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No More Fluff. Getting Real with Jenn Labit.
Interview with Jenn Labit.
On Thursday, March 8th we celebrated International Women’s Day. It was fitting that I would be interviewing one of the most recognizable names in the cloth diapering industry: Jennifer Labit. A pioneer in the cloth diapering field and mom to four, Jenn is the epitome of a girl boss and strong woman. I was so excited/nervous to talk to Jenn. She is so accomplished as the CEO of Cotton Babies and is the woman behind the brands bumGenius, Flip Diapers, and the new Elemental Joy. I wrote down some questions that I thought would be both a balance of light hearted and serious, and crossed my fingers. I had no idea how this was going to go because #1 - I never do Facebook Live by myself, I’m always behind the camera. #2 - I’ve haven’t conducted an interview since high school. #3 - It’s Jenn Labit!!
(A) Let’s start with the important stuff. How do you take your coffee? We know you love coffee...
(J) (Laughs) I do! I’m actually sitting here with a cup of it right now. Right now, my prefered drink of choice is actually an Almond Milk Flat White from Starbucks. At home we just grind whole bean Aldi coffee. I grind it in a grinder and cook it in a percolator.
(A)What is your favorite food?
(J)My favorite food…..I’ll eat just about anything. I’m not a big pickled food person. My husband is an amazing cook, so a lot of times people ask me things like how do you do all the things that you, and what keeps you moving, and how do you do everything. And I think their perspective of women in business is that we are somehow doing everything. That we’re the shuttle, the taxi back and forth to school and school events, and that we’re doing all the things. And I just don’t. I have an amazing husband, I think you’ve met Jimmy before. He’s the cook in our house and he makes a really amazing smoked pork tenderloin. So if I had to pick something, that’s what we do.
I’ll tell you a funny story, my kids take cotillion in Middle School. And so we make them do that as part of their public school curriculum. We accidentally had a miscommunication about when the dinner was for this particular event for my oldest child, which created this tradition of taking my kids out to a nice restaurant by themselves, just with their mom and practicing their new skills. So my son sits down, we had taken him to the top of the Four Seasons, right? He sits down in this fancy restaurant and this server walks up and says, “So what would you like? Can I get you a hamburger, cheeseburger, a piece of pizza?” Because the menu was not ‘hamburger, cheeseburgers, and piece of pizza’ but he just wanted to be friendly to my child.
And my son said, “So, I can have anything?”
And the server said, “Well yeah, we’ll make you anything, what would you like?” Thinking he was going to ask for macaroni and cheese, right?
“Well my dad makes a really good pork tenderloin and I’d like to see if your chef can make a pork tenderloin as good as my dad’s.”
The look on that servers face.It’s a favorite memory, we talk about it all the time.When you get to spend time like that with your kids, by themselves, you never forget that.
(A) How long have you been married?
(J) Jimmy and I have been married 19 years. We got married in December of 1999.
(A) Scott and I work together, and it works, we have different skill sets. But i have some friends that are like, ‘Oh my gosh i would NEVER work with my husband!’ So I think for some people it works, and some people it doesn’t. And obviously it works for you. So why does it work for you? What’s the balance?
(J) Jimmy and I met at work. It was 20 years ago, he had just graduated from college and got his first programing job at the company that i was working for here in St. Louis. I was webmaster for Sears Portrait Studios at the time, and it was my first full time job. I was 19 when i was hired. And I look up one day, a year and a half later, and this really good looking guy had sat down in the cube across from me. And he actually asked me out that night. And we dated for almost 2 years exactly, and have been happily married and working together almost the whole time that we’ve known each other. I know it doesn’t work for every family, but there are choices you can make as a married couple about the things that you agree about and what you don’t agree about. He respects me and I respect him, and because that respect is mutual it’s very much a co-led house and co-led business.
(A) You have four kids, right? What has surprised you the most over the years about being a mom?
(J) That there’s so many right ways to be a good mom. And we talk about that a lot through our brands because there is so much competition between moms in the pick up line, and the annoyances about who stopped and who went too slow, and who didn’t. And whether or not you had your pajamas on or if u actually got dressed and put your lipstick before you took your kid to school. And What did I cook for dinner. Was it grilled chicken or chicken nuggets? Did I shop at Aldi or did I go to Deerburns? Or am I buying my groceries at Whole Foods? Or am I serving organic produce? Like, am I on schedule?(laughs) I just had an interesting conversation with someone where we were talking about how the government defines moms that are off schedule for their kids well visits. And even that creates this odd - the word that was used was called ‘non compliant moms’. We’re called non compliant by the government if we are not taking our kids on the right schedule for their well baby visits. And what does that create for us? And they're not exactly sending notes home from the pediatricians office saying your 18 year old needs to come in for a well child visit. Because that’s not what we’re thinking about.
