At the turn of the 21st century, babywearing was not part of mainstream American culture, but Susan Gmeiner (along with a handful of other entrepreneurs), were bringing the practice back into the light. Women (and men) who used Maya Wrap slings, including myself, found themselves creating a micro-community within the parenting world. The product facilitated friendships in a way that few other products at the time did. Maya Wrap offered more than just the freedom of being able to care for babies – it became a phenomenon that created a community.
I was thrilled when Susan agreed to let me interview her. I first encountered her in 1999, when at 6 months pregnant, I called the 800 number a stranger had shown me in the shoulder of her Maya Wrap sling. I got an answering machine and hung up; a moment later, the phone rang. Susan had “star-six-nined” me or perhaps was an early adopter of caller ID, and she called me back, offered to send me swatches, and connected me with my local retailer.
The rest is my personal babywearing history, so I’ll leave that there. .
The Rock and the Nail
“It’s been 20 years since my dad and I went and got the a gutter nail – like a six inch nail – and a hammer and pounded it into that rock until we got through all that paint and hit the rock. And 20 years ago, that paint was 3.5 inches thick.”
Susan began our conversation with a story about her father. In her hometown was a rock – a large rock that people used as a canvas for all kind of graffiti. The idea of making her own mark on the rock captured a young Susan’s imagination. She thought about sneaking down at night like so many others in her town, and she shared her thoughts with her dad, who supported her desire to mark the rock.
“You’re not going to sneak down in the night, though,” he told her. He took a proud young Susan to the rock in broad daylight, where they left their mark and also checked out the layers of paint with a gutter nail.
Isn’t that beautiful? The most wonderful way to say, “Yes, child. I love you. I support you. We’ll do this together, and we’ll do it without shame.”
Another story. From the time Susan can remember, she yearned to fly. “I was born wanting to fly,” she said. When she was quite little, she talked a lot about how she could fly. I imagine her dad got a little nervous, or perhaps he was just bemused.
“Our living room was on the second story of our house,” Susan remembered. “And there was a window that actually opened up like a door. My dad finally opened up that window and he stood right next to it (so there was no way I could actually jump out of the window) — but he said, ‘OK, show me. I want to see you fly out of this room.’ And I got down, and I was ready to fly out of that window, and then I changed my mind.”
Perhaps because Susan was Susan, or perhaps because she had a father who was so good at saying “Yes,” at saying “I trust you to make the right decision,” Susan went on to a life of trusting her instincts while remaining mindful; a life of saying “yes” to herself while listening to her heart. In college, between degrees, she trained as a pilot and she flew until she didn’t need to fly anymore. “Once I had enough experience, I paid my own way through the rest of college as a pilot. I flew until I decided I didn’t want to fly anymore – I wanted to study meteorology. So, I went and got a master’s degree in meteorology, and went to a graphics company, and I met my husband and got married, and we moved to Canada.”
Susan, the woman. I was enjoying her story very much.
Meeting Susan in 2006
When I first met her, it was 2006. Jennifer Rosenberg had planned the first North American babywearing conference, and she had invited me to be her guest. Jen had worked with Susan to create the MamaBaby double sling system, and when she introduced me to Susan, I was giddy and nervous. Susan was, in my mind, a giant – larger than life, as our personal heroes so often are. I was surprised at how slight she was when I shook her hand. Tall, but slender, and so very human-sized.
This is when I began to love her. And to look up to her as a person, not just as the woman who created the sling that shaped my life. I had been in business for two years at this point; my life was a hot mess; I’d just finished a custody battle. Maya Wrap had been going strong for 12 years; Susan had traveled the world. It seemed everyone I met knew who Maya wrap was. And immediately, as soon as we were introduced, she began casually but with absolute complete attention asking me questions. Seeking my knowledge. As if green little me had some kind of wisdom or story of interest to her. Not in an anxious, chattery way – no. Susan immediately treated me as an equal; a colleague. She was humble, kind, and lovely.
