Our guudguuds team got the amazing opportunity to interview Nancy, a co-founder of Barefoot Books. Barefoot Books has a mission to share stories, connect families, and inspire children, and they are “committed to living out the kindness and compassion [they] celebrate in [their] books.” This is an interview you won’t want to miss! Get ready to dive into the story that is Barefoot Books.
Nancy, how did Barefoot Books transpire? Bring us all the way back to 1992 into the homes of Nancy and Tessa from the UK. What sparked this amazing idea and how did it grow?
My co-founder and dear friend, Tessa Strickland, and I met in London back in 1992 when we both had very small children. I was a Canadian living in England with a background in finance, small business and design. Tessa had worked in adult publishing at Random House and Penguin. We were both drawn to the idea of starting a little business making beautiful books that introduced children to wonderful stories and art from all over the world.
Back then (and still today) we believed in the power of stories to break down walls and cross boundaries. We wanted to teach our children about different ways of life, traditions and cultures. We also wanted to inspire them to celebrate our wonderful diversity, as well as everything we have in common. Most of all, we wanted to raise our children to be open-minded and open-hearted global citizens.
You really talk a lot about the transformative power of storytelling. Can you tell us how storytelling was transformative in your own story?
Ever since we took our first steps back in 1992, living Barefoot for me has been about stories — the stories we make, the stories we share, the stories that are in all of us and the stories that connect us.
My own story began in Canada where I spent my childhood on the move from army base to army base, living in all sorts of towns. So it was pretty easy for me when I was in my early twenties to pick up and move across the world from Toronto to London when I transferred with my first job at Price Waterhouse.
The day in 1985 when I was asked by a male partner in the company to go home and change because I was wearing trousers which “women didn’t wear” was the day I knew my story needed to change.
I have always loved numbers and, coming from a family who like to design, paint and create, this made me a bit of a black sheep. So it was a surprise when, in my mid-twenties, I discovered my own passion for color and design and decided to leave the big corporate world of finance to work in a small design house in Covent Garden in London. I stayed in the design industry for many years, where I learned the ropes of running a creative, entrepreneurial company and was lucky to be able to do business in fascinating countries like Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.
I think my willingness to take risks, curiosity about other cultures and ways of life, and real appreciation for stories, were born in those early years. When I met Tessa in 1992, my eldest daughter was three weeks old, and I had just started my own company advising small creative start-ups. I had three more children over the next few years, and my kids have all been involved in Barefoot at various times, actively involved in testing stories, picking artists and generally helping out in our little business. They’re all grown up now, but I’d like to think that, having been raised as Barefoot children, their hearts, minds and worlds have been opened up a little wider.
We at guudguuds really resonate with your mission to share stories, connect families, and inspire children. Can you speak to how your brand works to connect families?
In the early years of Barefoot, and actually until fairly recently, our emphasis on diversity, inclusion and global awareness put us very much on the fringes of mainstream publishing. We knew there were families, educators and librarians who shared our belief in the importance of imagination, creativity and diversity in children’s lives, but they were difficult to reach through traditional publishing channels.
So we decided to do things differently and focused on building Barefoot into a colorful, timeless family brand for the very best children’s content, as well as connecting more directly with our customers. Before the internet, this meant sending mail-order catalogs and having events in our community that brought families together, with artist exhibitions, arts & crafts, global festivals, storytelling and much more.
Over the years as we grew, we created several retail spaces in Cambridge and Concord, MA, FAO Schwarz, NYC and Oxford, England, which we called “Barefoot Studios” where we brought our books to life with fun, educational activities and events. They were places where we could connect with families and offer them simple, creative ways to connect with their children and be part of a community.
Roll the clocks forward to 2021, and we are now actively involved in our local community in Concord, MA, working closely with local businesses, schools and arts organizations and planning future events (Covid permitting!) to bring families and educators together.
Tell us about both the vision and the journey you had to include and inspire other women entrepreneurs. What have been the highlights of this adventure?
About 20 years ago, we created our Community Bookseller program, which offers parents, grandparents, educators and children’s book-lovers the opportunity to run a flexible, fun and meaningful business while making a difference in children’s lives. Women, (and men!), sell Barefoot books at school book fairs, fundraisers, community and educational events, through their social networks, and to family and friends.
