Alice Panikian

Alice Panikian was Miss Canada in 2006 and former professional model. She currently works in operations at a small venture capital firm. Panikian has become a leading voice advocating for nontoxic beauty, gaining fame through her blog The Bronde and her Instagram account @alicepanikian. On The Bronde, Panikian shares helpful tips on how to live a healthier lifestyle, recommends the best clean products and elucidates the complicated and often opaque nontoxic beauty industry.

Why did you start The Bronde?

In 2013 I was diagnosed with endometriosis, a reproductive disease that afflicts an estimated 1 in 10 women. I did a lot of research and found out that certain chemicals like parabens can mimic estrogen in the body. Since endometriosis is an estrogen dependent disease, I thought it made sense for me to avoid these chemicals.

I was upset to discover that the FDA has almost no regulations in place and the cosmetics industry is essentially self-regulated. This means that cosmetics companies are free to put almost anything in their products, even known carcinogens and hormone disruptors. For years I had been unknowingly exposing myself to harmful, toxic chemicals on a daily basis, which undoubtedly played a big role in the advancement of my endometriosis.

I started writing about nontoxic beauty and was encouraged by the overwhelmingly positive response I received.

Do you think being a former Miss Canada has helped give you this platform?

I’m so grateful for that experience and definitely think it has allowed me to build the network that I have today. I only wish I had been Miss Canada during the Instagram era so that I could have reached a larger audience.

What advice do you have for a newbie looking to make a transition to nontoxic beauty?

Start slow because it is overwhelming and expensive if you do a complete overhaul of your products. However, once you know the truth about what’s in your products it’s hard to keep using them. I used most of my products until I ran out and then swapped them out. There are places to shop that only sell nontoxic products like The Detox Market and Credo, which take the guesswork out of it for you.

You can also go through all of your products and look them up on the Think Dirty app, which rates products from 1-10 based on toxicity. If they aren’t on Think Dirty, try using the EWG Skin Deep page.

What are your top makeup and skincare products?



What are the top products to avoid?

Baby powder. Recently women with ovarian cancer have been linked to specifically using Johnson & Johnson baby powder. Baby powder has talc, which is often contaminated with asbestos, a known carcinogen.

Be wary of any products that contain “fragrance.” Brands don’t have to disclose what’s in a fragrance since they can claim it’s proprietary information. Therefore, they often hide harmful ingredients in the fragrance.

Does your dedication to nontoxic beauty extend past skincare and makeup to an overall lifestyle?

It definitely does. I’m not a scientist or a doctor but intuitively I know that our choices are really important for our wellbeing. I want to lead as nontoxic a life as I can. I try to eat organic and make healthy choices, but I definitely have my vices – I love pasta, cheese and chocolate.

Where do you think the nontoxic beauty industry is heading?

I compare it to organic food. People became more conscious of what they were eating and now the organic food market is huge. People care about what they’re putting in their bodies and now they’re starting to think more about what they’re putting on their bodies.

Reproductive issues, autism, chronic illnesses, and cancer are prevalent. Something in our environment is causing us to get sick. People are realizing that the environment – and not just genetics – is playing a critical role. Clean beauty is going to blow up. You have to be careful, though, because a lot of conventional brands are trying to “green wash” their products, which is when they use certain packaging and marketing to pretend they’re more clean than they actually are. Anyone can slap the word “natural” on a product and it doesn’t mean anything.

Talia Eve Schlussel

Talia Eve Schlussel is the founder of Evewear, a sleepwear brand catering to every type of girl. Evewear is committed to sustainability by using only leftover fabric and unused material. Without intervention, these fabrics end up in landfills. Evewear also supports the community in Los Angeles by making all of its clothing locally. The brand has become a favorite of many celebrities and recently pop singer Halsey wore an Evewear pajama set in Vogue. There will be an Evewear pop-up shop in LA at 3118 W Sunset Blvd February 28-March 1 to celebrate the launch of the Spring 2020 collection.

How did you end up founding Evewear?

I was always interested in fashion. I did an internship at Dolce & Gabbana. From that experience I learned that I wanted to work for an American company where all of the creative teams were based in America. I then interned at Ralph Lauren, where I discovered that I wanted to work for a smaller company. I went to Parsons and sustainability became very important to me. I hated the idea of being wasteful. I was that person who couldn’t throw away a rubber band if I thought I could possibly use it later. After Parsons I moved to L.A. and decided to start my own brand. I wanted to make clothes for everyday and not just create special pieces that never get worn. I wanted my art to be lived and not just hung in a closet.

