When Rola Amer enrolled in the Executive MBA program at Smith School of Business, she intended to return to her career in pharmaceuticals. But she soon realized she was an entrepreneur at heart — and as a working mother of two struggling to keep up with clothes shopping for her kids, she saw a problem she could solve for many other parents. The founder of Choulala Box shares her story.
By Hailey Eisen
Every entrepreneur has a story of how they started their own company. Rola Amer’s leap from the corporate world was fuelled by a combination of gut instinct, confidence earned during an Executive MBA program, and her struggles shopping for kids’ clothes.
Rola was well into a career with Hospira, an American pharmaceutical company (now part of Pfizer). Having been pegged as “top talent” within the company, she was climbing the ladder at an impressive speed. She’d gone from sales to regulatory affairs and clinical research. Eventually, she found her niche in marketing.
“I was focused on goals and metrics. If they dangled the carrot, I would jump for it. I loved and thrived in that environment,” Rola explains, from her home office in Montreal.
“While I was still in my 20s,” she recalls, “I had ownership of profit and loss statements, had my own business unit and a national sales team and manager working under me, and I travelled a lot. I was fully living the corporate lifestyle.”
Today, Rola’s professional life looks much different.
She’s at the helm of Choulala Box, a sustainability-focused company that encourages kids to learn about clothes and the art of self-dressing, while providing parents access to curated pieces of clothing from a number of brands.
Her entrepreneurial journey came after a challenging first maternity leave, during which Rola found herself feeling lonely and unstimulated. She headed back to work eagerly. But three years later, when she got pregnant with her second child, an idea began to take shape. “Pfizer was buying our company, and while I wasn’t worried about job security, I began to think about what I could do to bring more value to myself and my career.”
Having grown up in a family that empowered women to educate themselves, Rola says she had always considered post-graduate education. Knowing she’d be heading into another maternity leave, the idea of doing an Executive MBA while she was “off work” started to feel exciting.
And so, seven months pregnant, Rola began an 18-month Executive MBA through Smith School of Business. The school’s national program enabled her to take part from Montreal, while connecting her to participants from across Canada. She intended to go back to her job, armed with more business expertise. Unexpectedly, one of her biggest takeaways from the program was a level of self-confidence she’d never had before.
“As a working mom of two, I had really found it impossible to shop for my kids’ clothing. Shopping in a mall with babies and small children was a huge challenge, and I didn’t want to spend my weekends running around.”
“I thought I was super-confident. But I was really driven by other people’s validation and approval,” she says. “The MBA really changed that. The level of thinking was way up, I excelled in the program, and thrived as a member of my team. This was all the validation I needed.”
The program also gave her a new understanding of her own capabilities. “Interestingly,” she recalls, “prior to starting the MBA, I was connected with an industrial psychologist for a series of interviews and testing. He said to me, ‘You’re one of the most unique people I’ve met in the corporate structure. You’re an entrepreneur, and while you’ll continue to thrive in your career, you’ll get to a point where you’ll find something lacking — and ultimately, you’ll be unhappy. That’s when you’ll pivot.’”
Rola kept that advice in mind, but she still had no intention of leaving the corporate world. After heading back to her job, however, she says her body began to revolt. “I was experiencing extreme anxiety, and I started to hate going to work.”
The time had come to step out on her own. Enter her adventures in buying children’s clothing.
“As a working mom of two, I had really found it impossible to shop for my kids’ clothing,” Rola explains. “Shopping in a mall with babies and small children was a huge challenge, and I didn’t want to spend my weekends running around.”
Shopping online wasn’t much better. She found herself buying items she didn’t really like, and her purchases weren’t sensible. Dressing her kids every day, she struggled finding pieces that worked together. “There were always clothes in their closets with tags on them that they’d never wear. I knew there had to be a simpler way for all of this.”
In 2017, clothing subscription boxes weren’t really a thing yet. Montreal-based Frank and Oak had done it for men’s fashions, but nothing existed for kids. Rola’s original plan for Choulala Box was to deliver capsule wardrobes for kids (sizes 2 to 6), which she would curate. Her goal was to simplify the shopping process, giving parents 10 pieces of clothing to mix and match in a far more sustainable way. The clothes would always be high quality and versatile.
Rola quickly came to realize that her customers loved the concept but wanted to customize. They wanted to choose pieces for their children, personalizing their orders. More online services such as hers were beginning to come to market in the U.S., and Rola aimed to set herself and her business apart.
During a brainstorming session, she came up with the term BLAST™ (which she soon after trademarked). The acronym stands for “bottoms, layering, accessories, socks/shoes, and tops” — all elements of a basic wardrobe. The Blast™ method makes it easier for kids to dress themselves, having items that all work well together to choose from, and empowers them to feel more confident and independent while having fun with their daily dressing. Rola also created a 49-card deck of cards to teach kids wardrobe basics.
The concept has earned her a lot of press, including stories in Goop, Motherly, and L.A. Parent. “We now have a subscriber base in the thousands and our conversion rate is 125%,” Rola says. “But it’s been a huge amount of work — way more work than doing an MBA with a newborn.”
Despite sleepless nights and huge learning curves, Rola says she wouldn’t have it any other way. Her pivot came at the perfect time and the result keeps her learning and growing. She’s excited for the next ideas she’s working on to further transform Choulala Box.