The Mothers Who Could

JoAnne Pastel '85, '99 MIM, and Kakie Fitzsimmons '00 launch Farmer's Hat Productions

Once upon a time, there was a little boy named William who lived by a lake with his mother and father and his imaginary friend, Bur Bur. William loved boating and fishing with his family, and he cherished memories of throwing two first pitches at Twins games. And, wherever William went, he wore the bucket hat he called his farmer’shat. But William’s mother, JoAnne Pastel, was troubled because she couldn’t find books that reflected her son’s diverse world in which children with different skintones – including biracial children like William – played together.

Embracing a long-time passion, Pastel decided to write a book that would fill the gap. She asked a friend, who also had a biracial son, to join her in her venture, andtogether Pastel and Kakie Fitzsimmons became mothers for a second time – this time to a company, Farmer’s Hat Productions.

Both Pastel and Fitzsimmons are successful businesswomenwho gained confidence in themselves as students at St. Thomas. Prior to founding Farmer’s Hat Productions,Pastel worked as a stockbroker at Piper Jaffray. “I ran my own business there,” she says. “I had to find my own clients; that’s part of what inspired me to create my owncompany.”

She also worked for Imation and Honeywell, and she had internships at IBM and Target while pursuing her undergraduate degree in business administration. “If it weren’t for that background, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Pastel said. In addition, Pastel believes that her master’s degree was an important part of her evolution as abusiness leader. “I was a first-generation college student. When I received my master’s degree, I realized I could compete.”

Fitzsimmons was working in financial services when she decided to finish her college degree. She talked with Bonney Bielen, then with the School of Continuing Studies. “She told me, ‘You can do it!’ and gave me the confidence to pursue my degree.” Fitzsimmons attended St. Thomas in the evenings as a non-traditional student, majoring in business management and communication.

After Pastel decided to write a children’s book, she showed the first-draft manuscript to Fitzsimmons. “I smiled when I read it,” says Fitzsimmons. “I made some changes, sent it back and called her right away. She invited me to write with her. We realized the potential and decided to build a brand.”

“We had a unique idea,” explains Pastel. “We wanted to use a group of multicultural kids in a series featuring their first experiences in sports and outdoor activities. Wepublished it ourselves because we knew that a book publisher would want the rights. They might not let us take it in our own direction.”

Pastel and Fitzsimmons believe they work well together in part because they have different strengths. Pastel is the “full-steam ahead” partner, while Fitzsimmons enjoysresearch, marketing and branding. Her first step after joining Pastel was to visit the James J. Hill Library in St. Paul, where she researched markets and the publishing industry. In addition to Fitzsimmons’ research at the library, the  pair did research with preschool children to see how they would respond to the characters and the books. “One preschool teacher even organized a boating day around the ABC book,” reports Pastel.

Although young children are perceived as “color blind,” because they have not absorbed prejudices, they still need role models who resemble them, and Pastel andFitzsimmons noticed that the children gravitated toward the characters who looked like them. These same children also are exposed to a “rainbow” of other kids in their lives.

“Now is the time. There’s a need for this product,” Fitzsimmons said. “This is for all children,” Pastel adds. “We want to show them all the importance of beinginvolved in sports and  outdoor exploration and being active with their families.”

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