Going Solo: Melissa Kieling on Being a Single-Parent Entrepreneur

Rebecca Brace

Single parent and PackIt business owner Melissa Kieling knows firsthand the challenges of balancing the demands of work and family. While creating her own company, she turned obstacles into opportunities and proved that entrepreneurship can offer single parents unique advantages when building careers and supporting their families.

Being successful professionally while raising children is challenging for any parent. Entrepreneurship, while offering flexible work hours and other parent-friendly elements, often introduces additional responsibility and stress, especially for single parents. Late nights, multitasking, and operating on a shoestring are typical for most entrepreneurs when starting a business. Investing the necessary time in a fledgling company can be especially difficult when there is no one else to share daily family commitments — including childcare.

But there’s also a flip side. As Melissa Kieling learned, parental entrepreneurship can positively impact children in a variety of ways. And single-parent entrepreneurs typically have strong financial motivations: With no one else to rely on, the responsibility of providing for a family can give them an unrivalled sense of urgency when it comes to steering a new business to profitability.

From Adversity to Success

Kieling’s unexpected entrepreneurial journey was driven by single parenthood. “I didn’t realize that I was cut out for entrepreneurship until I was faced with adversity in my own life,” she says. Following 13 years as a married stay-at-home mom, Kieling became a divorced, single parent of three during the financial crisis of 2008-09. “It was devastating, emotionally and financially, to myself and my kids,” she admits. “I was working a few odd jobs here and there, but didn’t really have a strong resume or career path to jump back on.”

Inspiration for her business came from an everyday headache: trying to keep her children’s lunches fresh. “Being a mom packing lunches for my children, I was frustrated that I couldn’t put healthy foods in a lunch bag and have them stay fresh,” she recalls. One morning, after discovering that the gel packs she usually placed in her children’s lunch bags were once again missing, she decided to design a product that would eliminate the need for those gel packs: a foldable, freezable lunch bag. That was the birth of PackIt, which has become a multimillion-dollar company selling a variety of food-storage products.

Kieling started by researching gel materials. She then pinned together a prototype, using her shower curtain as a liner, and asked her dry cleaner to stitch that first bag along the pinned seams. After raising a small amount of capital from family and friends, she began production of the lunch bags around her kitchen table.

Her Big Break

At one of Kieling’s first trade shows, opportunity arose through a conversation with a representative from Target. This connection led to a crucial formal meeting. “Sitting down in Minneapolis at the Target headquarters was extremely intimidating,” remembers Kieling. Nonetheless, she courageously positioned her company “in a very humble, organic, authentic way, presenting ourselves as who we really were.”

PackIt has grown a lot from its modest origins: The brand is now sold at major retailers across the U.S., including Target and Walmart, and in more than 40 countries. The product line currently includes baby-bottle bags, backpacks, grocery bags, and picnic totes — with more to come. Expanding to the grocery store and home-delivery markets, PackIt recently launched a freezable, reusable shipping and delivery tote. This innovative container can be used in place of disposable packaging to deliver perishable groceries, potentially helping to eliminate large volumes of plastic waste.

Life Lessons

Kieling acknowledges that the path to success is far from easy. “The demands of running a business are a daily, weekly challenge on my family,” she says. Her hectic travel schedule can often be difficult to manage — and means she must spend time away from her children. But she also says that one of the best things to have come of her journey is the valuable lessons her children have learned about what can be achieved by hard work.

PackIt has given Kieling’s children the chance to gain hands-on learning about business and entrepreneurialism. They participate in the business by accompanying her on visits to factories in China and representing PackIt at trade shows. “We’re all making sacrifices,” she says. “When they can share in the successes and feel part of that, it brings it all full circle.”

By creating her own company, Kieling was able to achieve her career dreams while raising a thriving family. She cautions other single-parent entrepreneurs against seeing the time spent building a company or a product as a distraction from their lives and families. “I would look at it as a way to bring your kids in and teach them the most wonderful life lesson — that they can accomplish anything they set out to accomplish,” she says.