Belly Armor’s mama CEO talks building a brand and a family

Motherly @ Work features the stories and insights of modern women growing their careers—and their families.

Like Aileen Chen Co-Founder and CEO of Belly Armor—an innovative company that designs products which will protect you and your little ones from potentially harmful radiation from cell phones, laptops, power lines, and other everyday objects. Belly Armor sells beautiful belly blankets to protect your precious cargo, nursing covers, baby monitors, and more. Belly Armor’s products have received many prestigious awards such as The Bump’s Best of Baby in 2012 and 2015, and Pregnancy & Newborn’s Top Products of 2014.

We caught up with Aileen to find out how she prioritizes her to-do list, and how she’s making a difference in the world.

Your business, Belly Armor is super important for protecting ourselves and our little ones from radiation. Why did you want to start your business and create your innovative products?

Aileen Chen: When I was pregnant with my first child, my own worry about the wireless devices I was surrounded by prompted me to look into the potential harm they might pose for my baby. I was surprised to learn of the research showing health risks and the precautionary measures that many governments and health organizations worldwide were advising.

It was well-accepted that everyday radiation (non-ionizing radiation emitted by sources like cell phones, computers, wireless towers and power lines) can have a biological impact, but there was much confusion and debate around how it impacts our health.

Increasingly, research was indicating potential health risks from this radiation, and experts are particularly concerned for young children and during pregnancy when DNA replication and cell growth are at their highest rates. Compounding the risk is the exponential growth in wireless technologies over the past decade—today’s children will be exposed to levels of radiation unprecedented in human history, in closer proximity and for longer durations throughout their lives than previous generations. There was an obvious gap between scientific knowledge and public awareness. As the health experts warned, if history is any indication, it can take years and even decades for scientific evidence to conclusively affirm health risks from environmental hazards and then translate into policies to safeguard people. Such was the case with tobacco, lead, asbestos, and x-rays.

I felt compelled to raise awareness about this emerging health issue, particularly amongst parents and parents-to-be, and design solutions to help families address it.

Wireless technology has become an indispensable part of our modern lives, but I believe we should develop a healthier relationship with technology as the wireless infrastructure around us continues to grow exponentially. With my co-founder, we started Belly Armor with the mission of giving children the best possible start in life, by increasing awareness of this health issue and providing practical and effective solutions for parents looking to reduce their families’ exposure to everyday radiation.

What would you say are your most popular products and why?

Aileen Chen: Our products are designed with the modern parent in mind—they must fit easily into their everyday lives, while providing effective ways to reduce their exposure to everyday radiation. Belly Armor’s products span maternity, nursery and fertility—from maternity bands and low-radiation baby monitors to men’s boxer-briefs.

Amongst the various product categories, our Belly Blanket Chic is the most popular product in the thirty-plus countries we sell globally.

It is very versatile, being a blanket that can be used during pregnancy to cover the bump while the expectant mom uses a laptop or tablet, as a baby blanket after pregnancy, and have often been used by men under their laptops on their laps.

Our RadiaShield® Fabric—the functional part of the product that has been independently tested to be 99.9% effective in shielding the radiation emitted by everyday electronic devices—is very lightweight and breathable. Not only is this Belly Blanket Chic portable and easy to keep around the office desk or home, it is also super soft to snuggle up with and free of heavy metals, toxic chemicals and common allergens.

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) recently released a study suggesting that chronic exposure to cell phones and other wireless devices may lead to cancer in humans. Do these types of studies motivate you to grow your brand presence? What do you think of the current research on radiation effects on our children in utero and out?

Aileen Chen: This federal study provides further validation and adds to the growing pool of research indicating that cell phone radiation can pose harm and that we need to think differently about the way we use wireless technology. The fact is, wireless technologies have not been around for a long time, but they are growing exponentially around us, permeating into offices, schools, and homes. Our children are exposed to unprecedented levels of wireless radiation and will be throughout their lives.

Most people don’t know that safety standards for cell phone radiation were established nearly 20 years ago using a 200-lb adult male model. (Or, that most phone manuals advise using and carrying your cell phone at least 1/2-inch away from your body.) The phones we use today and the way in which we use them (in terms of proximity and duration) are drastically different from 2 decades ago. In addition, the populations using these phones have changed dramatically—the majority of cell phones users now are less than twenty years old, with growing numbers that are children.