How has your experience been being a young female founder?

On the one hand, it’s very exciting because in our current society, women have a voice and more opportunity. There are companies providing funds for female employees to freeze their eggs now. Even if they have ulterior motives, these companies understand that women bring so much value to the table and should have equal opportunity.

On the other hand, it’s also difficult. My dad is an entrepreneur and he’s my mentor. Without having him as my resource I know it would be a lot harder. For example, if I want to get a temporary real estate lease, he helps negotiate the pop-up space. I’ve learned from other experiences that just by hearing my voice on the phone I’m not going to get anywhere in a real estate negotiation.

Why did you divide the Evewear collections into categories like Tomboy, Free Spirit, Icon, Girl Next Door and Romantic?

At Parsons I learned that when you design, you have to have one particular customer in mind and know her inside out. You make up this fictional person. Does she like to read? Is she a vegan? I never understood this way of thinking. Women are multidimensional. We’re complicated. I didn’t want to meet someone and decide she wasn’t my customer. Instead, I wanted to point her to the collection that might work for her.

What are the constraints of using sustainable materials?

Rolls of fabric are mostly made overseas. Obtaining this fabric is very wasteful because you have to order 55 yards or 110 yards and there is always going to be leftover fabric. I buy the leftover fabric from different warehouses. The biggest constraint of using sustainable materials is that some of the styles that get sold out won’t come back. Once I cut a fabric that’s the end of that fabric. The original fabric can’t be replicated.

What are your short-term and long-term goals?

I recently launched hair clips as one of our accessories. Accessories are more affordable to customers who can’t pay for a pajama set.

Originally when I founded Evewear, I wanted to start with something niche. Long-term, I’d like to expand into going-out clothes and maybe bedding.

What are some of the challenges you’re facing?

When you run a business it’s 24/7. I never realized in my previous jobs that it’s a luxury leaving the office and leaving work there. Being young, I’m still navigating what it means to be a human in the world and now as a business owner I also have to juggle having employees and managing a company.

What’s your advice to someone who is starting a fashion brand?

Listen to your inner voice and answer that inner voice. Everyone will have advice for you but don’t get lost in the sauce.

How do you create a unique voice for your brand?

This brand reflects my inner world: pastels, playful, strong female energy. I saw a quote that resonated with me and it was “My soul is baby pink.” I have a team, but I’m behind every aspect of Evewear.

Ashley Wu

Ashley Wu was working as a fashion writer when she wanted to find a place to work outside of the home. During her search for a co-working space, she found the available options on the Upper East Side uninspiring. At the same time she became a mother and was navigating the challenges of balancing a career with motherhood. She decided to create what she, herself, was craving: a female-focused club where you can go to work, attend an event, or simply have a haven to decompress. She spoke about her vision for Maison and how she turned it into a reality.

How does Maison distinguish itself from the other female-focused co-working spaces?

First, men are allowed and can apply to be members but Maison is a brand that puts moms first. Moms are usually an afterthought. All of our programming takes place after school drop off. Our amenities are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Second, this is the first female-focused club on the Upper East Side. The other clubs are all downtown. And Maison is designed for women further along in their careers, most members are 30-50 years old rather than in their 20s. Other female-focused clubs are centered on how to be more productive and do more with less time. I have a different philosophy at Maison.

What’s your philosophy?

There’s this notion that busy is better. I want to encourage people to slow down. We’ll all be more productive if we prioritize ourselves.

There was a study that found that moms prioritize the following from most important to least important: kids, pets, older relatives, spouses, themselves. The fact that moms rank themselves two tiers below the family pet is shocking and sad.

How does Maison encourage women to prioritize themselves?

This is a place for you to think. You can definitely come to Maison to work. But you can also come here and read for pleasure. Women and especially moms already lead busy and complicated lives. I want Maison to be the break in their day. Maison is defining wellness beyond green juice and yoga.

There are already so many expectations and pressures put on women. Professional productivity is not what gives us value. If I have the space to think about who I am, who I want to be, how I want to raise my kids, and what kind of legacy I want to leave, then I’d consider that a productive use of time.

What kind of programming does Maison offer?

