About Jelmar

Since Jelmar got its start more than 50 years ago, the Illinois-based company has helped solve some of the toughest household cleaning problems. With Jelmar’s broad range of Greenvenient™ products, it’s simple to care for your home, your family and the environment—all at the same time.

Jelmar has always been a family business, and current president Alison Gutterman is the third generation—and the first woman—to lead the company. Alison’s commitment to simplifying her customers’ lives is evident in her investment in research into what consumers look for in their cleaning products. Much of the company’s recent success can be attributed to Alison’s efforts to expand product development while building Jelmar’s brand.

Through a partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency in their Safer Choice Program as well as other strategic alliances, Jelmar has created innovative, environmentally friendly reformulations of new and existing products that have been well received by consumers. Additionally, since assuming a leadership role, Alison has spearheaded Jelmar’s certification as woman-owned business, enabling the company’s continued growth and supporting women and families everywhere.


Alison Gutterman

Why the secrets to successful business leadership aren’t what you think

business_leadershipLike a lot of CEOs, I’m often asked about my secrets to successful business leadership. And the truth is, sometimes it’s a little tricky to figure out how to respond.


Don’t get me wrong: you don’t spend years running a multi-million-dollar national cleaning company—with a staff of just 15—without learning a thing or two about leadership.


But in my experience, the secrets to successful business leadership aren’t always what you’d expect. That’s because business leadership happens to be a whole lot more like life than you’d expect.


In other words, managing a company has plenty in common with managing your relationships with family and friends. Sometimes it’s messy. What works with one person doesn’t work with another. There’s no straight path to your goals. The goals themselves shift without warning.


And just like in your personal life, the things that make business leadership just about insufferable one day are the same things that make it amazingly wonderful the next.


So when I’m looking to enrich my professional life, I tend to take a few of the same steps I’d use with friends and family. Here are a few examples that I think would work for any business leader:


  1. Create a culture of communication: Whether it’s your own family or a company of any size, something funny happens when you don’t clearly communicate who should do what: no one does anything at all. Everyone on your staff needs to work together to make sure there’s a good communication stream, so the entire team is always coordinated regarding tasks that need to be completed. That, coupled with a solutions-oriented attitude—which you as a leader can model through your own behavior—means it’s less about waiting for exactly the right person for the job than about getting the job done. That leads to positive results for your team and for your business.


  1. Take yourself on a creative journey: If you’re busy running a business, taking care of kids, or both, you probably don’t find a lot of time to be creative. That leads to cluttered, ineffective thinking—not to mention the feeling that you’re running on a hamster wheel every day. Whenever I start to feel that way, I force myself to find time to do something creative. It could be an organized activity, like taking a painting class, or you could do something with less of a time commitment, like watching a few TED talks when you can fit them in. I even had a friend who decided to learn how to make leather shoes as a creative outlet. If you’re interested in it, it opens your mind to new ways of thinking, and it’s unrelated to what you do day-to-day, it’s probably just what you need.


  1. Erase your mental tape recorder: We all have what I like to think of as a mental tape recorder—and it plays the negative comments we heard at some point in our lives, over and over again. And it’s pretty hard to erase. Case in point: when I was little, another kid made fun of me because I couldn’t get across the monkey bars, and sometimes his taunts still creep into my thoughts nearly four decades later. But as hard as it is to stop the tape recorder and erase the tape, that’s what it takes to move forward. Maybe your recording has been with you for so long that you’ve internalized it and forgotten it’s even there. Recognizing that fact—that these negative comments don’t define you—is the first step to erasing the tape permanently.


  1. Be a follower in order to be a leader: When I started working at Jelmar in my 20s, I started from the bottom. The very As in, I didn’t have a desk or a job description. But as tough as it was working my way up the ranks like any other employee, it was also invaluable because I learned firsthand how the system worked. That’s the thing about business leadership: you don’t actually know how to make the rules unless, at one time, you had to follow the rules. Just as you wouldn’t want to raise children until you’ve grown up enough to make sound parenting choices, how could you possibly know how to lead a company if you don’t fully understand its inner workings? Because of where I had started, when I became CEO I was able to make bold changes to Jelmar’s branding and product lines, confident I would succeed because I knew exactly what needed to change—and what needed to stay the same.


