As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria del Mar Gomez.
Since her move from Santo Domingo to Boston to attend Babson College in 2012, Maria del Mar Gomez has immersed herself in the world of health and wellness. Graduating in 2016 with concentrations in TED, as well as Environmental Sustainability, she has also been honored by world-class entrepreneurial programs, including the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards, MassChallenge, and is the youngest member of Babson College’s Hall of Fame as a Rising Star. However, for Maria, her greatest talent, is as a champion for those who are often unheard, primarily those who suffer from a chronic illness. Following the struggles of many family and closest friends with chronic illness, particularly her beloved aunt (a Crohn’s warrior) Maria has found herself as a passionate advocate, not only for chronic illness, but for business as a means of social change. Thus, Mighty Well was born. As co-founder, along with her two best friends, Maria has built a community for those suffering from a chronic-illness, while continuing to provide necessary products, from PICC line covers, to the wildly popular Mighty Well Mask. Throughout the past year, this mask has been used by “spoonies” and their healthy counterparts alike, continuing to unite the globe through everyone’s common desire right now: health.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are an incredibly busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up in Santo Domingo, a large and beautiful city in the Dominican Republic. I was very lucky to grow up in a family surrounded by grit, and entrepreneurial prowess. Most of my family was involved in running a business, and so I evolved without many of the fears and hesitations that many feel around entrepreneurship. My mother’s business in agriculture, my father’s in personal security, my brother’s bakery, all helped me feel as though anything was possible.
I moved to Boston in 2012, to attend Babson College, where I made friends with my future Mighty Well co-founders. I loved my time at Babson, and credit my education there for much of my success today. My professors not only imparted immense logistical knowledge, but a great deal of wisdom, that continues to affect how I view myself today. Particularly, they spoke to us about the notion of “failure” frequently, and taught us how to redefine the word as positive. To this day, I believe I am braver than I might be, because I feel less scared to fail.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
As I spoke about previously, I was lucky enough to grow up in a household where many had experience running their own business. So, when it was time for me to open my own business, it felt extremely natural. I’ve been lucky to have had so many positive business owner role-models, particularly female, as an adolescent and it helped shape who I am as a leader, and as a business owner today.
Another inspiration for me, has been the people around me who have suffered from chronic illness. My aunt suffers from Crohn’s Disease, and my best friend from Lyme Disease. I have been lucky enough to support them on their journeys through treatment, which I believe gives me a better eye for the holes in our healthcare system. I have a better idea of what patients need, because I have seen it first hand.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Looking back on it, I’m sure I could identify a multitude of things I could have done differently. However, one specific lesson stands out to me, that I truly wish I had known going into the business.
Perhaps it was my ambition, or perhaps my naivete, but from the outset of Mighty Well I had a mile long laundry list of things to accomplish. I realized at the end of the first year that while I was making headway with one or two things on the list, much of it was falling to the wayside. Not only was this discouraging, but I found myself beginning to burn out, trying to do the jobs of multiple people. For example, even though I wasn’t a fashion designer, I immersed myself in the process. I remember striking up a deal with a professor, wherein I would speak with his students, and in return I could measure each of their arms! While it’s easy to laugh looking back at these times, I also recognize how exhausting it was. It wasn’t a sustainable way to lead, for me or for my team.
I learned quickly that with limited capital and team members, it’s vital to pick one or two initiatives to help you succeed, dedicate yourself completely to them, and then expand from there when you are able. In other words, time is your most valuable asset, so be smart about where you spend that resource.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It goes without saying that I am forever grateful for the entire Mighty Well team, as well as anyone who has helped us on our journey, but I find myself particularly indebted to our Chairman of the Board: Leslie Smith. Not only has she been instrumental in Mighty Well’s growth, but she has also played a key role in my growth- as an entrepreneur and as a leader.
When Leslie began to work with Mighty Well, she came to us with years of experience in the apparel industry. However, I came to realize that her greatest gift to Mighty Well (and to me), was not her vast logistical knowledge, but rather her years of experience as a leader. When I embarked on my journey as an entrepreneur, I thought only in the binary- I saw things only in black or white, as right or wrong. As my mentorship with Leslie evolved, I learned to appreciate all the beautiful shades of grey. She would ask me, “Who are you as a leader?” and “How do you motivate your team?”. I came to understand that anyone can have an amazing idea, but it is the team behind you that will separate you from the competition.
