Michelle Buelow is a boss mama, Founder & CEO of Bella Tunno! She is from Pennsylvania, but lives in Charlotte, North Carolina where her creative baby products are dreamed up and where she is raising two incredible daughters, Riley (17) and Ella (13) with her husband, Todd.
We wanted to get the scoop from her about living in the tension of being a working mom and a business owner — and honestly, every bit of it was PURE GOLD.
For the working mom dreaming about having her own company or the one already in the thick of leading and creating – this one is for you! Enjoy getting to know Michelle!
What made you start Bella Tunno?
In 2003, I lost my brother and only sibling, Matt, to an accidental overdose. Prior to losing him, I’d been totally focused on my career, always working toward the next promotion and doing everything I could to climb the corporate ladder two rungs at a time. But once I lost him, none of that mattered to me anymore.
I wasn’t sure what was next, but I did know I wanted to launch a charitable fund to help other vulnerable kids break destructive cycles, and leave a legacy for my brother. From that passion, Bella Tunno was born. I found out I was pregnant shortly after his passing, so out of necessity, I started making bibs and burp cloths. It was only baby products because I was expecting a daughter and needed gifts for baby showers. The look of our products was fashionably mature for baby products and there was a white space for this bold, bright, modern look in the baby accessory industry. I started selling the products both wholesale and retail, and from day one, Bella Tunno has donated a portion of every sale to the Matt Tunno Make a Difference Fund.
Why are you passionate about what you do?
While we’ve always been a give-back brand, in the beginning, our focus was almost solely on drug and alcohol abuse prevention. That was a passion point for me due to my family story, but there was a disconnect between our mission and our customers. We make products for new parents and their babies, and the last thing they want to think about after bringing new life into the world is the possibility of that child becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol later in life.
So, in 2014, when I came across statistics that show 20% of the children in the US go to bed hungry, and kids who go hungry are more likely to fall into addictive behaviors I saw a bridge between a huge need and my passion. That’s when I realized that if we focused on ending childhood hunger, we might also be able to help those children avoid falling into addiction later in life.
Since then, Bella Tunno has donated at least one meal to a hungry child for every product sold, through partnerships with Feeding America and the Global FoodBanking Network. To date, we’ve donated more than 6.6 million meals to people in need, and that number is growing by the day. It’s hard to describe how great it feels to be doing something that helps our community at large, but also honors my brother. That’s definitely where my passion comes from.
How did you start a company with little kids at home?
Love, determination, and a healthy relationship with failure. I had no business starting a company when I did. I was only a few years out of college, didn’t have a design degree, and had never produced or manufactured anything. Early on, my learning came from one failure after the next. It was all new to me: manufacturing abroad, scaling to work with retail giants like Target and Nordstrom, growing a team. I didn’t have a mentor in the industry and I didn’t know what I was doing. I made a commitment to myself early on that our success would be measured by how many people we helped. That was both motivating and freeing. I was able to forgive myself for mistakes because I knew my intentions. I also committed to failing forward, which I define as not making the same mistake twice.
What’s been the scariest part of going for it?
The idea that we can never know what we don’t know is terrifying. It sounds so simple, it’s what’s up around the bend that is terrifying. A national recession, a global pandemic, the fall of retail, etc. There is no way to predict the future and so much generosity and good work rides on our success. I don’t want to let anyone down – my brother, our team, or the kids we are feeding – so I carry a lot of weight on my shoulders. We have a motto, “learn and turn” at Bella Tunno, which means that we may not be able to predict the future, but we are going to take every opportunity to learn from the past.
How could you encourage other working mommas who are juggling passion and homelife?
If you decide to launch your own business:
- Fiercely commit to your values.
Set your brand values and use them to guide your decision-making. No matter how big or how small the decision, use them as your north star. And if a potential decision does not align with your values, walk away.
Our company values are:
- SOCIAL IMPACT- The commitment that we will use our company to make people’s lives better.
- CONFETTI THROWING – The celebratory art of uplifting and recognizing goodness.
- CREATIVE FREEDOM – The unconventional permission to dismiss the status quo.
- COLLECTIVE POWER – The shared belief that we can do more together.
- UNAPOLOGETIC CURIOSITY – The need to constantly question the norm in order to rise above it.
When I look back at mistakes I’ve made in hiring, selecting company partners, or new product launches, I can tie each one back to a sacrifice of company values.
- Find your own measuring stick for success.
Success is not just about the money. For our brand, success is measured in meal donations. Early on, I didn’t feel like our company was big enough to deserve a seat at the table. Even as we doubled year over year, our company never seemed to be growing fast enough or hitting the big numbers that I watched other brands hit. Over time, I’ve learned there is always going to be a faster-growing, more profitable, larger company than yours – when you measure your success on sales alone. But when your success is linked to something beyond the numbers, your passion and drive and confidence become explosive. Meal donations drive everything we do at Bella Tunno because that’s how we measure success. It’s meals donated, not dollars earned. The money has to be there, and the two things are directly related, but measuring success in meals is so much more impactful.
The most important lesson I’ve learned since starting this company is: When your purpose is shallow, the victories are empty. And when your purpose is deep, the victories are meaningful.
We hope you enjoyed getting to know Michelle! Have a working mom doing great things? Nominate here HERE!