We create partnerships with likeminded organizations and communities. We held an event where we brought in the CEO of Planned Parenthood. We also do fun things like manicures, facials and acupuncture for our members. We’re still figuring out the cadence of our event calendar but we generally plan 2-3 events a week.

How do most members utilize Maison?

The space is flexible – it’s not set up with just a row of desks. Most members work from here. But there’s also wine on tap. Some people stop here on their way home from work and grab a drink before they go home to the chaos. Many members are entrepreneurs so it’s an opportunity for them to interact with other people. There are many moms who took a break from their careers and are now turning passion projects into businesses.

Nadia Hadi

Nadia Hadi works for the Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) as the Team Leader for the Great Lakes region of Africa. She currently focuses on coordinating the response to the Ebola epidemic in the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Hadi provides policy advice to U.N. senior officials on humanitarian developments, coordinates with U.N. agencies, Member States and NGOs on humanitarian assistance, and supports the OCHA Offices in the field.

Did you always want to work for the United Nations?

I visited the U.N. in Geneva when I was nine years old. I thought it was a wonderful place where different people from various nationalities came together. I studied Law and Criminal Science but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do professionally. I had an international background because my mother is English and my father is Egyptian but I was born and raised in France. After I got my masters, my father reminded me of my U.N. visit and my humanitarian interests. My nickname was the Peacemaker because I always tried to mitigate conflict. For my father it was obvious – he thought I should explore an internship at the U.N. So I did, and eventually I was offered a full-time job. I’ve been there ever since. This job combines all of my interests and is deep down what I always wanted to do.

Can you share what a mission looks like – what are you doing while you’re abroad?

I go on two different types of missions: As the Team Leader for the Great Lakes region of Africa, I oversee all of our humanitarian operations. I support our office there and offer strategic support. I augment their existing capacity.

I’m also part of the U.N. Disaster Assessment and Coordination team. When there is a typhoon or earthquake coming, I am dispatched with a team as part of an international emergency response. We put in place a coordination system with countries, organizations, government officials, etc. It becomes very chaotic and my job is to organize the chaos. We identify who is coming with what, who is being affected, what the needs are and how to get the people what they need. I manage all of those logistics.

How much of your work is dealing with government officials and how much interaction do you have with the people affected on the ground?

Unfortunately, my role is limited when it comes to interacting with the people on the ground. I don’t have that gratification of seeing the people that we are helping. My role consists of coordinating on a strategic level. My job is to help the organizations that help the people (i.e. UNICEF).

What are some of the challenges you encounter when you’re on a mission abroad?

When you’re dispatched during an emergency it’s very stressful. You’re under tremendous pressure. You can work fast but it’s never fast enough. You have to be prepared for long hours and little sleep. Sometimes you end up in a country that you’re not familiar with. You need to make friends quickly despite having little background.

How do you handle working in such an emotionally intense environment?

It’s important to have space for yourself so you don’t get too affected by disasters. I’m very close to my family back in France. My family helps me stay grounded and reminds me where I came from. You also have to take care of yourself. When I’m exhausted, I make sure that I get some sleep. I go for a run when I’m under a lot of pressure. You need to know your limit and refuel when you’ve reached it.

What are you most proud of?

[Prior to her current position in New York, Hadi was based in Timor-Leste for six years where she supported the nascent country in her capacity as Humanitarian Affairs Officer with OCHA, as Special Assistant to the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and then as Head of the Office of the United Nations Resident Coordinator.]

I recruited two young colleagues in Timor-Leste. It’s important to have national staff. When I met them, they hardly spoke any English. We built their skills, grew their confidence, and taught them English. Now one of them is the Secretary of State and the other is the head of the office that I used to run in Timor-Leste. It was very rewarding to give these two women the power to change their lives and contribute to their country.

Who inspires you?

I’m inspired by Rosa Parks who stood her ground despite the tremendous pressure she was under. She taught me that one person can make a difference.

Kofi Annan, the past Secretary-General of the U.N. He started as an intern like me and grew within the organization. I had the opportunity to work with him several times and he always considered the greater good.

Dr. Aparna Divaraniya

Dr. Aparna (Amy) Divaraniya has a PhD in genetics and genomics from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. Her work focused on using molecular network models to mine large-scale data for disease discovery purposes. She is the Co-Founder and CEO of OOVA, a hormone measurement tool used to help women understand their fertility on a deeper and more comprehensive level. OOVA will undoubtedly transform the fertility space and enable women to get detailed information about their bodies and their cycles in a non-invasive way, thereby facilitating their ability to take control of their reproductive health.

