An interview with Nell Shapiro, Founder of Kibou, the deliberately minimal diaper bag.
  • (Q) Question
  • (N) Nell, Interviewee
  • (S) Sarah, Interviewer

When I hung up the call with Nell Shapiro, Founder of Kibou, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of admiration and gratitude. Here we are, nine months into a global pandemic. Nell had just returned home from taking her son to school, forgetting to submit a health form that’s now required each day. Just as we think we’ve got the parenting thing down, we’re met with navigating a COVID-19 era with young children. How can one possibly balance motherhood, raise two boys, grow a company, maintain self-care, and now learn to follow new health procedures to keep her family safe? I asked her this similar question. And for Nell, it’s because when she pictures her life, she doesn’t see it any other way.

And since there’s no other way, it’s easy to share the clarity in her vision and hear the conviction in her voice. By reading our conversation, I know you’ll share the same sentiment.

Nell and her family

Let’s dive in:

(q) What was your life like before Kibou, and what were you doing?

(n) Well, before even the idea of Kibou, I was pregnant with Theo, and well, I'm trying to think of where to start. I was a teacher for 11 years. I first was teaching middle school English. Then I went back and got my graduate degree in education, and then moved into early childhood education. I was a preschool teacher when I got pregnant with Theo. Then I decided when I had him that I wanted to take some time off. My commute to work was almost an hour, and I didn’t want to be away from him all day. So I took the year off and realized being at home wasn't for me. During that same year, I consulted on and off for a school in our neighborhood. Not long after, the school offered me a director position.

(s) That’s great, and so much closer to your home.

(n) Totally. Such a difference in quality of life to be able to walk everywhere, including to and from work. But, even before going back to work, for us, life with a baby in Brooklyn meant that we walked everywhere.  So I wore Theo in a baby carrier almost all the time. I had this massive diaper bag that I had registered for and thought was beautiful. I'd spent all this time picking it out. I loved it. But then I’d put Theo in the carrier and grab the bag, and I was like, this sucks. Where does this bag go? Where does the baby go? And then when I needed something, I couldn’t find it quickly. I became frustrated with the weight and the bulk and not having the right place for everything.

(n cont…) So I ditched the diaper bag and started using a tote bag. And so it was a lot lighter, a lot smaller, but I was still frustrated. The straps would get in the way of the baby, or would slip off my shoulder, and there was no built-in organization. I’d have to set it on the ground every time I needed something, and it was always getting dirty. It was during these moments that I knew there had to be a better way.

So I started daydreaming about this idea. What if there was a fanny pack that had all the functionality that I’d lost when I got rid of my diaper bag? This was back in 2015. So I went online, and I was Googling the type of fanny pack I was looking for, and nothing came up. Fast-forward two years, we were starting to think about another child, and I still hadn’t found a diaper bag that worked for me.

Nell & Theo

I kept coming back to this daydream, this idea, and feeling more and more like it was a solution I needed in my life, but up to that point I’d keep it a closely guarded secret from basically everyone. Finally I decided to tell my friends to see what they thought about the concept,  and they were ecstatic about the idea. Most of them said I had to do it,  and  a few friends in particular were real cheerleaders of the idea, which honestly makes all the difference. And so I started researching and putting together a survey to ask parents about their diaper bag necessities, experiences, and frustrations.

I went on Amazon, bought a bunch of fanny packs, and diaper changing pads. With my super basic sewing skills, I grabbed a pair of scissors, needle, and thread and got to work. Let me go grab my very first bag...

(q) What was your aha-moment for the Kibou bag?

(n) It was more a series of daydreams...fantasies?! About how my hands and shoulders could be free and not weighed down by a bag.

(s) I can relate to what you’re saying. I’d pack my daughter’s diaper bag as if I was going on a week-long vacation when, in reality, I was just going to the grocery store. Now I don't pack so much because I'm much more confident in my skills as a mother, and I can anticipate what she's going to need.

