Stella Ma and Amy Norman were friends first. Best friends. And it was their shared love of cultural exploration that inspired them to create the kid-friendly subscription box Little Passports in 2009.
"I grew up in Oakland, Calif., as a first-generation Chinese American with fairly traditional parents. My upbringing instilled in me an appreciation for diversity and different cultures," Ma tells Mom.me. "Having my first child impressed upon me the urgency to impart my appreciation for diversity and openness to my own children."
That passion for global citizenship bonded eBay alums Ma and Norman, the latter of whom grew up moving between the US and England. Norman says she "knew from a very young age that we aren't doing enough to raise a generation of global citizens."
When Ma suggested starting a business together, Norman jumped at the chance. What the two moms didn't know, however, was that on the road to success they would each have to face incredible challenges, including a divorce and taking care of a premature baby. That didn't stop them, though. The company, which has grown to a team of 35 employees, was recently named a top 10 place to work in the Bay Area.
Ma and Norman talk to Mom.me about how they overcame difficult obstacles to help kids learn about cultures all over the world.
You're best friends and co-founders. What is your work dynamic with each other?
SM: It's an incredible experience to be able to work alongside my best friend. Running a business is challenging, so we're lucky to have each other for support through life's challenges—both professionally and personally. Our relationship works because we respect, value and trust each other. This doesn't mean we don't have disagreements, because we do. When we do, we're able to work through them, knowing that we have the best interests of the business in mind. We often joke that we're married to each other, and like any strong marital relationship we've learned how to communicate effectively.
AN: Stella and I really nurture our relationship. It's critical to the success of our business, and we put the time and energy into it like you would a marriage. From the beginning we have established clear lines of responsibility, which is certainly helpful. But at the end of the day, there is a deep, fundamental trust between us that we are each doing what is best for each other and the company.
When did you first feel successful?
SM: It's hard for me to think about a single point in time where I felt we were successful. I like to think that we've achieved many great milestones, but there is still much more for us to accomplish. The two things that motivate me the most are the impact we're having on children with our products and the impact we're having on the team we're building. Given that, I feel successful every time we have a parent or child share with us how they've learned so much with Little Passports or when someone on the team shares how much they enjoy working for Little Passports or how Little Passports is the best place they've ever worked.
AN: I remember when we hit the $1 million revenue mark. That felt like a really big milestone. Now, we remind our team every week that over 100,000 children are learning about the world because of our work. Now I measure our success in terms of impact.
During the process of getting Little Passports off the ground, you both experienced serious personal challenges. It's really inspiring how you pushed through and continued to support your company. How did you do that?
SM: I knew that I had my family supporting me. My mom offered me incredible support and was always such a pillar of strength. When my younger son was born prematurely at 29 weeks, my mom was there for me, helping me look after my older son and going with me to the NICU every day for three months. On the business front, she and my sister helped with fulfillment during the early days. We would set up an assembly line around my dining room table and put all the packages together before packing them up in my station wagon to take to the post office. My husband was supportive as an active and equal parent and helped us build our first website. And, of course, Amy and I consider each other to be family. We know that we're always there for each other.
AN: It wasn't easy. First, Stella and I had each other. My family was far away, and I was single-parenting a newborn and a 3-year-old on no salary. Stella's friendship really was a safety net for me that was critical during this period. She even let me take salary for months before she began to draw a salary from the company. I wouldn't be here without her. Beyond that, we truly persevered and would not give up! The first few years were slow-going in terms of our growth, but we truly believed in ourselves and in the concept, and so we were patient and kept at it. Tenacity and perseverance are critical in a startup.
I remind myself of the community I have here at Little Passports, that I'm a single mom leading a high-growth company and that no one has everything.
What's your advice for moms who are looking to start their own business?
SM: Take the first step! Starting a business is daunting, and it's hard to know where and how to start. Map out the first few months of what you need to get done, and you'll have a roadmap you can follow. The plan will evolve over time, but by then you will have made the leap, and every time you overcome a challenge and figure something out, you'll have gained more confidence to take on the next challenge.
AN: Do it! Deciding to start my own business is one of the best decisions I have ever made. Make sure you do your due diligence on the concept—that it's solving a need, that there is demand. Make sure you have enough money to get by for at least one to two years because it will take longer than you think. And if at all possible, choose a partner to help you get the business off the ground.
As successful female entrepreneurs, what are some ways that you want to teach your kids about "girl power"?
SM: I want my two boys to see children as all being equals regardless of gender—each and every child is capable of whatever they set out to accomplish. I like knowing that I'm being a strong role model for them as their mom and as someone who started her own company and cares about making a difference in the world. I send my older son to school every day with a note in his lunch box. I clipped and included the National Geographic Letter From the Editor talking about how anyone could be a genius, regardless of gender, race or class. I want my children to embrace this mindset.
AN: The story of how we founded Little Passports, and our success to date, is very much a part of my family's fabric. I teach my young boys that girls can do anything, and that with grit and perseverance we can accomplish great things. I have brought my kids to speaking events and involve them in our photo shoots and commercials. I work because I love it, but also because I have to in order to support my family, and in the bittersweet moments when I wish I could be home more for them I remind myself of the role model I am providing for them.
What sacrifices have you made as a mom and career professional to keep everything in balance?
SM: It's difficult to keep everything in balance! The great thing about being an entrepreneur is that while I have to work long hours and I often find myself always "on," I appreciate the flexibility I have with my schedule. I can attend a school event or I can take my kids to soccer practice. I also love being a role model for my kids, where they can see that they have a mom who works hard at being a great mom but also works hard to create a company and build a team. My career as an entrepreneur has also given my kids unique opportunities. They've been actively involved as product testers, providing feedback on our activities and experiments. (And they're not shy with their opinions!) They've been featured in our commercials and photos shoots. (Their friends tell them how they spotted them on TV!) My kids have become friends with many of the people on my team, and it's rewarding to see them build those relationships.
AN: I am very clear about what I can and cannot do. I prioritize time with my family, and I build my business. That means that I have to say no to volunteering at school, unless it's a field trip where I am physically spending time with my children. It's definitely a sacrifice not building as many new friendships at school, but I remind myself of the community I have here at Little Passports, that I'm a single mom leading a high-growth company and that no one has everything.