Now that I’d heard how she had reached for these goals and met them, seemingly as easily as one might send a letter or purchase a car, I was eager to hear more.
On Marriage and Motherhood
“How did you meet your husband?” I asked her. The pragmatism of her answer delighted me.
“My husband moved in upstairs from me, and his door was right next to the mailboxes. I thought I knew everybody in the building, and I thought, ‘I should know this guy!’ So every day, when I checked my mail, I knocked on the door, and one day he answered. And that’s how I met him.” She added, ““He told me he was getting his PhD in Chemistry and I … I like smart guys.”
From meteorology to babywearing
So, Susan met her husband. They got married and they moved to Canada.
“And CANADA,” she said, “is where I discovered babywearing. I had a baby, and after a few days I realized I needed a baby carrier, so I went down to the big box store and I got one. And, it was ok until my baby was about 15 pounds, but then it got so painful I couldn’t use it any more.
“We were living in graduate student housing, and there was a lady there who was making unpadded ring slings. I bought one from her, and it worked. And that was my baby carrier.”
Time passed, and Susan and her family moved back to the United States where she had a second child. She pulled out her structured carrier, the one she’d purchased from the big box store. “But I didn’t like it,” she said. “I said, ‘No. I’m going back to the sling.’”
The Birth of Maya Wrap
Susan paused at this point in the conversation, choosing her next words, before explaining, “My whole life, I had all these different things I wanted to do – and being a businesswoman Never. Was on. The list.” She emphasized these words, pausing for effect. “And my husband said, ‘Gosh, you could probably make those things. Why don’t you give that a try?’ The woman who had sold me my sling by then had moved. I wasn’t in touch with her, and nobody else at the time was making open-tailed unpadded ring slings in the United States. Just NoJos, SlingEZ, Over the Shoulder Baby Holder. So I made some minor modifications to the pattern, and I started making them. And people liked them.” The year was 1994.
“My dad was a Rotarian. At the time, he was spending a lot of time in Guatemala, going down every few months with the Rotary. My husband suggested that my father could buy fabric from local artisans for the slings.”
After a while, Susan’s younger sister suggested she advertise in Mothering Magazine, “a magazine for hippie moms,” her sister told her. Susan took her advice, and before long, Susan was selling more slings than her father could carry. She worked with the Guatemalan Embassy to find a manufacturer for the Maya Wrap, naming the sling for the people who wove the fabric and made the slings. She is still working with the same artisans to this day.
Lessons for other Entrepreneurs
I asked Susan how she grew such a successful business, what lessons she learned. “In all honesty, Kristi, I think I was just very fortunate that the right opportunities came my way at the right time. I stumbled upon a product that worked very well for me. When my husband suggested I go into business, I thought, ‘I really like this, but it might be kind of weird, and nobody else will.’ It was not brilliant strategy on my part – I was just in the right place at the right time. I took and accounting class or two in college and it was really useful to me … but everything else, I had to learn as I went. And I’m still learning.”
Susan is a voracious learner. I noticed this about her the first time I met her, and each opportunity I’ve had to spend time with her, I learn simply from watching her learn. She is meticulous, taking notes, asking questions, finding answers. I was eager to hear from Susan, in her own words, about her values, her accomplishments as a woman.
Faith, Family, and Freedom
“You’re right,” she said, “Faith and family are huge. If you neglect either one of those in the process of running your business, you’re making a mistake, and sooner or later, you’re going to find out. You know, and it’s a tough line to walk. I’ve done ok with it. Sometimes I’m better than others.
“But something else I really, really adore – and maybe this is crazy because everyone likes it – is the principle of freedom. ‘Born Free’ is one of my favorite songs, and it has been since I was a little girl. So a lot of times in the past, for example, when someone has worked for me, I haven’t been real concerned about when they show up for work and when they leave as long as they do their job.
