Todd Wolfenberg – CEO, Yoga International

I’m a leader and chief executive with a passion for working with diverse teams to find innovative ways to solve complex issues in the rapidly changing digital space.

I’m currently CEO of Yoga International, a global digital media company that serves 300,000+ members with exclusive content on yoga, ayurveda, meditation, and mindful living on a subscription basis. Our entire mission is centered around helping people live happier, healthier lives by making yoga more available, inclusive, and accessible to all.

As chief executive, I’ve led the organization through a time of tremendous growth. Since 2012, we’ve expanded our user base to over 300,000 members, have established a network of 500+ expert teachers and writers who create content for our members, and have grown our in-house team from 8 to 45+ full-time employees.

Before Yoga International, I worked in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors, where I managed a wide array of businesses from real estate to retail sales to e-commerce.

I believe in using my platform for social good and have a passion for social-impact projects. Most recently, I joined Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and other business leaders to discuss strategies for closing the digital divide.

Outside of work, I enjoy spending quality time with my family, playing sports, meditating, and outdoors activities.

Tell us about the early days of Yoga International.

We didn’t start completely from scratch because we had an existing print magazine. This made it both easier and harder—easier because we had content, but harder because we had to create an entirely new model both for our employees and our customers. When we transitioned to being a purely digital organization, we lost a lot of our existing customer base. This was hard and painful, but also necessary to go where we knew we needed to go.

Three months after we launched, we were served with a cease-and-desist letter from another online yoga platform that was patenting its camera angle. At first, this seemed like a major roadblock in that we could no longer film classes in an easy, standard way, but it actually became a blessing as we shared the patent news with the yoga community and received a massive outpouring of support.

In the early days, we leveraged everything in order to maximize growth—our contacts, our assets, our brand, everything. We had no marketing budget, eight employees, and a willingness to do anything to figure things out. We worked from desks that we had repurposed from the doors of an old barn nearby. Non-attachment was a huge factor in our success and growth. We had to iterate daily in order to figure out what was working—marketing, content, strategy, pricing, audience. This helped us organically grow our Facebook reach from 40,000 followers in mid-2013 to 500,000 followers a year later.

As we grew our team from 8 in 2015 to 45 in 2019, we have focused on three key things: culture, innovation, and values. The workplace culture is prioritized above all else. It has to be fun and lively and supportive. Reinvesting in our people has yielded amazing results. Innovation is at our core. We have launched all kinds of new digital programs, new collaborations with yoga teachers, and new technology. Plus, our marketing has to be innovative as trends and technology constantly change. Finally, we have to always keep our core mission of making yoga inclusive and available to all, and keep in mind and remember that our product is for the benefit of the end-user. We want to help people feel better and more healthy in both mind and body, and we have to stay in integrity with our employees and all of the teachers we work with.

These three focuses helped us reach the Inc. 500 list in 2018 and 2019, ranking as one of the 122 fastest-growing private companies in America. We also won “Inc. Best Workplaces” in 2019 and are planning rapid expansion in 2020.

Kristen Denzer – Founder & CEO, Tierra Encantada

Kristen Denzer is the founder and CEO of Tierra Encantada. Kristen has a Bachelor’s in Political Science and Psychology, a Master’s in Advocacy and Leadership, and has completed doctoral work (ABD) in Educational Policy and Administration. Kristen started her first entrepreneurial endeavor in 2008 – an event rental company. She grew that company from 20 events to 500 events annually in just six years. While operating the successful event rental company, she started a second business in 2010 with a childhood friend called The Woof Room – a dog daycare and boarding facility. She managed to grow both to serve thousands of clients each year. She continued to operate all three businesses until 2016 when she sold her event rental company and dog daycare facility to focus solely on Tierra Encantada. Today, Tierra Encantada has four corporate locations in Minnesota (five in 2020), multiple franchised locations in the works, and over 100 full-time employees. Kristen is actively involved in the community and serves on the Board of Directors of Women Venture and the School Board of her children’s school. When she is not working, she enjoys spending time with her family and exploring the world. Her exploits have included gorilla trekking in Rwanda, hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, and playing with seals in the Galapagos.

Tell us about the early days of Tierra Encantada.

In 2013, while struggling to find childcare that reflected my values, the idea for Tierra Encantada first came to life. I had already started several businesses that I was operating at that time. When you start and grow successful businesses as a 23/24/25-year-old, you start to feel a bit invincible by age 29. Like you can do anything. That was how I felt starting Tierra Encantada, and wow I was I wrong. I figured how hard could it be? Well, let me tell you, childcare is A LOT different than other types of businesses. It’s highly regulated and capital intensive. I made many, many mistakes with my first location and I learned a lot.