In particular, I remember a period of time early last year. We had just raised the latest round of investments from Morgan Stanley, and then others began to follow. When we had finished, we realized we could go in an infinite amount of directions with the funds, and we felt as if anything was possible. Then- COVID hit. Suddenly, sales plummeted, and we began to feel some fear about how we were to continue. I felt myself almost paralyzed with anxiety. Leslie was my (and Mighty Well’s) saving grace. I sat with her and she prompted me to take a step back, to focus on who we had on our team, and what we could realistically do. We pivoted to the Mighty Well Mask, threw all our efforts behind that initiative, and we have come through the pandemic with strength and resilience.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
There were ample challenges from the outset of the business, but I would classify most of them as par for the course: with limited capital, and a small team, struggle is to be anticipated. However, one obstacle I didn’t foresee were the doubts and questions that came from those closest to me. I found myself defending my choice to open a new business right out of school, instead of finding a job, like many of my peers. If I look back, I believe my family and friends were acting from fear, their uncertainty in my decision came from a place of fear, and a desire to protect me. However, it was difficult to feel I wasn’t getting support from those closest to me, at a time when I needed it the most.
In a lot of ways, these difficult days at the inception of Mighty Well brought our team closer together. Additionally, we learned not only to lean on each other, but also to actively seek out people who would be our cheerleaders. For example, we found a great deal of support from our alma mater: Babson College. As the #1 Entrepreneurship school, it was such a blessing to be surrounded by eager and innovative like-minded individuals, and taught by some of the most experienced professors in the country. Our professors and fellow students buoyed us up when we felt low, and from them I learned to seek out the support you need- because it is always there.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I mentioned Babson College in the previous question, but I really cannot overstate the immense positive impact my professors and fellow students had on me. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned was to redefine my notion of failure, from a negative perspective, to one that is positive. I learned to appreciate that the more you fail, the more you’re trying, and the more you’re learning. In other words- “fail, fail again, fail better”.
I believe this reconceived notion of the word “failure” made our team braver, and we decided to start selling our initial product very early on. Our strategy was to bring something to the market quickly, get feedback, iterate, and improve. In this way we began to see first-hand the vast impact our first product line had on patients. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and the letters, cards and feedback we received from the consumers motivated us to continue, and to grow. I think everyone on the team felt that if we could make one patient’s life easier, it was worth it, and we finally began to see the fruits of our labor.
When things get difficult today, I think about the patients- the people we’re doing this for. Recently I saw a video posted of a young woman finishing her radiation treatment, and ringing the bell- and she was wearing a Mighty Well Mask. The thought that our product could have brought this woman a small feeling of safety, while she embarked on an extremely difficult and painful journey, is something that has sustained me the past couple of weeks.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things today are great, and definitely very different from how they started. Our team, and our sales have grown exponentially, and we have so many more people to support us than we’ve ever had before. Some days I find myself dumbfounded that I don’t have to do everything anymore! Perhaps the biggest change is that while we began as a direct-to-consumer business, we are beginning to shift to direct-to-hospital sales as well. The urgency of our products (particularly the PICC line cover), as well as the financial hardships many of our patients face has prompted us to build out this additional facet of our business.
I am so grateful to everyone on the Mighty Well team, each of whom is tirelessly dedicated to serving those suffering with chronic illness, around the globe. I believe on my end, I have derived a lot of my grit from my identity as an immigrant. I’m only here for a limited time, which makes every day count in a different way. That “expiration date”, if you will, provides a mental fortitude that has helped me to develop a strength and resilience I may not have previously had.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I believe the most unique element of Mighty Well, is our extraordinary connection to our customers. Many people on the Mighty Well team suffer from chronic-illness themselves, which gives us a particular insight to our consumer base. In a lot of ways, Mighty Well’s digital presence has become something of a support group, for both our team, and for the patients we serve. This distinctive, and friendly relationship we have cultivated with our customers has evolved into more of a “friend-to-friend” relationship, rather than a typical business-to-consumer relationship.
