Meredith Alexander wanted to make a difference in the lives of kids, especially ones who didn't have easy access to books.
That's why the mom of two, ages 11 and 15, decided to launch her nonprofit Milk + Bookies in 2004. The organization wanted to inspire local children to donate books to kids in need. And, of course, there would be milk and cookies.
What started out as a small party at Los Angeles children's bookstore Storyopolis has since turned into a successful program, which has donated more than 400,000 books and affected more than 140,000 children in Los Angeles. Not only that, but celebrities including Julie Bowen, Tamera Mowry and Molly Sims regularly attend its annual Story Time Celebration, happening this year on February 26.
Alexander talked with Mom.me via email about how she balances motherhood with her work as the executive director of Milk + Bookies, how the organization has evolved since that first party and the heartfelt moment when she first felt successful.
How has Milk + Bookies evolved for you personally since its launch?
When I started Milk + Bookies in 2004, it was a bi-annual "hangout day at the bookstore" kind of event, which was fairly straightforward and involved minimal time and effort on my part. All I did was book a day with said bookstore, invite friends and buy some cookies. As we’ve evolved, Milk + Bookies has become a full-time (and then some) job. Now I have daily administrative tasks, board meetings, grant applications and reviews, as well as book deliveries all over town.
Describe the moment you first felt successful.
Early on, at one of our first bookstore events, I overheard a girl, maybe around 9 years old, talking to her father as they exited the event. She said, “Dad, I loved donating books—it made me so happy. Can we do it again next week?”
Has there been anything about building Milk + Bookies that has surprised you or inspired you in a way you didn’t expect?
Along the road to building Milk + Bookies into what it is today, there have been many times when I'd like to say, “I don’t know what I don’t know,” which translates to: Things came up that I would never have even thought to research beforehand. You just can’t plan for everything, and I’ve learned on the job more times than I can count. I consider myself a creative person, and in my experience, the most obvious journey a person takes as an entrepreneur is going from creating to administrating. I don’t think my strengths (or interests) lie in administration, but once the “product” is built, the rest becomes day-to-day business with little creativity involved. This was a major aspect of growth that I didn’t expect.
What’s your advice for moms who are looking to start their own business or foundation?
If you have an idea for something you’d like to create, do your homework to see if someone else is doing something similar then think about joining forces—especially in nonprofit. There is an inordinate amount of time and energy spent on the not-so-fun stuff, so you actually end up spending most of your time NOT doing what you love and care about, and essentially working to feed the machine. If you could team up or work under another company’s umbrella, there is more time to do what you love about your initial idea—feel that passion every day—and divide, or hand over, the less fun tasks.
What sacrifices have you made as a mom and an entrepreneur to keep everything in balance?
I don’t believe there is ever balance. Some days, my kids come first and work suffers, emails back up and meetings get pushed. Other days, I could be deep into work projects and my family has to order doordash.com four nights in a row. Sometimes my husband and I will go a month without any date nights or alone time. I’d love to say that we always have family dinners and connect each evening at the end of the day, but—especially as my kids get older and older—that’s not realistic. I will say that we spend plenty of weekend time together to make up for whatever silliness happens during the week, and my husband and I almost never work on the weekends. We pack a lot of togetherness into those 48 hours.
What would you say are the most important skills and experiences you’ve brought from previous positions to being the leader of Milk + Bookies?
I’m a naturally organized person—not Type A, exactly—just a varsity list-maker and do-er. This is an innate skill that I think helps in everything I approach. It’s been interesting, as I get older (and hopefully wiser), to acknowledge that there are two kinds of people: those who do and those who talk about doing. Being the former has always been my strength in an otherwise sea of weaknesses.
If you could have lunch (or milk and cookies!) with any entrepreneur, who would it be and why?
It feels like in the last decade there has been an explosion of amazing talent and perseverance in entrepreneurship. My husband is addicted to podcasts and is always sending me links to hear these uber-passionate people telling the story of their business. I’ve enjoyed hearing amazing women like Sara Blakely, Jennifer Hyman, Gregg Renfrew ... and I love Jenny Blake. But this question would have to be answered old-school with the queen: Martha Stewart.
Martha really invented aspirational living for me with perfect hospital corners on her bed and making the ultimate lemon bars. Even though Martha’s brand doesn’t incorporate it, I believe that aspirational living includes a vision of a life where you give back and make the world better than you found it by helping your community and “being your best self" (a phrase from another favorite old-schooler: Oprah Winfrey). This is what Milk + Bookies is all about—your vision of raising children who care and help others, you and your friends gathering around community to make it better for those who need better, and knowing that you and your family have left someone/someplace/something better than you found it.
I aspire to always live this way. And perfect my lemon bar skills.