How did you come up with the idea for OOVA?

I have a strong background in Biology. I was a researcher and then pursued a PhD at Mount Sinai in Biological Sciences. I was mentored by some of the greatest minds in the field. Toward the end of my PhD, my husband and I started trying for a baby. I predicted it would be hard to conceive because my cycle was never regular. We made the decision that if I couldn’t get pregnant naturally, we wouldn’t have children. We did not want to go the invasive route and do IVF. For 18 months, I took my temperature every day, I downloaded every app, but I was no smarter 18 months later than I was on day 1. Eventually, I got pregnant but the road to getting there was extremely difficult.

I started with the concept for OOVA, but it was hard translating the idea into a product. The root piece of information you need in order to get pregnant is hormone data. We wanted to quantitatively provide hormone measurements to women in a non-invasive way.

Tell me more about OOVA and how it works.

The test strip is similar to a pregnancy test where a woman would provide a urine sample directly to it. She would then use the OOVA app on her phone to scan the test strip and get real-time fertility hormone measurements along with personalized action items.

What stage is OOVA at and when will the product be released to the public?

We already have a prototype built and we did a beta test over the summer. We are in the process of closing our fundraising round. The proceeds will go into the R&D for detecting progesterone in the urine sample. In 6 months OOVA will be released to the public.

What’s your competitive advantage?

We’re a 100% personalized test. Your data is not compared to a woman with a regular cycle. We’re comparing data to each woman’s individualized baseline. OOVA is not an ovulation test. It’s a quantitative fertility assessment. The app will provide recommendations and action plans based on the data gathered.

What are your short-term and long-term goals?

Short-term goals: Get this initial product out and impact the fertility space.

Long-term goals: Create a personalized diagnostic tool for women’s healthcare including the ability to detect menopause early and any other issues. Supplemented with IVF, OOVA can eliminate the need for a woman to go in to a lab every day for a blood draw.

Why are you uniquely positioned to tackle the fertility space?

I’ve personally dealt with issues conceiving. Having that personal drive is the most powerful force for a startup. I bring the biology and science know-how and my partner brings the technology skills. He turns my ideas into something I can hold in my hand.

What book made the greatest impression on you?

The Startup Owner’s Manual. The main concept in the book is “Get out of the Building” (also known as “GOOB”). Founders like to stay safe behind their computers. This book pushes founders to get out of the building, get feedback sooner rather than later and make it more of a dynamic process.

What keeps you up at night?

We’re about to start a new chapter. It’s exciting and we’ve been eager to get it out in the market. Women want it and OOVA will transform women’s healthcare, but it’s also a lot of pressure. I want to make sure we deliver a quality product. I don’t want it to come across as gimmicky or tapping the surface. I want to actually solve the problem.

Katie Sturino

Katie Sturino is the founder of, a fashion blog for women who wear sizes 12-18. She’s a social media influencer with 280,000 followers on Instagram. She uses the platform to publicly call out brands that don’t carry inclusive sizes and encourages them to offer clothing for the majority of women in America. Sturino is also the founder of Megababe Beauty, which sells non-toxic products that solve every day problems for women.

What’s your professional background?

I started working in PR because I was interested in fashion and thought that was my way in. But I realized that the fashion PR environment was toxic so I started my own PR firm and did that for eight years. Then I switched to Instagram mode full-force. My background in PR gave me a good foundation for what I’m doing now. I learned how to promote myself and talk to the media.

What brands are most inclusive and which brands need improvement?

Anne Taylor Loft and Madewell are doing a good job at being inclusive. Pretty much every other brand needs to work on it.

We’re still making clothes for the person we think we should be rather than who we are.

What are your short-term and long-term goals?

Short-term goals: I want to continue encouraging brands to invite other women into their shopping experience. I’d like to help more women accept themselves and find their confidence. I was recently on Good Morning America and helped style women of all sizes in trendy outfits. I’d love to do more of that because I enjoy helping people get dressed.

Long-term goals: I want to launch more products for Megababe that are game changers.

You spoke about helping women accept who they truly are. How did you come to accept who you are?

For a long time, I wasn’t taking inventory of myself. I was just in survival mode – head-down, barreling through my life. I eventually took a step back through therapy, energy healing and meditation and found out that I was exposing myself to a lot of things that weren’t making me happy.

