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.
I walk into a room full of men and I know exactly what they're thinking: "What does she know about whisky?"
I know this because many men have asked me that same question from the moment I started my career in spirits a decade ago.
In a male-dominated industry, I realized early on that I would always have to work harder than my male counterparts to prove my credibility, ability and knowledge in order to earn the trust of leadership stakeholders, coworkers, vendors and even consumers of our products. I am no stranger to hard work and appreciate that everyone needs to prove their worth when starting any career or role. What struck me however, was how the recognition and opportunities seemed to differ between genders. Women usually had to prove themselves before they were accepted and promoted ("do the work first and earn it"), whereas men often were more easily accepted and promoted on future potential. It seemed like their credibility was automatically and immediately assumed. Regardless of the challenges and adversity I faced, my focus was on proving my worth within the industry, and I know many other women were doing the same.
Thankfully, the industry has advanced in the last few years since those first uncomfortable meetings. The rooms I walk into are no longer filled with just men, and perceptions are starting to change significantly. There are more women than ever before making, educating, selling, marketing and conceptualizing whiskies and spirits of all kinds. Times are changing for the better and it's benefitting the industry overall, which is exciting to see.
For me, starting a career in the spirits business was a happy accident. Before spirits, I had worked in the hospitality industry and on the creative agency side. That background just happened to be what a spirits company was looking for at the time and thus began my journey in the industry. I was lucky that my gender did not play a deciding role in the hiring process, as I know that might not have been the case for everyone at that time.
Now, ten plus years later, I am fortunate to work for and lead one of the most renowned and prestigious Whisky brands in the world.. What was once an accident now feels like my destiny. The talent and skill that goes into the whisky-making process is what inspired me to come back and live and breathe those brands as if they were my own. It gave me a deep understanding and appreciation of an industry that although quite large, still has an incredible amount of handmade qualities and a specific and meticulous craft I have not seen in any other industry before. Of course, my journey has not been without challenges, but those obstacles have only continued to light my passion for the industry.
The good news is, we're on the right track. When you look at how many females hold roles in the spirits industry today compared to what it looked like 15 years ago, there has been a significant increase in both the number of women working and the types of roles women are hired for. From whisky makers and distillers to brand ambassadors and brand marketers, we're seeing more women in positions of influence and more spirits companies willing to stand up and provide a platform for women to make an impact. Many would likely be surprised to learn that one of our team's Whisky Makers is a woman. They might even be more surprised to learn that women, with a heightened sense of smell compared to our male counterparts, might actually be a better fit for the role! We're nowhere near equality, but the numbers are certainly improving.
It was recently reported by the Distilled Spirits Council that women today represent a large percentage of whisky drinkers and that has helped drive U.S. sales of distilled spirits to a record high in 2017. Today, women represent about 37% of the whisky drinkers in the United States, which is a large increase compared to the 1990s when a mere 15% of whisky drinkers were women. As for what's causing this change? I believe it's a mix of the acceptance of women to hold roles within the spirits industry partnered with thoughtful programs and initiatives to engage with female consumers.
While whisky was previously known for being a man's drink, reserved for after-dinner cigars behind closed doors, it is now out in the open and accessible for women to learn about and enjoy too.
What was once subculture is now becoming the norm and women are really breaking through and grabbing coveted roles in the spirits business. That said, it's up to the industry as a whole to continue to push it forward. When you work for a company that values diversity, you're afforded the opportunity to be who you are and let that benefit your business. Working under the model that the best brand initiatives come from passionate groups of people with diverse backgrounds, we are able to offer different points of view and challenge our full team to bring their best work forward, which in turn creates better experiences for our audience. We must continue to diversify the industry and break against the status quo if we really want to continue evolving.
While we've made great strides as an industry, there is still a lot of work to be done. To make a change and finally achieve gender equality in the workplace, both men and women need to stand behind the cause as we are better collectively as a balanced industry. We have proved that we have the ability to not only meet the bar, but to also raise it - now we just need everyone else to catch up.