Tierra Encantada was the first business that I started that needed outside capital and got my first Small Business Administration loan. I grossly-underestimated how much money I needed for pretty much everything – particularly working capital. When we opened that first day in July of 2013, we had more full-time employees than we had children enrolled! It was my first brush with failure, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had two other successful businesses in addition to Tierra Encantada, I may not be where I am today. Those first six months I poured money into the business. I exhausted all the working capital I had asked for within the first two months and put every penny I had into Tierra.

Fortunately, after much trial and error, I figured out what worked – and what didn’t – and about a year after we first opened our doors, we finally hit break even. And of course, like any serial entrepreneur, I immediately started thinking about what’s next. That was five years ago, and in that time, we have experienced exponential growth, which is what landed us on the Inc. 5000 (774% growth in three years) this year. I went on to purchase a building and opened Tierra Encantada – Bryant (2016), which went on a waiting list within a few months of opening. In 2018, I purchased my largest building yet – a church – and redeveloped it into Tierra Encantada – Windom, which filled all 200+ spaces before we even opened our doors.

This year has been an exciting year for Tierra Encantada. I opened location #4 (Tierra Encantada – Seward), and launched franchising in late Spring 2019. Within months of launching franchising, we already awarded a multi-unit deal to open locations in Charlotte and Houston and have multiple other deals in the works. We also have our corporation location #5 currently under construction (Tierra Encantada – Hiawatha), our first new construction location. I’m very excited for the future, and I feel incredibly thankful to have a truly amazing team that helped make this possible.

Tierra Encantada is the leader in Spanish immersion early education. Tierra Encantada provides care for children ages six weeks through six years of age. Our fresh-cooked, organic meals are designed to expand children’s young palates and we are proud to use cloth diapers in our program to do our part to help reduce waste.

Phil Strazzulla – Founder, SelectSoftware

Phil Strazzulla is the founder of SelectSoftware, which helps HR buy the right software through free online guides.

Tell us about one of the toughest days of our life.

I graduated from college in 2008. It wasn’t the best time, but I was still able to get a job at a small finance company that I was very excited to work for. I’ve always been a finance geek, and thought that working in a boutique firm would allow me to get more exposure to decision-making and strategy.

Fast-forward a year later, and I had lost my job. It was the peak of the recession, and those in the media were saying that I would be part of a “lost generation” who’s career would probably never launch due to a lack of opportunity. The next year would be one of the hardest in my life and there were many times I thought that I would never get another good job.

I spent those twelve months subletting a room in NYC from an older couple who wanted a bit of extra cash. I worked at two startups for basically nothing in order to keep building my skills and network. I applied to hundreds of jobs, and went on well over 50 interviews. Most of these companies never hired anyone, let alone me, and the rejection started to take its toll on my confidence.

I finally broke through and got a job offer for a small consulting firm. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it was enough spark to give me hope. I actually didn’t take the job, and in what was probably a very dumb decision, I instead rolled the dice to see if I could get my dream job working in venture capital. I’d been interviewing with a firm for a few months at that point, and they were close to making a decision on me.

I ended up getting the job, after being rejected by them twice in the previous months, but finding new ways into the interview process. From there, I went to Harvard to get my MBA (they liked the comeback story I guess), and then started my own business.

It was a very trying time, but the experience shaped me for the better. It started to build a muscle that allows me to fight through the various adversities inherent in starting a business, and gives me confidence that I can get through whatever comes my way.

Christy Velasquez – Founder & President, Orangewood Lane

I’m a chef from Los Angeles, California and moved to Lyon, France and started Orangewood Lane, which focuses on sustainable food tours and corporate events for international tourists and businesses.

Tell us about one of the toughest periods of your life.

It was about two years ago when I lost my boyfriend of twelve years. We met when we were both young. I was 19 and he was 23 and we shared a life together along with our two adopted dogs. When he passed, my world was turned upside down and everything I knew disappeared in an instant. It was a traumatic, debilitating, and life-changing event to experience at 31 years old.

The first year of his passing was the hardest. The milestones, as I like to call them, were the toughest to get through: birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. They’re all events I was hoping to sleep through and just waiting for the clock to strike midnight. That first year was also a wave of sadness, depression, confusion, and just a downward spiral of my life. I knew I needed to change things drastically to get out of this negative space I was digging myself into. I decided to take a chance and travel to France. I quit my professional job, packed my things, and traveled. I had my eat, pray, love moment and it changed my life. I slowly started to see what my life could be after such a great loss. I started seeing myself as my own person. There was my life before the loss of my partner and then there was my life after. I had the opportunity to change and recreate my life as I saw it. It was a blank canvas and I had the paintbrush. After a year of being on the road, I decided to settle in Lyon, France and started my own food tour business. I think about the past two years and how my life has changed. I think about what my life would have been if I didn’t lose my partner, but I also look at my life now and appreciate so much more of what I have and what I’m building.