My brain switched from constantly trying to reach a certain goal weight to just embracing that this is my size and I look great.

Why did you found Megababe?

Originally, I wanted to make a thigh chafing stick for women who didn’t want to use a product meant for men. I then saw a need for a good natural deodorant and a product for boob sweat.

How is your public persona different from your private personality?

It’s the same. That’s why my job is so easy. I don’t hold anything back. I never feel like I’m “on.”

What was one of your most popular posts and why do you think it resonated with people?

#SuperSizeMyLook are my most popular posts because they’re fun. They make you look at yourself differently. You may think that you can’t pull off Kate Middleton’s style if you don’t look exactly like her. But in fact, you can pull off her style and I’ll show you how.

How do you determine how much of your private life to share with the public?

I don’t share my day-to-day emotional commentary because I don’t personally find that interesting. If I’m having a bad day, I’m probably not going to get into it on Instagram.

I also don’t tend to post a lot about my romantic relationship. Always posting about your partner can be alienating for those who don’t have a partner. I don’t enjoy most relationship content and find it kind of obnoxious and in-your-face.

Also, many influencers on Instagram start their stories with “you guys” and I really try to avoid doing that.

What life experience has had the greatest impact on you?

My divorce. It opened my eyes. It broke the magic spell that my life was supposed to be a certain way. I realized that life is fragile and you can’t control everything. Your reaction and your ability to recover is what’s important.

What are you struggling with these days? What keeps you up at night?

Megababe – my desire to move fast and grow the brand.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I want to have an impact on women’s lives and the way they feel about themselves. I want women to find their value not from their bodies or their relationships but from their hearts and minds.

Shirin Ershadi

Shirin Ershadi is an Iranian translator and interpreter. Most notably, Ershadi travels the world with Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts advancing democracy and human rights in Iran. Ershadi spoke with Forward Females about her career path and her experience translating for Ebadi.

How did you end up working as a translator?

When I finished high school in Iran I decided to take the law school entrance exam. My father discouraged me from going to law school because I was a woman. He thought I’d be persecuted in various ways. My mother never took my interest in law seriously because she thought I’d eventually realize that I couldn’t realistically pursue a career as a lawyer. I pursued it anyway. I went on to study criminal law and criminology as a postgraduate. A professor approached me and said that he noticed my English was perfect. He then asked if I would translate for some of the other professors. After graduating in 1972, I worked with the Central Bank of Iran, but in the evenings I continued translating for professors.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

I often translate in court and my job can be stressful when it involves high stakes cases. For example, in a murder case, the slightest translation mistake can change the final outcome and sentence.

Would you recommend what you do to others?

I would recommend it, but it’s not for everyone. It takes a certain personality. You have to be obsessive compulsive about words and their meaning. It takes tremendous concentration and focus.

How do you avoid mental fatigue?

You can’t avoid mental fatigue. At conferences and in court you alternate with another translator every 30 minutes.

Ershadi with the Dalai Lama in 2013 in Chicago.

Farsi has some very colorful idioms/expressions – how do you capture the message with translation and what do you think is lost?

I try to get the overall message across and not simply translate word for word. In order to do this well, you have to be educated enough in both languages to convey the correct meaning.

Do people alter the way they speak when they are using a translator?

When using a translator in court, people become more formal and it’s harder to decipher what they really mean. For example, instead of saying “4pm in the afternoon” people would say “toward the evening.” This ends up being more ambiguous and necessitates further questioning.

How do you think technology will impact your profession?

This may be a dying business in the future. But right now the technology has not been perfected to capture the nuances of Farsi. Computer generated translation has been more focused on the languages with Latin roots. In Farsi the root of the words are not the same as in Latin so the message can’t be conveyed as easily.

Ershadi and Ebadi.

How did you become Shirin Ebadi’s translator?

We were friends in law school. After law school, she became a judge but we continued to socialize with each other. When I came to the states in 1988 I lost track of her as well as many of my other friends from Iran.

In 1998, Ebadi received a human rights award in LA. I went to the ceremony and spoke with her afterward. Following this reunion we stayed in touch and when she won the Nobel Peace Prize, I told her I’d gladly translate for her whenever she was in America (she mainly spoke at universities or at the UN). She agreed and then asked me to travel with her.

What has your experience been like translating for Ebadi?

