Julie Aigner Clark is a full-time mom and former teacher, best known for founding The Baby Einstein Company, a start-up business that was born in her basement and became an internationally acclaimed, multimillion-dollar company in less than five years. Credited with creating an entirely new industry, Julie brought the arts to babies and toddlers in child-friendly ways that exposed an entire generation to classical music, art and poetry. Then she sold it to the biggest brand of all: The Walt Disney Company.
Editor’s note: The morning of this interview I went for a walk with a friend and told her who I would be talking with later. She got all excited, “We love Baby Einstein! We couldn’t wait for the next video to come out.” She was definitely a satisfied customer. So, I asked Julie Aigner Clark if she still gets that – people gushing about the Baby Einstein line.
“Yes, definitely, and I never get tired of it,” she said. “It makes me so happy. I feel like I did something that made a really big difference. I feel good about what we made, I’m really proud of that. We got a lot of families exposed to things they might not have been otherwise.”
IW Did your background as a teacher help while you were starting your business?
JAC I think teaching is one of the most creative professions in the world. You are always adapting to different situations and students. In terms of entrepreneurship, that’s a lot of what it is – it’s a lot of thinking on your feet, being able to make quick decisions, sometimes based on feedback and other times on your own instincts. I still don’t think of myself as a “business person” as much as I think of myself as a creative person who kind of fell into business as a result of being creative.
IW Did you seek out any mentors?
JAC Honestly, I didn’t. I didn’t even know I was starting a company, I just wanted to make something for my daughter. I couldn’t find it and I wanted her to have it and I thought, ‘It shouldn’t be so hard and there must be other people like me out there who want something like this.’ The first three videos we shot in our basement and I drew the logo at our kitchen table. It just happened. The only time I thought to ask for advice was when I was thinking how to get the product into the marketplace.
IW Do you mentor young entrepreneurs now?
JAC I am not a ‘professional’ mentor, but I have a lot of moms approach me. Sometimes people email me and ask for advice and I will typically almost always call those people.
IW When did your husband get involved with the business?
JAC Almost from the beginning. I had the idea in 1995, I borrowed some video equipment and he would help when he could. When the first video was successful we looked at what we were bringing in financially and realized it could be a viable business. He quit his job and started working with me. That was in 1997.
IW Did it take awhile to get used to working together?
JAC We have worked great together. It’s a little tricky, not only working together, but working at HOME together, because we have always had our business in our house. We are either talking about business or our kids. It’s hard to leave it behind. It doesn’t always work so well for everybody.
IW What was the biggest obstacle for you to overcome?
JAC Trying to think with my head and not my heart. I act on instinct a lot. As we grew and had to deal with marketing, packaging and eventually Disney (who bought Baby Einstein in 2001), it became hard for me to separate my personal feelings about what I had created from what I should be doing professionally. I think that happens a lot with entrepreneurs. We LOVE what we’re doing and we start our businesses because we believe in this idea or product.
IW When you sold Baby Einstein, were you already looking ahead to the next business?
JAC No, I was not looking ahead. My husband talked about retiring and we spent a lot of
time with our kids, then said, ‘wouldn’t it be fun to start something else?’ We got involved with the idea of child safety and partnered with John Walsh from America’s Most Wanted and made a product called the Safe Side. We made these great DVDs that taught children how to stay safe and all of the proceeds went back to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
IW baby bytes, your newest business venture, looks like an extraordinary tool for moms. How did you come up with the idea?
JAC My husband and I were surprised Disney wasn’t moving Baby Einstein into the new tablet-based technology. We approached them and they said they were not going to go there. We saw the potential for kids to get exposure to the arts and humanities in a whole new way. They can interact with the media and make things happen. Parents can go in on the back end and see, for instance, that they know all of their colors, or monitor how long they are sleeping. That could help them guide their children in the right direction.
IW Do your daughters want to take over your business someday?
JAC My oldest daughter graduated from high school recently and just the other day she mentioned, “I wonder if I could ever be involved in this new business you are starting.” In the back of our minds we have thought it would be a pretty neat thing for our kids to get involved with things down the road. I hope they do what they love.
IW How did you get into public speaking?
JAC People kept asking me. Early on I would get invited to speak at these amazing things. It was a little intimidating, too. I feel I have become a better speaker and I love speaking to people like myself – small business owners, moms, women, people coming up with ideas. So, it’s fun to come to things like the event in North Dakota. Those are my people.
IW What message will the women at the summit hear?
JAC People describe my presentations as super inspiring. I feel like my tory could be your story. I’m just like you – I’m a mom, I had an idea, I worked really hard to make it happen, it was very organic and there are other people like me. I think my story is very inspiring. I love to give people advice.
IW This issue is about girlfriends and education…we already know how you feel about the importance of education since you started a company for educating babies. How important are girlfriends in your life?
JAC I will be 47 next week and I have never in my life had girlfriends like I have now. I have five women in my life that I adore and I don’t know what I would do without them. In particular, the two times I struggled with two breast cancer diagnosis, I have never felt closer to women in my life. I feel like we will always be there for each other. Men are different. Women share so much on a personal level that men don’t. We are willing to open up in ways that men don’t. Having them in my life has made me a better person. I can’t say enough about my girlfriends, I just love them so much.
The CTB Women’s Business Summit celebrates National Women’s Business Week, the third week of October. Bringing together women from across North Dakota and the region for two intense days of training, networking, business growth opportunities, personal development, professional focus, and of course…. fun! By pulling women together from all of North Dakota, this Summit creates a diverse network for women who want to grow both personally and professionally. We know that by leveraging women’s talents and resources we strengthen the individual as well as the collective.
Whether a professional in the workplace, a business owner, or simply a woman aspiring to improve herself, participants will find a variety of breakout sessions and activities to choose from featuring speakers from across the state of ND.
The 2013 Summit will be held October 14-15 at the Bismarck Civic Center. For more information visit ndwomensbusinesssummit.com.