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.
Sometimes the person you have to stand up to is you! There I was, rewatching the Miss Universe 2019 competition. Which I do for inspiration from time to time. (No, seriously!) There is something about seeing women on stage, in full-on glam mode, and speaking with confident assuredness that really lights my fire!
I have seen this Zozibini Tunzi of South Africa win this crown so many times before, but something about this particular viewing, her delivery or her words, touched something inside me a little differently. At that moment, I truly believed, with complete conviction, that she lives what she speaks.
The announcement was made, the audience cheered, and the crown was awarded. The light was dazzling,, she looked stunning, almost blessed. The judges made the right call with 2019's queen.
Reflecting On Myself
Suddenly, the YouTube video ended. And I was left looking at a black screen. In the darkness of that screen, I saw my reflection and I began assessing what I saw, asking myself, "What have I been doing with my life?" It may seem like an overly dramatic question, but at that moment, I had to ask myself seriously… What have you done? The fact that I couldn't come up with a solid, confident answer gave my inner-cynic license to quickly spiral into self-criticism.
This went on for quite some time, until I got up. I stood up and walked to my mirror to have some serious one-on-one "Queen Talk." I needed to get out of that self-critical mindset, and I know that physical movement is something that help disrupt a way of thinking. I needed to remind myself of who I really was. The negative feelings I was experiencing at that moment were not reality.
Here are a few reminders for whenever you need some Queen Talk!
1.) Comparison is truly the thief of joy.
This saying feels like a cliché. That is, until it's applicable to you. At that moment, this "cliché, becomes self-evident. Comparing myself to someone on a stage with years of experience in an area I know nothing about is not only unfair but straight-up mean. A part of my comparison comes from me wondering, "Would I have the ability, if put in that position, to perform at such a level?" The answer is totally and without question, yes. I excel in the field I work in now, and I know that if I put that same energy towards something else, with practice, I could do just as well. No joy can come from comparing yourself to someone in a completely different field!
2.) Never forget the blessings that have been bestowed upon you.
Every single day, I am blessed to have the opportunity to wake up with all ten fingers and toes and choose to create the kind of life I want to live. There is so much power in that alone, but sometimes it's easy to take it for granted. Let us not forget those who are unable to make that same decision every day of their lives.
3.) Appreciate how far you have come!
I've been very intentional for some time to be kinder and gentler to myself. I need to realize that I am human. Being human means that I will not know everything, and I will continue to make mistakes.But I must let go of the need to always be right. I feel empowered when I can see the growth that I've made, regardless of the mistakes that may come in the future. I don't react to every little thing that bothers me, because I have learned boundaries when it comes to dealing with others and myself. I truly value my time and my energy, and, for that, I am proud.
4.) You Can Be Who You Want To Be
If you can see it in your mind, you can achieve it in reality. I saw myself when I looked at the women on stage, when she smiled, the way she talked, her elegant walk. For a moment, in my self-criticism spiral, I forgot that we are all connected. Debasish Mridha has said "I may not know you, but I don't see any difference between you and me. I see myself in you; we are one." I will not sit in the mentality of lack, there is more than enough opportunity and good fortune to go around for everyone. Her win was not a loss for me, but it can be a nudge from the universe for me to go ahead and dream big!
This Queen Talk was not easy. There may have been some tissues and tears involved but giving myself an honest yet compassionate talk is sometimes what I need to bring myself out of some bad head space. In these moments of doubt, you truly need to be your own best friend.When times get rough, criticism won't always come from outside sources. How you speak about yourself internally is crucial to how you see and feel about yourself. As Beyoncé once sang, "I've got Me, Myself, and I." We must put forth every effort to be there for ourselves. I look forward to more Queen Talks when some negative emotions arise. I am grateful for the person I am today, but I am excited to see the women I become.