We are friends who reminisce about our life in Iran and our law school experiences, but we also share many of the same values. I’m a human rights activist and a member of the International Criminal Court Alliance in LA, which is an educational NGO founded in 2002. I believe we need an international criminal court that all countries need to participate in to reduce crimes against humanity, such as slavery and gender persecution.

At a Los Angeles City Council meeting in July of 2018. Ershadi is in the front holding the City Council’s Resolution in support of the International Criminal Court.

Have you ever felt in danger?

Only indirectly. I’ve felt in danger because I’ve heard Ebadi receive many threats. Whenever she engages in controversial discussions her safety is at risk.

What has been a memorable moment with her?

During the peak of the Iraqi war I attended a book signing with Ebadi in a Mid-Western state. She is a peace advocate and at the event she expressed her anti-war views. After she spoke, people lined up to get their copies of the book signed by her. I sat next to Ebadi at the book signing and one Iranian woman came up to her and said, “You really shouldn’t criticize President Bush. You’re speaking in a red state and you’re a guest in this country.” Then another Iranian woman in line came forward and said, “You didn’t criticize President Bush enough. You should have gone into more detail about the horrible things happening in Iraq and how many people have been killed.” Ebadi pointed to the previous critic and said, “You see that woman over there? Go resolve your differences.”

Dini Klein

Dini Klein is a chef, food media personality, and the founder of Prep + Rally, a completely customized meal prep service emphasizing simple, nourishing, and flavorful food. She conducts Prep + Rally demonstrations through interactive live Instagram stories. Klein has harnessed the unique power of social media to create a robust following of busy millennials who follow her recipes, makeup tutorials, workout videos and motherhood ups and downs.

How did you get into cooking?

I’ve always been creative. I went to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) to study fashion design and merchandising, only to discover that I didn’t want to go into the fashion industry.

In 2010 I started a blog called Dini Delivers where I posted recipes. I was inspired by Giada De Laurentiis and wanted to be just like her. I was also attracted to the artistic side of cooking and enjoyed it as a creative outlet. I turned Dini Delivers into a business and began cooking for young singles in my building on the Upper West Side. They were tired of ordering from the same takeout places and they would bring back their moms’ home-cooked meals whenever they went home for the weekend. I wanted to compete with their moms.

What kind of professional training do you have?

I went to the CKCA (The Center for Kosher Culinary Arts) for three months, and then interned at Prime Grill where I got hands on experience in a restaurant.

The CKCA also connected me to an Upper West Side family that was looking for a chef to cook Friday night dinners for them every week. I transitioned from cooking occasionally for young singles to families who wanted regular meals and could pay a premium. I didn’t focus on advertising and got more clients through word of mouth. Another family asked me to do a weekly “fridge stocker” for them. I also offered “party preppers,” which included catering small events or intimate parties.

Has keeping kosher ever interfered with your career?

Yes. I worked with a production company and we filmed a few episodes called Tradishin’ with Dini that we pitched to a large food media company. I tried to do a fresh take on traditional Jewish food. Admittedly, it was premature and way too early in my career. The media company was not interested.

A few years later, I pitched again and the only critique was that they didn’t want me to cook kosher food. It was too niche. At the time, I was heartbroken. It felt unfair that because of my religious observance I couldn’t advance my career.

How did you connect with Tastemade?

I was working on building my social media presence and I started a YouTube Channel where I hosted food personalities and featured cooking tutorials.

Tastemade reached out to me (Tastemade is a large digital food network with 7 million followers on Instagram) to create recipes and work on an original content series. Now I have my own show on Tastemade called Super Simple with Dini.

How did you go from personal chef to entrepreneur?

I was burnt out and wanted to try something different besides working as a personal chef. The whole meal prep concept came to me when I started to cook on Sunday nights to get ready for the week. Since it was my solution for my family I thought it could be a good solution for others. Meal prep is trendy right now for weight loss but I’m focused on family meal prep for busy, working moms who need to preserve their sanity and make sure they have easy, healthy food for the week. 

How does Prep + Rally work?

Prep + Rally is a monthly subscription service ($11.99/month). Every Wednesday night I send out an ingredient list and then on Sunday nights we cook together live on Instagram like an interactive cooking show. It’s 1- 1.5 hours of cooking for a week’s worth of food.

I like to think of it as group fitness for the food space. We do it together, we drink wine and we hold each other accountable.

