How two kindred spirits launched a Web phenomenon and found a work-life balance that works for them.
A “work hard, play hard” ethic is one thing. Doing work that feels like play is another thing altogether — and it’s a craft that few have mastered more gracefully than Heather Stephenson and Jen Boulden, cofounders of San Francisco–based Ideal Bite (www.idealbite.com), a Web site offering daily, bite-size ideas for green living. The two are constantly testing cool new ways to live a more sustainable life, which means workplace fun is often par for the course.
“There was a day, six or so months ago, when we wanted to talk about sustainable caviar and we wanted to talk about organic vodka,” Stephenson recalls. “So we had a caviar-and-vodka tasting in the office, and all we could think was: This is work?!”
Perhaps their workplace joie de vivre was inevitable, given that they first met at a West Village bar in New York City. “We were with different friends who all ended up hanging out in the same area,” says Boulden. “And Heather and I started talking, and we were like, ‘Wow, we have so many common interests, and we both want to use our business passions and skills for good, and we are both passionate about the environment.’”
They shared similar career backgrounds, as well. “We both got into the dot-com thing early on,” says Stephenson, 36. Eventually, though, “both of us hit this point where it felt very unsatisfying making all this money for other people and not following our passions.” So the women left their digital careers to go back to school — Boulden got a green MBA, and Stephenson studied landscape design and eventually opened her own rooftop gardening company in New York.
When the two met in the bar that night, the timing was fortuitous. “I got really interested in sustainability through the landscape work,” says Stephenson. “And Jen and I met at exactly that time when sustainability was becoming a huge passion for me, and when Jen was getting her green MBA. It was just this amazing confluence in terms of timing.”
While working together on strategies and marketing plans for green businesses at Boulden’s consulting agency, the pair soon noticed a growing demand from individuals for fun, simple advice on how to be green — and Ideal Bite was born. That was four years ago. Now the company employs 24 people, puts out five different city editions, an edition specifically for mothers and children (called Mama Bite), plus a wildly popular, free daily-tip email (sign up at their Web site).
In the beginning, the two women generated the tips themselves. Today, more than half the tips come from their readers, who also send in requests for guidance on all sorts of everyday challenges and conundrums.
“People write in and say: ‘My house is really drafty and I’m thinking of putting in new insulation. What should I do?’” explains Stephenson. “So we’ll research the best insulation, test things out, talk to the experts, and then we’ll write a tip on the best insulation to put in your house.”
Ideal Bite is aimed at people who consider themselves “light green,” or committed to a fun, friendly, accessible green lifestyle, says Stephenson. “So, for instance, a light green approach would be: I’m going to drink really wonderful wine, but it’s going to be local or organic or biodynamic wine.”
While their schedules have calmed down since they first founded the company, both women remain incredibly busy. How do they stay grounded and healthy? “Heather is very motivated by yoga, and my yoga is on the back of my horse,” says Boulden, 35, who lives in Los Angeles.
These self-nourishing activities provide some important “sanity points” in both their lives, says Stephenson, who runs the San Francisco office. She acknowledges that sanity wasn’t always so easy to come by. “Early on, we just didn’t have any time.” Now in their fifth year, both Stephenson and Boulden have gotten to a point where they are making sanity and balance higher priorities, and feel that for their success to be sustainable, they must.
“We’ve realized that the only way you bring a fresh eye to something — and the only way you maintain the strength of what you bring to an organization — is by making sure you have balance in your life.”
So what do the two do for fun outside of work? For Stephenson, it’s all about food and her passion for cooking and eating seasonably and sustainably. “I’m a member of a CSA and I can’t tell you how many impromptu dinners I have had with yummy wine and some crazy concoction we’ve made out of the CSA box.” Boulden finds her joy in caring for and interacting with her animals. “I have a dog, Cricket, who is our Ideal Bite doggie-product tester, two cats, horses — and I have chickens,” she says. “I love my chickens.”
Laine Bergeson is an Experience Life senior editor.
Go behind the scenes at our cover shoot with Heather and Jen at experiencelife.com/multimedia. For simple tips and ideas for having a healthier, happier summer — compiled especially for Experience Life readers — see “Ideal Bite’s Top 10 Tips for Eco-Friendly Summer Fun.”