MAIA.community / Women Owned business
Kateri Ruiz, Founder MAIA.community www.MAIA.community
Tell us a little about yourself and your childhood.
I'm #12 of 12 children, I grew up on a dairy, beef, sheep, hog and crop farm in MN. My favorite childhood toy was the hand-me-down artificial insemination kit for cattle from my Dad – my brother Dominic and I would set up pastures for our play animals and pretend to breed cattle. I was a Dairy Princess, Pork Ambassador, and sang at Carnegie Hall when I was 16, I could castrate pigs, and I could always bench press more than my weight – yup, you just can't make this stuff up. I grew up knowing I could do anything…anyone else could do.
When did you decide you wanted to start your own company?
I sold my soul designing workforce solutions and hiring for corporate America for over 15 years, it was here I realized once women left academia, the data sets no longer supported anything resembling equality. I also realized just because a women can outperform her colleagues, it doesn't mean equal opportunity will follow. Women were grossly underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership and time over time I saw gender pay inequality. Three years ago I decided I knew I needed to do something different. My husband was the stay-at-home parent for our four small daughters and I had worked. We decided to switch gigs, I would stay home and he'd go back to work - the best social experiment ever! The perspective is priceless – I cannot believe the things I used to complain about. When I left the workforce, I was certain I would go work for a nonprofit and do some good in the world, but I lacked focus because there wasn't a cause I didn't believe in. The MAIA.community was born out of the convergence of my professional experience and what was happening in my home and family. Five years ago I have my ah-ha moment, I'm sitting on the floor watching a football game with my husband while our 4 small daughters are playing in front of us. It was the first time I realized 5 out of the 6 people in our home were female - 83%, and we watched ALL male sporting events. What the hell, right? Slowly, my husband and I started to think about whether we were really showing the girls a world where women have equal representation. We started thinking about the products and services we brought into our home, were they made by women, ideated by women, done in some holistic image of a woman. Over a year ago I tell myself to put my money where my mouth is, if 83% of my household was female, then 83% of my household spending should be going to women-owned, women-created products and services. I failed miserably month over month, it was too hard. This info wasn't free nor accessible, and I'm a consumer who also wants ample options so I can make a good buying decision for myself. All I wanted to do was spend my money with businesses who had proven gender equality at the highest levels of leadership. And I wanted what we brought into our home to be reflective of the people in our home. I was building the concept of Women-Conscious Consumerism and I started baking the idea of the MAIA.community. I knew a lot of work was being done in corporate America and in policy. I started looking at the gaps, the largest data sets, and where women had the fewest amount of systemic barriers. Women influence or control greater than 70% of the household spending valued over $11 trillion. The 3rd wave of feminism is the economic empowerment of women. What if all female consumers just spent their money with women-owned businesses? In fact, if every female in the US went out to eat at a women-owned restaurant once a month for 1 year and spent just $20 each month, the females of the US would drive $37.7 billion more into women-owned companies than all Venture Capital funding in 2017. Talk about personally affecting change with no systemic barriers – today. I wanted to disrupt the status quo and drive a more female-centric economy. MAIA.community really came together though when my partner, Angel Rowell, entered the picture and the design and development process started.
Was there a specific moment when you knew this was what you wanted to do?
Not really, it's ironic, I've never worked in a consumer-centric space, I had no development background, I hate over-consumerism, and I really hate anyone trying to tell me what I like. However, I knew the adoption of women-conscious consumerism was a game-changer, and I knew the cost of not doing it would haunt me.
After you made the decisions, what steps did you take?
I started doing market research, gathering lists, and talking to women-business owners and consumers. I started my business plan, I reached out to many of the free business incubator resources in MN.
How did you fund this project? Bootstrapped 100%. We fall in a strange spot. We don't intend to sell or “sell out” within 3-5 years so we aren't necessarily attractive to most Angel investors or Venture Capital funders. As a nonprofit we would probably find funding from organizations who share our mission, however we are unapologetically a for-profit company and will probably migrate to a B corporation soon. My perspective on this issue is, if all of the benevolent badass women are told to go start nonprofits and sit at the nonprofit table, then who does that leave at the for-profit table all by themselves? I believe strongly in equality and equal representation at all tables.
What were the hardest hurdles?
Funding. We still aren't paying ourselves, not even close.
What advise do you wish someone would have given you?
I wish I would have understood alternate funding sources for mission-driven for-profits like us. I wish I would have asked better questions, earlier.
Did you have a mentor?
A had a few people really encourage me while I was ideating. Kristen Womack, Co-Founder of Hack the Gap, and Founder of Night Sky Web Co had multiple cups of coffee with me while I was trying to envision MAIA's long-term plan and yet prioritize a MVP. Sheba Fideler of Sheba Concept & Design and Kyia Downing, a Possibilitarian, sat around my kitchen island and openly ideated with me. I know I will work with these awesome women again, in some capacity, at some point. They are all brilliant and benevolent!
At any point did you want to give up?
Yup, and some days I still do.
What made you keep going?
The cost of not doing it. I refuse to believe we cannot solve the gender pay gap for another 50 years. Corporate America has everything it needs right now to make it right, except the will to do it. If we cannot solve gender equality from within the status quo, then let's collectively create it outside of the status quo. We entered a business contest and one of the judges said, "I'm not convinced women will buy from other women." This one misogynist phrase fuels my will every single day. We didn't win that contest.
How long did it take to become profitable? Still not.
What was the best thing you did to grow your business?
Partnering with badass women's organizations and groups who have a shared mission around the empowerment of women, their networks are early adopters of women-conscious consumerism.
Do you feel it was more difficult because you are a women?
Sure. When I started asking the "who do you know" questions to find my supplier partners, I received male owned businesses at a rate of greater than 15:1. Those were all people who knew I wanted women-owned supplier partners. It's too easy to recommend a male-owned company or corporation, it's the default. It would have been so easy for me to "sell out" on my mission too, but I couldn't. I've had full P&L ownership of $42M, but I've never worked anything below EBITA. I went to get guidance on EBITA and spent 45 minutes of my 1-hour session defending the concept of women-conscious consumerism, instead of getting what I asked for. If my experience is what it is like for every woman who tries to secure funding, get help on a business plan, enters a business contest, etc., you can see how and why women-owned businesses do not receive the same level of funding, and find it harder to scale when they are ready to scale.
Do you think social media is important?
Personally, I hate it. But I realize how critical it is to our mission so I also love it. It's a hate/love relationship. Was there any life lessons you learned along the way? You don't have enough pages for this answer.
What is the happiest memory from this journey?
My oldest daughter made me a MAIA shadow box for Mother's Day; I cannot describe how that touched me. On the rough days, I look at it to remind me why I'm doing this. I will only feel like I failed if my daughters have to fight the same battles I had to fight.
Where do you see your company in 5 years?
We will have every 50% or more women-owned business in the U.S. in the directory. We will have millions of consumers searching for what the want in MAIA, and spending their money directly within a female-centric economy. Consumer feedback will have driven all of our improvements. Women-Business Owners will have told us exactly what they need to help drive the female-centric economy and help their businesses thrive. We will already be incubating the gaps in women-owned businesses across the US with women who want to own their own business but are uncertain about what to do and where.