#IWWSTL: ALIVE's Women's Week Continues with a Q&A with Jennifer Labit, Entrepreneur

 In Culture

Jennifer Labit is a businesswoman, wife and mother who began her own business, Cotton Babies, in St. Louis with only $100. Since then, she has not only helped families comfortably and frugally diaper their babies, but she has also become a strong advocate for social action, women in business and the environment. In 2005, she launched her first cloth diaper line, bumGenius, and shortly after founded the Real Diaper Industry Association to help sustain the planet and created the Share the Love cloth diaper bank to ease families’ economic struggles and provide cloth diapers across the country.

Jennifer and her son, Andrew Labit. Courtesy of Cotton Babies.

Jennifer and her son, Andrew Labit. Courtesy of Cotton Babies.

ALIVE: Why did you start Cotton Babies?
Jennifer Labit
: My husband and I are both programmers. We were laid off when the tech stocks crashed, and I was pregnant with our first child when we had massive income change to our family. When that happened, it was drastic. So when Andrew was born, he was born into a situation where we had $30 a week for groceries plus a WIC check, which paid for basic needs.

You can’t buy disposable diapers and food on the $30 a week at the grocery store. So Andrew was cloth-diapered from birth. Then, a friend of mine gave me her diapers because she was done cloth-diapering. The business started out of a desire to be able to have some extra resources for our family because we couldn’t see the income situation changing anytime in the near future. So, we started with that $100. I was working to become a doula, so I was selling slings to my doula clients. I would wear my baby to the mall, and people would stop me in the mall and ask me about my sling. I would open my diaper bag, and I would sell a sling right there on the spot. So it was one step at a time. We never had a goal of having a big company. The goal was feeding our family.

ALIVE: You launched the bumGenius line in 2005; what was the inspiration behind that?
JL: We needed to have a product that was ours. In early 2005, we were only a retailer, so we were buying other people’s products and retailing them. We realized part way through that year that it was going to be very important to the survival of our company that we have something that we manufactured and sold. Something we could control—not something we were dependent on a supplier to give to us.

ALIVE: What influence do you hope to have with your business?
We came from $30 a week for groceries and trying to put food on our own table. Today [we have] 60 or 70 people on payroll–many of them have large families. We put food on a lot of tables for a lot of kids. And that’s our direct we-can-touch it impact. That doesn’t count the impact of the factory in Denver, where we have a couple hundred people who aren’t directly employed by Cotton Babies. They’re employed by another company, but 97 percent-plus of what they manufacture is only for us. So, the food on those tables comes from the product that’s sold from Cotton Babies. The ability to not just take care of the staff and people that we directly or secondarily influence, but also being able to take care of the moms who are in that position I was in 12 years ago.

ALIVE: What is Share the Love?
JL: Share the Love is based on the idea that when a family is done with their diapers, they give their diapers to a host who then connects those diapers with a family that’s either on WIC or food stamps. It reaches back to that mom who has been defined by the government as being in need of some additional help. We knew that in communities all over the United States the quantity of diapers that are sitting in closets not being used has also grown, and we surmised that it was probable that those resources would be able to help significantly with the issue of diaper need in those communities.

ALIVE: How did Share the Love come to be?
Every baby needs diapers. Moms have to have diapers to send their baby to daycare so they can have a job. Daycare requires you provide diapers. If they can’t afford to buy the diapers they need for their baby to go to daycare, Mom can’t work. If Mom can’t work, we remain in poverty. It’s a self-perpetuating problem. I just decided that we were going to do whatever it was going to take to fix it. So, we did, and we’re doing it, and it’s continuing to grow.

ALIVE: What impact has it had?
We’re in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. We take the cloth diapers—each diaper that’s given can be used multiple times—so we calculate that out, and the diaper changes given is calculated based on the number of disposable diapers that would’ve had to been given to that same family. The number that I recorded in Chicago was 2.1 million diaper changes—it’s actually significantly higher than that.

ALIVE: What does it mean to be a woman and CEO of a business?
I got Instagramned this morning by the lady who actually runs MommyCon [Xza Higgins], and she said in her post: “Reading Fortune Magazine and thinking about Jennifer Labit sharing how few female CEOs there are and all the things I want to do to try and change that,” and she used [the hashtag] #ThinkLikeAGirl.

She’s responding to a statistic that I quoted: Large organizations are 4.6 percent women, which means that 95.4 percent of employees are men. And there’s nothing wrong with men being in leadership. The question that I have is, “Why are so few women represented at those levels?” Many researchers would tell you that it’s because many of us choose to be mothers and that we never have the opportunity because we kind of select ourselves out before we would ever get to that point.

But I think [we] know that’s not true: We are seen as mothers and caretakers before we are seen as contributors to business leadership, and you saw that with Marissa Mayer, who was hired by Yahoo! when she was five months pregnant. Of course the public is going to comment on her fitness as the CEO of Yahoo!, but their first comments were not about her education; they were not about her work experience. They were about the fact she had a baby growing in her belly. Does that disqualify her from being a leader of a large company? Heck no. Our brains don’t stop because we’re pregnant or lactating. There’s a reason we’re not there, and it’s not because we’re moms.

ALIVE: Do you have a message for other women pursuing, or considering, the business world?
JL: You’re going to have to work really hard and determine—before you ever get started—that you will never quit.

ALIVE: In one word, describe your experience as a businesswoman.

To hear more from Jennifer Labit, visit her website. What STL women inspire you? Join #IWWSTL on Twitter and direct your thoughts to @ALIVEMagSTL during our week-long celebration of St. Louis women.

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