Carolina Toro-Gerstein, CEO and founder of Poncho Baby Inc., is dedicated to designing products that are stylish, multifunctional, compact and eco-friendly. She was inspired to launch Poncho Baby after having her two girls, when she found it hard to find chic, multipurpose, made-in-the-U.S. baby products.
Prior to creating Poncho Baby, she had been in the corporate world, working for Citibank, Oracle and Yahoo!, where she gained extensive knowledge about online advertising, finance, marketing and product development, both within the U.S. and internationally. During that phase, Carolina was named one of the Top 100 Hispanics in Technology and listed in Top 50 Colombian Professionals.
Her extensive international travels affected her sense of design, as she observed each culture's unique sense of style and came to appreciate simplicity and functionality.
Poncho Baby began with a patent-pending nursing cover, and the product line has since expanded. The brand is carried in stores nationwide and has received multiple accolades, including the 2014 Family Choice Award, Mom's Best Award, Baby Maternity Magazine's Top Choice 2013 Award, and the National Parenting Publications Award.
Carolina is now focused on expanding Poncho Baby into the international market. She lives in Los Angeles with her family.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
The most significant experience was becoming a mother, which inspired me to launch Poncho Baby. But my previous corporate experience was with large companies-- Citibank, Oracle and Yahoo!--and international teams, spread from Asia, to Latin America to Europe. Working on a global scale taught me to be very agile, as the markets and customers' needs change very rapidly. Leading such diverse teams, I saw how important it is to develop a collaborative and positive environment, which motivates people to achieve their full potential.
How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Poncho Baby?
Because of the prior management roles --and my MBA--I have extensive knowledge about business management, online advertising, finance and product development, both within the U.S. and internationally. I saw businesses around the world, small to large, grow by creating successful products using a customer focus and effective marketing campaigns. My sense of design was strongly influenced by my travels; I love seeing each culture's unique sense of style, and I understand the importance of simplicity and functionality. This all provided an excellent foundation when it came time to run my own business.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Poncho Baby?
The biggest highlights have been all the positive feedback I get from moms around the country. The multiple awards from experts and moms have also validated all the work I've put into growing Poncho Baby. And it's been very rewarding to become part of a wonderful network of women and mom-entrepreneurs who support each other in growing our brands.
The biggest challenge was moving from the software industry into manufacturing. I had decided tolove challenges and have enjoyed learning about the garment industry in LA. I have been very fortunate to meet great mentors and very supportive and reliable teams, like my sewers, pattern makers, and cutting teams, which has been a great asset for Poncho Baby.
What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
Surround yourself with a support group of friends, family and other entrepreneurs. And support other women. Understand the needs of your customer and the competitive landscape before you launch a new product. Be willing to take risks; while you'll create a business plan, you'll have to continually modify and enhance it. You may have to evolve your ideas when the need arises.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It's always a challenge. I have a wonderful husband, who is very supportive, and he provides the Dad's perspective when we develop new products. Since each day has new challenges, I believe it is very important to define your priorities and then move forward. When there are snafus, you adjust and keep moving. Moms always want to do it all, yet is very important to take care of ourselves. When I have a break, I love to do yoga, swim, bike, hike or read a good book.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The lack of work flexibility. Women are very talented, hard working and great at multitasking. However, due to the lack of work flexibility, many talented, career-driven women have moved out of corporate America to start their own business or to care full- time for their kids. With Millennials placing a greater emphasis on personal values, companies could benefit from providing flexible career paths to leadership, which will attract and retain talented Millennials and also women from all generations.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal lives?
It's been so important to me, and I think you need to have both male and female mentors. When I worked at Citibank, I had a wonderful male mentor who gave me a lot of support and taught me how to drive my ideas in the male-dominated, high-stakes trading industry that is Wall Street. Later, when I was in the process of launching Poncho Baby, I was very fortunate to meet with Melisa Fluhr, cofounder of Project Nursery, a children's design resource company. She has been an amazing mentor by providing great feedback about our products and helping guide me to the best venues to work with.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I love that Sheryl Sandberg encourages women, from a young age, to become leaders and to help each other. She also encourages women to excel in a male dominated industry such as technology. Shakira, a fellow Colombian, has been a great role model for young people. She is a fantastic singer, but also a great philanthropist. She has devoted time and effort to her foundation Pies Descalsos (it means Bare Feet), which helps disadvantaged children get access to education. Lori Caden, CEO of Belly Bandit, launched a company with her sisters and transformed it into a worldwide brand. Lori has been a great mentor to Poncho Baby as well.
What do you want Poncho Baby to accomplish in the next year?
We'll keep creating products that are stylish, multifunctional, compact and eco-friendly, but we'll dramatically expand our suite of colors and products. We are planning to launch our new suite of products this fall. We're also going international with our distribution, which is really exciting.