Melissa Kieling, CEO of PackIt, a line of freezable personal coolers, with her three children, Brennan, 18; Garrett, 16; and Emma, 11. Kieling tells Yahoo Parenting how she went from struggling single mom to CEO. (Photos: Lauri Levenfeld)
Just five years ago, Melissa Kieling, a mother of three, was going though a divorce. Her suburban home outside of Los Angeles was in foreclosure, her car was repossessed, and she had $13 in the bank. “It was a tragic time for my family and me. I was doing small jobs [here and there] to keep the lights on and put food on the table,” Kieling tells Yahoo Parenting. One day, her son rejected the blueberries she packed for his lunch because they had gotten warm and mushy in the bag. It made Kieling wonder how she could keep meals for her kids, Brennan, now 18; Garrett, now 16; and Emma, now 11, cold until lunchtime. Soon, PackIt was born.
Without financial support or a college degree, Kieling’s first prototype was created with her shower-curtain liner and store-bought ice packs sewn together by a dry cleaner. Today, the products, which range in price from $11.99 to $29.99, are distributed in more than 70 countries worldwide, and sold in Target, Whole Foods, and Bed Bath & Beyond. The cooler chills food for up to 10 hours, allowing parents to pack yogurt, fresh fruit, or mayo-based egg salad sandwiches.
“I don’t know if there was any formal education out there that could have prepared me for starting a business better than motherhood. You navigate unfamiliar territories, similar to having your first child,” says Kieling. For her, it was about figuring the business out as she went, not unlike being a first-time parent and trying to understand why her baby is crying. Kieling was scared, so she asked women around her for help and advice. “Women, in general, are always willing to help,” she says. “Had I not allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to ask, I wouldn’t have succeeded.”
Her children pitch in, too. They’re are involved and feel part of their mother’s success — mostly with new product development for the company. But it’s Kieling’s daughter who gives the most input, and her friends, who are often part of PackIt focus groups.
Melissa Kieling with a PackIt cooler. (Photo: Lauri Levenfeld)
Unfortunately, being a successful CEO can often come with sacrifices. “I’ve missed my daughter’s first day of school for three years in a row,” says Kieling. The company launches its international line every year at the Maison Fair Show, in Paris, which occurs during the first week of school. Despite missing those key “firsts,” Kieling feels that having her family involved in the company and witnessing her success gives them confidence to make anything happen.
She also believes in running her business like she runs her household. Because Kieling struggled financially, she is now very aware of cash flow and avoiding debt. Since its inception, PackIt has expanded its product line to include picnic, wine, and even baby-bottle coolers. The insulated, gel-lined bottle bag will chill two 10-ounce bottles for up to six hours.
According to Kieling, fans of the PackIt products include Jennifer Lopez, Reese Witherspoon, Courteney Cox, and Real Housewives star Kyle Richards.
The company has now grown to over $15 million in annual revenue, and in 2014 was ranked the number one women-led company on the Inc. 500, a list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S.
Kieling’s advice for mothers aspiring to be businesswomen is to pinpoint inadequacies in their daily lives and find ways to improve them. People often say to Kieling, “I need to come up with something! How’d you do that?” She emphasizes the importance of speaking to other mothers to ensure a product has value. “As moms, we always have a great network of women at school functions, and have the opportunity to [put out ideas],” she says.
When Kieling was first pitching her company, she approached potential vendors as the first woman-owned startup in her marketplace. And she embraced her background as a struggling single mother, even printing the words “Founder-Mom” on her business cards. And while these days, it deservingly reads CEO, at heart, she’s a mother who just wanted healthy lunches for her children.