By Leslie Lagerstrom
Jill Kaufenberg’s superpower might just be problem-solving. Combine that with an infectious entrepreneurial spirit, and you have a force for good.
Take, for instance, her idea to renovate a 138-year-old building in Stillwater, Minnesota, that many people no longer appreciated because of its age. Jill recognized it still had the strong bones of its glory days—brick walls, wood floors and exposed beams she knew could be updated to make it a main street gem once again. It took two years and a lot of sweat equity, but she and her husband transformed it into exactly what she envisioned.
Jill devoted the building’s second floor to a coworking space called Lift Bridge Cowork—a welcome solution for locals not wanting to spend their days working at home alone, especially coming out of the pandemic. She wasn’t initially clear on what business should be on the main floor. Instead of advertising the space for rent, she wanted to be intentional in securing the right tenant.
When Jill determined a café made the most sense, she approached Emily Stahl, the owner of Mon Petit Chéri in Minneapolis. Emily’s business had become so popular it was experiencing growing pains. With the promise of making the first floor of the building whatever Emily desired, Jill convinced her to move Mon Petit Chéri to Stillwater. Offering house-baked pastries, hot breakfasts, sandwiches, salads and soups, the cozy café quickly became a welcome addition to the community.
As the renovated spaces were opening, Jill’s next business idea came to her after one mitten had been separated from her son’s favorite pair. Valiant recovery efforts were deployed, but the lost mitten could not be found. Meanwhile, her son refused to go outside. That was a problem. She wondered if there were companies that sold only one mitten at a time. It seemed wasteful to throw out a mitten when the other was lost, but that was what everyone did. That was when the idea hit her: She would start a company offering high-quality mittens with the added bonus of one free replacement if a mitten was lost.
Jill studied the examples of dozens of mittens in the marketplace and reverse-engineered the product. She created a mitt with longer cuffs to keep out snow, as well as antimicrobial fabric inside to reduce that wet-mitten odor parents of outdoor-loving kids know all too well. A pre-curved palm meant no need for a break-in period. She added a Velcro patch that could be customized, so children could easily identify their mittens when pairs became separated. Having solved multiple problems with her product, Jill launched Chopper Mill. She also wrote and published a children’s book, “The Mitten Thief,” inspired by her son’s lost mitten.
In the first year, Chopper Mill sold thousands of mittens. Along with those sales came an outpouring of gratifying feedback. Jill heard from many customers who appreciated her fresh approach to a quality product and the nod to the environment, since single mittens are available for purchase anytime, which cuts down on waste. She also received messages of thanks from parents of children who needed just one mitten because of an amputation. She hadn’t considered that purchasing traditional pairs and setting one mitten aside would make some kids sad—it was a reminder they were different.
Jill started her businesses because she loves the challenges of being an entrepreneur and has always been inspired by startups. She knows now that she also has a bigger purpose.
“I am not working just to work,” Jill said. “I want to contribute to the world.”
Since mitten sales are slower in the summer, Jill recently explored different avenues of philanthropy, which led to the launch of the Chopper Mill Foundation. Now, 20 percent of Chopper Mill’s mitten revenue will be donated to worthy causes. In addition, Jill has plans to scale for good by donating mittens to homeless families and securing partnerships with corporations that share her sense of altruism so she can reach more people in need.
Photo: Anna Mazig for Publish Her
About the Author
Leslie Lagerstrom is an advocate for transgender children and their families. She is a national public speaker on the subject, and her writing has appeared in several anthologies, in addition to being turned into a stage production.
About Publish Her
Publish Her is a female-founded publisher dedicated to elevating the words, writing and stories of women. We are passionate about amplifying the voices of women of color, women with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community. We aim to make publishing an attainable, exciting and collaborative process for all. Publish Her specializes in print-on-demand books, workbooks, journals, magazines and more.