When Renee Sandler read there were only 12 female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies back in 2007, she said, “something snapped.” Her daughters, aged 9 and 10 at the time, could enter a workforce and become limited by their gender.
She decided it was time to begin teaching them, through business, what might be in store. What ensued was beyond her wildest dreams.
Sandler promised to help her daughters start a business if they could come up with an idea. Melanie and Lily Sandler took that offer and ran with it.
A few weeks later, while packing for camp, Lily screamed from the top of the stairs, “Mom, where’s my ‘lip blam’?”
Renee Sandler thought, “Lip blam? That would be a great name for a lip balm company” and it wasn’t long before they were ruining every pot in the house to try to concoct a natural, petroleum and paraben-free lip balm.
Today, the Sandlers run BLAMtastic, a natural skin care and beauty products company. After carving out shelf space at retailers like Wal-Mart and Walgreens, they may sell close to $10 million worth of product this year.
The products are made of natural ingredients and look to solve problems that only a parent would understand—like diaper rash cream in spray form to eliminate mess.
Lily said timing has been key to their success. “This has really been a perfect storm of all the movements right now, the natural movement, the ‘made in the USA’ movement, the youth entrepreneurship movement. It’s the perfect time for all of this,” she said.
Smearing lip balm all over the glass ceiling
The Sandlers ran into typical entrepreneurial challenges, like finding a manufacturer to make small batches of product for their first big sale at a mall kiosk. The U.S.-based manufacturer they wanted to use turned them away at first, but Sandler found out the manufacturer’s CEO was a woman and gave her a call.
“I said, ‘Listen, I’m really trying to set an example of empowerment for my daughters, I’m trying to teach them to do it through business and I assure you, if you just give us a chance, we will exceed your expectations,'” Sandler recalled.
The manufacturer agreed to work with BLAMtastic, proving that sometimes, women can use their gender to their advantage in business.
Sandler looked to have her daughters involved in the business as much as possible. As tweens, Melanie and Lily learned about logistics including packaging, labeling and shipping. They even participated in negotiations with retailers.
There were times, however, when Lily and Melanie felt belittled because of their gender and age.
In the early days, at a trade show, a man asked Lily to give him her pitch. Her mother said Lily did an excellent job reciting her lines and using her charm, and even thought she was close to making a sale, when the man patted her on the head and said, “You’re cute.”
Lily turned to her Mom and said, “Mom, he said I’m cute, just wait till he sees what we do with this business.”
They’ve done quite a bit and women have made progress too. Today, there are 26 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, according to the Pew Research Center. But Sandler said there are still plenty of ways women are being held back when it comes to things like equal pay and when they take the plunge to start their own firms.
“Female entrepreneurs start their businesses with one-third of the capital of their male counterparts,” she said.
How they made it
BLAMtastic started with market testing, which really meant bringing batches of lip balm to neighbors for feedback. Soon, BLAMtastic was selling in the schoolyard, then at mall kiosks and then at trade shows. A few months later, they saw an opportunity for their big break.
Walmart set aside billions to help bring manufacturing back to the United States. The Sandlers found out about a Walmart opportunity called Made in the U.S.A. “Open Call” and created a commercial to send to the company. It wasn’t long before they got a call that the biggest retailer in the world wanted to stock BLAMtastic on its shelves.
While getting into Walmart stores was an amazing opportunity, it came with the challenge of scaling up.
Sandler is a former paralegal with no experience running a business, so they tapped Tom Gladfelter, who is now the president of BLAMtastic, to assist with securing investors, making new deals with large retailers and smoothing out complicated logistics including manufacturing.
As Gladfelter explained, BLAMtastic expanded so quickly, they couldn’t adapt. He said, “The great news is, oh my God, we got into Walmart, the bad news, is oh my God, we got Walmart.”
What were you doing at 17?
Today, Lily is 17 years old and works as an intern at her own company. She also serves as its spokesperson, while her sister Melanie chooses to be involved behind the scenes.
Lily earns school credit for her work at BLAMtastic’s headquarters every day after school. She also juggles homework and speaking engagements. She does get a few perks, like a new car, which she has BLAMed out.
Beyond the success of the business, the experience has benefited her girls tremendously, Sandler said.
“The best tool I could give them was putting them in the driver seat, letting them write their own story and not relying on someone else to write it for them,” she said.
The girls have been empowered by their business experience and Lily has used her confidence to inspire others through speaking engagements. In a recent talk she gave at the Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Lily highlighted the need for change in the way women are perceived in business.
To illustrate their point they cited several large-scale advertising campaigns funded by consumer products companies aimed at gender stereotypes, including Unilever’s Dove campaign, which urged women to appreciate beauty in all shapes and sizes, and Procter & Gamble’s #LikeAGirl campaign for Always female hygiene products, which also went viral.
The #LikeAGirl campaign has drawn more than 85 million Web views since it aired during the Super Bowl, and it grew out of a study that showed more than half of girls experience a drop in self-confidence during puberty.
“It’s everybody’s movement,” said Fama Francisco, Global Always vice president. “Every girl, whatever their dream is, and in Lily’s case, it’s being an entrepreneur, can make their dream happen. I think Lily is showing us proudly what she does like a girl.”
Lily said her experiences have set her up for success.
“I’m grateful to my mom, she knew we were going to have to face gender inequality eventually and I’m glad we were exposed to it at a young age … she prepared me for what was to come later in life and that was a valuable learning experience,” she said.
—CNBC’s Andy Rothman contributed to this report.