Another element of this unique relationship we have built with our customers, is the effort we make to incorporate patients into every stage of product development, allowing them to advocate for themselves. We have ambassadors who are patients, nurses, doctors, and this all allows us to create a superior product we know will serve our base the best.
In this way of incorporating the consumer into the development, we have seen immense innovation. I remember very early on in our business, we were contacted by the parents of a 5 year old girl, being treated for leukemia. At the time, there weren’t PICC line covers for kids, but when her mother called, we were able to develop a prototype within three days. She loved it! We were lucky enough to meet with the young girl, and did a photoshoot with her on the beach. Finally, she was able to play without fear of damaging or hurting her PICC line. She is now cancer-free, and that good news permeated every corner of the office the day we found out. At Mighty Well, good news for one of us, is good news for all of us, because in our line of work, it is personal.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Balance is key. I recognize this can be difficult, as the running of a business takes up a lot of time by nature. For this reason, it is paramount to find any enjoyment and fun in the work that you can! Ask yourself, “Am I having fun”? There’s always a thought as an entrepreneur that you have to do whatever it takes, no matter how hard of a job it is. Thinking like this can burn you out extremely quickly. As much as you can, find things in the business that make you excited and bring you happiness!
Another tip that is vital to sustaining yourself throughout the running of your business, is cultivating an effective support system. When I graduated from college, I felt like Superwoman, and believed I could do everything on my own. I didn’t consider that when I left Babson, my build in support system was gone. In this way, I very quickly found myself beginning to burn out. Of course, I had my team at Mighty Well, but it was difficult to separate the friendship from the business at times. I realized I needed people I could talk to about anything but the business and my job. Today, I have friends at Mighty Well, but I make sure to prioritize time with my friends outside of work as well. In this way I can better separate myself from that world, which allows me to return to work every morning ready and energized.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Since Day 1 of Mighty Well, it was extremely important for us to incorporate some element of philanthropy in our mission. As a team, we’ve always felt that business is more than just a way to make money, it’s a way to improve your community and be a force for change. When COVID hit, we all felt that we had to take the opportunity to give back. Today, we’ve been lucky enough to provide mask donations for multiple non-profit organizations, as well as thousands of front-line medical workers throughout the pandemic. And, the truth is, it’s not just nice business, it’s good business. People want to pay for a product with an initiative they support!
Another way I thoroughly enjoy giving back, is through mentorship, particularly woman-to-woman. Often, as a young woman in business, it can feel as if entrepreneurship is an exclusive club, and one that feels near impossible to join. I feel this gate-keeping is responsible for so many young people with great ideas, falling by the wayside. For this reason, it’s so important for me to share my knowledge and experience with anyone who may be interested.
In particular, not too long ago a female entrepreneur in the adaptive-wear space reached out to me. She was trying to design a carrier device for individuals in wheelchairs. I thought this was an excellent idea, and immediately was able to connect her with some manufacturers she could use in Rhode Island. The other day, I caught her on the news, discussing the product! I was so proud that I could’ve played even a small part in her journey. I really believe that if everyone in the business world was dedicated towards helping the younger generation, we’d see innovation in ways we’ve never seen before.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
First, and extremely important- time is your most precious and valuable resource; it is of utmost importance that you treat it as such. How you utilize your time will change throughout your journey as an entrepreneur, what falls under your umbrella of tasks will not be consistent. For instance, at the outset of Mighty Well, I was responsible for different things than I am now. As our company has grown, so too has our team, so I have learned to automate and delegate where I can.
When you separate tasks such as this, it is important to differentiate responsibilities clearly, from the beginning. This will let you divide and conquer, allowing you to focus your precious time, where it is most valuable. Initially, this “letting go” can seem like a scary prospect, so make sure that you completely align with and trust every member of your team. This delegation does not mean I have less work than I once had, just that my responsibilities have evolved and grown just as the company has.