Grief is a journey we experience after a great loss and it’s a different journey for everyone who experiences it. I know my grief will never truly disappear and I don’t want it to disappear. It’s a part of me. It’s a reminder of who I am and what my journey has been.

Deeanne Akerson – Co-Founder & CEO, Kindred Bravely

Deeanne Akerson is the co-founder and CEO of Kindred Bravely. As a mathematician and former teacher, Deeanne has always loved numbers and problem-solving, but she didn’t begin her journey as a business owner and entrepreneur until after she became a mother. A year after the birth of her second son, when she became frustrated with the lack of options in nursing wear, Deeanne started designing her own clothing. Soon after, Deeanne and her husband launched Kindred Bravely, which they lovingly refer to as their third child. Creating stylish, comfortable, and functional clothing is only one part of Deeanne’s vision; she wants to inspire a community of moms who support and empower each other, helping them to recognize their inherent value and beauty. When she isn’t busy with her boys or business, Deeanne loves running, hiking, backpacking, and traveling. She and her family are often found spending time at one of their favorite beaches in San Diego County.

Talk to me about the early days of Kindred Bravely.

Kindred Bravely started almost five years ago when my youngest son was one and still breastfeeding frequently. I was on the hunt for a comfortable pair of nursing pajamas, and they were on both my Christmas and birthday lists that year. After searching in all the stores close to me, I turned to online. While I found a few sets that were passable, nothing was exactly what I was looking for: they had to be comfortable, cute, and actually functional!

One night, late after our two boys were finally asleep, I found myself in the office with my husband (a serial entrepreneur). He was actively looking for his next business idea when I was trying on the nursing PJs I had ordered online. As I sorted the options, nothing was quite right. I liked the top of one set, the bottoms of another, the fabric of a third, but none of them had the drape I was looking for. I casually asked him if he would consider making breastfeeding/maternity clothing, as I knew exactly what a nursing mom was looking for. Well, he did a bit of research, and within a few weeks, we had decided on our first joint business venture together – creating comfort for new and expecting moms!

I started with exactly the product I was looking for, my perfect pair of nursing pajamas. They would be exquisitely soft, feminine, and stylish enough to wear all day even if company came by to meet the new baby. Soon, we were driving to Los Angeles every weekend to meet with a pattern maker and visit the fabric markets. After a few rounds of samples, we were ready to go into production. It took $7,000 of our savings to fund the first production, and we spent our nights getting ready to launch our brand with our first product, the Davy Pajamas in black.

It took a ton of work to do everything; mostly, because we were doing it ourselves or waiting for contractors to help at odd hours. Since we were still working day jobs, most of the work happened after we put our kids to bed. Of the first 500 sets ordered, I probably gave about 200 of them to friends, relatives, and neighbors – anyone who might possibly enjoy them and give some helpful feedback online. Then one day, someone placed an order, and neither my husband nor I had given them a promo code. Our first sale! What an incredible feeling that someone who didn’t know me personally wanted to buy what I had created!

Customers raved about how comfortable my first product was and they quickly gave feedback that they also needed comfort for their changing breasts – so the second product I developed was our bestselling French Terry Nursing Bra. That’s when we really gained traction, and when I realized that Kindred Bravely was going to be a success. Since that day, we have grown our team, which has allowed us to continue growing our product line. Over the next few years, our products were nominated for (and won) several awards that recognized our efforts to make moms’ lives easier and more comfortable. One of the products I’m most proud (and which took 2.5 years to get right from design, to concept, to patent) of is a hands-free pumping and breastfeeding bra.

Two years after launching, we were named one of Shopify’s fastest-growing online retailers, and we were chosen as one of the eight winners for the “Shopify Build a Bigger Business” award. We were honored to ring in the NYSE opening bell and receive mentoring for a week. In 2019, just four years after launching, we were honored to be named #20 on Inc.‘s list of the 5000 fastest-growing privately held companies in the USA! We’ve been recognized for our unique remote workforce of amazing mostly work-at-home moms who are committed to our vision and desire a place where they don’t have to choose between work and family. I’m committed to bringing mom’s comfort and community through Kindred Bravely, and I can’t wait to see where we go in the next few years.