Wolf+Friends Founders Introduce Compassionate Shopping


It's not uncommon for two former colleagues to start a business together. But what's so rare and special about Carissa Tozzi and Gena Mann is the personal reasons they came together to create the parenting site Wolf + Friends. Both former magazine editors—Carissa was the entertainment director at CosmoGIRL! and Seventeen as well as VP of Talent Relations at Refinery 29 and Gena a photo director at Elle, O and CosmoGIRL!—the two actually grew up in the same Long Island town, only to reconnect at CosmoGIRL!.

Gena, now a mother of four, left the magazine world in 2004 when her oldest son was diagnosed with autism. After Carissa's son Wolf was born in 2011, she became immersed in exploring the kids/parenting space online. It bothered her that the shopping sites didn't feel inclusive. They were either for parents of typically developing children OR children with learning differences—not both.

For fun, Tozzi started Pinning and Instagramming the products that she felt would benefit all parents. She expanded the content to the site Wolf + Friends site and brought Mann on board for her hands-on experience and perspective. They knew they could fill this important void in the parenting space together—and in the fall of 2016, they started working on the site full-time. “We want to help parents be more compassionate with their children as well as raise awareness for parents that all kids develop in different ways and at different times," explains Tozzi.

Here, Tozzi and Mann talk more about the journey that brought them together to create Wolf + Friends. And, they're offering inspiring advice and insight every entrepreneur needs to hear. Not only did they follow their passion to start a business they believe in deeply but also, they've pushed themselves to utilize, develop and learn skills vastly different from the career paths they once pursued. That growth is just one of the many secrets of their success!

How did Wolf + Friends come about?

Carissa: After Wolf was born, I got super involved in the kid's space. I was discovering all these awesome toys, cool playrooms and cute clothes on Instagram and Pinterest. I was learning about all the women behind many of these brands too and really interested in what was happening in the mom and kid spaces. But at the same time, I felt like there was no meaning behind all these cool products—I felt like it could go another level, I just didn't know what the level was yet. And I was meeting other parents and hearing about their kids, the challenges they were facing and what their different needs were. Every single kid has something that they're working on, and I just started wondering—what can I do in the kid's space that's more meaningful? I had this idea to make something inclusive for all kids with a compassionate element to it.

So, Gena, what happened when Carissa contacted you? Were you ready for a business opportunity?

Gena: Carissa came over and showed my husband and I what she was working on, and our jaws dropped. But, it was right after my fourth child was born. She was eight months old at the time and I was wildly overwhelmed. So, I was like, "This is so cool and I'll help you in any way I can. I'll give ideas, I'll be a sounding board, but I don't have time." Later that night, my husband encouraged me. He was like, 'You have to be a part of this!' In my downtime, I was already on Instagram and Pinterest looking at cool stuff to purchase for my own kids. He was like, 'You know this, and if you're going to spend time on it anyway, then do it with her!' And, that's how I came on board.

Talk about how you guys work together as a team—what do you each bring to the table?

Gena: Carissa has been so respectful of the fact that I have four kids, and special needs to deal with, so I can't write back to emails right away or take a call at any time of day. I pick my daughter up at 11:30am from preschool, she knows that's important to me, so typically we'll work before or after. That's been amazing. And our backgrounds are similar with both of us coming from the editorial side of magazines. But, we both bring different things to the table. Carissa has become an art director. She's taught herself to design this beautiful site, and has done so much of the marketing and the social media. I have the contacts with therapists and experts who are giving advice on the site. They're all people that have either worked with my kids or come to us through social media.

Did you both always know that one day you'd go out on your own?

Gena: I was living in Connecticut, raising kids and not looking for anything. But this opportunity made me realize that if I were to do something, this is exactly what I should be doing. My dad has always said, 'Do what you love and the money will come.' If it's something you're passionate about, and you're filling a need, solving a problem and know that your brand needs to exist—then you will be able to make it successful. This was the perfect opportunity. I couldn't pass it up.

What's a typical day like for you?

Carissa: I wake up really early, like 5 am. I get coffee and see what's happening online and go through all my emails. Then I figure out what we're posting on Instagram that day. I'm also constantly researching. I look for ways to make the site clearer. I'll set up meetings to tell the right people about what we're doing. The to-do list is endless. Finding the most important thing to focus on is hard because I will go off in a million different directions. Everything adds value—but I must decide what's the most valuable thing to do each day.

What do you think sets Wolf + Friends apart in the mom/kid space?

Carissa: How we're curating our stuff. If your kids have any special needs or they're going to therapy—the therapists, the schools, whomever you're seeing, are going to direct you to a therapy site to get the toys and other accessories you need to have at home. You can find many of the toys that we feature on therapy sites—but on a therapy site, it doesn't look nice. It doesn't look happy—it looks scary and clinical. We wanted to create a space that it doesn't have to look and feel like that. Even if you're feeling anxious about your situation, there's no reason to add to that. We want to make it a little easier.

What's been the most rewarding part of starting Wolf + Friends?

Carissa: The creative aspect is the thing that I really wanted to get my hands on when I worked in magazines. I cared so much about the way things looked, but I had no say. Now, I have this say and I can experiment and it's fun. But, doing something on your own—the growth in your mind is so good. I think I was like dying inside by doing the same thing day after day after day. Now I'm challenged and I feel good. I like spending time with my son and being present in his learning—before I didn't know what was going on. Now we have conversations about school. He's five; he's a little older—but the connection I feel with him is so much stronger. He knows how loved he is and he loves us so much. I just couldn't leave him now.

Where do you see Wolf + Friends a year from now?