Another important piece of advice is to define who you are as a leader early on. While it may not seem so, this is of equal importance as defining your product and mission. Ask yourself questions such as, “Who am I?”, “What do I want to accomplish?” and “What can I do to propel us forward today?”. Make sure when you ask yourself these questions you give them the weight and time they deserve. While it can be easy to get caught up in the million little things on your to-do list, answering questions such as these will help you keep a cohesive mission, stay on track toward your long term goals, keep your team aligned.
These kinds of questions were what sustained us throughout the initial stages of COVID, when we saw a great deal of our sales vanish. Because I had defined who I was as a leader, and who we were as a business early on, our team was able to quickly mobilize behind the Mighty Well Mask initiative.
Thirdly, listen to your customer! Value your consumers as the intelligent, knowledgeable adults that they are, and involve them in the production process. When you include your customers from Day 1, not only will you build a product line to fully serve their needs, but you’ll begin to develop the vital relationship between business and consumer. The connection that we, at Mighty Well, have built with our base, not only helps us innovate future products, but sustains us on difficult days. You’ve developed your business for a reason, for a group of people- invest in them.
My fourth tip is that it is absolutely essential to find enjoyment in the work. As I mentioned previously, without joy, the difficult work of entrepreneurship will be near impossible to sustain. It’s important to note- this does not mean you will, or even should, find every aspect of the business exciting. There will always be emails to answer, early mornings, and late nights. However, find elements of the work that spark joy in you, maybe you love design, writing, or logistics, and get involved in that to the greatest extent that you can! This will carry you through the less enjoyable tasks, and through the slower days.
Finally, and equally important to my first tip: your team will sustain the company; they are the most important aspect of the business. This is something professors, mentors, and investors have said time and time again. It doesn’t matter how great your idea is, or how smart you are, without an eager and cohesive team, your business won’t go anywhere.
Building a good team can seem like a daunting task, but your success will pay dividends for years to come. Of course, it’s easy to pick many people who are identical to you, but make sure you differentiate your team as well. You’ll need people with different talents and skills, however, one aspect that is important to keep consistent is values. As a leader, it’s your job to implement these values into your company culture from the top down. If you set the example from the highest level, it will trickle down, leaving a cohesive team in its wake.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Absolutely — this knowledge and experience affects the decisions I make for Mighty Well, the way in which I interact with everyone else on my team, and even in my own day to day. Thankfully, I’ve found that growth in my professional life is often synonymous with growth in my personal life. Perhaps the biggest change I see, is that I am much more purposeful with my decisions. When I began my journey as an entrepreneur, I felt like I was constantly scrambling to catch up. My experience has given me the wisdom to make a decision with confidence, and I’ve seen this decisiveness trickle down throughout the company.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
While learning from experience can be, and is, extremely valuable, there is so much to learn from other’s experience as well. This can come in many ways, whether from your professors and fellow classmates at school, reaching out to a mentor, or even reading articles such as this one. Particularly early on, picking up these basic tools and tips from others can help you feel more confident going forward in your own decisions.
Of course, there is much value in learning from your mistakes. However, learning from mistakes is hard, and most times, it can be very costly for the company — which for a start-up can be devastating. Nonetheless, if a team can reflect on the mistakes they commit (why and how they happened, and how to prevent it) it can prove to be incredible knowledge for the future ahead. I believe, particularly for young entrepreneurs, there is a balance to strike between learning from your experience and learning from others. Both are vital.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
A movement I would love to start would The Friend in the Fight Movement! Some of my closest friends and family struggle with a chronic illness, so I know how scary and lonely it can feel when you first get diagnosed. Unfortunately, 60% of American’s struggle with a chronic condition, from asthma, to diabetes, to Lyme (as my best friend does). I never want anyone to feel the way she did, when she was finally diagnosed, after seven long years of struggling.
In a perfect world, I would match each chronic illness patient with a “best friend”. Someone to advocate, but also, someone to just be there. We all need that support, and those who suffer from a chronic condition, perhaps more than anyone.
How can our readers find you after this piece is published?
You can find me on Instagram @Mightywell_Maria, and can find Mighty Well @mightywell_ or on our website! I’m looking forward to connecting!