Peggy Farabaugh is the owner and operator of Vermont Woods Studios, an online furniture store specializing in high-quality, eco-friendly, handmade wood furniture from Vermont. She's a CEO who breaks for salamanders, has bottle-fed rescued squirrels, and spends her vacations volunteering to plant trees in the rainforests of Central and South America. She believes in the future and in the people who build it. A former distance learning instructor at Tulane University with a master's in Environmental Health and Safety, Peggy turned an interest in forest conservation and endangered species into a thriving, local furniture business. Now in it's 10th year, Vermont Woods Studios exists not only online but in a lovingly restored 200 year old farmhouse in the woodlands of southern Vermont. It's the Green Mountain state's newest destination shopping experience for green home decor.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My life was happily uneventful until July 3, 1996. That morning, after I fed Kendall (age 2 1/2) and Riley (age 6 months) breakfast, I collapsed on the floor. I had just enough time to grab the phone, dial 911 and hand it to Kendall before I dropped. Somehow while I was unconscious, the 911 operator and my toddler managed to get an ambulance to my house. Later that afternoon an emergency room doctor discovered that I had a ruptured ectopic pregnancy and she got me into surgery just in time to save my life.
I spent 2 weeks in the hospital recovering, with many a doctor telling me how lucky I was to have survived. It made me realize how precious and fragile life is. I felt obligated to make the most of the "bonus" life I was given on that operating table. I vowed to go forth working my hardest and doing my very best to make the world a better place in whatever small way I could. As a leader, my priority is to encourage others to do the same.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Vermont Woods Studios?
Prior to starting Vermont Woods Studios I had worked various positions in government, industry and academia. Although I had never started my own business, I had started (and grown) a few initiatives for other employers that I felt were "my babies". I realized that their successes were due to unusual strategic alliances and collaborations that I had facilitated.
In developing my own company I knew my strategy would have to include bringing people together to achieve better results through synergy and avoiding duplication of effort. With Vermont Woods Studios, we team up with furniture makers throughout Vermont who might otherwise be competitors. Together we each do the work we're best suited for and in that way we produce a better quality product at a better price.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Vermont Woods Studios?
The biggest highlight was finding and acquiring "Stonehurst". It's a 200 year old farmhouse in Southern Vermont that sits on a lovely parcel of rolling hills, meadows and woodlands, overlooking the Connecticut river. We restored the farmhouse and it serves as our showroom for Vermont made furniture and home decor. The setting is perfect for our customers who often bring a picnic lunch and a bottle of wine when they shop with us. They want to experience the kind of environment where their sustainable furniture comes from. When it's installed in their homes, they feel connected to nature and proud for doing their part to protect the forest.
I guess staying on top of the rapidly evolving technology we use to operate our website would be our biggest challenge. We were probably the first company to try selling high end furniture online 10 years ago and now there are thousands of companies doing it. Many of them copy our work. Rather than try to pursue them through litigation we double down on continuous improvement of our quality, efficiency, value and customer experience. Our environment is so competitive, there is never a moment for complacency.
What advice can you offer to women who are looking to start their own business?
We're driven to create companies by our passion and the romantic notions of what success means to us. For women it's often about helping others or improving the environment. Make sure you balance your vision with the reality that you're going to have to work 24/7 for many years before you meet and greet "success". Take stock of what you have, what you love to do and what others can help you with. Then work that into a niche where you can deliver the absolute best value available to your customers.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I'm not very good at that unless my kids or my mother are involved. I'll drop everything for them. But I'll admit that lots of things in my life have suffered since I started Vermont Woods Studios. Social life, hobbies, entertainment... I guess I've made an unconscious decision that these things can be put on hold from time to time and I'm OK with that. One luxury I've managed to maintain is travel to my favorite place: the rainforest-- the inspiration and raison d'etre for Vermont Woods Studios (our company mission is rainforest conservation).
Most years, Ken and I have been able to take our boys to a tropical rainforest to enjoy nature and remind us of why we work so hard. This year we went to the Serere Reserve in the Bolivian Amazon. These trips remind me of my high school guidance counselor when she would say, "If you do something you love, you'll never have to work a day in your life". Well, not exactly but you get the gist of it.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Taking time out to have a family and then re-entering the workforce. It's a big risk taking a time off to have a family. We have a hard time re-entering the workforce at the same level and payrate and I can understand both sides of this debate. My position is always going to be to hire the person who best fits the job, regardless of family situations. But women coming back to work after raising a family can still come out on top.
I think the trick is in translating the knowledge, skills and attitudes you've gained as a mother to value-added forces in the workplace. I'm a believer in the theory that you can reignite your expertise and authority largely by reading the top 6 books on a subject you've previously mastered. I know mothers who have done this and re-entered the workforce at significantly higher levels than when they left.
Of course, I would also encourage women to start their own business when ready to re-enter the workforce!
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My mother, my sister and my husband are the mentors in my personal life. They have always supported and encouraged me. Their wisdom and their confidence in my abilities gave me the courage to start Vermont Woods Studios.
Professionally, my favorite mentors are Chub Bowers and Deana Colley from Battelle Pacific Northwest Laboratory. Prior to working with them I was in a field where employees were fairly dispensable. I admired their brand of management which was kind of a mix of "managing from the heart" and "management by walking around" and "management by Attila the Hun". They shaped my philosophy of creating a supportive, low-stress work environment to achieve accelerated learning and optimal performance.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Jane Goodall is a favorite because of her work with chimps and her lifelong commitment to conservation and animal welfare.
Rachel Carson, who I see as the mother of today's green movement. Her book Silent Spring, published in 1962 led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and our clean water and clean air acts.
Margaret Mead, the 20th century anthropologist who said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
What do you want Vermont Woods Studios to accomplish in the next year?
My goal is to provide an unforgettable, world class shopping experience to customers visiting our showroom at Stonehurst in Southern Vermont. From the moment they walk up our hand-laid stone pathways through our flower filled courtyard and into our restored farmhouse showroom I want customers to feel relaxed, refreshed and proud of their decision to invest in the handmade furniture of Vermont.