  1. Don’t underestimate the value of humility: A lot of us aren’t particularly comfortable admitting when we aren’t perfect. It might have to do with wanting people’s respect, or maybe it’s that mental tape recorder I talked about earlier putting pressure on you to be perfect. Whatever the reason, here’s the truth: your employees, just like your family and friends, value transparency, authenticity, and a good, old-fashioned ability to laugh at your own mistakes. Believe me, if you let your guard down (just a little) and show a bit of humility when it’s called for, you’ll be rewarded in the form of trust and loyalty from your employees.


If you’re looking for advice on meeting quarterly numbers, satisfying stakeholders, or driving sales—well, I sure could tell you about those things. But so could every other CEO. These five tips, which you probably already employ in your personal life with great results, can help you lead with a higher purpose. And for me, that means cultivating empowered employees who feel good about their company, their colleagues, and their products.

A Conversation with Marsha Serlin of United Scrap Metal

marsha_serlinPeople often ask me about which business leaders inspire me, and I love to share stories about the people and companies I’ve learned about in my travels and in the many business organizations I am lucky to participate in.


I recently sat down with Marsha Serlin of United Scrap Metal to discuss her experiences as a woman business leader, her success as an early pioneer in sustainability, and her company’s unique culture. I hope you enjoy this interview, which has been edited a bit for length.


Alison: How did you decide to take the bold step to start your company?


Marsha: I started with $200 and a budget rent-a-truck picking up metal in alleys. I picked up material and I didn’t even know you needed a certain kind of truck in order to get unloaded. So, I was pretty naïve. I didn’t come from a family of scrap metal. I didn’t know anyone in the scrap metal industry, except for one guy who I thought was a nice guy, but I thought, if he could do it, I could do it. And that’s where I got the idea.


Alison: Tell me a little about your business. It’s my understanding that most of the machinery we use to create products eventually becomes obsolete. So, people break them apart, bring them to you, and then you recycle them.


Marsha: Right. And it will then go to a steel mill, an electric furnace or an integrated mill. That metal will then be sent to be melted down into a coil, plate, or billet.


Alison: Is there anything new that you’d think is coming down the pipeline in your industry? Any new technology?


Marsha: Electric furnaces are probably the newest thing, because they require much less labor. There can be as little as 10 people in a plant where you’d have hundreds in an integrated mill. So, the electric furnaces are the most efficient for melting down material. My materials get sent directly to mills domestically. When I have multiple loads of materials, we ship by barge. That material then goes to the mill where they make new sheets, coils or billets or different products that start all over again, and that’s part of the recycling.


In other words, you’ve got a car; then after 10 years, you say “I want a new car,” and then you sell it and then somebody buys the used car and the used car breaks down and that’s when it goes to the scrap metal yard. The fact that it’s reused again and again, I think, is the most interesting thing. You don’t know where your car came from. It could have been a pitchfork from Alabama. Who knows? We use many different materials to create new products. Manufacturing is probably where the biggest amount of scrap metal comes from.


Alison: Do you feel like you’ve been at the forefront of the recycling initiative?


Marsha: In the ’70s, the term “recycling” wasn’t even in the phone book. I wanted to advertise my company in the phone book, but there was no section for recycling. And it was shortly thereafter that all of a sudden, there was. I knew that recycling was going to be the new thing that people were going to pay attention to. In 1978 when I started, people would just throw out materials. But now they’re much more concerned about doing the right thing for the environment.


Alison: So, when you were working to implement all these recycling programs, what kind of challenges did you think you faced and how did you help the business achieve their goals?


Marsha: First of all, it hasn’t changed a lot over the years. There always was paper and metal. The paper goes back into making new news print, and news print was the most prevalent of them all.


We not only handle those kinds of things; we also regularly do large amounts of wood. When you look at the side of a lot of parks, they all have mulches and they are all made out of recycled wood. It takes a number of machines that crunch it all up into little pieces. The landscapers use a lot of that. So, much like iron, steel, aluminum, stainless brass, all the other items that we recycle.


As far as any other commodity, the commodities are pretty much the same: Copper, Aluminum, Stainless and Steel.  We have a manufacturing plant in our company where we granulate wire and separate the plastic from the metal. And then we make a product, a finished product that we then sell to manufacturing plants.


Alison: With your $200 investment, it sounds like you’ve figured out a way to diversify into seven or eight different materials that you now recycle, repurpose them into two to three different new types of material, and sell them in a new form to somebody else.


Marsha: Correct.


Alison: That’s pretty innovative, Marsha.


