Michelle Tunno Buelow always had amazing career drive. She ached to get away from her small hometown and after graduating from college and successfully landed her first job as a consultant for Accenture. Working 80 hours a week prepared her well when she later launched her own business, Bella Tunno, in 2005. After weathering a devastating heartbreak, Michelle focused her drive and energy on building Bella Tunno into the company it is today – baby products with a mission to help others and change lives.
The company started with humble beginnings – bibs and burps cloths Michelle sewed herself (while pregnant with her first baby) and sold door-to-door to retailers in her area. Bella Tunno’s big break came after a little luck and a fair share of risk. It paid off big time and a thank-you note from Courteney Cox can be counted among her many rewards for taking that risk.
We loved hearing so much about Michelle’s inspiring story, including her day to day as a CEO and mom of two daughters. Remember as you’re reading, even remarkable women like Michelle have their share of mom fails — you’ll probably LOL at the one she shared with us.
What was your first job and how did you land it?
My first “big girl” job out of college was a Change Management and Human Performance Consultant for Accenture. Coming from a town the size of a dot on a map, I wanted so badly to see the world. I only applied for jobs that would have me traveling the country. I got the job through the career resource center at Penn State. It was an amazing program for graduating seniors. I applied to a lot of jobs and wasn’t getting interviews. Once I actually proof-read my resume and corrected about four spelling errors, I started getting interview invites. This role was what I considered a dream job — it was fast-paced and pushed me beyond what I thought I could do both emotionally and mentally. Working 80 hour weeks was standard. So much about that job prepared me for all my roles to follow, and eventually to launch Bella Tunno.
Your education and career are in the overlap of business and psychology. What initially interested you about those fields? How do you feel those years in the corporate environment prepared you to launch your own business?
I’ve always been hyper fascinated with why people do what they do; why they choose to behave in certain ways. Things are rarely as they appear and I like to find the real drivers of behavior. So much about my early childhood made me want to study psychology. Growing up, we had foster kids stay with us on the weekends and I wanted to know everything about how they ended up in our house and not their own. At the age of 14, my brother started drinking and using drugs — I was 11. Nothing about it made sense, and it became my purpose to understand why he was using and to try to save him. I picked psychology classes in college because I thought if I understood the underlying science behind how people think, I could do more to help them.
My interest in business was more of a jailbreak. I grew up in a town that felt stuck in time. It was two hours from the nearest airport, was sleepy due to being snowed in half the year and lacked modern industry. I wanted a way out. Business felt like a choose-your-own adventure book, a magic carpet for a career.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, the corporate world was the exact launch pad I needed to start Bella Tunno. The travel made me independent and semi-fearless. The consulting work gave me insights into so many different companies and their cultures — their missions, visions, values, and operations. I started building a virtual ‘business backpack’ and put in it all the positive things I experienced and tried to learn from all the negatives. I learned how the best companies treat their people. How they are hyper-focused on their goals. I had three corporate jobs before I started Bella Tunno, and each one taught me so many valuable lessons.
In 2003, your brother, Matt, lost his life to addiction, an event that shattered your world and changed you deeply, as we could only expect. What effect did his passing have on your career?
Working at big consulting firms, I traveled every week, put in 80 hours a week and went above and beyond in every project I touched. Climbing the corporate ladder and making as much money as possible was the goal — I tried to earn a gold star everywhere I went. I remember sleeping under my desk on a project in DC because I wanted to finish ahead of time and get promoted. I went on to run a brand strategy department at a marketing firm at the age of 25. It was a great gig and the travel became international. The opportunities were exactly the ones I dreamed about. My life felt completely on track.
Then… August 5, 2003 came. I was 27. I got the middle of the night call that I had praying I wouldn’t get for 16 years — my brother was dead.
At that moment, everything changed. The world stopped. Literally, it felt like time and light and breathing stopped. None of it mattered. None of the projects, none of the pay raises, none of the gold stars.
I quit the job I loved and went into a dark depression. I stayed down for about a year. I kept wondering if I could ever be happy again, if life would ever feel like any of it mattered again.
About a year after Matt died, I remember this very surreal moment of clarity. It was like my heart and my mind both woke up at the same time and I remember making a promise that I would dedicate my life to helping as many people as I could avoid the pain I felt.
Although I didn’t know what that meant at the time, that moment of clarity was the conceptual birth of Bella Tunno. I wanted to start a fund in my late-brother’s name that could do two things: leave a legacy for all the good about him (he was so much more than an addict and I wanted the world to associate his name with all of the good), and I wanted to protect as many families as I could from going through the pain I felt.
