For some, inspiration happens in a lab or after years of careful research. For Monica Nassif, her "eureka moment" happened in a shopping aisle. That moment changed her life and it has led to many accolades, the most recent being named the 2011 University of Minnesota Entrepreneur of the Year.
The award recognizes University alumni who have founded remarkable businesses while serving as exemplary role models for the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Nassif developed and grew the Minneapolis-based Caldrea Company and its distinctive line of products that include household cleansers, premium cleaning tools, and gifts. In 2008, she sold the company to S.C. Johnson & Son Inc.
"When I heard I received the University of Minnesota Entrepreneur of the Year award I was, well, first of all I was shocked," says Nassif. "And then when you sit back and think about it, you're humbled, and proud, and excited. Kind of a stewpot of emotions."
English major to entrepreneur
An English major while at the University, Nassif attributes the beginning of her success to her English advisor who helped her acquire an internship at Dayton-Hudson Corporation which, at the time, was the parent company of Target. It was there that Nassif fell in love with retail and consumer products. "I really thought, this was the industry I was made for," she says.
She continued to gain experience, serving for more than 18 years as a brand-builder for leading retailers and consumer product companies. After leaving the corporate scene she went on to start a Minneapolis-based marketing communications firm.
Then, in 1999 while shopping in Atlanta, Nassif had her "eureka moment."
Walking down a shopping aisle she noticed a poorly labeled and disorderly assortment of cleaning products. The off-putting sight made Nassif pause and ponder.
"I remember turning my head and looking at that going, that is about the most pathetic category that targets consumers," she says.
"I thought, why can't it be great? Why can't you have cleaning products you love to purchase, you love the packaging, of course they work and, oh, by the way, they're safe? Also, why can't it be beautifully fragranced?" she continues. "I had this eureka moment that this could be a really fresh, new way to approach cleaning products."
Back in Minneapolis, Nassif and her small team (some of whom brought in their own work desks), got busy working on the product, sales, and marketing. By the year 2000, Caldrea came to market with its initial seven earth-friendly products and three different fragrances.
Not long thereafter, while brainstorming names for another brand designed to target grocery, discount, and hardware store customers, Nassif had another revelation.
"We were sitting around saying that this [brand] should be like my childhood: hardworking, Midwestern. Then we just said, oh my gosh, it's like my mom! Mom just seemed like the perfect 'icon' for the brand."
In 2001, Caldrea introduced the Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day brand, named after Nassif's mother, Thelma Meyer.
Giving back to the U & the Carlson School
While nurturing Caldrea over the years, Nassif also made time to give back to the University and to the Carlson School's entrepreneurship program.
"It's important to give back to the University because I think it's every American's dream to start their own company, and I think it's important for students to see that real people do these things," she says. "I had an idea and I knew how to execute on it, and I think if that helps demonstrate to people that they can do it, then I think that's good inspiration for others."
"Monica is very inspirational when she comes to talk to our students; there's a natural following," says John Stavig, director of the Holmes Center for Entrepreneurship at the Carlson School and member of the Holmes Center Advisory Board that selects the award recipient. "You really you can see the temperature rising in the classroom and the students really getting excited from hearing about her story and getting motivated as a result."
Nassif stayed on with Caldrea for two years after selling the company. The past year has been spent on trying to be great at golf and "it's just not happening," she says with a chuckle. In actuality, Nassif says she's contemplating another concept that, for now, she's keeping secret.
What she does reveal, however, is the deep impact the University had on her career.
"If I look back on the University, it gave me this huge foundation from which to build a career in corporate America, and I could take those experiences and build my own company from there."
Nassif is the sixth recipient of the University of Minnesota Entrepreneur of the Year award. Past honorees include Joel Ronning (Digital River), Tim and Valerie Doherty (Doherty Employment Group), Robert Stephens (Geek Squad), Gary Holmes (CSM Corporation), and Steve Flagg (Quality Bicycle Products).