Marsha: When we get very large quantities of a commodity, then we have to think about what we can do to add some more value to that commodity. You have to be a little innovative to be able to think that you can do that.


Alison: I’m wondering if you’ve come up with these alternative ways of looking at your business because you’re a woman. Do you think you’re looking at innovation in a different way than a man?


Marsha: Yes. I think that women think differently.


Alison: I don’t want to sound sexist. But you could just say, “You know what? I’m going to run a scrap metal business and I’m just going to be the biggest scrap metal business around.” But you’re trying to be a scrap metal business and a woman trying to find solutions to other businesses. It’s not enough for you to just break it down. You really want to try and create and find something as a product.


Marsha: I think women think of companies differently. Failure was never part of my anatomy. I was always afraid to fail so I never gave up. I think one strength that women have is tenacity.


But I must say in our business, in the beginning, there were no women in a company like mine, 40 years ago. The thing that separated me was I really understood the business. When a woman really knows what she is talking about, how unique is that? The novelty was me being at the forefront and my male counterparts all wanted to know why. They wanted to know what would make me want to do that. And when that would happen, I would always know the metal they were talking about, all the numbers, all the grades of the material—they were surprised.


When I started, nobody could believe a woman drove the truck. I got on the back of the truck and unloaded the stuff by myself by hand, and nobody could believe a woman could do that. I wasn’t afraid; I could manage to break a barrel. When I say break, I mean move a barrel that was 700 pounds. I could do that. And I could bring all that material, bring it into the plant and I would drive the truck and people were astonished; they didn’t know what to think.


Alison: Have you seen an influx of women since you’ve started your business?


Marsha: Yes, more. Many more are coming into the industry.


Alison: How do you inspire those women to succeed—not necessarily those who work in your company, but those woman that are running other companies? What would you say to them?


Marsha: First, I would say it’s never where you start. Always look beyond your start, and you can’t be too anxious because it’s not an overnight success. People think of me as an overnight success, but it only took 40 years! It takes a long time, and usually people think in your first year you should make money, but you don’t. It takes three years to really put something in the bank. For me, it was 16-hour days, it wasn’t nine to five. It’s never where you start, it’s where you finish. For me, it’s very gratifying now that all the hard work paid off and we have some of the same customers that we’ve had from almost day one. We keep growing in the spaces that we’re so good in.


Alison: Where do you see your company going in the next 10 to 15 years?


Marsha: We’re already larger than we imagined, and I think we’re going to double our size in the next five to 10 years, for sure. But I say that with caution. You have some years where you’re not so great and you try to fix it by minimalizing and cutting operating expenses, and you do what you have to do. You’ve got to keep your eye on the profit. Some people like to look at top-line growth. I look at the bottom-line growth.


Alison: So, one of the interesting things when I was doing my research on you is that you were invested in women-owned restaurants. Are you still involved in mentoring women and in different types of businesses? And what other women or businesses and industries inspire you?


Marsha: It’s about the owners. It’s never about the business. It’s about who has that spark? Who has that drive? Who thinks I’m never shutting this place down; I’m going to be here? You get it from certain people you meet. I try really hard to give, to help out other women.


Women sometimes have a hard time giving up percentages of their business, or when they go to raise money, they don’t realize they’re not going to own 100 percent. Men get that part. But women have a very different view on finance than men. And I find that most interesting. Some people grow a business without any help. But if somebody is going to come in and help you, they want a piece of your action. Women sometimes overvalue their company, and then they can’t get an investor, and then they’re done. That happens frequently.


A lot of young women think that a business is nine to five. If you think that business is nine to five, you’re done. How many times did you want to be there for your kids? Sometimes, you just can’t. Sometimes, you have to say, “No. I would love to be a stay-at-home mom, but I can’t.” If you’re going to run a business, you’ve got to do it right. Otherwise, you are going to kill the business.


Alison: Yes, there’s been a few times where I have missed really important things that my kids have had. Being a single parent, which you and I have in common, I can’t be every place at every time and it’s very challenging. And the guilt that I feel—it’s probably the same guilt you felt too.


Marsha: No question. I remember one time when my son was playing football, and I went to his game. I got there, I sat on the bleachers and fell asleep during the game. As soon as I stopped working, I was fast asleep. You are so sleep deprived and you try and be at everything and you can’t. You can only do what you can, and don’t feel guilty because it’s all part of parenting. The kids have to know that.


