How This Mama Turned Her Search for Safe Toys into a Business
Photo courtesy of Natalie Crane
Before she was selling her creations on beloved baby sites like Rose & Rex and The Tot, or whipping up custom pieces for family-friendly events like Mama Mirage and the Museum of Ice Cream, Modern Blocks founder Jessie Shriber was just another concerned mama. During her first pregnancy, the San Fransisco-based former dental hygienist found herself on a quest to fill her baby's nursery with toys that were as beautifully designed as they were safe and non-toxic. After she failed to find what she was looking for, Shriber rolled up her sleeves and took a DIY approach, educating herself about natural, healthy materials along the way.
What she came up with, a chic, gender-neutral, monochromatic set of blocks that were also made with organic paints and waxes, immediately caught the attention of friends, who inquired about having Shriber create a set for them. In 2015, with the help of good ol' Instagram and some fellow mama-run shops and companies, Modern Blocks went from a humble idea to a full-fledged business.
A year later she and her husband added a second baby to their brood, and since then Jessie's been spending her days as a full-time mom, and her nights in work-mode. Inspired by her hustle, we thought we'd chat up this unexpected entrepreneur about the ways she keeps a healthy home, what other concerned mamas should know about buying safe toys, and how she balances it all.
Before you began your career as a dental hygienist, did you ever feel a pull towards a more traditionally creative field, like what you're doing now?
Yes! I always wanted to be a fashion designer, but my mama had other intentions for me. Being in the medical field, she wanted me to follow in her footsteps and choose a career that had certainty and stability. I was raised by my mother and grandmother, so I was surrounded by strong, independent women. I really valued their input. I have no regrets, especially given I now have the opportunity to take a new path with my blocks.
What's one thing moms should be (more) aware of when it comes to buying safe, healthy toys for kids?
Gah! In the world of children's products, paint is a big one. When I started researching the difference in paints that were baby safe, it was crazy to find a lot of companies would brand their paint as "water-based" to make it sound ok, when in reality it isn't. Not to mention the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) found in paint. The paint I finally found is organic and non-VOC, which was incredibly important to me.
What other ways do you try to create a healthy, eco-friendly home for you and your family?
We are currently in the home stretch of remodeling our home, so it's been a great opportunity to make it more 'green', as well as non-toxic. My oldest son, Max, also has his own organic herb farm which he tends. Buying organic is important to us, as well as household cleaners (Honest brand for the win!). We finally purchased a compost bin my husband will actually use, so we do our best to walk a little lighter on the earth.
Photo courtesy of @modernblocks
What was your "made it" moment with MB — where you went from just making them for yourself and friends to taking on major orders?
My big moment which led to more exposure and opportunity had to be The Museum of Ice Cream. They reached out to me requesting a customized alphabet set with their logos. The deadline was so slim, but I made it happen and it was completely worth it.
You're in full mom mode during the day and then work at night. What's the most challenging part of that schedule?
Trying to keep work and being a mama separate. I find at times I'll pop on the television for the kids during the day so I can just "finish that last order" from the night before. Or checking emails on my phone. My poor kids just want to get out and play, and I know the time will fly by so I need to enjoy every moment with my rascals.
What advice do you have to give moms who might not think they have time to pursue a creative project or start their own business?
It's amazing what women can do. We are insane mulit-taskers, am I right? Just give it your best, take it slow, and know things may not happen as soon as you would hope. And always ask for help if needed. True friends come over for an all-nighter of hand sanding blocks.