“Instead of, ‘Do you mind if I go to the doctor at 2:00?’ they’d tell me their plan for getting things done instead. I’ve never wanted anyone to neglect their children in order to get something done for me.
“Another thing, though. I’ve had to make decisions at Maya Wrap where I’ve had to tell my wholesale stores, ‘I don’t want you to advertise below the minimum price,’ and that was a difficult thing for me to say. I don’t want to tell people how to run their business, and so every time I’ve told people how to run their business, it’s not been an easy decision because I value freedom so much – even though things like having an MAP are important.
“Because, people who love to spend time with the customers and make sure they buy the right carrier, they need to know someone else is not going to undercut them when they’re just handing stuff over and not taking the time.”
I thought back to my first interaction with Susan – the phone call where she referred me to a local retailer, Bea, who ended up becoming my informal mentor and an inspiring friend. I wondered if that had perhaps accidentally been a lesson to me in how to treat my own retailers, though at the time I had no idea I would one day start a business of my own.
I made sure to tell her during our call how much I’ve learned from her. “As I grew my own business [Wrapsody], your example has always inspired me,” I said, reading my prepared question. “You’ve always seemed intensely committed to ethics, to innovation, and to education. In fact, from early on your products always came with an instructional video to ensure correct use. So tell me what it’s like to grow a business in which you hold yourself to a high personal standard, and would you offer any advice to a new entrepreneur based on your own experience?”
In Susan’s beautiful way of reflecting first on what others have to offer the world, she said, “First of all, I have seen high personal standards in a lot of other businesses.” We spoke for a bit about our colleagues and the good work they do before going on to answer the question.
“Sometimes I have to make a decision and I’m not sure what is the best decision to make. And, the way I answer that question is by thinking: ‘Do I want anybody to know I did this?’ I can rationalize that something is ok, but if I don’t want anyone to know I did it, it’s not ok.
“The other thing is, sometimes you’ve got to think about the consequences of not making a different decision. I’ve been on the [ASTM] sling standard committee since the beginning, and I really knew I needed to set a minimum weight level for Maya Wrap. I became aware that I needed to start telling people not to use a baby sling below 8 pounds unless you really had some high quality face-to-face guidance. And nobody was putting that lower weight level on their carriers, so I worried about losing sales – but I thought, ‘If I don’t, how will I feel about knowing there’s a possibility — no matter how very small — that I may put a small baby at risk?’ So, I did it. I set the minimum weight level.”
Susan was one of two companies that paid for informal research by M’Liss Stelzer when she first tried to bridge the information gap between NICU experts and laypeople around infant positioning. She realized that even the skilled NICU pediatricians were not aware of the positioning issues her fragile patients faced, although the nurses spent their days repositioning babies. Susan, of course, was eager to gain new information and also to make informed, ethical decisions for her company, so she was very interested in the research Stelzer was doing. Susan had also worked particularly hard on subcommittees discussing newborn respiration, speaking with experts around the world.
Because I knew that Susan has a great deal of information for people with many perspectives on the issue, I wanted her perspective on the weight limits imposed by the sling standard. There’s still a lot of controversy among retailer and educators about whether it’s appropriate to have that lower weight limit to the sling. I asked Susan to tell me about some of the things she had learned on committee that felt compelling in making the decision to set a lower weight limit for Maya Wrap slings.
Susan answered by talking about the injuries to babies not only in slings, but also in structured carriers, in carseats, in swings and bouncers, in any baby holding device. Most of the babies who’ve been injured were low weight babies. People on the committee that knew a little bit more about babies and breathing emphasized these two points:
- Newborns don’t breathe exactly the way we do, and most incidents of SIDS happen in the first 4 months. SIDS and breathing problems are more common in smaller babies, in preemie babies
- Not everybody is going to be as thorough about reading instructions as we might like them to be. They might not have knowledge of what causes SIDS or asphyxia, so you have to set the bar a little higher. As Susan said, “Maybe you CAN safely put a 5 pound baby in a ring sling, but you’d better know what you’re doing, and not everybody …. who did it would be well-enough informed to know what questions to ask about positioning.”
