Hands free! Mom of 5 develops baby carrier

BRIDPORT — Sometimes the best ideas come just before a breakdown.

You’re at the end of your rope and you’re either going to break down or break through.

Nancy Sunderland is one of the fortunate who broke through.

Sunderland, 37, is a native Vermonter who grew up in Essex Junction to French Canadian parents who had emigrated from Quebec.

Toward the end of high school, Sunderland reviewed her options and made a decision that surprised several people around her: She enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.

“I needed discipline in my life and boy, did I get it!” the Bridport resident recalled.

In 1999 Sunderland completed her four-year term in the Marine Corps. She was honorably discharged after spending time in active duty in Parris Island, S.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Okinawa, Japan; and finally at Camp Pendleton in California.

At the time of her discharge, Sunderland said, she was in an unstable marriage and had a six-week-old daughter, Brittany.

In pursuit of healthy support and the strength of home, Sunderland returned to the Green Mountain State.

Within a year, she had filed for divorce and enrolled at the University of Vermont in the business department.

 “I wanted a stable job with no risk — some nice desk job or something,” Sunderland said, thinking of her then four-month-old daughter.

She worked hard to juggle her studies as a single parent while working two part-time jobs through her four-year program. She finally earned her bachelor of science degree with a major in business and a minor in human development and family studies.

In her final year at UVM, Sunderland met her future husband, Bob Sunderland, a fifth-generation dairy farmer from Bridport.

“We met at a jazz club called the Waiting Room, and the first words I said to him were, ‘I’m a Christian and I’m a single mom.’ I thought he’d go running, but he didn’t.”

The couple married in May 2003 and got pregnant within a year. Abigail, Vanessa and Laila followed in quick succession and Nancy Sunderland found herself busy as a stay-at-home mom with four daughters on the family farm in Bridport.

About four years ago, Nancy and Bob Sunderland lost their fifth child, a son, after just 19 weeks of pregnancy.

“I had the option to induce labor and deliver an already sleeping baby or to have a D&E, which is a late-term abortion procedure,” Nancy said.

The Sunderlands chose labor and delivery and were able to bury Baby Jason on the family farm.

Fortunately, the Sunderlands were blessed with another pregnancy just a couple of months later, and later Nancy gave birth to her final child, a healthy boy named Beau.

HANDS-FREE CARRIER

As one might imagine, Sunderland often found her hands full.

“I basically had an infant plus at least one other young child with me for a decade straight,” Sunderland said, “so naturally I had to look for ways to increase efficiency.”

Finding hands-free ways to carry a child was just one of the tools she developed for her mommy toolkit.

Sunderland experimented with dozens of different carrying wraps, slings and other devices, starting with the popular Baby Bjorn carrier and experimenting with many different varieties from there.

“Some of them would bunch or rub and chafe around the waist or under my arms, others worked for a while when the baby was small and light, but when they got older wouldn’t distribute the weight appropriately and would cause back and shoulder pain. Others were just plain unattractive, accentuating the muffin top that you’re already overly conscious about,” she recalls.

It wasn’t until after she had Beau that Sunderland really experimented with wraps, and she was instantly sold. The first product she tried was the Moby Wrap, which is a stretchy, knit fiber that was comfortable and easy to use when Beau was a small baby. However, as he grew older and heavier, the loose fabric’s lack of support became clear.

Sunderland saved up and invested in her first woven wrap.

The primary difference with woven wraps in comparison to knit wraps is that knit fabric is produced on a circular loom that allows the material to stretch in all directions. It’s a great tool for a newborn worn on the front, but once the child reaches 18 or 20 pounds it stops being a great solution.

A woven material, by contrast, only stretches minimally on a diagonal axis, due to the perpendicular weave of the fibers. It is inherently stronger and more versatile and parents can safely secure their baby to their front, side or back. Woven wraps can safely and comfortably carry a child up to about 40 pounds.

Sunderland loved the wraps, but was disappointed to learn that she could not find any made in America.

“I guess I just saw an opening in the market and an opportunity for a quality woven wrap that was made in the U.S.”

MAKING HER OWN WRAPS

Sunderland started doing research on fabric mills in the United States, many of which are struggling to hold a place in the market, and she was determined to do what she could to set up a business. She enrolled in a small business start-up program with the Women’s Small Business Center led by Gwen Pokalo in Burlington. Through an intensive program, she developed a business plan and marketing effort and learned about business leadership.

