Small Business Story: Jessi

Max playing

I’m a clinical pediatric dietician for 0-3 year-olds with developmental delays in the Early Intervention program. I chose this path because of my experience when I had my own kids—twins who were born at 26 weeks. My kids were in the newborn ICU and needed lots of therapy. My son, Max, was on a ventilator and needed round-the-clock nursing when he came home at 15 months. I was working in a food stamp nutrition education program at the time, but my contract wasn’t renewed because remote work wasn’t an option in 2013. I was living on public aid and running out of money quickly. Then, when my son was 23 months old, he had a heart attack and died.   

That spring, one of my twin’s therapists had suggested I look into a career working as an early intervention nutritionist with kids. Six months after Max died, I got re-credentialed and became a clinical pediatric dietician. Now, every day, I get to work with kids just like Max.   

All the kids I work with are special needs kids. I see a lot of a babies for picky eating and a lot of my babies have Down syndrome or cerebral palsy. Some kids won’t eat green foods, or crispy foods, or mushy foods. I work with kids who are well below the fifth percentile in their weight-height ratio who are experiencing “failure to thrive.” Sometimes this is due to poverty, sometimes it’s due to having certain conditions. Max had a G-tube and took a food-based tube feeding, and I made all sorts of fun blends for him, so one of my passions is to help parents make the blends for their G-tube dependent kids. One kid wanted an Oreo in his tube feeding because his siblings were eating it, so we put that in his blend, because it’s OK to live a lot.  

For me, being an entrepreneur is about supporting my family and doing what I love. I contract with the state of Illinois—my schedule’s in my hands. I could make more money if I started an agency, but I don’t want to spend my time doing accounting and billing. I want to earn a living providing a service. I love working for myself: Sometimes it’s obnoxious and sometimes it’s really fulfilling. It’s definitely had challenges: in 2015, during the Illinois state budget shortfall (when I was eight months pregnant with my youngest) I didn’t get paid for six months. We got evicted twice and we ended up moving into a basement apartment with built in pets—rats. When the state got funding, things finally turned around. I got paid, I kept my creditors at bay, I enrolled my kids in a great school. I was looking forward to 2020; my projected annual income was going to be 3.5 times more than any other job I’ve had. I had climbed the slippery slope to the top—and then COVID happened.   

My favorite line to describe life now? “It’s like juggling operating chainsaws that are on fire.” I used to see nine clients a day, and now I see five, tops. I lost half of my clients because they didn’t have technology to do telehealth and it always took a knock on the door to engage them. These families are the people most in need of support and community. Before the pandemic, many of them did not have enough food, and now they can’t even get to the food pantry.  

I’m a single mom by choice. I’m the only one available to take care of my children during COVID. A few months ago, my kids both came down with a fever, so we were all locked in the house for two weeks while I was working remotely. It was a total nightmare. I was sick to my stomach on every call because I didn’t know what my kids were doing, and I was sick to my stomach every time I wasn’t on a call because I didn’t know how I was going to put food on our table. When school was online, my daughter did great on Zoom, but my son just wanted to run and dance and roll around with his friends because he’s four.  

I know coping strategies from being a grieving mother, I’ve been through trauma. Right after Max died, I learned how important it was to get, and stay, in a routine. Now, just pretending like we’re on schedule makes things feel more normal. I make sure I sit with my kids at meals, at a table, with chairs, and converse…even though ninety percent of the conversation is “sit down, please sit down, please sit.” I was driving 300 miles a week and now I don’t. With my kids back in school, we walk or bike to school unless it’s raining or snowing. It’s nice to be outside with friends in our neighborhood—the Obamas’ first apartment is nearby. Laughing helps everything, I crack a lot of jokes. My hobby is performing stand-up comedy. This year has been source material, if nothing else. Usually, I hit three open mics per year. When this is all over, I’m going nightly.  

Jessi and kids playing outsideRight now, I’m afraid to increase my client load. The COVID positivity rate in Chicago is creeping up.  Growing my business right now is super risky, because if the city decides we need to stay home, or my kids get sick, then we have to stay home and I can’t focus as well on clients’ needs in that situation. In June, I got a Paycheck Protection Program loan from Opportunity Fund. The loan is still sitting in my bank account. I’m afraid to use it because we’re not sure if the federal government will forgive it. The PPP would only cover my salary, and I know how to live frugally. From March through July, I made all our food from scratch—flour is a lot cheaper than bread. My first career was as a chef, so I have that skill set; I could save those pennies.   

My advice for other business owners? Stand up and do it. There’s no hole too deep to get out of. I didn’t have a partner or family who could help with rent. I didn’t go into private practice for ten years because I couldn’t get health insurance. I was finally able to get insurance through the Affordable Care Act. Even with my master’s degree and culinary degree, I felt unproven to ask a bank for a loan. I had to get new credentials at 44. But I pulled through because I was passionate about what I was doing. If you feel driven to do something on your own, go for it.