Redefining Leadership: Q&A with Cart Mama Founder Kelly Santos

**This ongoing series profiles female powerhouses who are making their mark in their leadership roles. In the spirit of paying it forward, each profiled woman is asked to nominate another peer to fuel the series.**

If you are doubting your ability to “have it all,” spend a few minutes with Kelly Santos. Just 31-years-old, Kelly is the mother of two kids under the age of three; a loving wife to her husband, Scott; the Communications Specialist at Carousel Industries; and the Founder of Cart Mama, a product that attaches to the outside of a shopping cart so that you can create extra room while shopping with kids.

Oh and in her spare time she flips houses with her husband; gets in ample gym time with her girlfriends; and is preparing to audition for Shark Tank in the coming months.

I stole a few minutes with Kelly to get her advice on how to nourish your entrepreneurial spirit, the importance of going for your dreams and why your best “aha” moment may come in your sweatiest moment.

Me: Kelly, your background tells me that you are someone who understands the importance we have as women to flip paradigms—to challenge the status quo to redefine traditional terms and to go for the incredible. Since this is a leadership series, I’d like to start by asking what “leadership” means to you.

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Kelly: It means a bunch of different things. I think traditionally when people hear the term “leadership” they think of someone who is ahead of the pack and leading the charge with others in tow, but I don’t think it has to be that. Instead, I think leadership is about allowing those among you to step in front of you and lead the way. I hate to use the word empowered because it’s become oversaturated, but that’s what it’s really about. It’s about inspiring those around you to do the right thing, to do the best thing, to do what makes sense, and to feel comfortable and confident in that decision.

Me: In many ways, you are talking about flipping the script and putting yourself last if you want to be an effective leader.

Kelly: Right and it’s almost counter-intuitive. As a leader you often want to put yourself first but true leaders know that’s not what leadership is actually about.

Me: As a society are we there in that thinking, or do we have a ways to go?

Kelly: I think we are getting there. We are starting to realize that leadership isn’t defined by title and role. It’s not necessarily about being in the C-suite. And we’ve seen many take the important step forward to empower those in different roles—specifically roles that are hierarchical under them—to lead the way. But I think what’s next is for us to realize that we can have a little bit of leadership in our lives every day, and it doesn’t just have to be in the workplace. You can find moments to lead your children, your friends, your spouse. I would actually contend that if we take leadership out of the workplace it can even be stronger. It should be who you are and your mindset and not what you do.

Me: So well said. Now as your day-to-day profession you are the Communications Specialist at Carousel Industries where you are responsible for crafting and executing the company’s communications strategy. But you are also the founder of Cart Mama, a novel concept that sparked from a real-life circumstance you experienced. How did you get the idea to start Cart Mama?

Kelly: Thanks for asking—I love telling this story! I had just had my second child, Brooke, and was on maternity leave. Jake, my oldest, was a little over two. It was October but an unseasonably warm day and I headed to the grocery store. As a new mom, you are always sweating and always flustered and there I was in the grocery store—very hot, with two kids and trying to pick up food.

I had Jake in the shopping cart seat and I placed Brooke in the bigger part of the carriage but I had no place for anything else. I loaded up enough deli meat around Brooke until I decided it was ridiculous and took her out and put her car seat carrier around my forearm.

I felt like my forearm was about to give out but I was close! I was rounding the aisle with the finish line in sight when poor Brooke in her carrier knocked into a display of diet pills. Suddenly, there were 50 bottles of Hydroxycut rolling down the main aisle. I put Brooke down, started chasing after the bottles and thought this is insane. I cannot be the only mom who deals with this and I immediately thought there had to be a better way.

I looked online that night and couldn’t find anything and it was truly shocking to me because shopping is such a normal part of everyday life for a parent and it’s always a frustrating experience. It’s also a disadvantage to the store because you can’t buy as much with the kids in the cart.

So I started rattling my brain trying to figure out how to remove the child from the cart when it hit me—instead of moving the kids from the cart which is unsafe, why not remove the products from the cart. And that’s how Cart Mama was born.

Me: It’s such an amazing story and what I find so inspiring is that you didn’t just experience a problem, complain about it and then move on—you actually sought out to do something about it.

Kelly: It’s funny how clearly I remember that day. I was laying in bed, telling my story to my husband and was just so incredibly frustrated and angry that there wasn’t a solution. I knew I needed to create something.

Me: Did you have any experience with product development prior?