Alison: Even though being a woman in business has its unique challenges, would you say there are any unique advantages?


Marsha: Being underestimated as a woman in any industry has a great advantage because no one expects you to do great, and guess what—you have a really big opportunity to do well. I always say to people, tell my team, about experiences and stories. Because if I can relay a story, everybody knows it can happen to them. But we always take the high road. Whenever there are adversarial comments, we’ve kind of ignored it. We started off with nothing and no customers, and now we still have some of the same customers from 40 years ago.


Alison: I know you have a tight-knit work force with a lot of employees who have been with you for a long time. I’m curious what you do to foster that type of mutual respect because I know that Jelmar is kind of similar in that we have lots of long-term employees. How have you fostered that kind of loyalty?


Marsha: We just finished a company-wide survey on culture. We do this from time to time, and we wanted to find out what people thought of the kinds of things we’d done in the past and whether we should continue to do them. What is the satisfaction rate working for us? It was extensive. We just rolled out the results to all of our employees to let them know that number one, we gratefully appreciate them participating and that we have learned an awful lot about what we need to change, and what we need to do in order to succeed in the future.


We have a few programs that help our employees go to college. If they have good grades, we’ll pay some of their tuition.


We pay for coaches for some of our people as well. We have a lot of millennials who have a lot of ideas, so we have coaches that help them become a professional business person.


And leadership classes are something that we do. We hire people to do both one-on-one and multiple-participant classes.


Alison: You’ve been so proactive in your industry.


Marsha: I have one more example I want to give you. I have a demolition contractor; he said “I have to take this building down, but I want you to see what we have so you’ll know what to do with it.” It was a big building, a tannery. He said it had been abandoned for eight or ten years. It was in the very beginning of my career. He told me to come meet him at the sight, which was on a river. The water was the cheapest way to bring in any kind of commodity.


He said it was kind of dirty so I brought in waders. The stuff was three feet deep and the smell was so awful that most people wouldn’t even walk into this place. Anyway, I never said a word to the guy. It was probably in my second or third year, and I never said a word. Then he said to me, “You have the job.” And I asked, “How did I get this job?” He said, “Because you never said a word; you never told me you’re not going in.” And I said: “OK, my truck will be here in the morning to load it up.” The smell was so hideous. But you see, if you don’t say anything, and you go up the high road, you get everything you want, and that’s how this business has been built. I’m very fortunate to have a company like this and to have grown to be so big—and it’s going to get bigger and bigger.


Alison: What a great story. Thank you so much, Marsha! This has been great.


Marsha: Thank you!

Celebrating Our 50th Anniversary

50anniversaryI don’t mean to brag or anything, but it’s pretty unusual to find a cleaning product that’s as beloved now as it was 50 years ago, like our Tarn-X® metal cleaner. It also isn’t every day that you hear about a family business like Jelmar that survives one generation, let alone three. And a staff of just 15 building a brand with national reach and hundreds of thousands of social media followers? Well, that’s just about unheard of.


OK, so I do mean to brag a little.


The point is, what do you do when you accomplish not one, but all of those milestones? Well, you celebrate, of course—and you bring along the people who helped make it happen.


And that’s why, on a beautiful Chicago evening this summer, I found myself in a concert hall surrounded by dozens of friends, colleagues and Jelmar fans. As it happens, Tarn-X® shares its 50th anniversary with another longstanding local institution—Chicago the band. And we couldn’t have been prouder to have the chance to celebrate together.


It might not seem like a cleaning company has a whole lot in common with one of the most popular rock bands in history. But I like to think of it as the intersection of two iconic Chicago brands, and I think our shared values were pretty clear at the event. Even though they were about to go onstage for two and a half hours, these Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees took the time to meet our guests and have personal conversations with all of us, including the Jelmar fans who won tickets in our social media giveaway. Not that I was surprised by the band’s kindness—as anyone who’s visited our city knows, we Chicago natives are pretty darn neighborly!


But all that genuine niceness belies another trait that I think Chicago the band shares with Jelmar: a healthy dose of no-nonsense, Midwestern, get-it-done attitude. Whether you’re selling 100 million records or turning a single product into a multi-million-dollar company with multiple product lines, that kind of sustained determination over time requires a special kind of outlook on the world. Ever since the days when my grandfather first began selling cleaning products out of a suitcase, our business has been about strong customer relationships and quality products, and that’s what’s helped us stand the test of time.


