2016 SAIT Distinguished Alumna
At the tender age of eight, Jennifer Carlson was already well on her way to mastering fundamental marketing concepts by using a pull-behind cart to quench the thirst of overheated parents at her community's soccer fields.
"I always knew I was going to be an entrepreneur," says Carlson, founder and director of Baby Gourmet Foods Inc. "It just took me a while to find the right idea."
When that big idea finally presented itself, Carlson was standing in a lengthy baby food aisle overwhelmed at what to buy for her six-month-old daughter.
"There were rows and rows of jars, but none of it looked appealing," Carlson says. "It was so obvious to me that something was missing, and the opportunity felt so big and so open that I immediately knew it was right."
She started out making and selling high-quality baby food at the Calgary Farmers' Market, researching exactly what her customers wanted and building an appealing story for investors at the same time. Two years in, she was selling $30,000 of product each month, but she knew she wanted more.
"Lots of people told me to start small and let things grow organically, but I wanted every parent and baby to have access to fresh, natural, high-quality food," Carlson says. "That meant going big."
So she spent the next two years surrounding herself with people who know food, and in 2008 pitched Baby Gourmet to retail giant Walmart. Today you can find the company's 30-plus products sold by more than 2,500 major retailers across Canada, and the company's line of healthy snacks for kids, called Slammers, at more than 4,000 retailers throughout the United States.
"The most rewarding part is knowing that I'm making parents' lives easier," says Carlson. "And getting to feed babies — I just can't think of a more important job."
What is your proudest professional moment to date?
"When I was a student, I remember going to an awards ceremony celebrating the woman entrepreneur of the year and wanting to be the one standing on that stage one day. That's why receiving the Ernst and Young Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year (Prairies) award in 2011 was such a proud moment for me — to be recognized on that stage for competing and winning on a playing field that included everyone."
How has your SAIT education impacted your career?
"My dad was a Marketing instructor at SAIT for years — and I feel like I grew up going to SAIT. When I was a student, most people didn't know my dad was also my teacher. I learned so much about marketing from him, and he was very supportive of everything I did. My dad passed away in 2002 and even though he never saw Baby Gourmet, he is still a big part of its success. Being acknowledged by SAIT — the place that brought us together in many different ways — means so much to me."
What's your advice for beginning students in your field?
"Be prepared to take responsibility for your own destiny. If people aren't opening doors for you, open them yourself. My first job after graduation was in geophysical sciences. I knew that wasn't the career I wanted, so I used the skills and experiences I learned at SAIT to create my own. You can do that, too."
Written by Michelle Woodard
Photo by George Webber