By the time they get 18 months old it’s just not on our minds.
But I think as a mom just recognizing that my first baby was very attached, nursed for years, he didn’t wean until 2 ½ months old, he slept with us until I was pregnant with our second and couldn’t handle getting touched. That was one of the things pregnancy did to me, is that I didn’t want to be touched. And so he moved out of our bed and my next one didn’t want to sleep with me. He didn’t like to nurse, he did for food, because he was hungry. He never just dwelled on that, some kids you just can’t extract them from your body. He didn’t want to be touched. I now know that he was hot. But at the time i thought, “I’m not a great mom.” And it wasn’t until he got a little bit bigger that i realized my kids were two very different people. And God gives us different people. That’s what you get when you have kids. These really individual wonderful human beings that we get to spend time with and we get to raise and we get to know who they are. You can’t go into it with this homogenized expectation of what it takes to be a good mom.
(A) How old were you when you started Cotton Babies?
(J) Now you’re asking the hard questions…Andrew was born when I was 25 and we started Cotton Babies when he was about 8 weeks old. So it was that summer. Just before I turned 26.I was a doula, so I was helping moms have babies in my spare time. And I was selling slings to moms that I was helping have babies. Maya Wrap was the brand and between that and the church nursery, and walking the mall and having people ask about my baby carrier, I would put 10 biz cards in the pocket of every sling that I sold. And my phone started to ring.And that was the beginning of what is today Cotton Babies.
(A) Tell us about your humble beginnings, running a company with Jimmy out of your house.
(J) When Andrew was born, we were living on not very much money. We had $30 a week for groceries and a WIC check. And I had a mom that was about my mom’s age, here in St. Louis, who had taught me how to use a really tiny grocery budget to cook for my family. But it didn’t have enough money in it for diapers. And a friend gave me cloth diapers after the diaper service, that my in laws had given us for the first three months of his life, had expired. And that’s how I got my first stash of cloth diapers. It was because of a gift. We wouldn’t be cloth diapering without that. I don’t even think Cotton Babies would exist without that gift. It was her and another mom who early in my pregnancy showed me how to use a prefold inside of a diaper cover. Kind of took the mystique out of it. I think early on I imagined cloth diapers flats that had to be, I think the word that I used at the time was kite folded, because that’s what I had heard. But I didn’t know it was easy. Someone made it easy for me, and then somebody else made it possible. So Cotton Babies started in a crate in our kitchen, I still have that crate. And moved to a bookshelf, then a closet, and then we moved out of our apartment into a little tiny HUD house that we bought in North St. Louis. And it over took a bedroom, and then the master bedroom, and then the garage. And we were, you know, we couldn’t do it anymore.We ended up moving it to commercial space not long later. And that was really the impetus for the growth that people have seen in the company.
(A) What was the first Cotton Babies product?
(J) Our first product was, if i remember right, it was a microfiber insert, and I don’t remember the exact genesis of how this happened. It’s been so long ago. The microfiber insert came before the diaper. I just don’t remember how Hemp Babies fell within the timeline, if it was before or after. We just took a microfiber insert and we just added a snap to it, so it could be snapped down to a different size. And then started actually giving them away with the sales of the diapers that we were selling. And these snaps let out to adjust the length. And that’s what kind of fueled the growth of the early days of Cotton Babies.
(A) I don’t even know if you will answer this question. It’s sooo controversial. Not really...but...What is your all time favorite print?
(J)(Laughs) My all time favorite print? I had a daughter that was in cloth diapers but she really wore most of her brothers diapers and at the time, I think we had Blossom and Zinna, as colors. Though prints weren’t a thing in our house until Louie. I loved Irwin. (Pauses) It wasn’t the most popular print that we ever released, at the time that it was released, but I loved the colors and the camo approach of the animals. I thought that was really lovely.
(A) You’ve seen a lot of changes and trends in the cloth diapering market in your many years pioneering the industry. In your opinion, What is the #1 biggest challenge in the cloth diapering industry in 2018?
