Jennifer Mitchell

Finding a Way

Jennifer Mitchell didn’t have it easy as a Girl Scout. While her friends’ fathers took cookie order forms into their office buildings to quickly rack up dozens of sales for their daughters, Jennifer’s father politely declined. “He was endlessly supportive and encouraging to my siblings and me, but he told me, ‘That’s not how we do things,’” she remembers today. “I was on my own to figure it out, just as I was on my own to deliver everything I sold by loading boxes onto the back of my bike. But that didn’t stop me. Instead, it motivated me, and our troop sold more cookies than any other across the entire country.”

“Our parents always wanted us to figure things out on our own, and it made us more independent, resourceful, and committed.

An eternally enthusiastic and goal-oriented kid, Jennifer thrived through her many years as a scout, amassing so many pins and badges that her mother refused to keep sewing them on her sash. “I had to learn how to sew myself, which was just fine with me,” Jennifer recounts. “Our parents always wanted us to figure things out on our own, and it made us more independent, resourceful, and committed. If I was interested in something and wanted to pursue it, it was up to me to find a way.”

It just so happened that Jennifer was interested in almost everything. When she was eight years old, she picked up her first instrument, the flute. She enjoyed it so much that she pursued lessons outside of the music classes provided in school. When she finished her homework in the evenings, instead of playing or watching TV, she practiced—even when her parents expelled her to the porch so they didn’t have to listen. In fifth grade, she was named section leader, an honor usually reserved for eighth grade students. “I was fortunate to have great people around me who really encouraged me along the way, like my instructor and our band leader,” she says. “But I found it truly interesting and fun, so it didn’t feel like a chore to me. I was just driven to do it.”

Now the CEO of MAM USA/MAM Canada (MAM), a family business that has flourished into a top international baby products company, Jennifer is still driven by that same inner passion and insatiable interest in the world around her. Her career traces the process of setting a goal and then finding a way to get there, and her leadership—growing hand in hand with that philosophy—has been shaped by her genuine interest in the work and perspectives of others. “In general, I love growing a business associated with a tangible product and brand, and I love mentoring teams to watch employees grow as well,” she says. “But this business is particularly exciting because it’s focused on such a special time in life, when people are becoming new parents or expanding their families. There’s so much potential, and it’s my job to find a way to reach it.”

MAM was founded four decades ago by Peter Roehrig, a plastics engineer in Vienna, Austria, credited with creating the first modern pacifier. He became fascinated with oral development in children, embracing the best science to create products geared to the specific needs of babies and toddlers up to four years of age. “Our core is pacifiers, teethers, toothbrushes, and bottles,” Jennifer explains. “We stay focused on what we’re good at, and it’s why we have the largest market share of pacifiers in the world.”

Until 2008, MAM was sold in the U.S. through a third-party distributor, which proved a major challenge. “They needed someone who considered it their own company and was passionate about the brand,” Jennifer says. “And they needed someone who knew how to market and sell a product in each of their target companies.” With that, Roehrig decided to select CEOs to run MAM businesses in different countries as affiliates of the larger organization, but operated as standalone units functioning as their own companies.

When Jennifer first heard of MAM, she realized she had been using its products for years without realizing it. She had unknowingly bought a MAM pacifier for one of her sons, demonstrating the brand development potential at her fingertips if she decided to leave her enviable career at Clorox to give it a try. After two years of dialogue with Roehrig, MAM USA/MAM Canada’s CEO announced his intention to retire, and Roehrig turned to Jennifer. “He asked me to come join the team to reconfigure its sales shop and then step up as the company’s next CEO,” she recounts. “He knew I had worked extensively with big U.S. customers like Amazon, Walmart, and Target—just the background he was looking for to take the company to the next level. It was a great opportunity, and I believed in the brand, so I decided to take a risk and go for it.”

In its aim to serve the 4 million babies born in the U.S. each year, MAM’s products are developed by medical professionals to serve the developmental needs of children at each stage of life, from increasing comfort to decreasing a baby’s risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Thanks to its sound product development practices, the company has never had a product recall—a rare accomplishment in the children’s product space, and a testament to MAM’s attention to design, raw material supply, production, and customer service. MAM USA/MAM Canada comprises about a third of the organization’s $150 million annual worldwide sales, and has grown 150 percent over the past decade. “Our growth comes from better marketing and better positioning in stores,” Jennifer notes. “We have a much better understanding of the space we’re playing in and have focused on communicating to customers what makes our product different.”

“I wish I had known that being a CEO means you face challenges every day, so you truly have to love solving problems,” she says. “When my children ask what I do, that’s what I say: I solve problems.”

