Nov. 26, 2019

Careers in Motion: Leslie Brooks, BA’01

In our series, Careers in Motion, we bring you interviews with alumni who are innovators, thought leaders and experts in their field. From entrepreneurs and financiers to people in the film industry, architecture and law, you will find illuminating insights from all-star professionals in this monthly slot in our newsletter.

This month, we chatted with Leslie Brooks, BA’01 — an English grad who is now president of Hippo Hug Inc., a company that produces custom-made weighted blankets. In 2012, their first year of operations, this home-based business made 60 blankets. In 2016, Hippo Hug moved into their own manufacturing space, ramped up their staff (nine part-timers) and began to seriously boost sales until they topped out at 1,800 (in 2018). But why weighted blankets? And who’s buying them? Are there health benefits? We caught up with Brooks to find out.

What exactly is a weighted blanket? It’s a bed covering stuffed with strategically placed weights (with Hippo Hugs, they are galvanized metal discs encased in plastic) that can calm anyone who may have sensory disorders, anxiety, stress and insomnia.

How did the idea germinate? It actually began while I was studying at the U of C. I had a part-time job with physically disabled children which eventually led me to work as an early intervention therapist with children who had autism. Weighted blankets had been used in the autism world for quite some time and so, years later when I found myself with a client who had questions about weighted blankets, I thought I’d make one. Deep pressure stimulation — which you can also get from a massage — can help calm a child and allow them to sleep. It worked.

How have you grown your business?  I started off modestly, thinking I’d sew 10 blankets a year. But in my first year, 2012, I sold 60 and it’s just kept growing. I’d say my first big break came in 2016 when Maclean’s magazine interviewed me for a story — that’s when I sold 525 blankets. Then, in 2017, weighted blankets went viral with an American company’s Kickstarter campaign. I’ve sold about 5,000 since we began.

Leslie Brooks, BA’01

Leslie Brooks, BA’01, president of Hippo Hug

I know you’re an English grad, but what skills did you learn at the university that you still use today? (1) How to budget both time and money; (2) How to be an independent adult who is able to navigate the world away from home; (3) The importance of building a community of strong friendships.

What do you miss about being a student? The freedom to choose my schedule and have a whole world of choices ahead of me.

Who are your clients? Our biggest market are women, between 25 and 34, who are experiencing sleep issues. But we’ve had clients with PTSD, chronic pain, Down’s Syndrome, fibromyalgia, Asperger’s, cerebral palsy. Our most popular size is 40x60 inches and weighs 15 lbs.

What do you think everyone should do at least once in their lives? Be part of the inner workings of a small business to better understand the struggles. I think this would really change people’s shopping habits.

What do you wish you knew more about? I wish I knew more about accessing resources to help my business grow and thrive.

What advice do you have for wannabe entrepreneurs? Go for it! Do it at your own pace and keep your values in mind and don’t be afraid of risks.

Where do you hope your business is in five or 10 years? I hope we are a global leader in the innovation of weighted blankets for healthcare use and that we have changed the health landscape that includes easy-to-implement comfort like weighted blankets.

Where did the name, Hippo Hug, come from? I was in a car with my husband and son, Grady, and we were chatting about company names. Grady was three at the time and just blurted out “Hippo Hug” and it seemed perfect. In fact, if you look closely at the logo you will find a “G” hidden in the Hippo. Grady is now 11, but he still loves that little secret.