Lou and her daughter Katy (Mallory) co-invented SlumberPod, a blackout privacy canopy for babies and young children. The invention was born of necessity during a family visit to Lou’s house. Katy and her husband couldn’t get any sleep sharing the room with their little one, who kept waking up in the middle of the night and seeing them. She was a great sleeper at home — but was very distracted by the unfamiliar surroundings. There was nothing on the market at that time to address this issue. Lou didn’t let being nearly 60 years old (at the time) stop her from pursuing a new dream, and she and Katy set to work on their product solution. They appeared on Shark Tank in January 2020 and landed a deal with Barbara Corcoran. In her own words, she has “reinvented” herself many times over, and her story could be a guidebook for those looking to do the same.
Q: We’d love to know more about your origin stories. Growing up, what was your family environment like? What messages did you receive about pursuing success?
VERA: I never really intended to be a business woman. I graduated from high school in 1971 and college in 1974. At that point, a woman was either a nurse, a teacher, or a flight attendant. You were a nurse if you were really smart, a flight attendant if you were really beautiful, and a teacher if you just knew how to work hard! I became a teacher.
Being a teacher was the greatest foundation to being a business owner. The methodologies in teaching have been the foundation of how I run my company. From the planner that’s sitting in front of me right now to the weekly lesson plans that every single person that works for me has to turn in on Sunday night by 6 pm.
Our mother was a teacher, too, and she greatly influenced me. It didn’t occur to me when I was young that my mother was teaching us structure and discipline - and she made it look easy. When I became a single mother myself, I understood firsthand how hard it must have been for her. She always found a way to figure it all out in spite of all the obstacles. There was so much structure in our environment. The person who woke me up every morning to go to school was in full makeup, well dressed, and ready to walk out the door. She did so many things at night in preparation for the next day. The structure she set in our environment kept her from having to lecture us on structure — she modeled it. Watching her was my real education. I mirror all of that even now. I have very little patience for whining or “this is going to be hard, I don’t know if I can do that…” I tell the kids in my camp, “can’t” is a 4-letter word, and I do not want to hear it.
LOU: Just thinking about all this makes me emotional. I didn’t fully appreciate what my mother was doing when I was younger. My father committed suicide when I was three years old. My mother just picked herself up and kept on going — thank God for that. She was born in 1917 and had a college degree, which was extremely rare at the time. After daddy’s death, she moved us from Raleigh, N.C., back to her hometown of Macon, Georgia, and never looked back. I don’t think I ever heard her complain. She worked hard every day and made it happen. She continued her education, obtaining a Master’s Degree and a Six-year Certificate (similar to a Ph.D.) in Education. She had an amazing work ethic — she DID NOT STOP. She had an impact on us without having to “put the hammer down” very often but did when needed; she led by example. We came from an impoverished situation when my father passed away. Even in the midst of financial struggles, she made sure we all had one designer outfit to look good in. She was a stickler about grammar and table manners. She set us up to be successful in life. She passed away when I was 26 from lung cancer. As Vera said, not until I was a struggling single mother myself did I realize just how hard it must have been for my mother — how much she sacrifices to give us a good life and set us on the right path.
Q: Once you both left home, where did life take you? What paths did you pursue?
VERA: I had a love of cooking and entertaining since I was a young girl. I used to take the train from Macon to Atlanta, GA, to spend time with my grandmother. She taught me all of her recipes. In 1984, I started catering out of my home kitchen, selling ready-made casseroles, cakes, and such, which eventually became a mail-order business. We shipped our first cake in 1993 and launched a website back in 1996. I was married and had children, so following my mother’s example, I learned how to make things happen. When our children were old enough to go to school, I found I could get a lot done before 3 pm, then work after they went to bed. My husband watched the kids on weekends while I catered weddings.
