Melinda Kirk Stenger
Who She Is: Founder and CEO of Pet Cakes by Lucky Paws LLC, selling organic, microwavable treats for dogs and cats in Cincinnati, Ohio
Pets: Ciao Bella, a 13-year-old Jack Russell mix, and a 2-year-old Mountain Cur named Zeke
Words She Lives By: The three P’s: Passion, Purpose and Partnership.
When Melinda Kirk Stenger fell in love with her first dog, Roxanne, she wanted to give the pooch the best life possible—but she had trouble finding high-quality treats for her furry friend. Stenger, who always had a passion for cooking and baking, decided to turn her love of good meals into wholesome, homemade snacks for Roxanne, baking DIY dog treats with healthy ingredients.
“It definitely creates a stronger bond when you connect by cooking something healthy for your animals,” Stenger says. “You know what the ingredients are, it doesn’t take a lot of time, and they get so excited!”
Other pet parents loved what she was doing, and soon Stenger was making one-off cakes for others to share with their pets. Her “aha” moment came when she was preparing to bring her wares to a trade show. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, these people need to know how great the cake smells when it’s cooking,’” she recalls. “So I brought a microwave to the trade show. That’s when I decided to make microwavable cakes and treats instead of bake-in-the-oven cakes and keep it super simple.”
In 2010, she launched Pet Cakes, the first-ever organic microwavable treats for dogs and cats, to help other pet parents feel that same joy of cooking for their furry besties.
These aren’t just delicious snacks—Pet Cakes are designed with pets’ health in mind, too. Stenger’s products are made without wheat, corn and soy, ingredients that seemed to irritate her dog Bella’s skin. They’re also salt-, sugar- and preservative-free, and some treats are made to help with specific health issues. The company’s DIY ice cream, for example, includes collagen and turmeric for hip and joint support, a decision inspired by her own dogs, who suffered from hip dysplasia.
Launching a business wasn’t easy, Stenger says, especially as a newcomer to the pet industry. But by listening to her intuition and focusing on her passion for creating nutritious and delicious treats for pets, she’s grown Pet Cakes from a one-woman show to a small company with three employees (four if you count Bella, Pet Cakes’ official taste tester). Today, Pet Cakes has a track record of giving back to local and national non-profits that support pets, and its founder plans to publish a pet cookbook in May 2022. It’s safe to say Stenger has truly found her calling.
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Who She Is: President and CEO of ECOS, an eco-friendly cleaning product company headquartered in Cypress, California.
Pets: Mina, an 8-year-old Chihuahua-Jack Russell Terrier-Rat Terrier mix adopted from Much Love Animal Rescue in Santa Monica, California.
Words She Lives By: “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” –Jane Goodall
Caring for pets runs in Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks’ family. Her father, Van Vlahakis, founded the cleaning product company ECOS in 1967 and invented the first enzymatic pet stain and odor remover formula in the marketplace in the 1970s. Vlahakis-Hanks took over as president and CEO in 2014, continuing that legacy with an earth-friendly twist: creating products for pets like deodorizers, stain removers and shampoos that are as environmentally friendly as they are effective.
“Ever since we started, our mission has been to protect pet health as well as human health and planetary health,” Vlahakis-Hanks says. “Pets are truly members of our family.”
Under Vlahakis-Hanks’ leadership, ECOS has focused on protecting the health of the whole planet, pets and humans alike. The company is carbon neutral, water neutral and is TRUE Platinum Zero Waste-certified—a seriously eco-friendly trifecta. Plus, ECOS has received many awards for its innovations in safer green chemistry, including the U.S. EPA’s Safer Choice Partner of the Year four separate times. Vlahakis-Hanks is proud that her products help pets and pet parents avoid toxins—not just in pet products, but also in cleaners for the surfaces pets come in contact with, like floors and bedding.
Vlahakis-Hanks takes social and environmental responsibility seriously—her mission is to drive ECOS to be a force for good in the world. That kind of passion, purpose and heart is necessary, she says, to be an entrepreneur who makes a real impact.
“To really build a business, you’ll invest so much of your time and energy to make it successful,” she says. “Make sure you’re spending them on something that’s deeply meaningful to you.”
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Who She Is: Founder and CEO of Treats for Chickens, selling homemade treats and nesting materials for chickens in Cotati, California
Pets: 18 chickens, plus a 12-year-old Blue Heeler named Charlie
Words She Lives By: “Fail faster so you can succeed sooner.” –Missy Parks, Title Nine founder
Dawn Russell’s journey to founding her company, Treats for Chickens, began with a 4H poultry project. When her then 12-year-old son began raising three baby chicks, Russell was amazed to observe the strong bond between her son and the chickens. They followed him everywhere and even learned his daily schedule, waiting by the gate for him to return from school in the afternoons.
“It was like nothing I’d ever seen with a pet, or any animal,” Russell says. “I have since learned that most chickens are incredibly interested in their people.”
As Russell became more chicken obsessed, her flock grew to 300 chickens, and she found herself with an abundance of eggs and a wealth of knowledge. When she kept finding eggs under herbs in her garden like lavender, rosemary or peppermint, she began mixing those herbs into the chickens’ nesting materials to encourage them to lay eggs in their coop—and it worked! She also discovered that what their chickens ate had a direct correlation to their egg quality. When she offered the chickens a sample of sea kelp, which she had on hand to feed her goats, she noticed that the chickens’ health improved, and their eggs’ shells were stronger and less prone to breaking.
Inspired to share her growing chick-smarts, she started a side gig, teaching people how to raise chickens. Soon, she was putting together her own formulas for nesting materials and chicken treats in Ziplock bags to give to people—and Treats for Chickens was born.
Russell says founding her business in 2009 wasn’t all smooth sailing, especially at first. For every potential seller who showed interest in her company, there were a handful of rejections. Plus, she admits, her family and friends might have thought she was losing her marbles when she left her full-time corporate job, trading in heels for mud boots, to focus on Treats for Chickens.
But today, the company is thriving, providing USDA-certified organic, non-GMO products to chicken parents across the country. Russell’s own flock has decreased in size along the way, but she’s still a proud parent to 18 chickens with names like Luanne Twinkleblossom, Little Miss Hattie May, Laverne and Shirley, and the notoriously naughty PIA (aka Pain In the A**). And she’s still making the company’s popular treats and nesting herbs in-house, a choice Russell says is part of her full-circle commitment to helping people make good choices on their home front—both for the health of their families and for their chickens who are part of the family.
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