Jessica Rolph’s journey from Cornell student to MBA to cofounder of two best-selling brands
The CEO of Lovevery talks about purpose, partnerships, getting acquired, and starting up all over again.
“Purpose, for me in particular, is about stripping away what other people expect of me, what society expects of me, and what (traditional) success looks like,” serial entrepreneur Jessica Rolph ’97, MBA ’04, said at a Jan. 30 Cornell Business Forum hosted by the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business at the InterContinental Times Square hotel in midtown Manhattan. Laura Georgianna, MBA ’03, MILR ’04, executive director of Leadership Programs and director of the Roy H. Park Leadership Fellows program at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, led the fireside chat with Rolph, who is a Park Fellow alumna.
“When you strip away those layers and start to get more deeply connected to what you care about, and what you passionately want to do to impact the world, really powerful things can surface for you,” Rolph said.
Rolph is the cofounder and CEO of Lovevery, a Boise, Idaho-based company offering toys designed by experts for each stage of a child’s brain development, from newborn to age 5, along with tools and information for parents, delivered by subscription. Rolph and her cofounder Rod Morris have built the company to $22 million in sales in 2018, its second year in operation, up from $7 million the previous year. Lovevery has garnered investments from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google, among others.
“Rod and I are really excited about the growth,” said Rolph. “We’re building a support system for parents so they have the information they need for every stage of their child’s development. That’s huge.”
After getting her MBA, Rolph cofounded Happy Family, an organic baby food company with Shazi Visram. The early days were tough because they learned that parents weren’t interested in buying their baby food in the freezer. The cofounders regrouped and pivoted to packaging their food in pouches. That’s when sales took off. To survive the emotional roller coaster ride of startup life, Rolph said entrepreneurs need to acknowledge their doubts and fears but then set them aside to achieve their goals.
“Jessica is very much a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-in-it type of leader, and, as a result, also fairly humble,” Georgianna said. She cited Happy Family’s success in raising $20 million from investors, becoming the leading organic baby food brand with $63 million in sales, and eventually selling a 92 percent stake to Paris-based Group Danone for $230 million in 2013.
During her years at Happy Family, Rolph also cofounded the Climate Collaborative with fellow Johnson alumna Lara Jackle Dickinson, MBA ’94. The Climate Collaborative is a nonprofit consortium of more than 500 natural foods companies that seeks solutions to address climate change. Rolph was literally having nightmares about climate change and her company’s role in adding 150 million food pouches a year to landfills; she worried about how her children would judge her. “Doing made me feel better,” she said. “The Climate Collaborative is my answer to a pain point—climate change—that I was churning on for years.”
The Power of Partnerships
As a cofounder in all three of her ventures, Rolph emphasized the importance of collaboration. “I did not do this by myself,” she said. “I’m very much in respect of that.”
However, cofounding a startup can also be an intensely humbling experience, she acknowledged. “In our culture we love to hold one person up as the person. There’s often the visionary, the one who makes it all happen.”
As the number two person at Happy Family, Rolph said she had to face the fact that she wasn’t playing a starring role. “I’m still very much in support of my cofounder, but I can’t listen to the story being told, because it’s painful to look at my own ego.”
She also stressed the importance of appreciating a cofounder’s full range of capabilities rather than placing them in a preconceived box. “With Rod, my cofounder at Lovevery, the depths and layers of what I’m understanding of his talent is still unfolding. I’m so in awe of him” she said. “These entrepreneurial businesses—we all know, if you’ve been in them— just suck everything out of you. If you can be your full selves, that’s powerful. “
After the sale
After Happy Family sold its majority stake to Danone, Rolph spent three years working for Happy Family as a corporate employee. It was a tough transition.
“I realized all of a sudden that their priorities weren’t my priorities” she said. “I realized that the on-the-ground businesspeople at Danone didn’t trust me. I had to learn how to manage up and build trust.”
After leaving Happy Family (she was still an advisory board member), Rolph was ready to plunge into her next venture. But she faltered when others questioned her about the wisdom of doing a second startup. To persevere, she needed to again strip away expectations and focus on her own sense of purpose.
The Second Act
“I was guided by this deep passion around early life and early learning,” said Rolph, the mother of three. Her epiphany came after watching with fascination as her young son played with a plastic toy. “He pulled himself up to it, and was pushing all these buttons.” She wondered what was going on in his brain.
In the course of her research, she discovered a pivotal doctoral thesis on brain development in young children and dug deep into the science. She learned that 80 percent of the human brain is developed by age 3.
“I think the confidence around my purpose allowed me to take a risk and do it again. To look people in the eye—sometimes see doubt and sometimes see belief—and persevere.”
As a leader, said Rolph, she follows businesswoman Meg Whitman’s example of scanning for issues and opportunities and then getting getting into the weeds to uncover potential.
“I’m obsessive and I go really deep,” said Rolph. “It’s inquiry, it’s ‘let’s get messy together.’ Before you scale, you have to obsess.
“You’re always holding the biggest vision times ten. You always have to be stretching for what’s possible,” added Rolph, who likes to imagine Lovevery eventually going public for a billion dollars.
All photos by Diane Bondareff.