Of course, a company that thrives for many decades can’t do so without knowing how to adapt to changing customer needs and tastes. But there’s more than one way to approach evolution, and knowing how to separate the trendy from the timeless is key.


For example, right now you’ll find you’ve never had more choice when it comes to scents in cleaning products. If you’ve always wanted your bathroom to smell like lilac or your kitchen to smell like orange blossom, the cleaning product aisle is a whole world of possibilities.


Except when it comes to Jelmar products, that is.


You see, one of the great benefits of being a third-generation family business is that it’s a lot easier to look at the big picture—to make decisions based on our enduring values instead of giving in to fleeting trends. And for us, that means making products that align with the things we believe in, like making people’s lives easier while helping the environment and supporting women in business. The latest gimmicky fragrance or packaging design? In our experience, that’s a fine way to succeed over the course of a few months or even years, but not necessarily decades.


And I’d say that’s true for just about any organization, whether it’s a family-owned cleaning company or a best-selling rock band.


A huge thank you to all the Jelmar employees and customers who have helped us get to 50 years. Here’s to 50 more!

4 Tips for Building a More Environmentally Friendly Business

environmentally_friendlyFor a CEO, there’s pretty much nothing scarier than contemplating a change to a successful product. If your company has spent decades building relationships with customers, understanding their needs, and reliably delivering products that have been trusted for generations—well, you probably don’t want to mess with that.


And yet, that’s exactly where I found myself about 10 years ago.


Yes, it was scary. But, in my opinion, it was also very necessary.


You see, I’d recently succeeded my dad as president and CEO of Jelmar, and I’d been doing a lot of thinking about how the company should evolve. And what was clear to me was that as much as people loved our products, we couldn’t really consider ourselves a success unless we found a way to make them safe for the environment.


Cleaning products that are environmentally friendly, but as effective as ever? Yep, sounds just about impossible. But we worked with an expert chemist, tested multiple formulas over many months, and eventually landed on some CLR® reformulations that we felt great about.


We knew the planet would thank us—but would our customers? We decided to introduce our new formulations quietly, replacing the products but making no changes to the packaging. All our hard work paid off when we got the outcome we’d been hoping for: sales continued to grow.


Since the early 2000s, we’ve worked closely with the EPA to make sure we meet their standards for environmentally friendly products, and CLR® packaging now bears a prominent EPA Safer Choice logo. Today, CLR® contains more than 85 percent natural ingredients, and we’ve been awarded Safer Choice Partner of the Year for three years in a row.


What seemed at one time to be a slightly crazy gamble has become one of the defining aspects of Jelmar products—one that’s been met with gratitude by both new and longstanding customers.


But I don’t mean to suggest that all of this was easy, because it certainly wasn’t. That’s why I want to share a few key insights that might help other business leaders who are looking for ways to improve the sustainability of their businesses:


  1. Embrace technology and science. I’m not gonna lie, I’m no expert in chemistry. But when we hired an experienced chemist to lead our green product reformulation, it opened up possibilities I never new existed. And sustainability isn’t just about products; there are so many ways technology can help make your business easier on the environment, and working with those in the know can be a game changer.
  2. Don’t compromise your values. Any green initiative you undertake for your business will likely involve a great deal of time and cost—especially if you’re overhauling processes or products with lots of tradition behind them. It’s important to remember why you’ve chosen to take these steps begin with; for me, it was simply that I believe caring for the environment is no longer a choice. As challenging as it was to implement more sustainable business practices, I knew it was a necessary evolution.
  3. Listen to your customers. As much as you might care about the environment, it’s only natural to worry about how your customers will react to changes—I certainly did! I recommend listening carefully to their needs, whether that’s on social media, in focus groups, or even by observing the way they interact with your products in a retail setting. If you focus on understanding and solving your customers’ problems, you’ll discover the best way to improve sustainability while keeping your customers happy.
  4. Be the leader you are. On the other hand, the fact is your customers won’t always make the right decisions about environmental issues. Maybe they’re busy, they’re on a budget, or they don’t have time to become as informed as they’d like about how they can help the planet. That’s where your role as a business leader becomes especially vital. Through your products, your marketing communications, and your everyday business decisions, you set the tone of our culture and shape the evolution of our society. If you want to see others take action to help the environment, you need to lead the way.


