inspiring women - Ashley Jensen
One thing that surprised me about starting this business has been the amazing relationships that we've made with other women. These women have been so gracious, answered my (probably silly) questions, given me advice, and supported our little business . I decided to an interview series with these women, both because I wanted to know more about them, but also because I wanted to share the village that has helped build us up.
Ashley Jensen kindly agreed to answer my questions, so I'm kicking off the series with an interview with this inspiring and lovely lady. I met Ashley a while ago at a trade show (Playtime New York), but even before that I had admired her business, Mouse in the House Shop online. She makes the most beautiful knits for kids, up to 8 years, and is passionate about fair trade. She has also recently expanded her shop to include fair trade clothing, toys, and accessories from other brands. I'm coveting a woven mommy and me purse, and she's also carrying Devon's Drawer clothing, including color's and styles that aren't in our online shop. I love her discussion about the balance of motherhood and owning a business, so make sure to read to the end.
Q: For those who may not know you, can you tell us who you are?
A: I'm Ashley Jensen and I co-founded our brand with my trophy husband, Scott. We have been married for almost 12 years and have two daughters ages 9 and 4 and just had a baby boy three months ago. We live in a rural town on the eastside of Seattle, surrounded by forests and farms. It's dreamy, I must say. Scott has a career in finance and I am fortunate to be able to stay at home with our children and rock the "mom thing." I graduated from college with a bachelor's degree in Journalism, but soon started having babies after Scott and I got married and decided to make them my life's work. I've always had a creative itch though, and have dabbled in graphic design, bookbinding and eventually got bitten hard by the knitting bug. I also seem to have an entrepreneurial wild hair and can't help but want to monetize my hobbies! Let's just say Etsy and I were very close for a long time.
What inspired you to start Mouse in the House Shop?
I have loved knitting designs for my own children so much, that I really wanted to start a children's line. There is something so special about hand knit pieces, where literally every stitch is made by two hands, a pair of needles and a ball of yarn. And I've always been enamored with high quality, beautiful children's clothing. Originally the idea was that I would make all of the pieces myself to sell, but reality set in and I realized there was no way I had that kind of time. Mamas have stuff to do!! I started to think that maybe there was a way to use this idea as a way to help others and I wondered where I could go in the world to find people who had these skills and could benefit from the work. My daughter's first preschool teacher had moved to Nepal and we got back in touch - she has helped me immensely to have the courage and connections to start producing our items there and I am so glad to have found such talented makers. They are such an amazing group of women and it has been so rewarding to watch their life circumstances improve as a result of the work we provide. As the brand has grown, we have also been gradually adding other like-minded brands to our shop offerings who share our same value of creating ethically made products for children. It's really exciting to be able to support other brands who are doing the same kinds of things we are.
What inspires your designs?
Above all, nature! I am constantly inspired by the natural world and it carries over into our embroidery and the fact that we chose to use plant-dyed yarn. I am also very inspired by the craft of knitting itself - there are so many possibilities and ways to create.
I know you are passionate about fair trade, can you talk about what made you conscious about the importance of choosing fairly made goods?
I really sort of woke up to the importance of this after watching the documentary "True Cost." I actually saw it during my first trip to Nepal in April 2016. Watching that, combined with seeing the vulnerability of so many people in Nepal, motivated me to create a brand that could lift others, never exploit. I was able to tour several factories and workshops and there is such a stark difference between those that treat their workers well and those that don't. These are real people, and seeing it up close – it changes you. Suddenly the world is not so big and you realize that the choices you make back home are affecting these people in front of you. It was a very humbling experience and the lessons I learned became a guiding force for the change we want to be a part of by creating products that help, not harm, those that make them.
Any unexpected challenges starting your business?
Too many to name! I knew it would be hard, but I think the most surprising aspect is the amount of time I spend on all of the "business things" that are not part of the creative process. I would much prefer to design and knit all day than answer e-mails, pay bills and worry about the back office things! Also, the sheer financial investment needed to start a brand and keep it going is something I wasn't fully expecting. It takes a lot to get things going and to create a brand that you envision.
What are you looking forward to this year? Any exciting projects you want to tell us about?
We have some exciting collaborations in the works right now that I am really looking forward to sharing soon! I am also anxious to launch our blog in the next month or so and share more of our inner workings with our customers - lots of good stories to be told!
Any tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?
I don't know that I'm at the point of doling out advice quite yet, but if I had to say something, it would be to try not to be intimidated or overly influenced by what others in your field might be doing. Find your own rhythm, put your head down, and just do you. I purposely don't keep up with other brands that might be doing similar things to us because I don't want it to influence my own ideas or discourage me from accomplishing my own goals.
Can you talk about balancing owning a business and raising your three kids?
It is not easy, that's for sure! But when I started this business, I told myself that I wasn't going to let it take over my time with my kids and I just wasn't willing to sacrifice the way I wanted to do motherhood. I wanted to be the person raising them during the day and that comes with its own set of challenges when there are so many other things to be done. This means a lot of late nights (it's currently 1:45 a.m. as I write this!) and squeezing in Instagram posts or e-mails while holding a baby or trying to feed a hungry toddler. But I constantly have to remind myself that this was my choice and that I can't have it all. All aspects of my life are a give-and-take situation at the moment and I try reeeeeallly hard to be patient with everything.
Can you talk about your daily rhythms with your kids?
Sure! I have a saint of a husband who gets up with my very early-rising children and makes breakfast, gets them ready for school and then takes them to school! I'm the luckiest! Baby and I lounge around most mornings and take our time easing into the day - I am not a morning person! My oldest daughter is in school most of the day, but it is about a 30 minute drive from our home. My 4-yr old has preschool three mornings a week, but gets out three hours earlier than the 9-yr old, so we spend those hours running errands or finding fun things to fill the time until it's time for the second school pick up. The other two days during the week we catch up on things at home and I get asked to join in on endless tea parties throughout the day. It's fabulous, really. Of course, MITH is always at the back of my mind, so I'm usually squeezing in trips to the post office and packing up orders, creating social media content, etc. We don't have many after school activities – I find that school wears my kids out enough! – but I do make my older daughter suffer through a weekly violin lesson. Saturdays we spend at horseback riding lessons (to make up for the violin!) and usually work in the yard or around the house the rest of the day. We seem to have an endless amount of yard work on our little one acre! Sundays we go to church, which is three hours (we're Mormon). The rest of the day is pretty quiet and spent at home or having friends over for dessert. We all seem to really need that time to recharge and gear up for a new week!
Any parenting inspirations you want to share?
I'm a firm believer in Waldorf education, and it has helped me be a better parent in so many ways. I've learned so much from teachers at school, other parents, and of course, books. My favorite is probably "Simplicity Parenting" by Kim John Payne. I've also recently finished the book "Present Over Perfect" by Shauna Niequist and gleaned a lot of wisdom from it. I don't think we can ever have too many reminders to just be present, especially when it comes to our children.
What do you do to relax or unwind?
Knitting, of course! I always have some project or pattern to work on, so I "multi-task relax" and watch shows or listen to audio books. I'm obsessed with anything Masterpiece or BBC. Trust me, my husband loves it (wink wink!)
Anything you want to add?
Oh I think you've probably heard enough from me already! I do want to say that I think the most surprising thing about starting this business has been the incredible people I've met along the way, especially through social media. I really wasn't expecting to find a community or make friends that way, but I have been so pleasantly surprised and have become close with many people from around the globe. I think it is one of the greatest gifts of technology – this ability to connect with others who share common interests and help us feel not so alone in the world. As mothers, we really need that!