When Jennifer stepped up from Head of Sales to CEO in 2015, her perspective expanded exponentially as she took on HR, customer issues, finance, and more. An encouraging leader, she loves to see others succeed, and focuses on hands-on mentorship to work through problems. “I wish I had known that being a CEO means you face challenges every day, so you truly have to love solving problems,” she says. “When my children ask what I do, that’s what I say: I solve problems.”

In a sense, Jennifer has been training for this job since the earliest days of her childhood. Growing up with an older sister, an older brother, and a younger sister, she loved activities and was free to load up her schedule, so long as she managed her own time and figured out her own transportation. She filled her days with camp, rec leagues, and team sports in everything from softball, to soccer, to track, riding her bike everywhere. She also held various part-time jobs from the time she was in fourth grade, including babysitting, cutting lawns, and watching dogs. “People knew they could count on me, and I liked the independence of being able to cover the expenses of my social life,” she says. “Independence has always been a big part of my motivation when it comes to work.”

Jennifer was born and raised in New Jersey, where her father commuted to his sales job in New York City, and her mother stayed home to manage the household. Family always came first, which was reinforced by family dinners together every evening, family vacations in the summers, and family trips into the city for Broadway plays. Devout Catholics, they also attended church together every Sunday, and Jennifer attended Catholic elementary school. “I was lucky to have a stable, consistent, happy upbringing,” she recounts. “I always knew it was a nice life to have.”

Though her family was upper middle class, Jennifer’s mother and father stayed rooted in their down-to-earth upbringings in Brooklyn and the Bronx, respectively. They invested heavily and entrepreneurially in both commercial and residential real estate, fixing up properties and then reselling them. “My parents talked a lot about it around the dinner table, and there was always a lot going on with buying properties or finding potential buyers,” Jennifer recounts. “We kids always helped out, like sweeping up after contractors. We learned that little details matter, and it was a way for us to spend time together as a family. My mother was the mastermind behind it all. She was a very hard worker with an eye for properties, a talent for aesthetics, and a willingness to do it herself. We’d often come home from school to find that she’d re-wallpapered a room.”

Girl Scouts shaped Jennifer’s formative years through eighth grade, providing a positive atmosphere full of supportive friends, inspiring troop leaders, and lessons to shape a lifetime. “So much of work is about being personally invested in the people around you, caring about them and their success,” she says. “I learned a lot of that in Girl Scouts.”

Jennifer also learned her mother’s no-nonsense approach to life, managing four children and a household while quietly handling countless other ventures behind the scenes. She appreciated her father’s generous, hardworking, optimistic nature, and his belief that there wasn’t anything his children couldn’t do. She attended an all-girls private Catholic high school, where she was a highly motivated student who learned to speak up and compete. “The expectation was that we would all succeed and go on to college,” she says. “My siblings and I were also guided by our faith, and by the extended family we spent a lot of time with.”

Upon graduating, Jennifer attended Villanova University with the intention of studying business, where she began as an accounting major per her father’s advice. Starting in her sophomore year, she lived off-campus with friends and found summer jobs that kept her in the area through the warmer months. “I’m still very close with the eight girls I lived with back then,” she reflects. “We call ourselves the Roommates, and if one of us has a problem, we all come back together to help. It was special to develop that core group of friends, and I was in a sorority as well.”

By her junior year, Jennifer was so sick of accounting that she switched her major to marketing, which proved a much better fit. She graduated and moved to Boston, where she spent two years working a fascinating job for the Boston Consulting Group. She got married and then took a job with Gillette, her first marketing experience for a major brand. Her husband happened to get transferred for work four times during her ten-year stint with the company, and fortunately, they were willing to move her to their various offices in Houston, New Jersey, and DC. “They always made it work because they didn’t want to lose me,” she says. “I got the chance to work in a variety of business development, marketing, and sales roles because they had me on a track to advance within the company. I think they saw something in my work ethic and ability to manage teams.”

In 2000, eight years into her tenure with the company, Jennifer had her first son and then relocated to Washington, DC. She traveled every other week to Boston, which was highly challenging with a newborn child. She toughed it out for two years, but her child had been born prematurely, and she worried she needed to oversee his care more actively. When she became pregnant with her second child and also began to notice strain in her marriage, she decided she needed a lifestyle change. With that, she transitioned into a sales job with Clorox, where she could work out of their Reston office and spend more time with her family.

