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Grit + Grace: Why Karen Saunders Left A Banking Career to Own Bambinos, The Beloved Local Baby Store

A Discussion on Motherhood, Entrepreneurship, and Changing Career Course In Pursuit of Following Your Heart

In talking with Karen Saunders, it’s easy to feel her kind and modest demeanor from a distance. It’s also easy to sense that she’s logical, level-headed and calculated (in all the right ways) even though our correspondences have been mostly over the phone and in the digital space. Sometimes, life leads us down paths that push us out of our comfort zones for reasons we can’t quite understand or control. This is what I love about Karen’s story.

Her experiences of watching her two newborn baby girls brought to full term in the NICU caused her to have a change of heart in her finance career. She took a big risk to save the beloved local baby boutique Bambinos from going out of business. Her journey as both an entrepreneur and a mother is a great example of how to lean into life’s circumstances and listen to what your heart is telling you, even if the leap into your next endeavor isn’t as calculated or as meticulously planned as you would have hoped. Because there’s usually something beautifully fulfilling that’s waiting on the other side.

Where did you go to college, what did you study, and what was your first job when you graduated?

I’m a born and raised Texan and always wanted to be a Longhorn. I moved to Austin at 17 to attend the University of Texas and graduated three years later with a Business Management degree. I was always in a hurry to get out into the business world. I started my career in Dallas as an Associate at Bernstein, a New York based investment management company. I spent a good bit of time training and working in NYC and was completely hooked on the financial industry from the very start.

In your early twenties, what was the future dream career you envisioned for yourself?

During college I studied abroad in Sao Paulo, Brazil and studied Business and Portuguese. By 25 I had traveled to 19 countries and had found my passions in travel, language and culture. I made plans to attend an MBA program in Switzerland and take my finance career abroad. A job offer at JPMorgan Private Bank and meeting my future husband brought me to San Antonio instead.

How did a background in the banking industry prepare you for a career as an entrepreneur and business owner?

My prior career gave me the stamina to become a business owner. I traveled a lot, had many early mornings and late nights and worked a crazy amount of hours (or so I thought), and though I underestimated the work involved in owning a business I was prepared for it. I work more now than I ever did in banking, though much of it doesn’t feel like work to me. My roles at JPMorgan were in business management, strategy, and regional CFO functions like managing risk and the P&L (profit and loss) for businesses in Central Texas and Louisiana. That experience has definitely given me a unique perspective in the retail industry.

What was the turning point in your finance career that set you on the path to owning your business?

A few years after the birth of my first child I became interested in textiles and folk art as an extension of my passion for travel and culture. I’d traveled to India and fell in love with wood block printing and several years later while expecting my second child, my textile line Kantik was born. Shortly after, my second child arrived ten weeks early; the stay in the NICU and subsequent time at home with her changed me. I returned to banking and still loved it but looking back my heart wasn’t in it in the same way. When I learned Bambinos needed a new owner I just knew it was something I had to do. It happened suddenly and I’d never dreamed of owning a baby boutique or retail business but I was ready to jump into something new.

How did the experience of having two children in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) inspire you to use your corporate business management skills to take over a children’s clothing store?

Having two children in the NICU made me brave. I learned how to do harder things than I’d ever imagined and it gave me the courage to take a leap of faith and try something out of my comfort zone.

How do you manage career-family balance as a mother of two and a business owner?

The struggle has been the same as a business owner as it was working for a corporation. The balance of work / family time looks different each day. I typically work Monday through Saturday so I involve my kids in prep and planning for the week ahead on Sunday afternoon. At 3 and 8 they love helping with putting away groceries and getting a full week of lunches prepped and outfits picked. It’s quality time together that helps us free up time during the week for fun and play.

Does your husband have any involvement in the Bambinos brand and product development?

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My husband Chris works in the investment management business, but can also draw anything. He drew many of the patterns that became the block prints for Kantik and draws designs we digitize for embroidery. He does a lot of the vinyl personalization we offer at the shop (better than me)! Chris is a great strategic partner who can analyze data to drive decisions better than anyone I’ve known. Even with my background, he’s the numbers guy and I’m the creative force behind the brand.

What is the philanthropic arm of the Bambinos brand and business?

I knew from day one the charitable mission of the business would be to support families of preemies and medically fragile infants. We partner with Threads of Love, a San Antonio based charity that provides thousands of handmade preemie essentials to all the NICUs and Hand to Hold, an Austin based organization that provides educational, peer mentoring and emotional support to preemie families.

What areas of growth are you most excited about as you plan for the future of Bambinos?

We launched our own line with Pima play clothes this spring and I’ve been blown away by the reception both locally in store and nationally online. Our summer and fall collections are in production now!

If you could have lunch with any woman in the world, (living or deceased) who would it be and why?

I love this question and there are so many awesome women to choose from but my immediate gut reaction is Princess Diana. I was enamored with her as a child and wrote her letters and still have the written replies from her office with her royal seal. I’m inspired by her compassion and style and would love to chat with her about motherhood, philanthropy and fashion.
Edited from an interview by Eleanora Morrison.

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