March 17, 2017
The theme of this year’s Women’s History Month observance is “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.” Here on the Peepshow, we’ve posted stories about women who are professional colleagues, industry leaders and inspiring family members. Today I’d like to share a story about an innovative woman who was my first boss: my mom.
In the early 1980s, my mom was a former teacher who was looking for a way to turn her natural skills with textiles into a new career. While my dad was teaching at a nearby college, she filled their basement with sewing machines, fabric swatches and pattern materials as she searched for a product that would set her apart from the competition. She tried flags, windsocks, lawn ornaments, but she knew she just hadn’t found it yet.
Then, during a conversation with her brother, a veterinarian, he shared that the veterinary-supply market was full of shoddy products that didn’t perform as advertised. A dog muzzle might break while on a troublesome patient, exposing staff to danger; a stretcher might collapse under the weight of an animal. My mom spotted an opportunity and got to work.
She designed a new kind of muzzle using materials and stitching that wouldn’t wear out under the powerful pressure of a dog’s jaws. After testing and approval from veterinarians (including my uncle, who was over the moon about the final results), she entered the market as Four Flags Over Aspen — a play on a family name and her first experimental products.
She built a thriving mail-order business in the family home’s basement, then in a large addition to the house, and finally in her own premises in a small southern Minnesota town nearby. Over her 30-plus years of business, she expanded her offerings, from stretchers to lift assists to surgical supplies and the occasional quirky product.
She created specialty muzzles for ferrets, cats, short-snouted dogs and more. There’s the Cat Sack, a specially designed restraint bag you zip your cat into for vet visits — and which cats universally hate — and its counterpart, the Bath Sack, a mesh version that allows you to dip your cat into a bath. Over the years, her products gained a reputation for quality and durability, and when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the late 1990s, her muzzles were used to safely transport the animals during their journey back into the park.
My mom is a formidable product designer — and with little formal training — but she really shined as an example of building a business that serves people along with paying attention to the bottom line. Her employees over the years were largely women, from cutters and sewers to customer service staff and management. Though her shop was always small — I don’t think she ever employed more than a dozen people at a time — it was a staple in its small town and a dependable source of jobs.
She also made sure to find ways to extend opportunity to people who wouldn’t otherwise be included. As she built her business in the ‘80s and ‘90s, she learned that many Hmong women had fled Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam with homemaking and textile skills, but were having trouble finding work in Minnesota once they settled. She got in touch with them and built a thriving network of sewers and producers who could create her products while working remotely. These women and their families became like extended family to us, and their success in America is a huge point of pride for my mom. Similarly, if a student with disabilities or family member in the school across the street needed an after-school job, my mom was always happy to find a place for him or her.
I’m writing all of this in the past tense because my mom sold her business at the start of the year and is now learning how to be retired after 30-plus years of savvy small-business ownership. She never sat me down and “taught” me anything about business — but I learned that if you have an eye for a problem that needs solving and the dedication to start the process yourself, you can reap great benefits. My mom’s title was president, but she was also a designer, a sewer, the HR person, the production manager, the banker and the party-planning committee.
Being an entrepreneur meant long hours for my mom at times, but it also meant the freedom to take long road trips, cut out early to see a movie, go to the Science Museum on a random Tuesday and beyond. Once the business was humming along under its own power, my mom never felt the need to expand or acquire — the most important factor was doing right by your employees, customers and families. That meant there was time to watch the kids grow up, act as caregiver to her parents and spend quality time with friends.
Entrepreneurship doesn’t have to be the grind and hustle that we’re told it is today — in fact, it can be quite calm once the initial rush is over. All it takes is an idea and a plan, so I guess the lesson is: Pay attention when people are talking about problems. They might have an idea for you.