LÄRABAR founder Lara Merriken launched her company after a Colorado mountain hike inspired her to make a better snack. On October 14, Merriken will share her best tips for success at WomenVenture’s Women Mean Business Luncheon & Marketplace alongside this year’s local “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained” award winners.
Photograph courtesy of General Mills
Lara Merriken, founder of LÄRABAR, keynote speaker WomenVenture’s 21st Anniversary Luncheon.
From the time she co-founded an odd jobs business with a friend in high school, Lara Merriken has had a passion for entrepreneurship. “We mowed 30 to 60 lawns a week, I kid you not,” she says. “We walked dogs and we grocery shopped. We wanted our own money, and it was really fun to have control of our own world.”
But it was at age 32, while munching trail mix on a mountaintop in Colorado’s Buena Vista, that she had an entrepreneurial epiphany about her hard-earned snack. “Why hadn’t someone created something just made of fruit, nuts, and spices without all these added things, but that tastes indulgent and delicious?” she wondered. “It really wasn’t anything other than a moment in my life, but for some reason, it hit me in a way where I thought, ‘I want to do this, and I’m going to put together a company.’”
After her hike, Merriken wrote down what she wanted: something delicious that would deliver better health, too. She combed the grocery stores for flavor ideas that would emulate treats like cookies, cakes, and pies.
With a background in psychology, Merriken began conducting field research, bringing handmade bars to family and friends’ offices and asking for feedback. She introduced LÄRABAR to nearby grocery stores three years later in 2003, cutting up samples of the 500 bars she and family members had spent hours making and packaging by hand, and chatting with shoppers about their health benefits. She remembers one woman who couldn’t believe her Cherry Pie bar tasted so good while only containing fruit and nuts until reading the three-ingredient label. “Nobody had ever seen anything like this. It was very unique,” Merriken says. The company sold 1 million bars in its first year.
After exponential growth, Merriken sold the business to General Mills in 2008, and continues to serve as its creative director as new flavors and products launch in a style that remains true to the brand she created. (New this year: LÄRABAR Bites in a stand-up pouch.) She attributes her success in part to following an authentic passion—in her case, passion for healthy, great-tasting food.
“I played volleyball in college, and my coach was very diligent about not eating sugar and junk food. It just stuck with me and became a side passion of really taking care of myself,” she says. “And going to the grocery store is like taking me to an amusement park. So when I had 25 jobs, and I was tired, it got me up in the morning because I was excited about what I was doing.”
And yes, she still eats and loves LÄRABARs.
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: Expanding Business Award
Photograph by Rebecca Sabot
Majority owner and CEO, Vogel Mechanical, Inc., Roseville, vogelmechanical.com
After a decade as a commercial sheet metal worker, Bonnie Vogel’s husband, Dave Vogel, came home from work one day ready for a change: “He was complaining that he could do it better, and I said, ‘Well, why don’t you?’” With his background in sheet metals and her background in business, sales, math, and accounting, the pair realized they were also the perfect business partners. Vogel Mechanical’s full operations began in June 1995, headquartered out of the family garage.
“We had two young kids at the time, and we were looking to have more control over our future, so we just bit the bullet and went for it,” Vogel says. “I think we had one $1,400 job on the books.”
With Vogel as CEO, the company now designs, fabricates, services, and supports mechanical system needs for a variety of projects, from Costco and L.A. Fitness to Mall of America’s new Rainforest Café and the Minnesota State Capitol. A 38,000-square-foot building in Roseville serves as headquarters these days, and the Vogel children, now grown up, are part of the business, too.
Vogel says WomenVenture’s Scale Up! Twin Cities program helped her company, where sales have nearly doubled since its best pre-recession years. For eight months, the 10 women business owners in the program met on Monday nights to learn useful tools and techniques in their efforts to grow their businesses exponentially. “Having that commitment forced me to take time away and work on the business instead of the day-to-day stuff,” she says. “Being in that group with other women business owners from various backgrounds, and being able to really be honest, supportive, and get people to move beyond a challenge or to think bigger was very exciting.” Equally exciting is her five-year plan: “We’re looking to triple our capacity and our work force.”
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: Social Entrepreneur Award
Photograph by Jenée Anderson
Owner and midwife, Roots Community Birth Center, Mpls., roots-midwifery.com
It was halfway through filming a documentary about a single mother navigating welfare reform in the 1990s that Rebecca Polston found her true passion in midwifery. “I quickly realized that I am not a documentary filmmaker, and I put down the camera and became her doula,” she says.
Now a certified professional midwife, Polston has attended more than 400 births, 150 as a primary midwife. She says each one reaffirms birth as a transformative experience that should be treated with importance, and with respect for each family’s unique cultural experience. To make this vision a reality for more Twin Cities families, Polston opened Roots Community Birth Center in September 2015. She says it’s a continuation of her mission to expand access to out-of-hospital care for local families from all backgrounds, particularly families of color.
“When I started doing my business plan, I found out that 58 percent of all babies born in the Twin Cities metro area are born to women of color, and yet less than 1 percent of my home birth and birth center counterparts’ clients were people of color,” she says. “From a financial perspective, we’re the ones who are having babies, so why wouldn’t we try to serve us?”
Roots differs from traditional maternity care in several ways. Hour-long appointments give staff ample time to “explore all the things that are going on with people in their lives and provide the support and counseling and assessment that fits with their own experiences,” and multiple family members are often present at appointments and births. It hires local staff who share the cultural experiences of its patients. And it provides comprehensive postnatal care, visiting new moms and babies at home in the first week to perform all newborn screening recommended by the Minnesota Department of Health, including breastfeeding support.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Far beyond the 32 births Polston had budgeted for the first year, Roots is on track to attend to nearly 70. “The U.S. does a terrible job in maternity care,” Polston says. “I am trying to run a practice that says, ‘we can do better.’”
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: Emerging Business Award
Photograph by Rebecca Sabot
Owner, CREATIONS Cabinetry, Woodbury, creationscabinets.com
For Maelei Catt, designing a kitchen is like piecing together a beautiful, functional puzzle. After a 2009 layoff from designing kitchens and managing projects and production for a big-box store, she decided to start a business dedicated to offering more options in affordable cabinetry. “Lots of people were trying to buy or sell homes but couldn’t afford traditional remodeling expenses during uncertain times,” Catt recalls. “I went into many homes where the ‘dream kitchen’ was to have cabinets that weren’t broken or coming off the wall.”
Armed with design and business expertise, Catt founded CREATIONS Cabinetry and set to work building affordable custom kitchens for her clientele, often assembling cabinetry at her dining room table. Demand rose so quickly that, at one point, Catt found herself turning away 25 percent of new business.
Catt credits WomenVenture as instrumental in boosting her company to the next level. It provided the business loan that gave her enough capital to open a store and hire employees, and it helped her set up an accounting system and select a payroll company to take care of employee payment and taxes. CREATIONS Cabinetry is on track to hit $1 million in revenue this year, more than double its revenue in 2015. She is proud of her company’s ability to fill a gap in the marketplace: “You don’t have to buy cabinets off the shelf and build them yourself if you are working with a really tight budget. We help customers navigate the different options and price points until they find something to meet their needs.”
The WomenVenture's 21st Annual Fall Luncheon and Marketplace is Friday, October 14, at The Depot in Minneapolis. Tickets available at womenventure.org.