Award Winner: Jen Swendseid, Owner of Heart&Core

2015 WomenVenture Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained: Social Entrepreneur Award

Heart&Core is all about supporting women. It does this quite literally, with its bras designed to support women after surgery for breast, heart or lung surgery. And it does this emotionally and psychologically, providing comfort and resources during a vulnerable time. 

"You can't put a value on someone's comfort when they're going through such a tough time. If you can take one thing and make it good for them out of a bad situation, then we're like, OK, we're doing something," says Jen Swendseid, who started Heart&Core with her sister, Lara Severson. 

At the heart of the company is Jen and Lara's mother, Bonita. In 2008, the sisters took their mom shopping for a sports bra as she looked forward to retirement. However, they found the selection to be dismal for a larger-chested woman who'd gone through breast cancer. "Everything was either just a piece of material or an underwire from 1980," says Jen. 

And so the sisters set out to create a better sports bra for women like their mother, one that offered underwire-free lift and encapsulation. A $10,000 loan from WomenVenture helped with the initial product launch in 2009, and the collaboration also provided pivotal connections—including with Drake Bank, where a banker suggested Jen look into government contracts. That move has helped the young company grow in funding, experience, and confidence, as Heart&Core has produced more than 200,000 bras for the military since 2010. "We've developed great relationships, and I think it bodes well for us as a small business to say we can manage larger contracts," says Jen. 

Another pivotal moment came in 2011, when their WomenVenture consultant mentioned another client, nurse Mary Prody, who had developed a drainage bulb holder. The sisters realized they could work this feature into their bra to create a post-surgical bra—a market where they saw greater need and less competition than sports bras. "We stepped away from the sports bra market and thought there's a lot more we want to do in this post-surgical market," says Jen. "We can help educate and be a resource and allow better access to better products." 

They've been doing that since 2012 with the Bonita bra—named, fittingly, for their mother. The bra offers easy front opening and drain management to make sensitive post-surgery moments easier for both patients and hospital staff. The bra's careful detailing bring its own challenges, as it requires more than 30 steps to manufacture, compared to about 12 for an average bra. "It took us a long time to find the right people for what we needed and what we had the capability of doing," says Jen. "Manufacturing is a beast." Their new bra, the Elisabeth, is slightly simplified, making it easier for hospitals to offer it to patients in-house—an area of great potential growth for Heart&Core.

Through all the shifts and challenges, Jen remains buoyed by the feedback she receives from customers. "We get emails that say I slept in this bra for two weeks," she says. "Another woman told us she had her husband take a blow dryer to it so it would dry faster. That support is a big deal." 

WomenVenture has also continued to offer support along the way, giving Heart&Core an award in 2010, which Jen's mother proudly watched her daughters receive at the fall event. "I think she was happy to see us working together and trying to solve a problem for women."

This year's event will be bittersweet, as Jen's mother will be noticeably absent from the ceremony after passing away from breast cancer in 2013. But there's no doubt how proud she would be. "She was a social worker and she spent her life helping people," says Jen. "At the end of the day, we know we're doing this for our mom, in memory and honor of her."