With a new year comes a host of opportunities to change, grow and help. Help, in a word, is one of the foundational motivations for our series of features on women-owned and -led brands, which we call PowHERful Brands. As a women-owned and -led company ourselves, we want to support other women-powered and women-focused brands.
Oh, and by being here and reading this blog post, you’re helping, too! Let’s get right to talking about our initial PowHERful Brands feature of 2021.
First and foremost, Wolf+Friends offers community to parents of children with special needs. By no means is this a monolithic group; however, they are bonded by the fact that their kids aren’t like other kids, and their lives are not like other parents’ lives. And the reasons are many and varied. Think sensory processing disorders, speech delays, learning disabilities, developmental disabilities, autism, ADHD, behavioral challenges. Unfortunately, the list goes on.
For a parent with a “difficult” baby or child, or a parent whose child has recently received a specific diagnosis, sorting out what’s next can be a morass of questions and overwhelming information. This sorting out can and does take over one’s life. And then there’s the isolation and loneliness, feeling disenfranchised from the joys and struggles of typical parenting and typical childhood.
Gena Mann knew early on that her first son, born in the early 2000s, wasn’t like other babies. He didn’t settle easily. It was difficult to go places with him. He cried a lot. And coming into a year, 18 months and edging toward two years old, he wasn’t meeting milestones like verbalizing and pointing. The family’s pediatrician aligned these characteristics with autism and referred them for early intervention in New York City, where they lived at the time.
To say the least, Gena’s parenting journey was different from that of her friends. When others were coordinating park playdates, she and her husband were traveling a road of therapies, specialists, special schools. It was, in her words, “terrifying, heartbreaking, lonely.”
The family soon relocated to Connecticut, and Gena’s next several years were largely focused on setting her son up for success through a combination of therapists, teachers, and support programs. She and her husband also welcomed their second son, followed by two daughters. Keeping up with it all, she paused her work as a magazine photo editor for titles like Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine, and CosmoGIRL. And she also became friends with other moms whose children had autism. These women remain some of her closest friends even today.
Some years later, a friend and former colleague, Carissa Tozzi, had been creating a resource to provide recommendations on toys, decor and clothing that could be helpful for children with special needs. It was 2016, and the website she had created was the prototype for Wolf+Friends. Carissa’s developmentally typical son Wolf, and both women’s desire for inclusivity for all children, inspired the brand name.
From what was initially a shopping and lifestyle platform, Gena and Carissa began connecting with other parents who appreciated the site. They also created a blog series in which they interviewed other moms, whether well known or not. One of the eight questions they asked was, “What advice would you give to a new special needs mom?” And everyone said, “find a friend who gets it.”
Gena and Carissa agreed. It’s really important to have someone to whom you can turn who understands your situation. They also thought they should be able to help these moms find their peers. The pair launched the Wolf+Friends app two years ago on iOS and Google Play. With community building as the primary focus, the app also connected users to a marketplace of vetted providers, shopping advice from special needs families and experts, and personalized content.
Then came 2020, with the community shifting to primarily virtual engagements. At the same time, many parents and special needs children found the abrupt change to a lack of services and lack of structure utterly devastating. Above all other business goals, Gena and Carissa prioritized accessibility to the Wolf+Friends community. They migrated the app and platform to the Mighty network, enabling international reach. Wolf+Friends currently engages with 150,000 users in the U.S. and worldwide.
Wolf+Friends, in its very existence and its function, is a much-needed and extremely positive beacon of hope, connection and vital information for the millions of parents who have children with special needs. We commend Gena and Carissa for their moxie to create the brand and platform, baring their own personal experiences to invite and welcome other parents into a community of support. We’ll be looking forward to the future when Wolf+Friends can bring back and add more live events. Please share this profile far and wide with anyone whom the Wolf+Friends community can help.
Vladimir Jones is Colorado’s original independent, integrated advertising agency, with offices in Denver and Colorado Springs. We believe in brilliant brands and love making the world love them as much as we do.