Raising the bar: The startup built to help nursing moms is on the cusp of a major transformation

So much about becoming a mother is hard.

For some, it’s the struggle to get pregnant. For others, it’s complications and discomfort. For pretty much everyone, it’s the sleepless nights and sudden, dramatic start of a new normal.

For Dina Carey, founder of Milkful, it was breastfeeding.

When her first daughter was born, Carey was passionately committed to breastfeeding for the first year of her life. But she had to quit after four months. Her body just couldn’t produce enough milk to feed a growing baby.

“Having to let go of nursing was really hard for me,” Carey recalls. “A couple months later, when I brought myself out of the fog, I started doing research.”

There were products on the market to support lactation and increase milk supply for nursing moms, but nothing that satisfied the three key areas Carey cared about most: It had to be effective. It had to be wholesome. And it had to taste good.

That was the inspiration behind Milkful, which started in Carey’s home kitchen in 2015 and now distributes her signature oat bars across the country. And now Carey is preparing to take her business to the next level.

“What I would like to do is provide our moms and our customers with so much more than the food product,” Carey says. “Quality lactation education and community with other moms could be really important pieces and could be amazing components to the brand. I want to build out a digital hub that connects moms to those resources.”

Carey has experienced firsthand the power of community in supporting women. Before she had her first child, she worked for the Levine Cancer Institute, where she created a breast cancer screening program for underserved populations in Mecklenburg County. On nights and weekends, she earned a bakery arts certificate from the Art Institute of Charlotte.

She didn’t realize those two passions — baking and supporting women — would come together in a big way.

Carey left her job when her daughter was born. And when breastfeeding failed her, she channeled her frustration and disappointment into creating something that could help other women avoid a similar outcome.

She developed a recipe that made the effective ingredients taste good, without using mounds of sugar. Milkful bars got the expert stamp of approval from a local lactation consultant and a dietician, and Carey started giving bars to all her friends.

“I was able to meet moms who had gone through exactly what I had gone through and change the course for them,” Carey recalls.

Word started to spread organically, mainly through a Facebook group for Charlotte moms, but revenue was slim. So Carey decided to go back to work, this time for a commercial real estate firm, while working on Milkful on the side.

Then, when she was nine months pregnant with her second child, Carey quit. Milkful had grown to the point that she couldn’t sustain a full-time gig and a burgeoning business. And she couldn’t wait any longer — even though it meant she had to find another source of health care in the few weeks before her daughter was born.

Carey quit in October of 2016, launched her website and gave birth to her daughter in November. And, for the first time ever, she started spending money on social media campaigns.

“That was a game changer for us,” Carey says. “I have photos of the madness in our house with boxes floor to ceiling.”

But the boom Milkful saw with its first foray into social didn’t last, and that led to another evolution in the lifespan of the company.

“It felt very out of control at that point because I was just relying on that one tactic. All of my marketing dollars were getting spent on social, and my sales were totally tied to how the ads were performing,” Carey says. “When I saw how dramatically my business could turnaround when those campaigns weren’t successful, that was eye opening.”

And it prompted to Carey to make her first full-time hire, Holt Hanlon, to diversify her marketing strategy and regain that sense of control.

“I was really hesitant to invest in a higher-level employee, but that was the best decision ever,” Carey says. “She has organized our business in a way that — oh my gosh, we’ve got scorecards and strategies galore. It’s all things I didn’t have before.”

Soon after Hanlon joined Milkful in September of 2017, Carey began to investigate accelerator programs. And the process got her thinking beyond the products she wanted to create.

Now, at the end of this week, she will begin a program, although she can’t yet identify which one. But she is looking forward to the support, the coaching and the mentoring that go along with being involved in an accelerator.

“It’s super isolating to have your own business. You feel like you’re alone. I’m so excited to have a group of mentors now who are supporting the business, and I don’t have to have all the answers,” Carey says.

That’s been one of the biggest lessons she’s learned in the entrepreneurial process.

“Perfection is paralyzing. I was unable to proceed in the beginning because I was thinking that I had to have it all figured out,” Carey says. “One of Holt’s favorite phrases is, ‘You can’t boil the ocean.’ She says that every day. And it’s true.”

The accelerator program will take Carey out of state, but she will be heading back to Charlotte most weekends to spend time with her family. That part will be hard. Carey’s fairly certain her youngest will take her first steps while she’s away. But, she says with a laugh, her husband has promised to keep pushing her down until Carey can make it back home.

To learn more about Milkful, visit the company’s website