in.” For the Cardinals, data is a huge part of their competitive edge. The team used data to scout players before others were in amateur scouting. This advantage led them to Matt Adams, an incredible player who was scouted with relatively low cost.

In short, with his emphasis on change, his business philosophies and maintaining a competitive advantage, Mozeliak strictly follows the Cardinal Way. The Cardinal Way is having an appreciation for your past, understanding where you are today and having an eye on tomorrow.




Emily Pitts

“Stop tip-toeing around these difficult topics,” said Emily Pitts, principal of diversity and inclusion at Edward Jones, as she began her Women and Leadership talk.

Pitts has been in the financial industry for 33 years and as an African American woman, it wasn’t difficult for her to recognize that the industry isn’t historically diverse. Pitts’s drive and ability to overcome adversity was striking and admirable. Her passion for the finance space was tangible as she reflected on her time at Edward Jones.

Even still, she sees room for change.

In order to raise the company’s awareness on issues of diversity and inclusion, Pitts first had to open up about her past struggles within the workplace. Pitts shared with her boss the brutal incidents of racism that had affected her at work. Her unbelievable honesty and vulnerability created a launching pad into her diversity role.

Pitts wasn’t satisfied with just sharing her own experience. She wanted to change the face of the company.

She urged the company to discuss difficult topics that people are often “tip-toeing around,” such as how men and women interact in the workplace, how employees can be their authentic self, and the reality of visible and invisible barriers at work. Pitts believes that breaking into these difficult topics is the first step toward change.

However the conversation doesn’t stop there.

Pitts managed to create a cross-cultural development program. Edward Jones noticed that it was attracting diverse talent, but having trouble retaining employees. Pitts had the answer: With this new development program, Pitts gave anyone who may feel out of place a community.

This space created a system of mentoring and support that allows Edward Jones employees to face challenges together and work to improve the company from within. Pitts reminds us that “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance, and belonging is being able to pick the music.”

Pitts wants to transform Edward Jones into a place of belonging. Emily Pitts displays incredible strength and resilience in her ability to take her personal struggles and translate them into change in workplace diversity and inclusion.




“We’d like to think it’s a straight path, but it’s more like a marathon. Your career is a long winding course with people cheering you on. But ultimately, it’s all on you.”
– Karen Branding, senior vice president of public affairs at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Branding helped round out this semester’s Women and Leadership series by giving the class some life perspective. One’s career is more than just a straight climb to the top. There are going to be setbacks and “hills.” However, Branding believes anyone can successfully cross the finish line if they keep three lessons in mind: strategic relevance, great personal branding, and persistence.

Strategic relevance

According to Branding, achieving a strategic edge for a business positions it for more success than other organizations. Even broader, a personal strategic edge will keep you relevant throughout your career. It’s important to continuously ask yourself, “What gives me an edge?”

Branding explains that one’s competitive edge will constantly change throughout a “marathon,” which is why it’s important to adapt, create, and recognize your changing advantage.

Branding cautions, “we’re all on a slow path to irrelevance,” citing Polaroid as an example. While they were too busy focusing on their past competitive advantage, they allowed themselves to fall behind in the digital space. Polaroid wasn’t focusing on what Branding refers to as their “opportunity gap.” It’s important for people to focus on their own opportunity gap, looking to how they’ll compete in the future and transfer current skills.

Personal branding

In order to create a promising personal brand, you must first practice self-awareness. Branding recommends seeking out what others think of you, especially if you can get information from trusted advisors.

In order to do so, find mentors and coaches. Branding notes that it’s easy to get caught up in finding a formal mentor, but “mentoring moments” are just as important. It’s much easier to ask someone you admire for a piece of advice during lunch than have them take on the lifelong commitment of mentoring. In living up to your personal brand, it’s essential to be a team player; you must lead with integrity and collaborate well with others.

In terms of Branding’s personal brand, what stood out to me was her incredible vulnerability. As she reflected on her career thus far, she opened up about how her career had affected her personal life and vice versa. In creating a personal brand, over everything, you must be yourself.

Persistence

“Leap and the net will appear,” Branding said, quoting John Burroughs. Branding taught the class that we can only keep learning and growing if we’re not afraid to try new things. Throughout Branding’s setbacks, both personal and professional, her common theme was persistence.

If you keep running, you will eventually get to the top of the hill. Branding’s marathon metaphor gave a class of mainly young women embarking on their careers the perspective they need to leap.




Marie-Hélène Bernard

Passion

The Women & Leadership series welcomed its third speaker, Marie-Hélène Bernard, president and CEO of the St. Louis Symphony. Bernard always had a passion for music. Growing up in Quebec, she was surrounded by music and became an accomplished musician as just a child. After some time, the mounting pressure got to Bernard and she decided to put music on pause and jump into a career in law.

Support

Like her passion for music, Bernard was driven by her passion for law. More than just passion, she found support from her colleagues. Bernard explains, “The men in my firm didn’t support women or men, they supported talent.” The support she got from her colleagues pushed her to achieve more than she could have imagined. Bernard highly values support in the workplace and shared the importance of finding mentors.

When her love for music once again began to outweigh her love for law, Bernard shifted to orchestra management. Bernard saw orchestra management as the ultimate way to combine her passion of music, law, and business. In moving forward with this transition, Bernard knew she would have to find a strong support system.

Adaptation

Entering the male-dominated orchestra management world as an immigrant and a woman, Bernard learned to not underestimate the impact of cultural differences.

Quebec’s emphasis on strong women had taught Bernard to be a bold decision-maker, but she found that her leadership style wasn’t as welcomed in American culture. She received feedback that she was too direct or too rough in her delivery. Bernard learned that she had to soften her leadership style and adapt.

Marie-Hélène Bernard took her adaptive style and applied it directly to her work to attract a larger crowd to classical music. In response to a class question, Bernard noted that classical music is not dying, but needs to be adapted to break down the intimidation factor as a barrier to entry.

Bernard wants to have people interact with the orchestra dynamic in a different way. For example, the St. Louis Symphony has started to play more movie sound tracks to gain access to a larger market and create lasting experiences.