For most first-time moms on maternity leave, their personal goals are basic. Take a shower. Eat. Get some sleep -- if you're lucky. But Michelle Whalen's goals, while initially unplanned, turned out to be more ambitious: She created a company on her first maternity leave and launched it on her second.
If that wasn't impressive enough on its own, Whalen completely changed careers, moving from designing buildings to creating teddy bears and books as founder of Andover Bear Company.
"I've always been a creative person," she says. "Growing up, I loved art and photography. My father was an engineer, so I also had this interest in buildings."
After graduating from Syracuse University's School of Visual and Performing Arts, Whalen earned her master's degree in architecture and worked in the field for nine years, designing primarily higher education buildings -- laboratories, libraries, and learning spaces.
"I got to the point where I wanted to do more with my skillset," she says. "When I look back at my work, it always had this whimsical, fun feel to it. I had this idea that I wanted to start a children's brand, but I didn't quite know how or where to start."
The arrival of her first child, Collette, now 4, provided the inspiration.
"When my oldest daughter was born I wanted to find her that classic teddy bear, something that was special and she could have as a companion," Whalen says. "I couldn't find anything unique at a reasonable price point. I got this idea: Maybe I could use that as a place to start to create a business. I went on maternity leave and thought, I'm going to start something."
Whalen worked on the design with a goal of developing a classic, timeless teddy bear, like mainstays Winnie the Pooh and Corduroy.
"They're not commercial looking or what you see on most of the store shelves," she says of her bears. "They're all about the details, beautiful in their simplicity."
At 12 inches tall, the bears all boast the same hand-sewn eyes, nose, and subtle smile, and come in brown, grey, light grey, and amber. Soft, yet durable, they're made of natural fabrics (70% cotton, 30% linen) and are unadorned, save for the company's signature ABC (Andover Bear Company) embroidered on one paw. (Although hand-sewn with no parts to fall off, all bears are third-party tested to ensure they meet industry safety standards.)
"You see a lot of plush toys have that fake fur look. I felt like the cotton fabric was more natural and simple," she says.
The bear's simplicity was key for Whalen, not just for the aesthetic, but for its overall purpose. Each is an open-ended, blank canvas designed to inspire a child's imagination, allowing the toy to be whatever a child wants at any time.
"Stuffed animals are a great learning tool for little ones to express their imagination, that's what I wanted to embrace," she notes. "I feel like people want to get back to celebrating the small things. In a world where you have everything thrown at you all hours of the day, it's nice to celebrate those simple things in life."
While creating the design and details on maternity leave, Whalen was encouraged enough to leave her career in architecture behind and work at home, caring for Collette and her burgeoning business.
"When I went on maternity leave and started to put together this bear, I was, like, I think I really want to go for it. I'm one of those people, once I get something in my head, I have to get it out," she laughs.
After refining the design to her liking, she went online in search of a manufacturer, found a match that met her requirements, and began exchanging samples "back and forth until we got exactly what we wanted. We work with a lovely group of people, really talented women [in China]."
Overseas production allowed Whalen to achieve one of her main goals: "I wanted it to be unique, but also affordable and able to reach a lot of people." (The bears currently sell for $22.50 at andoverbear.com.)
Whalen spent two years developing her business, and after having her second child, Margot, in 2015, she was ready to officially launch.
"By the time Margot arrived, we had the website launched. Once we put the website together, people started to take notice and one opportunity led to the next," she says. "People were, like, 'Wait, you just had a baby and now you're starting a business?' But I started it two years before."
Whalen works out of her home office with her daughters, who she reports enjoy stopping by: "They're always in here trying to grab bears," she laughs.
She credits family and friends for their help and support in launching her endeavor while raising two little girls: "It takes a team to make something special. You need people in your life to help do that. I have a lot of help."
Whalen's bears are available on her company site, at select boutiques, and can also be purchased via the websites of Babies "R" Us and Toys "R" Us. This fall, the bears are joined by a new product, personalized letter books. Each 16-page board book features one letter that corresponds with the first letter of a child's name. The book is filled with whimsical illustrations and other words that begin with the same letter, reinforcing phonics and alliteration, and the last page features the child's name spelled out.
"My mantra in life is to make beautiful things with people that I love. When you make something, whether it's a meal, or an article, or a piece of art, I think you get a satisfaction that comes with that. I believe it leads to happiness."