Jelmar’s green product reformulations began with one simple decision—that sustainability should be integrated into our day-to-day lives, not something we only think about once in awhile. Change is never easy, but if you’re like me, you also know it can be worth it.


A Conversation with Jennifer Smith of Innovative Office Solutions

inPeople always ask me about which business leaders inspire me, and oftentimes they are looking for recommendations on the newest business book to buy. Truthfully, what inspires me most are the people and companies I have learned about in my travels and in the many business organizations I am lucky to participate in.


I thought a great idea for my blog for 2017 was to start sharing some of these stories and companies with you about once a quarter. Some may be companies or products that you have heard about; some, like this company, Innovative Office Solutions, from Eagan, Minnesota, you may never have heard about. Jennifer Smith and I had an opportunity to talk about being a woman-owned and led company, what makes her company’s vision unique, and what really inspires her about her company’s corporate culture. We hope you enjoy these interviews, which have been edited a bit for length.


Alison: Please tell us a little about your business.


Jennifer: We make workplaces more productive. We deliver products and solutions to offices all over the country. We service people from the boardroom to the breakroom to the bathroom. We do sell the obvious items that are in the office such as pens, paperclips and post-it notes, but it’s all about office productivity. For example, we have a solution that hooks up to your network, and when your toner gets low we just send you more. It’s not just a commodity product that we’re selling—we’re selling a solution along with it.


Alison: That’s interesting, so it sounds like it’s not just about the product but it’s about sort of that emotional aspect of it. Where you hate the idea of someone having to be frustrated, having their work and productivity inhibited because of a problem like that. Would that be accurate?


Jennifer: Yes! Absolutely. Our whole vision is to inspire people to love what they do and who they do it with. So, for example, we design collaborative workspaces for people that bring their brand to life and spark productivity.


Alison: I love that you mention that your vision is to inspire others to love what they do and who they do it with. How do you inspire people at Innovative? And how has this changed with the increase in telecommuting?


Jennifer: Our environment lends itself to inspiration. We have a very open and collaborative work space that encourages innovation. People understand their purpose and how their actions truly matter every day. This really has not changed with the increase in telecommuting, as each new location we open has the same core values and foundation associated with it. Each location does take on its own personality, though, which is fun to watch.


Alison: How did you decide to name your company Innovative Office Solutions versus “office supplies”?


Jennifer: Most of the companies in my industry had either “office supplies” or “office products” in their name. We purposefully knew we were much more than just an office supply or office product provider. We knew from the beginning that we would be a company that provided solutions to businesses to help them be more successful.


Alison: Did you ever find that you were not taken seriously or that you had to work extra hard to make your ideas a reality because people just didn’t understand?


Jennifer: There was a time 15, 16 years ago when people did not see that the paperless world was really coming. I knew that was going to come, because my kids weren’t printing off their homework assignments. But it was very hard to get others to believe this was actually a reality. It took a tremendous amount of energy to get people behind changing our business model due to the decline of paper.


Alison: Did you ever find that you had a more difficult time or had to work harder than your male counterparts because you’re a woman?


Jennifer: You know, this industry is very, very male dominated. I kind of grew up in that as well, so I never saw it as a hurdle, I saw it as a huge benefit, because it was a differentiator. My glass is always half full, though. You know, it’s never half empty. I had my purpose, I had my vision, and just plowed through it. There were probably some obstacles, and I just said, you know what? I’m going to pivot and go in a different direction. I never let it stifle me.


Alison: Were there specific events in your career that inspired you to take a leadership role?


Jennifer: Sports were a huge influence in my life. I was the team captain in track and that is when I knew I liked leading people. I grew up in that environment that encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be. That’s what I knew. Why couldn’t I be the leader? I never thought, oh, I bet you I can’t be. I always thought, well of course I’m going to be! Because that’s what I saw from both my mom and my dad.


I think it’s so important, for example, it’s great that you and I members of the Committee of 200, and their vision of “shared success.” One of our most successful programs in Minneapolis is when we took the programming down to the high school level for girls, to show girls what business women and business leaders look like. We had roughly 100 girls, and all but one never remotely thought of business as a choice because they’d never seen it.


Alison: I wasn’t able to go to that one, but because of the success of your program we held a similar program in Chicago with inner-city girls. We had the same result: not only did the girls never think about a career in business, but most of them never thought it was possible to even go to college. It was an inspiration for us as women leaders just as much as it was for the girls who attended. Hopefully our positive modeling and showing these girls that a woman can be anything goes a long way.


