The immigrant founders behind Fresh Monster are taking a new approach to working motherhood
As moms with years of experience in the personal care industry, launching Fresh Monster—a line of affordable, toxin-free bath products for kids—was a natural career progression for co-founders Jean Sim and Irena Todd. However, as immigrants who were born into very different circumstances, the story of how these two entrepreneurs came together to create a thriving business is remarkable.
Jean Sim was six years old when she left South Korea and moved to the United States with her family in the early 1980s. Her father’s family had escaped the communist regime of North Korea, and her South Korea-born mother didn’t have an opportunity to attend college.
In the US, over a quarter of all entrepreneurs are immigrants—Sim’s parents were a successful embodiment of this statistic. For 33 years they ran a dry cleaning business and were able to provide a better life for their family. “They worked their fingers to the bone when we got to the States to put me and my sister through college,” says Sim, who graduated from the University of Chicago and Harvard Business School. “I saw firsthand how being an entrepreneur was the best possible way to shape my own future, and how much effort it took to succeed.”
After business school, Sim began a career at Unilever, where she oversaw some of the largest hair care brands in the world. It was here where she met Irena Todd, as the pair worked to launch AXE Hair, a product line that would later become a $100 million business.
Todd is an immigrant as well: She came to the U.S. from Croatia, by herself, in her late teens after working as an interpreter for the United Nations in the war-torn former Yugoslavia. Thinking back on coming to the U.S., Todd says, “I had a cousin in L.A. and a green card, so I packed my bags and left. Los Angeles was my introduction to America. Coming from Croatia, it might as well have been Mars.”
Todd put herself through the University of California-Berkeley and graduate school at the University of Michigan, where she earned her MBA in 2007. “From my days as an interpreter,” she says, “I always thought politics was where I was going to end up. I thought that’s the way to change the world. But when I reflected on everything I’d seen and learned, I started thinking that it’s really business that changes the world.”
At Unilever, the pair recognized elemental strengths and similarities in one another, as businesspeople, mothers and immigrants. The two women—ambitious, hardworking, driven—began discussing the pros and cons of starting a business together. “Irena and I knew right away that we had a strong, complementary working relationship,” says Sim.
But a partnership didn’t form overnight. Todd moved to Colorado with her family and became a strategist at a brand-building and innovation firm. Sim stayed at Unilever in New Jersey, with her third child on the way.
On a fateful day in the fall of 2013, Irena called Jean after an especially unsatisfactory experience with a client. She had had enough. “I got on the phone,” Sim recalls, “and Irena said, ‘We have to do something. Can we please start talking more seriously about our own business?’ We started emailing ideas back and forth, looking really hard at which one made the most sense based on our passions and our skills. And what rose to the top was doing something with natural products in the kids’ hair care space.”
The irony, as Sim saw it, was that despite all her experience in the personal care industry, she still could not find a natural and affordable kids shampoo for her own children. She and Todd were determined to fill that market niche.
Only a few months after settling on the idea that would become Fresh Monster, the pair had an opportunity to apply to the Telluride Venture Accelerator. They were accepted. With the support of their spouses and with kids in tow, they made the leap to leave their jobs and pursue their dream in Telluride.
From there, Sim and Todd co-piloted Fresh Monster’s rapid rise. Roughly two years from its post-accelerator launch, Fresh Monster products are now sold in more than 3,000 stores in the U.S.—a tripling of the number of stores from 2016—including some of the biggest retailers in the world, such as Target, Wal-Mart, and H-E-B.
What’s more impressive: They’ve achieved this while living on separate coasts and with a part-time staff of five employees, all of whom are working moms like Sim and Todd (between the seven, they have a total of 17 kids). This non-traditional and flexible workforce has been an open secret to their success. “We’re a distributed team,” says Sim. “We sit in different locations where we know we’re going to be the most productive for ourselves and for the company, and we hire people who find value in that. We hope that more companies can gain by our example.”
Early funding from investors, including the Telluride Venture Fund, totaled $700,000, which certainly contributed to the company’s ability to scale so successfully. (They’re not alone; immigrants have founded 24 of the top 50 venture funded startups in the U.S.).But Todd points out another significant factor in their rapid growth: “One of our biggest early decisions was that we wanted Fresh Monster to be affordable and accessible to a lot of people, right away. We understand why some brands focus solely on natural retailers, but that approach necessarily involves a lower store count and would have meant putting Fresh Monster in front of fewer consumers.”
Fresh Monster’s products are made with families in mind. The same goes for the company’s employees. “Some have taken breaks from the corporate world and they feel really excited to be part of growing a business,” says Sim. “For so many women who have taken time off from work, it’s impossible to come back once you get off that track. It’s insane that these incredible women, with their skills and experience, are seen as anything less than the superstars they are.”
With Fresh Monster, Sim and Todd have launched a booming business born out of hard work, creativity and passion—the very values that have driven so many immigrant entrepreneurs before them. And, says Sim, through all the stages of building the company, the pair has never lost sight of the fact that Fresh Monster was built to be “the change that we want to see in the world at large and in business.”
#FacesofFounders, a campaign by the Case Foundation, Blackstone Charitable Foundation, Google for Entrepreneurs, and UBS, in partnership with Fast Company, celebrates dynamic and diverse entrepreneurs. Learn more at facesoffounders.org.