(n) Exactly. And now, Charlie’s potty-trained, so I don't leave home without extra pants. I just roll up a pair of sweats or pajama pants and add it to the Kibou.

(q) How did you come up with the name Kibou?

(n) I was inspired by lots of other entrepreneurs’ stories. One that I think most of us have been inspired by is Sara Blakely of Spanx. Listening to her interview on “How I Built This”, she talked about the name Spanx and how the ‘K’ sound sticks in people's minds and their memories. By this point, my close mom-friend Stephanie Merks had come on as my partner, and we were brainstorming names, and we had a name that we came up with that we were really excited about. But we took it to our trademark attorney to find out that another company had already registered the name, a company that would undoubtedly bring litigation. So, we went back to the drawing board asking ourselves, what do we represent? Who are we? This bag is about being minimal and simplifying - allowing you to be present, to be with your child and focused on them, not focused on stuff.

The value of the bag is that it enables you to keep it by you. And so we came up with Kibou from the words of this phrase, Keep it by you.

( n cont…) We didn’t know this at the time, but Kibou in Japanese means hope and foundation, which is also just coincidentally beautiful.

(q) What's the one skill you didn't have before you started Kibou that you've developed and surprisingly enjoy?

(n) There are so many things that I did not know anything about, having no background in business. I loved learning in general, and I’ve loved learning about marketing and how we can connect and engage with our target market in meaningful ways. There’s a skill in understanding interests and emotions, and I’ve enjoyed understanding the connection better. I'm also surprised by how much I enjoy digging into the numbers, such as forecast, growth, projections, optimization, etc.

(s) That’s the one advantage and disadvantage of being a founder; it’s our job to know all of those things, whether we like them or not. So it’s inspiring to hear that you’ve taken an interest in them.

The first ever Kibou prototype

(q) What was the greatest fear you had when starting your company?

(n) My biggest fear was that without the experience, connections, and funding, someone was going to get there before us. It still feels like a race against time.

(s) I understand. When I left Rackspace in January to start Poppylist, I feared that people wouldn’t take me seriously since I don’t have experience in building technology. And every day, I have anxiety that someone is making what I am, just faster.

  • For about four and a half minutes, we digressed and started talking about Podcasts. If you’re an avid pod listener, I recommend listening to the Glossier episode on How I Built This. The premise? There’s enough room for all of us.

(q) Looking back, what would you tell that fear now?

(n) I would tell my fear there was no other option, so don’t be afraid. I knew I was never going to feel satisfied until I gave this my all. I want to read you an email that I got today:

“Hi Kibou, My sister just received her Kibou. And I don't know how you knew it was a gift, but it put a smile on her face to see that it read ‘Love, Jackie.’ Thank you for going out of your way to make this delivery special. I haven't met my new nephew due to COVID, and this was a pleasant surprise for her to receive. Thank you very much. She loves the color, and she's a no-nonsense, on-the-go mom. The fanny pack is perfect. I don't have a baby, but I'm tempted to buy a bag for myself as well. Thank you for your customer service, and I hope you and your team stay well.

(n cont…) For someone to take the time to write that…I mean, they must care and this must have made a true difference for them. I’m so proud that we did this, that we treat every customer the way we’d treat our closest friends. And I’m proud that we built the bag the right way.

(q) What is your superpower as a mom?

(n) I never give up. I just don’t, ever. I don't take no for an answer. I don’t mean from my kids (I mean, my kids say no just as much as everyone else’s!) I mean from life, from opportunities, from obstacles. When I was little my parents always said I should be an attorney. When they would say no, I would find six reasons why they should say yes.

(s) That skill has served you exceptionally well, and I’m so grateful that you said yes to me today.

When I think about Nell saying there’s no other way, I believe supporting other female entrepreneurs is among her list of priorities. There’s no other way forward if we don’t support each other. There’s no other way to be but supportive.

Today, I’m thankful to be on the receiving end of this interview and for her generosity and support in my entrepreneurial journey.