With that, I started the Matt Tunno Make a Difference Fund simultaneously with the launch of Bella Tunno.
How did you choose baby products to be the focus of your business?
Bella Tunno happens to be baby products because I was pregnant at the time I launched the company. If I had been engaged, it may have been a flower shop. It just fit where I was in my life, but I would have sold tires or toilet paper if that’s what it took. It was the mission I was committed to – the product was just a vehicle to get there.
What was it like launching your own company? How did you financially prepare for that, and what did your path from creating a prototype to landing it in major retailers like Buy Buy Baby look like?
Bella Tunno wasn’t meant to be a global brand, it was meant to be my transition back to normal life. We took what was then our savings of $6,000 and made a commitment that whatever happened, we wouldn’t put any more money into it. The goal was to make and sell enough products to raise $30,000 to provide a grant, so that my late-brother could be the co-author of his doctorate even in his passing. Then, I wanted to go back to the life I loved.
Life had other plans.
My mom had bought me a sewing machine because she wanted me to get out of bed and do something after my brother died. I was in a deep depression after losing my only sibling and I wasn’t doing anything with my life. So, I awkwardly taught myself to sew. I was TERRIBLE. I’ve never been much for the DIY or self-taught learning and it showed. I was making burp cloths and changing pads because I could only sew straight lines. I was giving these items as gifts because I didn’t have the confidence to try to sell them. My friends knew I had a greater goal of launching the Matt Tunno Make A Difference Fund, so they kept encouraging me to try to sell them. I actually was so sick of what I considered their fake accolades about my products, that one day in April of 2005, I made appointments with and visited 10 local boutiques in the Charlotte area with my samples. My hope was that no one would like the products, I could get my friends off my tail and I could go back to bed. I came home that day with orders from nine of the 10 stores.
Those orders gave me hope that maybe this was a vehicle to launch the Matt Tunno Make A Difference Fund. A couple months later, I went down to Atlanta for a wholesale market, completely unsure of what to expect. At that market, 58 stores placed orders with Bella Tunno. One of the stores that placed an order at that first Atlanta market had a 90210 zip code, and I knew — from my favorite TV show as a teen — that 90210 was Beverly Hills.
It was a swanky address, but the store’s owner refused to pay upfront with a credit card. She wanted 30 days to pay for her $350 order. That made no sense to me. Why should she get 30 days to pay when I had already fronted all the cost? (welcome to wholesale). BUT, due to that zip code and my mad teen crush on Brandon Walsh I did it anyhow. The same day that my products arrived to the store in Beverly Hills, the owner was putting together gifts for the Golden Globes’ gifting suite, which puts a company’s products into the hands of Hollywood’s elite at the Golden Globes.
The owner called and asked Bella Tunno to be part of the gift bags. She asked me to donate 40 bibs, burp cloths, and pacifier clips. At that point, donating that product would take me back into the red. It was a $600 donation AND it had to be overnighted. OUCH. $600 was actually my profit at that time (after paying ourselves back the initial $6,000) so it felt like a huge decision to give it away.
But the risk paid off — through those gift bags, our products were in the homes of the Hollywood elite and we were getting thank you notes from actresses like Courteney Cox.
That decision led to great press in publications like People, Baby, Babytalk, and Elle and put our little brand on the map.
The very next market after the Golden Globes was in New York City and Gap and Target noticed our little brand.
Your company now famously and wonderfully donates one meal to Feeding America for every product sold, a total of more than 2 million meals donated already. My eyes are welling with tears just thinking of the impact that’s had on millions of children all over the country! You wanted your company to bear Matt’s name and promote a legacy of generosity and help – what philanthropic actions did you consider before landing on Feeding America?
In the first five years, we focused all our charitable work around drug and alcohol rehabilitation, education, and addiction prevention. Trying to save other families was my passion project. In a project that we called Extreme Mission Makeover, we pulled 70 individuals and 18 companies together to add five dual occupancy rooms and a bathroom to a local rescue mission to allow 40 more clients to participate annually. We hosted a one-night charity event called Posh with Purpose that raised over $30,000 which allowed 30 women to go through a 120-day rehabilitation program. We provided a true Christmas complete with present and meals to all 90 clients at the local rescue mission. We sponsored at least four male clients to go through rehab a year. We gave scholarships to unwed teen moms, as they are at extremely high risk for addiction. It was good work. It was personal work. It was healing work.
