When her children were growing up, Ilene Kaplan, our NJ Mompreneur of the Week, often tucked little notes of encouragement into their lunchboxes so they’d always know she was with them, no matter what the day brought. Fast forward to 2020, and with her youngest heading to college for the first time, Ilene, who had an accessory business for several years, wanted to continue the love note tradition and thought about making a bracelet with an inspiring message. Seeing her daughter with a hair tie around her wrist led to a eureka moment—why not combine the two? After creating a sleek metal bar with a saying and connecting it to a bracelet-sized elastic hair tie, Olive Lou — a name chosen because when spoken, it looks like someone is saying, ‘I love you”— was born. Now, the unique accessory worn on a wrist or cinching a ponytail is on a mission to spread inspiration and empowerment, as well as support a charity close to Ilene’s heart. We chatted with this Clinton Township mom of Ben, 24, and Peri, 21, to discover how to reinvent yourself career-wise, why philanthropy is so important to her, and the local “best kept secret” spot she recently found to enjoy award-winning wine while overlooking beautiful vineyards.
Tell us a bit about your career path and what you’ve learned about yourself along the way. I traded commodities for about 10 years—I loved it and intended to continue on that path after my daughter was born, but I decided to take some time to get my bearings as a mom of two kids before returning to it. Then, my husband was transferred to Germany, and I found I enjoyed being an expat and caring for my kids. When we returned to the States and moved to Hunterdon County, I realized I’m a worker at heart and have always liked having a project. I had a little jewelry business for a while, and I worked at my kids’ day camp for 8 years doing arts and crafts with the little ones and creating the camp’s daily newsletter. It made me realize how much I loved tapping into my creative side and how you can make a living doing something you enjoy. In 2012, my sisters and I started a web-based accessories business, but in 2020, we decided to put it on hold to rebrand our business. Right around that time, our mom became ill, and the pandemic was happening, so we decided to close shop for good and chalk it up to having had a good run. One thing I’ve learned from all of this that’s important for everyone to realize is that you can constantly reinvent yourself, no matter your initial chosen career path and stage in life. If there’s something you enjoy doing, dig a little deeper to see if it might be worth exploring career-wise. You don’t have to give up your day job before making the jump.
What were your first steps to get started and bring your product to market? Initially, I needed to have samples made. I found a manufacturer to make the blanks, and then laser engraved them. Once that was done, I created a website and did a soft launch with friends and family on Facebook. The positive feedback I received encouraged me to keep moving forward with it. Along with my online sales, I’m also in stores and expanding that end of my business.
Charitable giving is a big part of Olive Lou, giving a percentage of proceeds to The Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration (AFTD organization). Why is this organization important to you? I started this business to uplift women and girls so they always remember they’re special, they’re loved, and they’ve “got this.” But I also started it to raise awareness for my mother’s illness, FTD (frontotemporal degeneration), a lesser-known form of dementia recently brought to light due to the diagnosis of Bruce Willis. It’s very hard on the individuals and caregivers because people lose bits and pieces of who they truly are. The AFTD organization is impressive and does so much to help those affected by this disease, including providing information and support to those directly impacted, funding research, spreading awareness, connecting the community, and educating healthcare professionals. I believe in this organization so much that all proceeds from the “Always remember you are loved” bracelet-hair tie collection are donated.
Does your family help out with your business? Yes, they all support me in their own way. My daughter pitches in regarding social media and photos, and she and her friends often model for me. And even though my son and I aren’t in the same state, if I’m doing something software-related, he’s always available to help me figure things out. Also, my husband is a huge help. He is my sounding board, photographer at times and even helps out with packaging when needed.
What made you decide to settle in Clinton Township? My husband and I both grew up in East Brunswick and we lived in Berkeley Heights when my children were born. When we discovered Hunterdon County we just fell in love with the area. It’s rural but has all of the conveniences of suburban living. More land, farms, wildlife, and quaint towns nearby, and if you need a break from the “peace and quiet,” it’s less than an hour and half to get to NYC.
What are some of your favorite local businesses? I consider the wineries near us to be our area’s best-kept secret because they are unique and bring the community together. Beneduce Vineyards is one that I love to go to—they have special events and things like live music and food trucks on certain days, but you can also bring your own food there. And The Old York Cellars in Ringoes is another special winery we recently discovered and love. They have incredible wine, and we rented a cabana there—it was like having our own little party in a vineyard.
Please share a NJ spot or two that you and your family enjoy. Downtown Clinton is ideal, thanks to the historical Red Mill, the Hunterdon Art Museum, and the town’s fabulous shops and restaurants. We also enjoy exploring other small towns in the area. Frenchtown and Stockton are two favorites. And we love visiting the reservoirs here, notably Spruce Run and Round Valley. They’re perfect for walks with our rescue pyredoodle, Josie.
What’s your best practical advice for a mompreneur just starting? Stay true to yourself and your passion, and do not be afraid to seek advice from others, especially other female entrepreneurs who work alone. I’ve found them to be a great resource and support system and invaluable when sharing ideas, brainstorming, and cheering each other on.