How I Did It: Melissa Atkins Wardy, Founder of Pigtail Pals, LLC

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It is interesting how life whispers to you, hinting at what your story should be, or maybe, how your story should change. My story changed with the birth of my daughter. It took my having a girl child to recognize that in 2006 not a single infant tee in all of humankind showed a girl flying an airplane.

This was a problem for me because my child is named for Amelia Earhart, and I wanted a cute little outfit for her to wear as she met my extended family for the first time. I was adrift in a sea of pink and princess.

A few months later I was chatting with some girlfriends while our babies played on the floor, and one of the mothers challenged me as to why I never dress my daughter in ‘girly’ and princess-y things.

I’ll forward us to the end of that conversation, which left me confused and hurt that my closing argument was met with the sound of crickets when I said, “I don’t want to teach her to wish on a star and wait for a prince. I want to raise her to build her own rocket ship and soar to that star for herself. But you can’t find that on a t-shirt for little girls.”

In that moment my company, Pigtail Pals – Redefine Girly, was born.

I raced home, filled a notebook with ideas and sketches, called an artist friend of mine, and started researching online commerce. I was bursting with ideas, and filled a second notebook full of sketches of toys and packaging and storybooks and bedroom decor all based on this line of shirts for girls I would create – a feminist movement for the preschool set, if you will.

Girls deserved to be raised with messages that showed them as smart, daring, and adventurous. I was determined to give it to them, and at the same time, start talking to parents and bringing people together over the idea of fighting gender stereotypes and sexualization in childhood.

Launching a business in a downturned economy with two very small children balanced on either hip is no small task. In fact, bank after bank told me I couldn’t do it. Finally I went hat in hand to my parents, and asked if they would loan me the money for this start-up.

My husband and I had no savings for this kind of thing; we had spent everything we had on infertility treatments and hospital bills after having two babies in two years.

My dad told me it was a great idea, but he’d need to see a business plan. I had no idea how to write a business plan, and told my dad that my college degree was in Criminology. He told me if I had a college degree I could figure it out.

Now would be pertinent to mention that I had fired my original artist because she wasn’t meeting deadlines and we had missed some major opportunities during the 2008 Presidential election. I then turned to my mom, a former art teacher, and asked if she would help me with the art.

Within a few months I had nine designs to launch the company with. I had a printer and a website and business cards and energy and I was ready to roll. I ordered my first run of shirts from my printer while sitting on the edge of the bathtub, my foot against the door trying to keep my two toddlers out of the bathroom long enough to finish the phone call.

Pigtail Pals launched, and the feedback was amazing. Parents loved it. A year later the blog launched, and now it has a loyal following. When I would do trunk shows and explain my line to people, I would have men shake my hand and say “Well done.” I would watch as women smiled from ear to ear, or well up with tears and hug me. I knew I had tapped into something that really resonated with parents.

I knew people wanted more for their daughters. Now after nearly three years in business, I know what that “something” is. We are not honoring childhood with their media and toys.

Parents are looking for a return to the basics. Pigtail Pals now has over 30 designs for boys and girls that honor imagination, creativity, play, and exploring. Most of our tees focus on girl empowerment, self confidence, and positive body image, but in a way that speaks to young people – through illustrations and pictures.

Pigtail Pals had double viral events during back to back weeks in September of 2011. Going viral x2 was also overwhelming as thousands of shirt orders and hundreds of emails poured in. Again, the response was amazing as parent after parent said “Thank you for what you do for our girls”. A couple of girlfriends helped me around the clock as we sent out orders all over the world and to all 50 states.

Pigtail Pals has continues to grow, and I’ll be introducing some big changes and a new website this spring. I’ve hired three new artists to bring my ideas to life and create artistic apparel we feel honors the whimsy and imagination of early childhood. This spring I’m going to start including boys more in our work, because there isn’t just one half to childhood.

I’ve just signed a contract with a Chicago publisher for a book that will come out in Fall 2013 – a practical, friendly guide on how parents can fight the gender stereotypes and sexualization. The blog is still going strong, and every week I get at least one email with the message that my work has changed the way a parent sees their girls, changed the way they parent their girls. Then it’s my turn for the goose bumps.

So how did I do it? I wish I had some concrete answers, but I haven’t slept in three years so I’m not sure I know. What I do know are these three things:

1. Be Authentic – Know who you are and the sound of your voice, especially when you use social media. My back-to-back viral events came about because of two very specific instances when I was speaking my truth, and it resonated with people. When you talk with me on social media, there are no surprises. I do one thing and I do it well, day in and day out: I fight for our children’s right to a childhood. People come to me for that, and I respect their time by staying on task and continuing with a clear message.

2. Eat On The Floor – Crazy is my family’s new normal. I had to accept that our library books were always going to be late, laundry would get put away quarterly, and the dining room/office would be so crammed with orders that my family would have to improvise and have a picnic dinner underneath the table and eat on the floor. We are committed to loving each other and laughing our way through it. We just had to learn how to adjust our sails.

3. Believe In Your Product – Whatever your business is, believe in it. Be excellent at whatever you do. Hear the “no” as “not now”. Find mentors that want to see you succeed. Partner with other small businesses or like-minded professionals and create a little good karma by promoting each other. Whatever it is you do, commit to waking up every day knowing it is the most awesome thing you could be doing with your time.

About the Author

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Melissa Atkins Wardy is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals, LLC and writes the Redefine Girly blog. Her book will be published by Chicago Review Press in Fall 2013. She loves traveling and talking to parents about the important issues of gender stereotypes and sexualization in childhood. Melissa’s inspiration are her two spirited young children who fuel her passion for helping all parents realize the importance of childhood and creating products and apparel that carry that message.

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