In 2014 we became a one-for-one social impact brand where for every product sold, we donate one meal to a child in need. Along with our partners and customers, we all share a vision of ending child hunger in America. Together, we have donated over 2 million meals.
What does a day in your life look like?
Similar to all moms and or founders, there is no such thing as a typical day.
I travel about every other week, but when I’m in town, I take my kids to school and pick them up at 3pm. I try to “go dark” until their bedtime, but it’s becoming increasingly challenging with a 14-year-old that doesn’t go to bed until 10:30pm. When in town, I make it to every game and every performance. I want my girls to know that they will ALWAYS be more important than my job.
I wish I could say that my days all started with yoga and included lunch with girlfriends. My self-care took a back seat when I launched a company while pregnant with my first child. I put in six hard, focused, straight hours when the girls are at school, then get back to work when they go to bed. All the rest of the “stuff” has to wait for the weekends.
You also serve as a board member for Fashion & Compassion – can you tell us a little bit about that organization and why you’re passionate about it?
Fashion and Compassion is a non-profit that creates empowerment communities where vulnerable women connect with God, one another and resources as their lives are transformed. We serve women in seven different countries. The challenges these women face range from generational poverty to sex-trafficking. I have been a board member going on three years. I have worked on the ground with Fashion & Compassion in Rwanda, Uganda, and Ethiopia. I’m more than passionate about women’s rights — I believe we have so far to go in the USA, but when I visit Uganda and Ethiopia I’m overwhelmed by the inequality. If we don’t help, who will? (Rwanda is amazing and is #4 on the list of countries closing the gender gap. The challenges there are more generational poverty and trickle-down damage from the Genocide of 1994).
How have you managed the transition from creative to CEO?
Fortunately, I still get to do both. I don’t do as much of the creative as I used to, but I still have a hand in the strategy driving it. The transition to CEO has been a process. When you start a small company, you do everything. You are a one-woman circus act. As we grew, I had to learn to delegate and empower my team. Even though I despised half of the roles I had to do as a one-woman show, I felt like I was leaving my baby for the first time handing them off. Over time, as I became more comfortable with delegating, I realized that I needed some help in learning how to be the leader I wanted to be. I started reading articles, listening to podcasts, seeking out mentors, and attending conferences and keynotes. I try to learn from everyone. No one is really trained to be a CEO out of college. I think the best CEOs have done all the roles in their company. It makes them empathetic, credible, and realistic.
Of what career accomplishment are you most proud or do you feel has had the largest impact?
Last year, I was named a Vital Voices Global Ambassador. Being chosen as one of 12 women around the world was a humbling honor and a responsibility that I do not take lightly. Only 2% of female CEOS have revenues over 1 million per year. That’s 3.5 times less than our male counterparts. As women (and even more as minority women) we are up against a staggering obstacle for equality. Raising two daughters, I am committed to doing more than my fair share to make sure we get there. Being named a Global Ambassador for this organization is a true honor.
How has your career path shaped how you parent? Do you find any skills from motherhood are helping your job now?
In work, I have always taken on more than I should. This has helped me become hyper-efficient and a great time manager. This skill set came in very handy when I was launching Bella Tunno and having my first daughter. I would never pretend that the early years were smooth, but I do think the juggle I created for myself pre-parenting was a nice test run for parenting while working full time.
I have definitely taken the lessons I’ve learned from parenthood into my role as CEO of Bella Tunno. I see parenting as the great equalizer — no matter your job title or how much money you make, parenting levels the playing field. As parents, we are all vulnerable, we feel guilt, we have self-doubt.
Parenting has taught me that there are things out of my control. It’s taught me empathy for others. I’ve learned to give grace — both to my team and to myself. And most importantly, I’ve learned to prioritize. I see life as a juggle and my goal is to keep the glass balls in the air — the rubber ones can survive a bounce.
How did your career change, if at all, when you had your kids? How did you handle childcare and maternity leave?
I started this career (Bella Tunno) when I was pregnant, so, I’ve only known Bella Tunno in that mindset. Because I was working for myself and from home when I had my first daughter, I didn’t have to deal with maternity leave. I wasn’t getting paid at that point anyway, so there was no real salary change.
I’ve always been grateful that I didn’t have to manage a maternity leave. It has to be so hard. I take that into consideration with my team and try to be the boss I would have wanted if I’d needed maternity leave. We give fully-paid maternity leave for eight weeks and flex schedule (including partial work from home) upon a team member’s return.
What’s next for you and Bella Tunno?