Carissa: I think that we really hope to define the service aspect. Right now, everything on the site is expertly curated and design-focused. You can shop our site. You're going to learn about the product. You're going to feel good about it and know what to do with it when you bring it home. However, all that can be expanded on. There's so many details that can be added because Wolf + Friends benefits all kids. We're educating parents on why these toys and products are valuable, instead of saying, 'Oh, here's a cute thing.' Instead, we're explaining why you need to have toys that will do things like move their bodies, or build their core. All these things are important, so we want to get that message across that you need to work on it with your kids at home—together. As for the business side, we want to make the shopping part easier, helpful and thoughtful.

3 Min Read

7 Must-have Tips to Keep You Healthy and Fit for the Unpredictable COVID Future

With a lack of certainty surrounding the future, being and feeling healthy may help bring the security that you need during these unpredictable times.

When it comes to your health, there is a direct relationship between nutrition and physical activity that play an enormous part in physical, mental, and social well-being. As COVID-19 continues to impact almost every aspect of our lives, the uncertainty of the future may seem looming. Sometimes improvisation is necessary, and understanding how to stay healthy and fit can significantly help you manage your well-being during these times.

Tip 1: Communicate with your current wellness providers and set a plan

Gyms, group fitness studios, trainers, and professionals can help you to lay out a plan that will either keep you on track through all of the changes and restrictions or help you to get back on the ball so that all of your health objectives are met.

Most facilities and providers are setting plans to provide for their clients and customers to accommodate the unpredictable future. The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C. An enormous amount is on the table for this coming fall and winter; if your gym closes again, what is your plan? If outdoor exercising is not an option due to the weather, what is your plan? Leaving things to chance will significantly increase your chances of falling off of your regimen and will make consistency a big problem.

The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C.

Tip 2: Stay active for both mental and physical health benefits

The rise of stress and anxiety as a result of the uncertainty around COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way. Staying active by exercising helps alleviate stress by releasing chemicals like serotonin and endorphins in your brain. In turn, these released chemicals can help improve your mood and even reduce risk of depression and cognitive decline. Additionally, physical activity can help boost your immune system and provide long term health benefits.

With the new work-from-home norm, it can be easy to bypass how much time you are spending sedentary. Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity. Struggling to find ways to stay active? Start simple with activities like going for a walk outside, doing a few reps in exchange for extra Netflix time, or even setting an alarm to move during your workday.

Tip 3: Start slow and strong

If you, like many others during the pandemic shift, have taken some time off of your normal fitness routine, don't push yourself to dive in head first, as this may lead to burnout, injury, and soreness. Plan to start at 50 percent of the volume and intensity of prior workouts when you return to the gym. Inactivity eats away at muscle mass, so rather than focusing on cardio, head to the weights or resistance bands and work on rebuilding your strength.

Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity.

Tip 4: If your gym is open, prepare to sanitize

In a study published earlier this year, researchers found drug-resistant bacteria, the flu virus, and other pathogens on about 25 percent of the surfaces they tested in multiple athletic training facilities. Even with heightened gym cleaning procedures in place for many facilities, if you are returning to the gym, ensuring that you disinfect any surfaces before and after using them is key.

When spraying disinfectant, wait a few minutes to kill the germs before wiping down the equipment. Also, don't forget to wash your hands frequently. In an enclosed space where many people are breathing heavier than usual, this can allow for a possible increase in virus droplets, so make sure to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Staying in the know and preparing for new gym policies will make it easy to return to these types of facilities as protocols and mutual respect can be agreed upon.

Tip 5: Have a good routine that extends outside of just your fitness

From work to working out, many routines have faltered during the COVID pandemic. If getting back into the routine seems daunting, investing in a new exercise machine, trainer, or small gadget can help to motivate you. Whether it's a larger investment such as a Peloton, a smaller device such as a Fitbit, or simply a great trainer, something new and fresh is always a great stimulus and motivator.

Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine.

Just because you are working from home with a computer available 24/7 doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your entire day to work. Setting work hours, just as you would in the office, can help you to stay focused and productive.

A good night's sleep is also integral to obtaining and maintaining a healthy and effective routine. Adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night for their best health and wellbeing, so prioritizing your sleep schedule can drastically improve your day and is an important factor to staying healthy. Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine. This can help the rest of your day feel normal while the uncertainty of working from home continues.

Tip 6: Focus on food and nutrition

In addition to having a well-rounded daily routine, eating at scheduled times throughout the day can help decrease poor food choices and unhealthy cravings. Understanding the nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy can help you stay more alert, but they do vary from person to person. If you are unsure of your suggested nutritional intake, check out a nutrition calculator.

If you are someone that prefers smaller meals and more snacks throughout the day, make sure you have plenty of healthy options, like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins available (an apple a day keeps the hospital away). While you may spend most of your time from home, meal prepping and planning can make your day flow easier without having to take a break to make an entire meal in the middle of your work day. Most importantly, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.

Tip 7: Don't forget about your mental health

While focusing on daily habits and routines to improve your physical health is important, it is also a great time to turn inward and check in with yourself. Perhaps your anxiety has increased and it's impacting your work or day-to-day life. Determining the cause and taking proactive steps toward mitigating these occurrences are important.

For example, with the increase in handwashing, this can also be a great time to practice mini meditation sessions by focusing on taking deep breaths. This can reduce anxiety and even lower your blood pressure. Keeping a journal and writing out your daily thoughts or worries can also help manage stress during unpredictable times, too.

While the future of COVI9-19 and our lives may be unpredictable, you can manage your personal uncertainties by focusing on improving the lifestyle factors you can control—from staying active to having a routine and focusing on your mental health—to make sure that you emerge from this pandemic as your same old self or maybe even better.