What are your short-term and long-term goals?

Short-term goals: Growing my brand and having a successful business.

Long-term goals: I’d love to publish a cookbook and sell a cookware line.

Why did you decide to include more lifestyle content like makeup tutorials and workout videos on your social media?

People love that stuff. Personal pictures get four times as many likes on Instagram. I’m building a connection with my followers. The personal content humanizes me.

How do you determine how much of your personal life to share on social media?  

I keep my marriage very private. I’m fine sharing stuff about my kids, but I’m careful never to tag locations or share specifics about their lives like the name of their school.

What was the reception to you sharing your experience getting Botox?

I was anti-Botox for a long time and then I met a dermatologist who offered it to me for free and convinced me that it wasn’t unhealthy. Because I’m on TV, I did it as a preventative measure for anti-aging. People were interested and I was surprised that I didn’t get much criticism.

How involved is your husband Mike in your business? 

I met Mike because he’s a sports broadcasting talent agent. One of his clients happened to be a chef and a mutual friend connected us to discuss how I could advance professionally. We ended up hitting it off and getting married!

Since he’s a lawyer by trade, he negotiates contracts for me. But otherwise, I don’t involve him too much because he’s consumed with a full-time job. He used to film my cooking tutorials and my live stories on Instagram. We decided that it’s better for our marriage to create clearer boundaries and for us not to work together anymore. That’s one of the reasons I hired a part-time employee.

How do you balance motherhood with being an entrepreneur?

Both of my kids are in school so I have a chunk of time during the day when they’re out of the house. I’m learning to be present in the moment. When I’m working, I’m fully working and it has my complete attention. But when my kids get home from school at 5 PM until they go to sleep at 7:30 PM, I try to focus on them.

Christine Dodson and Sascha Mayer

Christine Dodson and Sascha Mayer are the founders of Mamava, the leading expert in lactation space design. Mamava supports the 21st-century breastfeeding mother on-the-go with freestanding lactation pods, a mobile locator app, and an engaged digital community. There are currently more than 600 Mamava suites across the United States and Canada. In 2018, Dodson and Mayer were named Vermont Small Business Persons of the Year.

Can you please describe your professional journey and how you ended up where you are today?

Sascha: I worked for Bernie Sanders and was drawn to his progressive politics. I always had a desire to be politically active. I went on to work for the design studio Solidarity of Unbridled Labour (formerly JDK). My parents were artists and I was always creative. Christine and I were colleagues at the design studio and we decided to launch Mamava in 2006. Mamava was an opportunity for me to go back to my activist roots. It feels wonderful to work for a business that is also advocating for change.

Christine: I worked in advertising and design. I was conditioned to think of a problem in the world and then to design a solution. On a personal level, I was the first woman to have a baby and come back to work at the design studio. My own experience was eye opening in terms of what I needed to do to get back into work and the studio’s lack of awareness of the support they needed to provide.

How do you divide the roles and responsibilities as co-founders?

Sascha is the left brain – she focuses on the brand, design and mission.

Christine is the right brain – she’s in charge of operations and product development.

What are you short-term and long-term goals?

Our short-term goal is to constantly improve our mobile app. Our long-term goal is to change the culture of breastfeeding. It’s bigger than sales or digital products. Lack of infrastructure and lack of knowledge shouldn’t get in the way of breastfeeding.

Is there too much pressure on women to breastfeed?

There is too much pressure if it’s not a realistic choice. We don’t judge whatever a woman decides but we want to help make it a realistic choice.

There’s a whole movement to help de-stigmatize women nursing in public. Does your product impede women from publicly breastfeeding without shame?

We originally came up with this idea for women to pump privately because if women had to travel for work it meant having to pump in a dirty bathroom stall. When we put the first Mamava suite in Burlington airport, we were hearing from moms that they were using it to breastfeed. It was described as a quiet oasis. When you’re traveling with little kids, it’s nice to have a quiet place to feed your baby. Also many women don’t have the luxury to even breastfeed their child while traveling. If they go back to work soon after giving birth, they will need to pump.

What was your biggest career mistake?

Christine: there are definitely things in my career path that make me cringe. The hardest thing for me professionally is moving up in level of management. It’s not intuitive for me to manage large groups of people.

Sascha: I wasn’t deliberate with my career trajectory. Instead, I was along for the ride. Millennial moms are much more assertive about driving their career, and that’s something that I admire.

