Sisters Shawna Kitzman and Ashley Rigby created Jam Program with their mom, Teri Michaud. The startup provides a forum for women to support and exchange ideas with one another.
Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price connected with Shawna after seeing her pitch her business concept at reSET’s Flight Night in November 2018.
NAN PRICE: How did you come up with the idea for Jam Program?
SHAWNA KITZMAN: My sister Ashley and I had attended a Girl Boss rally in New York City. Afterward, we were riding high on the enthusiasm from the day and thought: We’re just as smart, creative, and driven as everyone else on the panels, why can’t we start some kind of business?
Ashley and I both have full-time jobs and kids and everything else that makes for a busy life. Originally, we thought we’d just create a blog because we both like writing. We’ve always worked really well together and thought it would be fun to write together.
We wanted to bring in our mom and because she’s also very driven and enthusiastic and she’s a good writer―and we thought it would be fun and different to do something multigenerational.
Around that time, Ashley, who lives in Brooklyn, decided to host a networking event for her friends. She’s made friends from her kids’ school community, work, neighbors, and people from her running club. She sent out an email to about 45 ladies that basically said: I can’t believe many of you don’t know each other. You are all so awesome and doing great things and struggling in your unique ways and I just think you should know each other.
Pretty much everyone attended. It was a crazy rate of return. Jam Program kind of sprang from that idea, although it didn’t start as an event-based enterprise.
NAN: How did Jam Program transform into a viable business?
SHAWNA: There was a need for it based on the response from people at that original event. It was as if people didn’t know they needed this. Ashley had created a very ad hoc gathering. She attached large post-it notes to her living room walls with three different headers: What do you need? What do you have to offer? And recommendations. The ladies used Sharpies and started filling stuff in and they just mingled.
After the event, ladies were asking Ashley: Where did you get this idea? Is it a franchise? Is this a concept you’ve adopted?
That’s really where the business came from—and I think just seeing there was such a demand for it. Women responded so positively and wanted to know when the next event would be. We realized: This is a thing and there’s a need for this.
NAN: When did you launch?
SHAWNA: We sent out our first newsletter January 1, 2018. We emailed 1,000 people. Ashley, mom, and I combined our contact lists, which included family, business contacts, and friends.
From there, I decided I would host a “Jamboree” in West Hartford and test it out here. I hosted the first one last January. It went great and helped us tweak our process a little—and we continue to.
We wanted to make sure the Jamboree events are high-quality experiences for attendees. So, instead of having people throw their jackets and handbags on top of a bed, we’ll get a coat rack, high-quality hangers, and a tray for people to put their purses. We want to convey that we think you’re awesome, you should think you’re awesome, and we want this to be something you’re worthy of experiencing.
NAN: Tell us a little about the evolution.
SHAWNA: We’re not in the business of being socialites. So, we charge an overhead for the food and drinks, the opportunity to network, and the resources people leave with. Following the event, attendees receive the collected and shared wants/needs/offers and recommendations. We encourage them to make connections from there.
We have since branded the post-it note concept and replaced them with reusable boards on easels. People use them to share what they have to offer, what they need—which can be anything from personal to professional―and anything they don’t know how to classify, as well as recommendations.
The Jamborees aren’t a huge moneymaker—and we know that. We’re testing out the concept as we’re moving into year two. We’re thinking about how we can package and brand the Jamboree experience, because it’s not sustainable for us to host every party.
So, we’re thinking about basically creating a Jam Kit and testing it out in different markets. We’ll take the essential elements necessary for other women to host these in their homes and do some beta tests with friends hosting events in different cities—which could be Chicago, or it could be Farmington, CT.
NAN: Do any of you have any business experience launching startups?
SHAWNA: We’ve never launched a start-up before, but we’re experienced businesswomen. My sister and I both do business development as part of our full-time jobs. She’s in sales and I am in public outreach. I do a lot of communications. I also do a lot of graphic design, branding, and social media. All of that factors in.
My mom is a hostess extraordinaire. She’s been great with building the experience for people. We’re all good at making people feel welcome and comfortable. I think we’re social by nature and able to inquire authentically about people.
I do think those skills are helpful in building our community and making women feel comfortable and willing to share.
Really, our goal is to help women create diverse networks. The multigenerational aspect is one part of that. And we think it’s somewhat unique because it hasn’t been done a ton. There’s a lot to be said for having all kinds of women in the room. We’re all in different places in our lives. We all bring different strengths and challenges, depending on where we are as mothers or employees or business owners or spouses.
So, I think there’s something to be said for keeping it multigenerational―although that has been a challenge, too, because so much of what my sister and I do is connecting with people digitally. It’s more challenging to connect with my mom’s peers because they’re not online as much. We need to think about how that generation communicates. So, when my mom hosted a Jamboree in her neighborhood, she actually went door to door and put postcards in people’s mailboxes.
NAN: What’s the draw to hosting or participating in the Jam Program? It seems different than traditional networking.
SHAWNA: It is. We feel most traditional networking events are really for women to focus on their professional selves. But women come to their professional lives with so many other assets, challenges, and needs. We want people to bring their whole self to our events and not have to pretend they have their professional self all buttoned up. We want more women to be honest about what they need. One of our goals is inspire other women to do their one thing—whatever that may be.
NAN: Let’s talk about reSET. How did you become involved with Flight Night?
SHAWNA: The work I do for my full-time role in urban planning brought me to reSET. We interviewed reSET’s former Manager Director Ojala Naeem for a project. That was my first interaction with reSET. So, reSET was on my radar and I knew they are a local resource for startups. We get their newsletters and follow them on social media, which is how we found out about Flight Night.
Our motto is: Jam Program helps ladies be brave. And, for us to help other ladies be brave, we have to be brave. I do public speaking for work and I’m comfortable with that. But Flight Night was really hard. I haven’t really pitched to my non-audience before. I practiced a lot, but then you’re up there and you have three minutes and no deck and you’re looking at a sea of mostly strangers.
It was a good experience though. I’m glad I did it. The feedback was supportive. The judges encouraged me to keep going with the business. I think I need to work on my pitch, but that’s okay. You have to do your first pitch some time and then you can perfect it.
From there, I met with Entrepreneur-in-Residence Eric Knight, which was suggested by one of the Flight Night judges. Eric was awesome. My challenge for him was: How do we scale? We can’t just host parties. We know it’s not the right moneymaker. But we identified there is a need for this, especially in suburban communities. We think there are a lot more resources for women in larger cities and we feel like the suburbs often get forgotten―but there is so much potential, drive, and creativity there.
NAN: How did Eric advise you about your challenge?
SHAWNA: He suggested we build an online community, leveraging Facebook for example, to reach a broader geography. And he suggested mapping out the next several years of Jam Program to outline a plan of what we want to achieve.
NAN: What’s next?
SHAWNA: We’re excited to announce we were accepted into the 2019 reSET Impact Accelerator program, which begins in February. We’re looking forward to being part of this startup cohort and the resources we’ll be exposed to. And we’re building and testing our Jam Kits so more women can experience Jamborees!
Collaboration is another future goal. We want to continue to shine a light on female business owners, politicians, and activists. We’re co-hosting our next local Jamboree Moms Demand Action – and Brunch! on Sunday, March 10 with founding leaders of the Hartford Chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Another area of Jam Program’s potential growth involves building a curated network of professionals who can help women at different stages of life transitions (professional pivot, retirement, marriage, divorce, children, death of a loved one, moving, etc.). Women find themselves in these “what next?” moments and we’d like to source professionals to help them approach such transitions.
Learn more about Jam Program