Our Community Booksellers provide valuable feedback and creative ideas for our publishing program. They also make important connections with families, schools and organizations in their communities – something that can’t easily be replicated through traditional sales channels.
As a mother of four kids, who started Barefoot from my home nearly 30 years ago, it is incredibly rewarding to empower other women to write their own stories, running independent and flexible Barefoot businesses that can benefit and involve their families. And it is even more special to have made so many wonderful friendships along the way.
You have received so many amazing accolades along the way. Which ones have meant the most to you?
It was very rewarding to be included on the Forbes 2017 list of 25 Best Small Companies in America. Especially gratifying was when they said we had “defied conventional wisdom and created a publishing brand that parents and grandparents recognize, trust, and buy.”
Winning the Alison Morrison Diversity Award in the Independent Publishers Awards, both in 2012 and 2020, was also a wonderful validation of our 30-year commitment to opening children’s hearts and minds with diverse and inclusive picture books and literature.
And most recently, our highly anticipated lead title for autumn, Barefoot Books: Water, was just selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the “150 Most Anticipated Books for Fall 2021” and also by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) as recommended reading for their fourteenth goal “Life Below Water”.
What is your favorite book of all time?
This is a tricky one as I have lots of favorites, especially as our amazing creative team continues to unveil gorgeous, timely and innovative new books each season. I think I have a special place in my heart for The Boy Who Grew Flowers, beautifully illustrated by Canadian artist, Steve Adams and written by Jennifer Wojtowicz who was inspired by her relationship with her autistic brother. It is a book that celebrates the important idea that “what makes us different makes us special”.
I am currently most excited by our new products for fall which inspire children to be the next generation of Planet Protectors and teach them about conservation, community and connectedness. We are launching our Planet Protector Pack, in October which includes two gorgeous new titles on the important theme of sustainability, Planet Power and Barefoot Books: Water.
What’s on the horizon for Barefoot Books?
As always, we have plenty of wonderful projects brewing in our Barefoot creative cauldron and lots of exciting plans to spread the word and reach more families and educators. With our publishing, we will continue to stay true to our core pillars – global awareness, diversity & inclusion; early learning & concept building; social-emotional learning; sustainability & STEAM; health & wellness; creativity and compassion.
We recently created The Barefoot Book Box, a monthly themed subscription for three different age groups from 0-9, that is built around these core pillars and which provides an engaging, well-rounded program to nurture global awareness, compassion, creativity and critical thinking skills.
We’ll also soon be launching our new Barefoot Book Fairs for schools and non-profit organizations that are looking for diverse and inclusive books for their communities.
Having just moved into our colorful new Barefoot home in Concord, MA after 20 years in Cambridge, MA, it feels like we’re starting a fresh new chapter in our story. Our books and our mission are no longer on the fringes, finally! We have an extraordinarily talented team and a wonderful community of creators and customers. And we are very much looking forward to celebrating our 30th Anniversary next year!
What advice would you give to someone who has a dream of starting a home-based business or simply has a dream inside of them?
- Be clear about your mission, vision and core values and be able to express them simply. From the very beginning back in 1992, we wanted to create beautiful books that open children’s hearts, minds, and worlds. We are still making books with the same mission and vision nearly 3 decades on.
- Find the smallest audience for your business that will enable you to thrive. Focus on them – obsess about them – and they will start to tell your story and spread the word. And remember that relationships, not sales transactions or social clicks, are what matter the most.
- Most importantly, don’t be afraid to follow your own path and keep persevering, even when you stumble.
What would you like your personal legacy to be?
After nearly three decades of living Barefoot, and persevering through the many twists and turns of our journey, I am proud to still be standing to tell the Barefoot story, to have stayed true to our mission to open children’s hearts, minds, and worlds, and to have raised four wonderful Barefoot children.
I am proud to work with an extraordinary team to create outstanding children’s stories and to be part of a passionate Barefoot family who helps us share them.
Most of all, I am proud that over the last 30 years our community has put more than 30 million books into the hands of children. I can’t wait to see what the next 30 Barefoot years will bring!