There is still much scientific debate about the nature and the extent of the risks from wireless radiation.

However, what we do know is that radiation at the levels emitted by cell phones and Wi-Fi does have a biological effect. Numerous studies have shown that it impacts the way cells grow, DNA replications and brain cells function, and most scientific experts agree more research needs to be done.

Because children are more vulnerable to environmental factors, many health experts and governments recommend applying the precautionary principle towards these risks until we know more. The World Health Organization has labeled cell phone as a possible carcinogen. The American Academy of Pediatrics has openly urged the FCC to update their safety standards to safeguard children. Nearly 200 independent scientists from 39 countries and institutions like Yale and Berkeley have urged the UN for stricter controls on cell phone radiation. The French government has banned the marketing of cell phoned to children under 12 and prohibited the use of Wi-Fi in places dedicated for children under 3.

Dr. Devra Davis, a renowned cancer expert, a former health advisor to President Clinton, and current president of the Environmental Health Trust, a nonprofit devoted to researching and educating about avoidable environmental health threats such as wireless radiation, says: “If ever there was a time to re-think our growing dependence on wireless in schools, cars, homes, and energy production, this is it. There is no other suspected cancer-causing agent to which we subject our elementary school students or place directly in front of the brain and eyes with virtual reality… It makes no sense to continue building out huge wireless systems until we have done a better job of putting the pieces of this puzzle together. This latest report from the NTP should give us all pause.”

We work with experts like Dr. Davis and organizations like Healthy Child Healthy World (of which Belly Armor is a Trusted Partner) to educate more about this emerging health issue. Seeing the awareness grow and powered by more emerging research, my team and I are even more motivated to do our best in our mission to give children the best possible start in life.

What inspires you to do this work?

Aileen Chen: The ability to make a positive impact in creating a healthier environment for our children.

What are your secrets for integrating work and family?

Aileen Chen: I think work/life balance is very individualistic—everyone defines that balance differently and goes through their own journey to achieve it. Striking that balance is a constant work-in-progress as careers evolve, as life happens and as priorities shift. For me, I believe a good balance is achievable when I am clear and realistic about what that balance means for me.

And I try to achieve that balance by:

—Prioritizing the handful of most important things (work and personal) I must complete each day, and getting those squared away early in the day. There is less stress and overhang once those are done.

—Separating time for work and time for family, and being fully present when I am in either one.

—Automating wherever possible and seeking help as necessary.

—Choosing progress over perfection—knowing when to let something go and not get stuck trying to make something “perfect” (it is still often easier said than done!).

Of course, the key to making this all work for me is that I am blessed to have a very supportive husband, an equal partner in our parenting journey and a strong supporter of my goals.

How do you recharge?

Aileen Chen: During the day, I try to take a break to walk in the sun or listen to music, even if for only 10 minutes. It’s amazing how they can reset me physically and emotionally. At night, I like to read, and do relatively simple but productive tasks in silence—like cleaning or baking—which feel therapeutic, give me time to think, and produce clear results and a sense of accomplishment (even if it’s a small one).

Do you have a mentor or someone you look up to that’s helped to shape you as a woman and a mother? Tell us how they inspire you.

Aileen Chen: I have been very blessed to have had many mentors throughout my life so far. During the earlier part of my career, a couple of them guided me and served as my staunch advocate with promotions and international work opportunities, giving me a wealth of experiences.

There are many female business and political leaders that I admire and would love to meet one day. While some of her policies and actions had been controversial, Margaret Thatcher was a role model for me when I was young, being one of the few female world leaders then (and unfortunately there are still only a handful today). I had the honor of meeting her at an intimate student symposium during high school, not long after she left the prime minister office. I remember being completely inspired by the harmonious combination of her intelligence, toughness, wit, confidence, warmth, grace and femininity. She inspired me to find my own style and voice as a leader, more assured that confidence does not equate to arrogance, toughness can be done with grace, and exuding femininity does not have to imply weakness.

