Written & Photographed by A Wild Dove
For Carissa Tozzi and Gena Mann, working together was meant to be. The pair grew up in the same town on Long Island, crossed paths in the media world and later ended up close by in Connecticut. But the real magic came when Carissa sought advice from Gena for friends who were struggling with their autistic children, as one of Gena’s four kids has autism. Carissa then shared a top secret project she was working on and despite very few hours in the day, Gena signed on immediately. The result? Wolf + Friends, a cool, modern website that offers toys, fashion and gifts for children with developmental delays. We’re talking happy, stylish pieces that would fit inside any Pinterest-worthy bedroom. We spoke to the pair to get the intel on Wolf + Friends and how this amazing website came to be.
So you’ve been friends and colleagues for a long time and now you’re working together in such a beautiful way. Carissa, what was your "trigger moment” in launching Wolf and Friends?
Carissa- After having my son Wolf, I became obsessed with stylish kids' clothes, decor and toys on Pinterest. I also discovered that so many friends and colleagues were dealing with developmental issues with their children. I knew the only places they were shopping were uninspiring therapy stores. So I spent time researching those shops. I saw that many of the products they sold were on Amazon and that I could find similar items that had the same benefits at cool boutiques around the world. So I decided to curate it all online in a way that was inspiring and informative and helpful.
Wolf + Friends is definitely filling a need. What was some of the feedback you got immediately from parents and children? Any specific moments that touched you?
Carissa- It is wonderful to hear people feel a loving, uplifting energy when they visit our site. I heard specifically from a mom who designs these awesome, modern balance boards for her autistic child. We sell them now!
Gena- I think parents are relieved and grateful to have a place to shop for their children’s developmental delays or differences that feels happy and inspirational instead of depressing! I have written a few stories on the blog from personal experiences with my own kids and moms often reach out to tell me it feels good to know they are not alone.
So how do you balance it all, a new website and five kids between you?
Carissa- Can you really call it balance?? We try to do the best we can with the time we have. We are both full time moms as well, which I think is really important for what we do. I am spending so much time with Wolf and meeting his friends and parents. I love that people I just met will come to me for advice and recommendations and many experts and parents want to contribute to the site as well.
Gena- There’s no such thing as balance with a startup. I am answering these questions at 10:00pm on Sunday evening after putting my four kids to bed. I try to work when my two year old is in preschool and then at night after the kids go to bed. My three other kids are going in 100 directions after school between therapies and activities so I am a chauffeur between the hours of 2:45 and 6pm. I worked really hard to have my youngest, so I will rarely give up any time with her. There is no better moment in my day than the way she squeals at preschool pickup.
We can’t imagine how busy you must be! Your team is amazing, how did you put your group together?
Gena- Many of the talented people that write for us are occupational therapists, speech therapists, psychiatrists and behavior analysts that I have met through my son's program. These people have helped my child, so we ask them to write about things we think can help other people's kids.
What are the next steps for Wolf +Friends?
Carissa- We are starting to collaborate with brands that we have always loved, which is super exciting and we are starting to meet with people who know a lot more about “business” than us, so we can get insight and advice on where we can take the brand from here.
What's the last book you read with your kids?
Carissa- Wolf is into scary looking and informative dinosaur books, so that is what we are reading. I ask him to bring home something funny from the library, but he is in a scary phase and all wants is facts and information!
Gena- My big kids read by themselves at night (at least some of them do)! My baby is a big fan of Llama, Llama books and so am I.
What makes you fly?
Carissa- When Wolf tells me he loves me so much! He is such a sweet, loving, affectionate boy! I want to hold on to those moments forever. And I am so lucky to have such a loving and thoughtful husband who tells me everyday how much he loves me and how beautiful I am. I am very grateful for my little family.
Gena- My family 100%. We have a complicated little crew in many ways. We have autism which throws everyone for a loop. We have a 12 year age difference between my oldest and youngest kids and my husband spends a lot of time on a plane traveling for work. But we wouldn't change a thing! When we are all together, we have moments of magic. My husband plays piano and the kids all dance around, we make bonfires in the front yard in the spring and summer. Honestly, when we can get everyone in one room for a meal, we are pretty psyched. Because of our challenges, we appreciate the small miracles.