As a mom and the founder of a successful Fort Collins-based yoghurt company, Noosa, you wouldn’t expect Koel Thomae to be as relaxed and down to earth as she is. Her calm Aussie nature comes out immediately, and her scrappy, get to work attitude is what pushed her to build the company from the ground up.
We got a chance to talk with Koel after dropping her six-year-old daughter Matilda off at kindergarten. She spoke with us about not letting the fear of failure get in the way, getting over mom guilt, and her advice for moms who dream of being entrepreneurs.
When you started Noosa, you had a newborn baby and a newborn business at the same time, what was that like?
It was one of the most intense periods of my life. Now that I’m a little further away from it I have a different perspective, but I knew going into it that I wasn’t going to have a traditional maternity leave. I had emotionally geared myself up, rallying support around me, both from a business and parenting perspective. We relocated my mum and my stepdad from Australia so they were my nannies from the time that Matilda was five weeks old, since I was back at work.
I’ve talked to other new mums who work in more traditional companies, and in some ways I had more flexibility and in other ways I didn’t; I never had that three to four month break where I could be completely focused on Matilda. I went in saying, “I can’t feel guilty, this is my life, and this is where I’m at.”
I just gave myself permission that my maternity leave was going to be different, and that’s OK. I do have a level of sadness that I was so crazy busy. I missed out on certain things, but as a result of a lot of hard work and sacrifice at that point in her life I’m more available to her now as she’s going to kindergarten.
You’ve mentioned that your success was largely due to not letting the fear of failure get in the way. Who instilled that in you?
I really attribute that to my mum. My mum has always been someone that loves to have a good time; she was always daring me to do crazy things when I was a kid, but fundamentally wanted me to be happy. When I was at university, I ended up on academic probation. It was such a terrible moment in my life because I was 18 and had no perspective. You can become very myopic at a young age, that one thing will ruin your life. I went to my college advisor to ask what my options were and when they told me I could defer for a year and come back, I thought that sounded like a good idea. I called my mum saying I need to take a break and she said, “I will buy you a plane ticket to anywhere that you want to go.”
Having a parent that supported me in making those decisions really gave me this amazing foundation to go out into the world and explore, and know that I wasn’t bound by any expectation. When I was starting Noosa, it was like OK what’s the worst thing that can happen? I knew that the people I loved most would never judge me for trying and failing.
How did becoming a mom change you personally and in your business?
I became much more bold becoming a mum, because I knew I was operating in this interesting dynamic. In Matilda’s infancy, the business was still very lean and busy for me. I would go to a meeting and call my sales broker, who’s male, and I’d be like “Hey, I’m coming in a little early. I need a room where I can lock the door so I can pump, and I need Wi-Fi access.” It just made me bolder to say, screw it, if it makes you uncomfortable, so be it, but these are the things I need to be successful as the mum of a new child and a businesswoman.
Being bolder and asking for more support, or just having an understanding of where I was, was really how I got through it. Amazingly, no one batted an eye. I think because I was so comfortable with it, it didn’t make other people uncomfortable when I said, these are the things I need. Maybe I was really lucky, but as a businesswoman or working for somebody, you have to ask for what you need, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it.
Koel’s Me Time:
I am a huge mountain biker. That’s always been something that I’ve been passionate about. Sometimes it’s hard living in Colorado because everyone here is so thin and active, but I think Noosa has helped me realize that even if it’s going for a 30-minute walk, that’s better than sitting on your desk and eating lunch and not doing any exercise. It’s a goal of mine to be a little freer, to feel like I’m not being the most uber-Colorado athlete, and that just getting outside is good for my mental well-being.
From the early days, when I was working 24/7, I knew that I was in it for the long haul and if I didn’t calendar exercise, I was going to self-implode. I can feel my mood changing if I haven’t exercised in three days, so I always put it on my calendar. I don’t always get to it, but if I do put it on my calendar, I’m less likely to take a meeting during that time.
What advice would you give to moms who want to be entrepreneurs or start their own business?
Find that level of support, whether it’s family or good friends, and let go of the fear of failure. You’ll never do anything more important, in my opinion, than raising a good human being, but know that you can do more than that, if that’s really your driving force. You’ll figure out a way to create that balance.
What flavors of Noosa are your and Matilda’s go-tos?
I guess you would call us traditionalist and purists at the same time. Even though I’m adventurous, I’m traditional in the sense that I have one flavor that is really what I gravitate to 90 percent of the time, and that’s passionfruit. It’s what sparked Noosa in the first place. Matilda’s really interesting; she’s not a huge fan of fruit in her yogurt. She’s a honey or vanilla girl, and don’t try to steer her otherwise.