In 2013, Sunderland received a modest loan from Community Capital of Vermont, which was enough to produce her first run of woven baby wraps.

Her company was initially named Poésie Tissée, meaning “woven poetry” in French, which Sunderland grew up speaking at home with her family. It was later rebranded as Poe Wovens.

Even with the limited resources she had access to, Sunderland worked hard to market the business on social media channels like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. She now has close to 10,000 Facebook followers and says the vast majority of her sales are to people who find Poe Wovens through social media.

However, while Sunderland was confident that she had a great idea and a great product, she struggled with capital. “I didn’t really know how I was going to get to the next step,” Sunderland recalled.

Luck struck again for Sunderland when she found MiddTAP (Middlebury Technical Assistance Program) and the Middlebury Economic Development Fund, led by Jamie Gaucher, who is Middlebury’s business development director.

MiddTAP is a program that matches interested entrepreneurs who have scalable business ideas with professional coaches who can assist them with their business development. It was in this program that Sunderland met Krista Conley, principle of Clarion Consulting, a “strategic consulting firm that specializes in guiding start-ups and growth ventures to innovate and execute,” according to the company’s mission statement.

Conley has a long history in business and has been an angel investor and consultant for small businesses across the world.

Conley is now working as a consultant with Sunderland, lending some of her expertise and history to the venture.

“Everybody needs a catalyst,” Conley said. “For me it’s wonderful to not be the one with all the responsibility, but still be in a complementary role with a different set of skills and a network of valuable contacts to offer.”

With Conley’s assistance, Sunderland has been able to widen her scope of what is possible with Poe Wovens and has identified a four-phase business growth strategy that she plans to carry out. In the end, Sunderland hopes to have full vertical integration with her own textile mill, cut and sew facility and distribution center, as well as a retail location where Poe Wovens can invite customers to visit the factory for tours and work with a baby carrying consultant (Sunderland has her certification) to help make the right choice for a woven wrap and learn how to use it.

Sunderland has also established educational campaigns to help parents learn how to properly use a woven wrap and provides an easy-to-follow four step process to teach people how to safely use the wrap.

TIGHT AND SECURE

Sunderland has developed an acronym for woven wraps to tout the values of this style of carrying, TOUCH: Tight and secure; Open airway, Uncovered face: Close enough to kiss; Head, neck and back supported.

While there is a fair amount of education and outreach required within her business, Sunderland’s relentless can-do attitude has made it clear that she’s on to something good.

“Every parent has a toolkit,” she said. “For me, one of those things is having a great support system. My parents and in-laws are able to provide an incredible amount of time and support and my husband is a very engaged and active father, which I value over almost all other things. But another one of my tools is baby carriers.”

Sunderland says carriers have increased her confidence as a mother, as they allow her mobility and flexibility that helps her feel like she can go anywhere and do anything she wants.

“I go to the grocery store with two or three kids, one of them in a carrier, and I feel like a superhero because I can manage this situation with ease,” she said. “I was down in New York City a while ago and watched as native New Yorkers struggled in the subways with strollers while I cruised on my way with a kid on my back.”

In addition to the physical benefits, ease, comfort and convenience, baby carriers offer a major added benefit of strengthening the bond between the baby and the carrier.

“New moms are tired and they need a break. But babies don’t get that and will more often than not fuss when they’re put down. Carriers offer the dual function of giving Mom a break while soothing baby,” Sunderland said.

Poe Wovens baby wraps are a luxury product designed and marketed for the modish, upscale client. The company’s tagline — “Chic. Connected. Cool.” — says it all.

Sunderland plans to market directly to the millennial generation that is just beginning to have babies. Conley and Sunderland believe this population is interested in a sustainable, socially conscious product that is functional but also fashionable.

Fabric designs for wraps range from classic herringbone patterns to checkered patterns and even a new patriotic fabric featuring stars and stripes (called “spangled”).

Woven wraps have long tails that can be used to provide additional coverage for breast-feeding, wrap like a scarf around the neck, or hang fashionably from the waist.

According to the company’s launch plan, “Poe Wovens’ unique selling position is that they provide an artfully designed and structurally safe woven baby wrap, which encourages the natural closeness of parenting, while allowing parents mobility and style.”

While it’s certainly not a desk job, Poe Wovens may just be that breakthrough idea that offers a win-win opportunity for Sunderland as an entrepreneur, a mother of five, and a female business leader in Addison County.

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