(J) Well, the industry has be impacted a lot by the influx of, just, inexpensive diapers that are made overseas and those violate intellectual property laws in the United States.that had has a massive impact not just on manufacturers but also on retailers and on the industry in general. And then when you complicate that issue with the introduction of counterfeits. You’ve got something that’s just hard to measure on the consumer level, and on the manufacturer level you’re trying to figure it out blindfolded. Because companies like Amazon don’t really care that much. The agreement you have to sign to be able to sell on that platform actually releases them from any liability. China’s moving so fast in their ability to imitate or echo things. A quick search on Google about ‘Amazon and counterfeits’ or ‘China and counterfeits’ will really quickly reveal that it’s not just diapers. At one point in time we had a massive problem with counterift Ergo Baby Carriers and we probably have other counterfeit baby products that would be buzzwords in our industry too, we just don’t talk about it. But it’s out there. It’s everywhere. It’s affecting every American company that I know that has had some kind of viral success. Getting them (Amazon) to stop is very challenging. They have no financial motivation to do that. They gain from every sale. They make money off the fulfilment or some margin on every sale of every counterfeit product that they sell. And unless consumers demand that they change their behavior, they’re not going to. And it’s really a PR problem for them, not a legal problem. Because even the justice department or the FCC looking at competition issues, Amazon is seen as a juggernaut. Not a popular thing for somebody to question. Investors are calling it competition. And i’ve got some articles that I’ve been working on that I haven’t published yet, where I look at what it is and the change in traffic, and consumers definitely want to be able to access products faster. That’s important to you. That’s why you have a ‘Buy Now’ button on your phone and why you probably use it. As much as we like to complain about Amazon as a problem, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t shop there. So the question, I think, to smaller retailers is: How do you help your customer by meeting that service level that Amazon has created. How can I do that as a retailer or do that as a manufacturer, what I can do to better serve customers to help with the things that are important to us. We do need somebody to help give us more time, that’s really what that’s done. And that’s not a bad point of competition, what is bad is the way that they are operating their business has effectively destroyed the physical retail company. It’s a big deal.
(A) On the other side of that, what’s a positive change you’ve witnessed in the cloth diapering world the past few years?
(J) I see a lot of really renewed interest in research which i think is fascinating to watch. I move in some academic circles and this is a topic... I’m a geek at heart. I love to read. I love to research. And see a lot of fresh interest in that as a topic and that has an opportunity for our industry. For academics, business owners and manufacturers, there’s an interest in understanding the data behind in what’s going on. At the consumer level there’s definitely a renewed value for what’s happening with our planet. That’s a default assumption about businesses now is that we are thinking about being environmentally conscious. So we moved our manufacturing to St. Louis, and part of doing that was trying to shorten our lead times, and bring down expenses but also I was very aware of how much we were moving things around and wanting to reduce that transit time.
(A) Tell us about the Mob?
(J) The Mob is a Facebook Group that we started on a whim one night, a couple of years ago. I was like, “I wanna have a facebook group. Let’s call it the Mob!” It was a newer idea and we very, very quickly had critical mass in the group. It’s had its challenges as a group in terms of figuring out how to have appropriate boundaries around conversation and respect for each other. It’s about 22 thousand people right now, I think. It’s just a great group of people who talk about what it means to be a mom. It’s not just about cloth diapers. We talk about cloth diapers but it’s all issues parenting.
(A) What is your biggest non diaper related passion?
(J) Hmm, non diaper related...My world revolves around diapers.(Laughs) It just does. I mean I care so much about how diapers impact people who have insufficient resources for food and to take care of their babies. Um, outside of diapers, like if you were to ask my what my hobbies are, I am a musician. I play piano. And then I’m an economics nerd, I love to read the latest research and the latest journals and I follow a bunch of economists on facebook.It’s all fascinating to me.
(A) What is your latest project that you can tell us about?
(J) Well the latest thing we released was Elemental Joy. It was a project that’s been on the back of my mind for years. But to make it happen we actually had to realize manufacturing in St. Louis. We had to make that real. Because I couldn’t pay a third party contractor to make those diapers, I had to do it under my roof where I could realize the efficiencies of that staff here in this building and not having to ship things all over the place. But the ability to finally be able to figure out how to make a diaper fast, and be able to sell it at a price that competes with that inexpensively made diaper from overseas, regardless of its origin, and know that it was made... I sleep well at night. I don’t have to worry about what’s happening in a factory somewhere else. I know it’s mine. It makes cloth diapering accessible to families who can't afford more expensive products. And because my passion is about taking care of diaper insufficiencies for families, it helped us reach a different market.
If you want to see the whole interview you can watch it HERE. We even get into reminiscing about the original Audrey launch, which was C R A Z Y, and the first time I got up the nerve to introduce myself to Jenn. And, wait, did I really call Jenn Labit a nerd? IDK. You’ll have to watch and see.
A really giant and sincere thanks to Jenn for being game for this ‘No More Fluff’ interview idea and taking up a lot of her precious time for us. And another big thanks to Julia, Jenn’s Executive Assistant, for helping organize everything and making it a breeze.The experience exceeded all expectations!
Make sure you are following The Green Nursery and Cotton Babies and Jennifer Labit on all of the social media platforms to keep in touch and stay informed.