We opened a café in Augusta, GA, in 2002, and launched a cooking camp for kids in 2004. In 2010, I appeared on the Food Network for a throwdown with Bobby Flay. As you can imagine, that was a big deal in my small hometown! The buzz from that appearance eventually led to my own local cooking show — The Very Vera Show. We eventually syndicated to other markets, and we are still going strong now in Season 9. I wrote a cookbook (The Very Vera Cookbook: Recipes from my Table) and have plans soon to write a second.
I started my working life as a home economics teacher. I loved to cook and sew, but as I’ve said, I could never have imagined being an entrepreneur. One big, bold decision led me down this path. In 1985, I signed up to take a 2-week course with Martha Stewart. At that time, she had written one book, and not many people knew about her. I took all the money out of my savings account and flew to Connecticut to study with her. That decision — and the mentorship from Martha — was a game-changer. I admired Martha so much. Unlike many other personalities in the food world at that time, she was so refined, attractive, and had this unusual style of mixing sterling silver with pottery and grapevine baskets. When I got back home, our local television station and newspapers did a write-up on the entire experience. This led to an invitation to join the board of our local YMCA, which had never had a female board member. I took a chance and invited Martha as our guest for the annual fundraiser event — she accepted. We catered the event in a newly renovated event space that had been a Catholic cathedral and hosted a signing for her wedding book. It was fabulous! All of the risks I took led to where I am today.
LOU: I would describe myself as a late bloomer. I didn’t complete my college degree right out of high school like many others. On my mother’s death bed, I promised her I would finish it. Flash forward ten years when I was a single mom with four kids when I decided to make good on my promise. I drove an hour both ways every day (from Eufaula, Alabama, where I lived at the time to Auburn University) for a year and nine months to get my degree. That one decision — going back to school — changed my life. So many doors were opened after I completed that goal, not completely due to the "piece of paper" but because of positive impact on my confidence level! My four children also remember that time as they were at my graduation, saw me cross that stage, and witnessed the subsequent changes in my life.
When I graduated from Auburn University with my BS degree in Corporate Journalism (1997), I turned 40 the following month. Going back to school at that age invigorated me! I was enthralled with technology and loved learning. When I say I’ve reinvented myself several times over, I mean it. I’ve worked for newspapers, construction/building companies, non-profits, Fortune 500 companies, and several other finance and technology companies. I also received my Master’s Degree in 2012.
In 2014, my daughter Katy and her family were staying overnight at our home. They were, as is the case with most grandparent visits, sharing a room with their baby. They couldn’t get any sleep — the baby could see them and was up most of the night. After a couple of nights of this same routine, they had to cut their visit short. They were miserable and sleep-deprived. We started thinking up solutions to this problem. Life progressed, and in 2016 — on April Fool’s Day, no less — I was laid off. Shortly thereafter, Katy was on maternity leave with her twins, so in our “spare time,” we worked together on our invention, and SlumberPod was born! Had I not been laid off, who knows if I would have been brave enough or had the time to become an entrepreneur. Sometimes it’s the seemingly “unfortunate” times that give us the strength and opportunity to do something new.
In 2016, as a part of a product incubator class in Columbus, Georgia, we pitched to investors and received funding for our company. On a whim, Katy and I decided to attend a casting in Texas for Shark Tank. We flew out, gave our pitch, and went through the process to earn a spot on the show! Our episode first aired in January of 2020, the mid-season premiere. It was so exciting to see all our hard work on a national stage. On the show, we landed a deal with Barbara Corcoran, but the biggest compliment we received was several Sharks telling us we didn’t need their help! Even five years ago, I would not have believed you if you told me I would be on Shark Tank with a baby product I helped invent.
Q: For both of you, it seems making a brave decision to fly somewhere — to Connecticut for Vera (Martha Stewart) and Texas for Lou (Shark Tank) — was the catalyst for big things in your lives. What other advice would you give to women over 50 who want to pursue something new? What challenges have you faced in chasing these dreams later in life versus earlier? What is the positive/good side of doing this in a later stage of life?
