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Ask alumni co-founders Stephanie (Gordon) Farsht ’97 MBA and Paul Earle ’99 MBA where their startup began and they can tell you precisely: a humble lunch table in the Global Hub cafeteria. 

It was early 2020, and the friends found themselves both teaching innovation courses at Kellogg as adjunct faculty. Farsht had worked for 14 years as an intrapreneur at retailer Target, while Earle was running his own consultancy after having founded an innovation center for global ad agency Leo Burnett. 

Their lunchtime chats between classes covered the usual ground: kids, life, hobbies. But often, their conversations turned to things on their mind as consumers, especially cool new products and sustainability. 

“It was the early days of Blueland,” Farsht explains, noting that company’s business model of selling hand soap in the form of dissolvable, concentrated tablets. Suddenly, it seemed, this model was everywhere — brands selling toothpaste tablets and laundry detergent strips later popped up — and it was a win for consumers and companies alike. Consumers would simply add water on their end, and they felt good about not using single-use plastic packaging. And the companies reduced their carbon footprint by not shipping heavy containers filled with mostly water.  

“We were confused and frustrated that this wasn’t happening at a faster pace in other categories,” says Farsht. The duo began to compare notes and landed on haircare as a category desperately in need of new ideas. 

From that conversation was born Small Wonder, a haircare line of powder-to-lather shampoo and conditioner. They tapped third cofounder Katja Lerner (pictured above), a chemistry PhD and former head of Global R&D for Neutrogena, to lead the formulation of a softly scented powder that transforms like magic when mixed in your palm with water. A clever — and now patent-pending — reusable, twist-and-click dispenser keeps the powder dry in the shower. Refills ship in cardboard tubes within a petite recyclable package. 

“At this fateful lunch in the Kellogg cafeteria,” Earle recalls, “Steph and I talked about this theory that in 5 or 10 years, maybe even sooner, the idea that you're going to pay a premium for some large company fill heavy, goopy water into single-use plastic, and then ship it all over kingdom come, is going to seem absurd.” 

“Last time we checked, most people have water in the shower already,” Earle quipped.

Today, Farsht has become Small Wonder’s full-time CEO. The trio self-funded for the company’s first three years and have raised two angel rounds, with plans for an institutional seed round on the horizon. We caught up with the company’s two Kellogg co-founders to learn more about their entrepreneurial journey, and why the school community’s support has been critical along the way:  

Did you always imagine that you would start your own business after your MBA? 

Small Wonder co-founder Stephanie Farsht wears a cap and gown on Kellogg graduation day.
Stephanie Farsht ’97 MBA

Farsht: Never. I always thrived in an environment where I could drive change within a big organization like Target. I focused on consensus building and relationships, and I could make tiny changes that had a large impact on a large platform. 

But, I had taught New Venture Discovery at Kellogg for almost eight years. I had about 40 students per quarter and taught two to three quarters a year, so I must have gone through the entrepreneurship process about 150 times. You start to see patterns of how to get customer discovery insights and turn it into a minimum viable product. All those years of teaching students gave me more confidence to try it myself, even though I never imagined startup life was going to be my path. 

Earle: My steps into entrepreneurship had a lot to do with Kellogg too, but I feel like I’ve always been an entrepreneur. I’ve been hustling my whole life — street busking, lemonade stands, even starting a newspaper in high school. I’ve always enjoyed that kind of unstructured challenge. I’m comfortable out in the wild. 

Around 2017, I began a project with Kellogg and Forbes profiling disruptive companies in the consumer space. I got to talk to a lot of founders, and eventually I thought, “Put me in! I can do this too!” So, I started getting involved as a co-founder helping to create new brands. 

What did you learn from your MBA experience that’s helping you launch Small Wonder? 

Photo of Small Wonder cofounder and Kellogg alumnus Paul Earle on a bright red background
Paul Earle ’99 MBA

Earle: The breadth of subject matter focus as Kellogg gave me an appreciation for all the different touchpoints in creating a business. Company founders have to manage everything since there are no departments yet and there’s no “guy for that.” So you’ve got to be able to wear many different hats. 

How has the Kellogg community supported you both as you’ve launched your startup?

Farsht: The list is so long. Some alumni have been part of our cap table and participated in our two early angel rounds. Others have connected me with manufacturers or supply chain partners — if I post on LinkedIn asking, “How do I find someone who knows how to make a paper tube for our refills?” they jump in with suggestions.  

And our interns! We’ve leveraged interns from Kellogg and Northwestern, and we’ve had a ton of fun with our undergrad interns from NU, who are featured in our social media posts. They’re a key piece that’s helping this engine move forward with such a tiny team. 

What are the next milestones for Small Wonder over the next year or two? 

Farsht: We’re focusing on two channels: direct-to-consumer and proving out the professional channel in salons. We’re also going deep on hair care products, expanding into products and treatments for different hair types.  

We have a matrix that’s keeping us incredibly focused — I say no ten times for every time I say yes, and that appreciation for logic and sequence is so ingrained in me from the time I spent in the corporate environment at Target. At Small Wonder, we’re a small team right now, so we have to stay really focused. 

Earle: We think Small Wonder will be really successful. If we get there, it will be a big win on the board for Kellogg, whose influence on this venture has been so substantial. Who knows? Maybe we can even get the table in the cafeteria where we hatched the idea and put it in a glass case! 

Read next: Finding his sounding board — How the Kellogg network supported Nic White Petteruti ’13 MBA in launching his startup