Alum’s environmental passion leads to success in unusual business
Move over, Walt Disney. Cinderella’s fairy godmother has met her match.
Emily Weixler McCay ’98 is founder of the Diaper Fairy Cottage. In September, her company won the 2014 Greening/Sustainability Award given by the Louisville Metro Chamber of Commerce through its small business awards program after being a finalist three years running.
The name of the business is not a nod to frivolity. Neither is McCay’s willingness to appear at trade shows dressed as a fairy godmother. It’s all part of a well-conceived business strategy focused on one unmagical fact of life.
Babies need diapers. Lots of them.
Each week, McCay and six employees deliver bundles of crisp cotton diapers to more than 100 families in Louisville and surrounding areas. A van whisks away used diapers for laundering.
The heart of the business lies in McCay’s passion for environmental issues. As a high school student in Louisville, she was active in the Sierra Club, then joined the staff as a paid activist after graduating from Centre. The Sierra Club was followed by a job with a nonprofit organization seeking to improve water quality in Eastern Kentucky.
“I loved the work,” she says, “but hated the amount of time spent commuting.” And there were new reasons for treasuring her hours at home: her marriage to Dave McCay ’94, then a medical student at the University of Louisville. When a position opened up at a small business close to their home, she took it.
Auto leasing didn’t captivate her, but company owner Bob Leidgen did. A gifted manager and mentor, he taught her about sales, financial planning, and other elements critical to success in small business.
Armed with a new skill set, she found a lucrative job in medical sales when she and her husband relocated to St. Louis for his residency. By the time they returned to Louisville four years later — along with baby Camille — she had everything she needed to turn a crisis into a business opportunity.
“I had no trouble finding a cloth diaper service in St. Louis,” McCay says. “Then we moved back to Louisville, and there was nothing.”
Unsettled by the impact of disposable diapers on the environment, she responded swiftly and decisively. She wouldn’t just solve the diapering dilemma for her own family. She would offer a service to the city.
McCay found a medical laundry facility equipped for high-heat cleaning. She scoured suppliers to get favorable pricing for high-quality diapers. As the details fell into place, she quickly found one customer, then three, then a dozen.
But there were challenges. At an early trade show, she saw doubt in the eyes of young parents — potential customers who assumed that a cloth diaper would be difficult to use.
“Even a child can do it,” she quipped, and set Camille in motion with a doll and a pinless diaper. The diapering was done in less than 20 seconds.
The tactic worked so well that Camille, now 8, remains a star attraction at Diaper Fairy events. McCay refers to her daughter as the company “vice president.”
McCay is glad to get accolades but is most proud of a different sort of achievement.
“I have a win-win business,” she recently told a small group of Centre students. “Our gross sales figures keep climbing. And by October of this year, the Diaper Fairy will have kept one million diapers out of local landfills. We are making it easy for hundreds of area families to make an ecological choice.”
Now that’s magic.
by Patsi B. Trollinger
(Patsi B. Trollinger is a freelance writer and the author of Thrill in the ’Ville, about a soccer kid’s introduction to politics, and Perfect Timing, a Junior Library Guild selection about jockey Isaac Murphy.)