Advice for Other Entrepreneurs
“I know you’re talking about 20 years of entrepreneurial learning, but is there some lesson you’ve learned from running your business that stands out?” I wondered. She offered this:
- You’ve GOT to watch your cash flow like a hawk and plan it well.
- Use consultants carefully. Susan is lucky to have had wonderful experiences with many of her consultants, but she says it’s important to communicate well before hiring. Be confident that they understand or even love your product; that they’re excited about it; that they really have an understanding of what you need.
Over the Years: Babywearing Change
I asked Susan to reflect on some of the changes the babywearing industry has undergone in the last 20 years, whether positive or negative.
The first and most obvious thing she noted was how mainstream babywearing has become mainstream in the US. So many styles and so many good prints, she added. What a change from when she first began, when options were few – the Baby Wrap, now retired, was based on an African Khanga and made by a Nigerian mother. New Native pouches had been inspired by Hygeia Halfmoon’s invention. There were the padded ring slings with closed tails based on Rainer Gardner’s modifications of rebozo-style sash carriers, and then there was the Maya Wrap.
The growth of the internet has also impacted the industry. “It has really facilitated people who want to start businesses,” she said. She reflected on her first website. “It didn’t even have a way to buy anything,” she said. “Just some information.”
“I remember that website,” I told her. I also remember feeling enrapt when she first began selling slings online. Our children won’t know what it was to have no internet from which to buy things.
Standards and Safety
Next, Susan talked about babywearing safety. “20 years ago, people didn’t understand infants and breathing challenges, but we do now.” She spoke for a while about the growth in the industry, and the wide availability of slings and education; the way it has changed the marketplace. “I’m glad we have a standard now,” she said.
“However, I would like to see standards remain voluntary,” she said, reflecting on her value of personal freedom and personal choice. “It’s so much harder to get started in this business now, with all the compliance work – it’s all confusing when you first get started. So I hope that the coming regulations do not become a barrier for some people who have really great ideas. I really think that if you comply, and you advertise it, a lot of people will choose to buy because you’re compliant.”
The Impact of Maya Wrap
I was especially curious about whether Susan realized what an impact her Maya Wraps had on new mothers in the late 90s and early 2000s, before babywearing groups on the internet came to be. I told her about some of my own experiences of connecting with others over Maya Wrap slings. They offered more than just the freedom of being able to care for babies – Maya Wrap became a phenomenon that created a community. “Did you know that was happening?” I wondered.
It turns out, she had no idea. She sounded almost embarrassed when she answered the question. “Nah. No. I had no idea. I mean, I could see the sales going up, and I could see that things were going well, but I don’t know that I was all that aware. I mean, you hear little things – like, I went to the zoo one day and this lady walked up to me and said, ‘Is that a MAYA WRAP?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah.’ But you have to remember to take it all with a grain of salt.
“People who think you’re amazing only see one little aspect of you. If they knew it all, you’d be kind of like everybody else,” Susan said.
I disagreed, countering her pragmatic humility with my pragmatic admiration. I told her, “I think that typically, women who inspire other people – you get to know them, you see their humanness, and you grow to love them more.” It’s been so for me with Susan and with so many other women in this world.
Activism and Personal Joy
Our conversation closed with my question about her personal accomplishments. I asked her to tell me about some of her personal achievements or activities that she was particularly proud of – outside of being a mother and a business owner.
At first, she wasn’t sure how to answer, so I rephrased the question. I asked her instead what sorts of things she did that she was passionate about.
Aside from your business and mothering, what personal accomplishements are you especially proud of?