January 2020 is our 15th year anniversary, and we certainly have a lot to celebrate. We have an amazing team, we’re giving more meals than we’ve ever imagined, and we have so many exciting opportunities in front of us.
In 2020, we have two brand new collections being released and one is even more philanthropy-minded. We are also launching into three new key retailers before the end of 2019. We’re in a big growth cycle and that just means more meals for kids in the U.S. We’re so grateful.
When it comes to motherhood, what are you most confident in? What are you still insecure about?
I’m confident that my girls know their worth. They know that they are capable of big, hard things and they know that they are responsible to leave the world better than they found it.
I worry that the world won’t be gentle with their kind hearts. I worry that we can’t protect them from everything. I worry all the time actually. I lost a brother — I know what true fear and loss is.
What are some of your favorite activities to do with your kids or as a family right now?
Our family loves to travel together. My husband and I have an extreme travel bug and thankfully the girls are little adventurers. They will try any activity (swimming with sharks in the Dominican Republic) and will eat any food (escargot in Paris). They love to try new things and we do our best to keep new experiences coming. We’re heading to an Eco Lodge in Costa Rica for spring break, then I’m taking Riley (14) on her first mission trip to Africa this summer.
On a smaller scale, Ella loves to cook and Riley loves board games, so we spend a lot of time on both.
Generosity, compassion, and community wellness are clearly of the utmost importance to you – how are you (or will you) teaching those qualities to your kids?
This is one of my biggest goals. As with all things, I think kids learn best through example. I want them to see my husband and I serving others and being generous in our giving.
We do a few things as a family to keep compassion at the forefront.
Our family picks one holiday a year and we do “critical care” bags for the homeless. We purchase the products, assemble the bags, write notes, and then deliver them. I LOVE watching the girls hand them out and stay and talk. They get that this is about more than giving the bag. It’s about looking people in the eye and letting them know that they matter in this world.
How do you and your husband divide parenting roles? How has parenthood changed your marriage?
My husband has his own company as well, so we’re big into our girls being self-sufficient. Todd (hubs) and I can only do what we do if the girls do their part. We have a mantra in our house every morning, “every woman for herself.” The girls pack their own lunch, do their own laundry, and manage their own school work.
Todd I are equal partners. It may not look like it’s balanced every day or every week, but overall, we split the responsibilities right down the middle. We share carpooling, grocery shopping, etc. He’s definitely the more laid back one — he doesn’t like a lot of rules and I like structure. We’ve had to meet in the middle on this. I think that it has been really cool for my girls to see that mom and dad both are doing things that we believe provide significance to the world. Both of our jobs in our house are treated with an equal level of respect and importance. We’re just two people who are trying to leave their mark on the world and doing our best to help each other achieve that.
How do your kids inspire you, in your career or otherwise?
They are so brave, so confident, and so uniquely themselves. Three nights ago, I watched my little one pitch an entire inning in softball and only throw one strike (which the batter got a triple on). She didn’t care about all the balls she threw — she was so proud she threw one strike. That attitude is amazing and tends to get lost as we become adults. We need to focus on the good and let the little mistakes fall to the wayside.
If you have to choose just one, what’s been your favorite moment from motherhood so far?
Wow, that’s the hardest question so far. I really have to think about this one and I’m going to get a little mushy. I remember when I was pregnant with my second child, I was terrified that I couldn’t love her as much as my first. I just could not fathom having that much love to give. But the moment that I had her, my heart just grew and immediately, I realized that there was plenty of love for both of them.
Michelle Tunno Buelow is The Everymom…
Favorite Bella Tunno product?
Wonder Bibs — they are blank canvas for creativity and they happen to be our best-selling products.
Best way to end a long day?
Family hot tub party
Weirdest pregnancy craving?
Happy Meals. I was in the drive-through by 10:55 every.single.day. (This may have played a part in gaining 60lbs. with each child)
I wish I knew how to…
Just be. I’d love to be able to enjoy silence, meditate, relax. I don’t see it ever happening.
Last 3 songs listened to on Spotify?
I listen to podcasts – not music. Here are my three favs:
- How I Built This, Guy Roz
- Second Life, Clique Brands
- Boss Files, Poppy Harlow
Most embarrassing mom fail?
Oh bless…Where to begin? This could be a list. I think the all-time winner is probably the time when Riley was about 9 months old and fell asleep in the car on the way to dinner. Todd and I transferred her from the car seat to the stroller, but didn’t strap her in. Half way through dinner, a gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Ma’am, is that your baby on the floor?”