In recent years, my most indispensable mentors have been the groups of women entrepreneurs who have also become close friends.

We have been a part of each other’s entrepreneurial journeys, inspiring and nurturing each other. We share the challenges of parenting while building our businesses, and learn from each other’s parenting styles and philosophies.

Each person is an amazing woman and mother with purpose, vision and compassion. Being surrounded by them has given me perspective and support when I’ve needed it most.

Tell us about your children. How have they transformed your career?

Aileen Chen: As most parents would probably agree—having children can be completely transformative in changing the way we view the world, ourselves, and our purpose.

My kids have brought so much laughter and meaning (and challenges too, no doubt!). They have taught me how to live in the moment, to reflect on my own words and actions, to treasure the simple things in life.

Becoming a mother ignites the intense desire to give your children the best in life, and for me it sprouted Belly Armor.

Being a mother has made me focus my time, energy and experiences on things I care about and the things that will positively impact the world I leave behind for my kids.

What gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you inspired and excited about life?

Aileen Chen: Technically, well, the alarm clock. And then my kids’ voices and giggles and our dog’s pitter patter on the floor, eager to be walked and fed.

I’m excited by the progress I can make and by the experiences my loved ones can have each day. I believe that as individuals, we can all positively impact other’s lives and collectively build strong communities and societies. I strive to make a difference, and to teach my children to be positive contributors to society.

Tell us about a typical day in your life.

At 6: 30 am. . . Getting up and ready, starting to prep kids’ lunches while my husband makes breakfast.

At 7:45 am. . . Getting kids to put on their shoes and into the car. This can take anywhere between 30 seconds to 5 minutes.

At 10:00 am. . . At my desk with a cup of coffee, working with my team on an awareness campaign.

At 1:00 pm. . . Finishing lunch, trying to get a little sun outdoors.

At 3:00 pm. . . Replying to customer emails.

At 5:00 pm. . . Getting ready to pick up the kids from their after-school activities. Thinking about dinner prep.

At 9:00 pm. . . The kids are in bed; I am tidying up the house, planning for the next day, and catching up with my husband.

What’s one thing you do every day (or try to do every day!) to ensure that your work and home lives run more smoothly?

Aileen Chen: Each night, I plan my schedule and my family’s schedule for the next day (including what to pack for kids’ lunches and make for dinner) and create a To-Do list of the top priority things for the day. It makes it much easier to jump-start the next day and know what you want to accomplish.

We’d love to hear—what would you tell other mamas who have a great idea and want to start their own business?

Aileen Chen: Do something you are passionate about, something that you strongly believe in. Otherwise, your motivation may wane over time, and you may feel increasingly conflicted about your time and energy spent on the venture versus on other responsibilities and interests in your life.

Also, do good planning upfront before you dive in—understand the market demand, target customers, competitive landscape, and differentiators of your products/services. Knowing these, you will be able to test the viability of your idea and gain clarity for your path forward. You have to be really honest about your strengths and weakness, what type of resources and support you need to get started and keep things going for a period of time until you get traction. Your initial capital should also have some of your own capital—having skin in the game will make you feel even more invested and motivated.

Be prepared for the business to take a lot of your time, energy, and mindshare. Because it is your own business, it will be hard to completely turn off, even when you are on vacation or on maternity leave. If you are passionate about what you’re doing, you’ll still be jumping out of bed every day, excited to make progress on the idea.

What do you hope your child/children learn from your career?

Aileen Chen: That they should always try to do things that make a positive impact. That they can pursue their passions and find meaning in their work. That they don’t have to choose between family and career but can have a good balance of both. That challenges will also always exist but can present the most valuable learning experiences. That surrounding themselves with positive influences will enable them to achieve their dreams.

What’s in your purse?

Aileen Chen: Wallet, keys, pen, small notebook, iPhone, headphones, water bottle, granola bar, and a good luck charm I got with my husband and kids at a temple in Japan.

What does ‘Motherly’ mean to you?

Aileen Chen: Being a nurturer and a pillar.

This part of Khalil Gibran’s poem On Children really speaks to me and how I see my role as a mother:

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You are the bows from which your children As living arrows are sent forth.”

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