VERA: I have always been a goal setter. I always give myself plenty of time to achieve goals. In 1984, when I went after my first business loan for the 500 sq. ft. space for catering, it was an “Act of Congress” to get that loan, and it wasn’t large — only about $12,000 for equipment and space. I made a goal that day that I would pay the loan back in a year. I bought no new clothes, I didn’t pay myself a salary and paid that loan off in a year. That laid the groundwork that I was a serious business person.
I think a lot of women get an idea it would be cool to have a business, then as soon as it gets hard, they quit. I think it’s in our DNA (Lou and Me) to never give up just because something is hard. For our mother, there was no safety net. She couldn’t say, “now, just wait until your father gets home.” She had to figure out how to raise her children on her income — there was no check coming in the mail. She got us to church every Sunday; she took us on a small family vacation every summer — she made it happen. It brings tears to my eyes to think about it. I give all my new employees a handbook. In that handbook, it’s written: “You are coming to work for someone who was raised by a strong female.”
As for doing this later in life, there are some decisions I made early on that I believe helped. I chose not to dye my hair. I have a very regimented exercise routine and take care of myself. I see no reason I can’t be on TV as long as I want to. This is it - this is what you get — no false eyelashes and heavy makeup, just the real me — wrinkles and all. My personality and my drive and determination are what brings people back to watch the show. The confidence I have had over the years is more centered around what I know in my heart I can do and teach and less on my appearance. One time a company approached me about catering their Grand Opening. They wanted a safari theme and asked if I had ever done that before. I said, “Yes! Absolutely!” I had not, and I didn’t have the first clue where to begin. But I figured it out. And six months later the party was a hit, and it was unbelievable! I may not have done it before, but I knew I could do it. I think a lack of confidence holds people back sometimes. Much like I did many years ago, find yourself a mentor — and some confidence.
LOU: Our mother never gave us any sense that being female should hold us back. I think that really explains the way I am today. I don’t understand when there are ceilings for women. And I don’t understand why women can’t have a voice at the table alongside men — because my mother was both — she was the father and the mother.
When I meet an amazing young person today, the first thing I think is, “They must have a remarkable mother!” I think mothers have such a tremendous impact on their children. Because of my mother's example, Vera and I (and our siblings) are good examples of living out the life philosophy “It’s not what happens to you; it’s how you react and what you do when something happens to you.”
A lot of my reinvention came after I was 50 years old. Age is just a number. Go after whatever your dream is. I haven’t let my age stop me from anything. I do understand there are those out there in corporate jobs who face age discrimination regularly. Vera and I are fortunate to be our own bosses, so it doesn’t come into play as much now.
As for attitudes associated with our age, I’ve worked to squash many of those. I am more tech-savvy at 63 years old than some of my children (Katy may attest)! Going back to college as an older adult forced me to learn new technology. I embraced and learned to love technology — that is my passion and what I bring to the table with SlumberPod.
Everything I have done in my life has brought me to this point. Situations where I had to figure out what to do, jobs, roles, responsibilities have all come together to make me successful in what I’m doing today. My best advice is to embrace whatever you are doing now and learn as much as you can in the role you’re in. You never know where that knowledge and skill will take you!
For all the mothers reading this, please know that the impact you have on your children has a long-lasting ripple effect. The power of motherhood helps shape lives even WAY into adulthood (as Vera and I are living proof of this). Are any of us perfect? No … but be the best you can be, and this is perfect for your child.
Thank you, Mama Betty!
Betty Stewart Wingfield
1917 - 1984
With children (in age order): Mary Elizabeth Wingfield Dick, Alvin Trip Wingfield, Vera Wingfield Stewart, Harry Cantey Stewart Wingfield, and Lou Wingfield Childs
In April 2021, SlumberPod donated nearly $9,000 to Nana Grants, a non-profit dedicated to ensuring quality, reliable child care for low-income mothers pursuing a post-secondary education.