Despite this effort, the stress compounded on the young family to the point that Jennifer and her husband divorced when she was 32. “That was a big defining moment for me,” she reflects. “My sons were very young at the time, and I remember thinking how important it was to be self-sufficient in life so you always have options. I had always been motivated in my career, but I took it to another level, committing to being successful while raising my two kids. I didn’t want to have to rely on anyone else.”

“I realized that, if I could get through that tough situation while my kids were babies, I could handle anything,” she affirms.

In that way, a very negative experience ushered a very positive transition in Jennifer’s life, propelling her to new heights of strength and confidence. “I realized that, if I could get through that tough situation while my kids were babies, I could handle anything,” she affirms. “Whenever I’d have a difficult meeting, or if I had to give a speech, I’d remember that I had seen a lot worse. It was good to learn that I had the strength to press forward and find a way to succeed.”

At Clorox, Jennifer moved into category management, where she analyzed customer behavior and market opportunity. She had exceptional mentors that encouraged her business mind and management skills, and she fine-tuned her skills in communicating and presenting information effectively. Most important, however, was her innate openness and interest in the work. “Whenever I went into a new role, I never questioned that there was a point to it,” she says. “When they offered me a chance to learn about supply chains, I wanted to learn everything there was to know. I was enthusiastic about everything, which allowed me to ask good questions and connect with everyone about their work. People appreciate that I have genuine passion for what they do.”

This interest draws from the intricate, holistic lens through which Jennifer sees all things—a key to her success and leadership. To her, the product was never just the product; rather, it was symbolic of why people make the choices they make, and why they even care in the first place. “These questions can be applied to anything, whether it’s razors or bleach or baby products,” she explains. “It’s all about understanding a consumer and what motivates them. I’m fascinated by the human behavior behind why people use a product.”

Despite her love for the company, Jennifer’s lifestyle was still challenging in some ways. She took countless day trips with late night flights home so she could be there when her kids woke up. Flight delays would spur panics that her babysitter would need to leave before she got home. “Young women ask how you have a busy career as a single mother while raising young children,” she says. “My parents prepared me for it. You just have to push through and find a way.”

In finding a way, Jennifer’s work ethic won widespread respect at Clorox, and her colleagues always thought she was destined for a prime spot in the company’s headquarters in California. The VP of Sales urged her to move to the West Coast, but she knew it wasn’t the right time to move her young children. And, after eight years, she also knew the job was beginning to come too easily to her. “I could give presentations in my sleep by that point, and I decided I was ready to take a risk,” she says. “I had met with every big U.S. retailer at their headquarters, spanning across all sectors. I loved getting to know each company, learning about what they do and how they sell products. And I decided I was ready to put that knowledge and experience to work for MAM.”

Once Jennifer took the plunge, she didn’t realize exactly how far she had agreed to jump in her leap of faith. MAM’s basic practices, processes, and relationships needed a lot of work, and the culture was resistant to change at first. But with the founder’s backing, she powered forward. “Looking back, it was a little naïve of me to think I could do it,” she says. “But in a way it was helpful to be naïve. I’ll certainly have a lot more questions if I ever take on something like that again, and the whole experience cemented my confidence in my own leadership and internal compass.”

As always, Jennifer keeps that internal compass tracked to her family, which doubled in size in 2015 when she married Jack. Jack brought two children of his own to the marriage, but they consider all four kids to be their kids. “We make each other better people,” she affirms. “We are both very hardworking and very cognizant of how fortunate we are. When one of us has an idea for what we want to do next in our careers, the other is very encouraging. We take time for our marriage, but it never feels like work. It’s nice for our children to see what a loving, kind marriage is like.”

Beyond that, Jennifer reminds us that every day is a gift, a choice, and a step along the way to our next opportunity.

In advising young people entering the workforce today, Jennifer underscores the importance of keeping an open mind. “At 22, you can’t imagine what you’ll do at 32, 42, or 52,” she says. “You don’t know what might be out there, so be curious and embrace opportunity, even if there’s fear around it. Sometimes women hold themselves back because they feel they don’t have the skills to do that next job. But it’s important to overcome that voice of doubt and say, I’m going to learn it and fake it till I do. Have the confidence to step into that next role with an open mind.”

Beyond that, Jennifer reminds us that every day is a gift, a choice, and a step along the way to our next opportunity. “In evaluating your situation and the challenges it holds, you have to decide if it’s really worth it to you,” she says. “Is that particular goal worth the investment of your time and energy? You have to really want it if you’re going to get up every single day and work toward it. If you’re truly passionate about it, the sacrifices are worth it, and you’ll find a way.”

Jennifer Mitchell

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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