Kelly: No! I don’t even sew! But I had pride in creating something. For me, it was simple. Moms shouldn’t be this frustrated; parents shouldn’t be this frustrated. So I thought, what can I do to change it. I am someone who is never afraid of change; rather, I embrace it and that’s important in starting something new. Once I got the design down, we named it immediately and I got that fire in my belly. I could not sleep. I had to stay up. We’ve been working on the prototyping and design for almost a year and are now ready to get Cart Mama out to the masses.

Me: What’s amazing is that this isn’t even your first entrepreneurial endeavor. In 2012, you and your husband opened Silver Spoon Bakery in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, and ran the business successfully for almost three years before selling it to another family. What lessons in starting the bakery have you applied with Cart Mama?

Kelly: I think what I carry with me is the fact that I am a realist. If I followed my heart with everything, I would have done some pretty foolish things by now. For me, whether it was the bakery or now with Cart Mama, it’s always been about finding balance between common sense and intuition. I don’t like to say “follow your heart” because it sounds too romantic so I’ll say instead to balance the wishes of your heart with common sense. For instance, you don’t have to quit your day job to do something entrepreneurial if you feel it’s too much of a financial risk. You can do both and build things in tandem. 

Me: That’s great advice. What advice would you give for those who have the same entrepreneurial drive as you but are stalling in getting started?

Kelly: Look at why you are stalling. It’s either because you don’t believe in it yourself or you are afraid of failing. Sometimes when I have stalled it’s because I have been waiting for everything to be perfect, but it never will be perfect. As an entrepreneur, you always want what you are building to be amazing but it’s important to recognize the small wins along the way and embrace imperfection. Also, take small steps each day. Make a list and accomplish at least one thing that is focused on your business each day. Set aside the time and make it a priority.

Finally, don’t wait for the time to be right. It will never be right.

Me: What’s the hardest challenge you’ve faced along the way?

Kelly: For Cart Mama, my biggest challenge has been that for what I want to create, I lack a certain skill set in that I cannot sew. I was at the mercy of others to do the prototypes and that was a big challenge for me. I had to find someone who would not only craft what I needed but also assist me with the design. That was hard because I am so used to doing everything but I found a wonderful designer and learned a lot along the way. 

Me: You are the successful former owner of Silver Spoon Bakery, founder of Cart Mama, full-time worker at an IT services firm and a mother, wife, friend, daughter, among everything else. It begs the question: how do you balance it all?

Kelly: It’s all about my basic needs for survival. As women, we want to do it all but we can’t. It’s simply not realistic. So I try to approach my life with ratios in mind, knowing that nothing will ever be 50-50. Some days, I will spend 10 percent of my time with my kids, other days 90. It’s realizing I have to be OK with that. It’s funny… Jake recently asked me on a Saturday if I was going to work today and I said, “No, I am staying home today.” And he said, “I like it when you go to work.” Those precious words rid me of my mommy guilt. Nothing will ever be 100 percent but it can be 90 percent and it will be just enough. My kids will be just fine, my spouse will be just fine, my job will be just fine. I find it’s about figuring out which ratio works best for you because it’s only when we are OK that everyone else in our lives will be OK.

Me: Be honest, didn’t a part of you cringe when I asked that question?! It’s tough that this is still a question we have to ask these days.

Kelly: There’s such a stigma still! Women get asked how to have it all and men never seem to be asked that question; work is such a part of our lives, whether it’s in a workplace or creating something on the side. It shouldn’t and doesn't need to be viewed as a 50-50 split; they both bleed into each other.

Me: I couldn’t agree more. So final question… what advice do you have for future generations?

Kelly: Be more vocal with what you need, whether that’s with a spouse, at work or anywhere else. As I take on different things, I am working on being more vocal, like when I need to ask for help or suggest a different deadline. It’s about knowing my boundaries and what I can and cannot handle. For Millennials, we seem to want to do it all so it’s about knowing not just when to pause and postpone something. It’s about asking what will happen if I wait a day and what not waiting will do to my wellbeing. It’s like what you are taught on a plane. Put on your oxygen mask before helping others so you can truly be there for everyone else.

You can reach out to Kelly Santos at info@cartmama.com.

Carrie Majewski is committed to affecting change. As Founder of the Women in Leadership Nexus, Carrie is fueled by a desire to create safe space for female luminaries to convene to redefine the notion of leadership. She has forged a career around strategic writing and storytelling, having led a digital marketing agency for almost three years and today working as Marketing Principal for Trilix Tech. Carrie was named to the 2017 Rhode Island “40 Under 40” list and is a 2016 Rhode Island Tech10 Winner. In her spare time you'll find her trying out a local hip-hop class, exploring parks with her rescue dog Tori, and sipping coffee with other powerhouse women.