- Associated Press - Sunday, January 22, 2017

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Elena Petzold has worn many hats over the years. She’s worked in legal administration and event and facility management. There even was a stint as a clown.

“I’ve always had a passion about things related to families,” she says.

These days, Petzold, a mother of two who resides in Upper St. Clair, says her 5-year-old son best sums up her latest job: “My mom helps other moms breastfeed their babies.”

She’s the founder of Mama’s MilkBox, a Pittsburgh-based apparel subscription service that specializes in functional - and fashionable - tops and dresses for women who are breastfeeding. Plus, it provides tips on ways to mix and match pieces with items a mom already owns, earning Ms. Petzold the moniker “the breastfeeding stylist.”

On Friday, the 3-year-old business was featured on ABC’s “Shark Tank.” Petzold sought $200,000 from the show’s panel of investors in exchange for a 20 percent stake in Mama’s MilkBox, but she did not receive a deal.

In the United States, breastfeeding rates continue to rise, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2016 Breastfeeding Report Card. Among infants born in 2013, four out of five (or 81.1 percent) started to breastfeed, more than half were breastfed at six months and a third continued to be after 12 months, according to the report. Meanwhile, initiatives such as Normalize Breastfeeding, founded in 2014, and the annual World Breastfeeding Week in August aim to build a global support system for nursing women, as well as to stamp out the stigma that sometimes surrounds breastfeeding in public. Even Pope Francis made headlines earlier this month when he welcomed and encouraged women to breastfeed during a Mass in the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, where the pontiff baptized 28 babies.

Nevertheless, the nursing apparel market is “underdeveloped,” Petzold says. “When I was pregnant with my second baby, I was not really satisfied with the maternity clothes I was finding here in Pittsburgh.”

This prompted her to curate pieces herself and open her own boutique. Being pregnant, though, she decided to hold off on the store and instead sold her inventory through private appointments. Word of these stylish selections started to spread, including to moms in other states. She offered to give them style consultations over the phone and ship them a box of clothes to try. That’s how Mama’s MilkBox was born.

Petzold has since automated the sign up and payment process. To subscribe, clients complete a style profile at www.mamasmilkbox.com. The personal style, body type and lifestyle information is used to build the box of clothing and compile styling suggestions. Subscribers have three days to try on the clothes at home. They keep and pay for what they like and return what they don’t. Or they can ask to exchange a size. There is a $29 curation fee, which is applied toward anything that they keep. (The average prices for pieces in the winter and spring collections are $66 and $54, respectively.) Customers also can receive discounts based on how many things they purchase from each box. A new box will be shipped every six weeks, although this time frame can be adjusted upon request.

A subscription model

Mama’s MilkBox strives to take the guess work out of shopping by scouring trade shows and showrooms for the latest nursing apparel. Currently, it works with more than 30 brands. When Petzold struggled to find designs with rhinestone embellishments and vivid prints, she decided to launch Mama’s MilkBox’s own in-house label. She works with three manufacturers, two abroad and one in the U.S., to bring it to life. What all the lines have in common is the use of zippers, snaps, lace overlays, ruched fabrics and more to make breastfeeding or pumping more convenient.

“You’re coming to terms with the changes of your body,” she says. “These clothes are designed for those changes.”

In recent years, everything from fashion and food to beauty products and books has been boxed and sold via subscription service. Top subscription box sites have swelled by nearly 3,000 percent in the United States in the past three years, according to a consumer insights report from Hitwise Online Consumer Intelligence. In January 2016, more than 21.4 million visits were made to a custom category of these sites, compared with just 722,000 visits in 2013.

Mama’s MilkBox subscribers are a mix of new moms and those who’ve had multiple children and understand the value and function of well-made nursing clothing, Petzold says. She also tries to cater to working moms who need outfits that look appropriate for a corporate environment and are still practical for breast pumping. To date, the company has well exceeded $100,000 in sales.

Just like the business, the chance to try out for “Shark Tank” came about serendipitously. During a buying trip in New York City in early 2015, she missed her bus and ended up bumping into Barbara Corcoran, one of the “Shark Tank” investors. She snapped a selfie with her, and while browsing Corcoran’s Facebook page she saw a post about an open casting call for the show in New York. Ms. Petzold eventually landed on Friday’s episode.

“Everything you see on TV, it is just as exciting,” she says about appearing on the show. “It is a unique and once-in-a-lifetime experience. I’m completely thrilled and excited. It’s terrifying at the same time.”

In Friday’s episode, the investors, who included Mt. Lebanon native Mark Cuban, were impressed by Petzold’s enthusiasm, but concerned about her business model, her financial planning and the way she snapped back at their comments.

“It seems like everything we ask, before we even get the words out, you’re jumping right in it, and it’s going to work against you,” Corcoran warned.

“I’m definitely disappointed in myself for this moment because I feel like I’ve done a not good representation then if this is the feedback,” Petzold told “the sharks” on the show.

In spite of the outcome, she’s focused on continuing to grow the business and the impact that it has had on women, as reflected in letters she’s received, blog reviews and social media posts.

“It’s about really listening to the moms and what they need and really delivering on that,” she says.

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Online:

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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