Jennifer: Absolutely. And I did, I grew up in an absolutely amazing family that said you could do anything. I mean, I played boys’ baseball until seventh grade. I just liked baseball. I didn’t see being a girl as a big hurdle, because my parents just encouraged me to sign up for whatever I wanted to do.


Alison: So in terms of inspiring more young women to pursue leadership roles in business, in addition to modeling that for them, are there any particular skills that you would encourage parents to help their daughters develop?


Jennifer: Well I think it’s great if you are involved with helping them pick some of the correct classes and activities that could show their leadership. There are different classes and summer programs; there are different activities that you can encourage your kids to sign up for. Sports were a huge, huge thing for me growing up. You know, being part of a team and having that opportunity to maybe be a team captain. Different extra-curricular activities I think are really important if you’re a male or a female.


Alison: So just finding opportunities for them to be leaders in their lives?


Jennifer: Correct. And I think the Girl Scouts, for example, have a CEO Camp for girls. I mean, how great is that? I wish I would have had something like that, so if you can search for some of those opportunities for young girls, that would be advice that I would have for young parents.


Alison: As a leader at your company, I’m curious as to how you would describe your leadership style, and whether you think being a woman leader might make you either better or worse at certain aspects of leadership.


Jennifer: I definitely think that it does. I think being a woman leader, the creativity, flexibility and openness to try new things has been a huge part in the success of Innovative. I’d rather try something and fail than not try it at all.


Alison: Your company is known for having a unique, fun company culture and for being a great place to work, and we were curious if you could tell us more about the culture and what makes it special, and maybe what you do to cultivate it.


Jennifer: We have a very, very intentional culture here versus more of a dictatorial culture where there are tons of rules. So we don’t have a lot of management in this company, because of that very intentional culture. We hire to culture, we fire to culture, our interview questions are all based around our core values, and when you walk into our building, you can just feel it. We have a vibrant feel when you walk into the building with glass moveable walls and pops of color everywhere. We also have Inspiring words covering the walls. Each person who comes into our building also gets a culture book to take with them.


Alison: You have been named one of the best places to work in Minnesota for a few years in a row. How did your intentional, fun culture help you create a great place to work?


Jennifer: We have been honored to receive the best places to work award for six straight years. We feel very strongly that you have to love where you work and that translates into a better customer experience. We have a strong set of core values that people live by coupled with a strong vision, and that sets us up to have a great place to work. We also have a very strong care committee that puts on activities within the company and many opportunities for our employees to give back to charities and nonprofits in our community.


Alison: What are some of the comments your employees have made about working at Innovative?


Jennifer: We produce a fun culture book each year, so I will quote some of the employees from our book:

  • “Our culture helps fuel the energy that makes me want to come to work” —Barb K.
  • “I love to BE INVOLVED because it allows employees to not only be involved with the company events, but also offers a variety of volunteer opportunities throughout our community.” —Anonymous
  • “When you’re smiling, everything seems to work out better.” —Maria R.


Alison: How has the use of the word “In” with the circle in your logo help to create your intentional culture? What does this logo mean to you, and how do you think it will help grow your company in the future?


Jennifer: Your brand is so much more than a logo or a slogan; it is who you are. We use the In Circle for many things. For instance, with new prospects it is an easy question to ask, “are you IN,”  for employees you are “all IN,” and if someone wants to be involved they “get IN.” It is a fun but professional image that we love to show off.


Alison: Another unique aspect of your culture is your use of employees in your catalogs and YouTube videos with themes to start out your yearly catalog. How did you come up with that idea?


Jennifer: Our employees are our company and they love to be “all in,” so about six years ago we started using our employees for all of our advertising and social media. When we started putting people on the cover of our catalogs, it just naturally transitioned into our theme for the year. So we pick a theme and transfer that throughout the year for our customers, vendors and employees.


Alison: You’re also certified as a woman-owned business. Tell us a little bit about why you went through that process and what it means to you.


Jennifer: Absolutely. Again, I think in all businesses you try to find what differentiates you. We are a woman-owned company, and it is a differentiator. It was a great group to join, because it allows you to network with not only other women-owned businesses to see how they’re being successful and how you can learn from them, but also with large corporations that have diversity champions.


Alison: This has been great. Thanks so much for your time and for sharing your inspirational story.