“Things I try to do? Yeah! I’m very active in [the LDS] church, and I try to do my part to help out and serve in different ways, but that all comes down to – well — I try to live my faith? I don’t know that I’d say I’m proud of it – but I do try to do what I know is right and to do it stronger. I tend to leave any judgement on how good I am in that department up to God. I just try to keep doing better.”
Susan paused a moment to reflect, then her voice raing out with enthusiasm across the phone. “I am a member of Rotary. I think Rotary’s a fabulous organization. My two favorite charities! LDS humanitarian services and Rotary.”
I did know a lot about Rotary, so I asked her to tell me more. “Rotary is an International organization of business professionals that does incredible amounts of world and local community service. They have a huge scholarship program – are you familiar with Polio Plus? The effort to get rid of polio? – there’s a worldwide movement to eradicate polio. That project was initially started by Rotarians and they partnered with WHO or something like that – but they’re still heavily involved. When it was started, it was considered insane, right? And it is turning out to be a stunningly difficult project, but it’s getting done.
“[My local chapter] has a lot of small local community projects. Rotary believes that one way to foster international understanding is through international scholarships. They give out a lot of scholarships for kids to go study in other countries for a year or more. And they have World Peace centers set up at several universities around the world, and they give out scholarships to get masters degrees in some kind of field that would help them work in those areas. They have a focus on clean water and maternal health – it’s an amazing organization, and I’m really pleased to be a member of Rotary.”
Susan also began working as a Guardian ad Litem several year ago. As I, myself, had been in close contact with a Guardian ad Litem during the second leg of my custody struggles, I have a great deal of respect for those in the profession, and I can see how Susan would be an incredible GAL. A GAL is a court-appointed advocate for children involved in family court and custody disputes – while the lawyers often focus on the adversary adults, the GAL acts as a party focused on the children’s best interests, gathering information they can report to the judge, who’s often torn between two different stories between the adults involved.
“I’m new at being a GAL,” Susan told me. “I just started doing that and I’m enjoying that. I’m glad to be able to do something like that.”
The thing I really took away from our interview was the unusual combination of humility and confidence Susan possesses. She has pursued goals and ideas as they’ve come to her, not recklessly or in the way we would usually call “fearlessly,” but rather, with pragmatic optimism.
My experience has taught me that Susan is thoughtful and bright. She measures her words carefully, ensuring she speaks in a way she would not mind having repeated or quoted, building people up whenever possible. She is not afraid to ask questions but also not afraid to offer help. When Wrapsody was designing our ring sling, Susan offered me sizing advice without my asking. We spoke about fabrics and her own work to bring a new woven wrap to market. She has never felt like a competitor to me, but rather more like a business auntie, offering encouragement when I needed it, checking in on me when personal life becomes overwhelming, working alongside me as we created the BCIA.
She appears to find balance between her faith and family — which of course, she never steps away from — and business and community work. Although I know that balance is imperfect, and that in part it relates to having children who are growing up, I admire her sense of self and ability to set priorities that feel right to her.
Also: I am grateful for the work she did. Maya Wrap brought me to babywearing, and babywearing, I often say, is the keystone of my parenting. Not only did her business pave the way for that transition for me, it also laid the groundwork (along with many other early entrepreneurs) for Wrapsody. Her tireless work on the sling standard meant that when I had two babies in the 23 months following the BCIA’s formation, and when my older childrens’ worlds fell apart, I could focus on them and know that she (and others with her) were doing the work of being a voice for our small industry. And, I’m grateful for her kindness and humility. It offered me a boost of self-confidence early in my business life, and it also offered me an example of something to strive for. Asking questions and listening in social situations can be hard — often, we’re anxious and overwhelmed. But Susan executes it with with grace every time I see her. I am glad to be her colleague, and I’m honored to have her friendship from a distance.
To learn more about Maya Wrap and how the carrier has evolved over a quarter century, visit MayaWrap.com .
I’d love it if you’d take a moment to share your own story about how Susan, the Maya Wrap, or even another woman in babywearing impacted your life. Tell me about it in the comments below!