What are you most proud of?

We manufacture our products in Vermont, a place that has lost a lot of its infrastructure. We have a tangible object that makes people’s lives easier, and makes people think. We created a business where people want to work.

Who inspires you?

The millennial moms who are on social media, engaging with us and pushing potential customers to change their cultures and buy Mamavas. There are young moms with babies who are making it look so achievable and have created wonderful balance and partnerships in their home lives. The younger cohort is inspirational.

How do you balance motherhood with your work?

Christine: I have three sons and they can all speak very intelligently about what I do. My youngest is now 16 so I’m out of the weeds and don’t have to be as available to my kids as when they were younger.

Sascha: When you’re running a company, you’re working 24/7 so I brought my kids into it. My 12 year-old says that she wants to be a CEO just like me. My son always asks, “did you sell any Mamavas today?”

What life experience has influenced your work?

The importance of working in the community that you live in. Creating ways to be available to your family. Vermont is not an easy place to have a business but it is a beautiful place to live with quality of life. Living in a place that you love and making it work.

What are you struggling with these days?

Scale and all of the implications as we grow. Not growing too fast and maintaining our unique culture. Figuring out how to scale in a healthy and deliberate way.

Ilana Ruskay-Kidd

Ilana Ruskay-Kidd has spent her professional life working with students and creating environments that best foster their growth and development. In 2014, she pioneered Shefa, a Jewish Day School serving children with learning disabilities. Miriam Levine sat down with Ruskay-Kidd to better understand its inception and her vision for the future.

IRK Headshot

What was your background prior to founding Shefa?

After I graduated college, I worked in a public school in Harlem. Once I had kids, it was hard balancing motherhood with being a classroom teacher. If my nanny was 10 minutes late, I had 26 kids waiting for me on the rug in school. I transitioned into a consulting role where I worked with various daycare programs throughout the city. I learned a lot but I missed having a home base. I wanted an office with a phone in case something happened to one of my own children and I needed to be reached. I didn’t want to be running around the city every day. I was then hired by the JCC of Manhattan to be the Director of Young Families and over time I became the Preschool Director at the JCC.

What was it like working in the Jewish community? 

I loved integrating my personal and professional life. I would listen to music at a Sabbath gathering at the JCC and feel personally moved. I felt like I could bring my whole self to work.

How did you go from Preschool Director at the JCC to Founder of the Shefa School?

A big part of my job as the preschool director was helping kids get into kindergarten. I saw the landscape – there were great special needs schools in the secular world and then there were Jewish day schools that couldn’t properly serve kids with special needs. There was such a demand for a Jewish school for students with learning disabilities. I wrote up a proposal to the JCC for a school that would fill this void and opened Shefa in 2014.

Mezzuzah hanging 2016

Who does Shefa serve?

We work with students in grades 1-8 with language-based learning disabilities. The majority of our students are social kids who have difficulty with literacy. Some kids can read but can’t understand what they’re reading. Others can’t read the words off the page but can understand when someone else reads to them. All children come in with a neuropsychological evaluation, which is a 6-12 hour process that includes a diagnosis. Shefa offers two hours of reading every day in small groups. We currently have 143 students.

Where do the students go when they graduate Shefa in 8th grade?

We had our first graduating class last year. Ten out of the eleven graduates were able to return to mainstream high schools. Most kids who come to Shefa stay for 3-4 years and are then able to return to mainstream schools.

How is Shefa working with other schools?

We’re really thinking about how to help the field. We are constantly meeting with Jewish day schools and organizing workshops to share best practices for serving these students. For example, students have different processing speeds. If a teacher asks a question to the class, the kids who process faster will raise their hands first while others need a few extra seconds. In order to ensure that it’s not the same two kids getting called on, we instruct teachers to wait longer after asking a question and then they’ll see more hands go up.

first day of school

What kind of teachers do you hire?

We have a teacher residency program where we hire recent college graduates for two years and then help pay for their graduate school. No one comes in with the full package. I focus on hiring people who are smart, reflective, and good team players. We currently have 70 employees at Shefa.

What keeps you up at night?

The first couple of years after I started Shefa, I was always having an existential crisis. Would we survive? Would we be able to guarantee jobs to our teachers next year? Now, we are stable and I don’t have those same fears. Instead, I’m thinking about how to grow and how to support the field. Our future is amorphous.