What's Your Story - Lauren Birkel

I SO believe that everybody has a story and message to share! This series features the story and secrets to success from women of all ages and stages. I always ask people a ton of questions in person and am super duper curious about how people got where they are, how they live life, what tips and tricks work for them and more. Each time I profile someone they'll be different questions (some the same)!

Next up, I'm honored to profile my cousin, Lauren Birkel. She's a total inspiration - momma, wife, entrepreneur, triathlete, coach, mentor, friend, you name it. She's the epitome of a life intentionally lived. And while this profile doesn't touch on the amazing things she did, does and is doing... it's a start. There is SO much goodness to share here I couldn't muster the guts to edit it out, so grab a coffee or tea and read on. You'll be glad you did!

Tell me your story. 
I find it weird to write about myself... but here’s my story... I also have a hard time being brief (so sorry but this gets a little long).

I graduated as valedictorian of my small town high school and was ready to take on the world.  I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.  While I certainly gained an incredible amount of knowledge, it was more the experiences I had outside of the classroom during those four years that shaped, guided and contributed to who I am today.  I welcomed all the new experiences and opportunities that came my way - getting involved with numerous student orgs and volunteer groups.  In high school I had played organized athletics all year round so I missed that camaraderie and goal-focused type of training.  I decided to join the UW Triathlon Team - possibly one of the best decisions I ever made.  It sounds simple and easy but here’s the thing --when I made the decision to check this group out I could only sort of swim (I’d never swam competitively, never had formal swim lessons or even swam laps).  I had an old huffy that I got when I was about 12 years old but that was it, no fancy tri bike, not even a road bike.  At least I could run.  I had no idea the kind of training or gear or anything that would be needed to do a triathlon.  So I walked in to this spring semester kick-off meeting, not knowing anyone or anything.  It was one of those moments where you kind swallow the lump in your throat and pull up your big girl panties.  For all I knew, I was walking into a room of super elite athletes that would laugh at me.  Lucky for me, everyone was welcoming and excited to help a newbie learn.  Soon I was hooked on the sport, not only because of the enjoyment I got from training and racing but also because of the amazing social support from that group.  I made friendships, connections and met my future husband as a result of taking a chance to walk into that spring semester kick-off meeting. I served as an officer of the tri team and competed in two Ironman distance races my last two years of college, qualifying for Ironman World Championships along the way.  Not too shabby for someone that could barely swim just a few years ago.

At the end of undergrad, I decided to pursue my graduate degree right away.  I attended the University of Denver to earn my Masters in Social Work where I focused on community and policy practice specifically around health and wellness as a means to improve youth and family outcomes.  During that time I also got to enjoy playing in the CO mountains and training for Ironman World Championships.  Brodie (the guy I met on the tri team who was by then also my fiance) had also made the move out to CO.  As I was wrapping up school at DU we both knew it was time for “real life” to start soon.  We were up for moving anywhere so long as that move came with a good job for at least one of us.  We agreed that whoever landed a full-time gig in a cool place first, we’d head there.  Well, Brodie snagged a position as Head Brewer of a local brewery on the island of Kauai (tropical island?!?! umm, OK!! Don’t have to ask me twice.) and so we went. We sold most of our stuff and moved with a couple suitcases and some bikes.  I also found a job there.  I worked for the Mokihana Project as a high school social worker.  It was a challenging position that taught me a ton.  It also quickly had me realizing that I wasn’t quite in the right field.  I needed to find an outlet to share my passion for health and wellness with others.

Brodie and I moved back to Wisconsin (though I really really really dislike the cold, it is still a pretty awesome place to live).  It was then that I decided to pursue health, fitness and wellness as a career full-time.  I had some doubters questioning why I’d throw away all I had gone to school for but as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t throwing anything away.  All of that knowledge, all of those skills I would put to good use as a Personal Trainer and Coach, helping people go through some major positive change in their life.  Within a few short months of moving back to Madison, WI, Brodie and I purchased our first home and got married.  I also pursued some additional education to earn my Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist designation and my USA Triathlon Coaching Certification.  I started work as a coach and personal trainer at Orange Shoe Personal Fitness.  I was drawn to the company for it’s core values and opportunities for growth from within.  A year later Brodie and I took a two week race-vacation in France as I competed in long course triathlon world championships.  During that trip, we talked a lot and I spent time reflecting on the next challenge I wanted to tackle - the next step was business ownership.  When we got back home, I sat down with Orange Shoe’s CEO and said “Ok, I’m ready.  Let’s do this.”  Six months later I had opened the first franchised studio.  It was hard work and lots and lots of long days (the kind of days where you sometimes think it would just make sense to have a cot in the office so you could just sleep there instead of going home for a few hours of shut-eye).  But, I loved every second of it and soon could see all of the blood, sweat and tears paying off.  About a year and a half later, I purchased one of the other existing Orange Shoe studios.  Soon the franchise was beginning to grow and I came on board with our corporate team as VP of Operations (serving in that role for about three years). Along the way there have been great days as well as the occasional “I just want to curl up in a ball forever” kind of days (thankfully those are few and far between).    The main things I have learned along the way are to constantly build a team of great people, earn their trust and respect and also earn the trust and respect of your clients by providing exceptional, honest service.

Throughout all this time I continued to compete in various distance triathlon, running and cycling events and made it back to Kona (Ironman World Championships) again in 2011.  Training and racing is what has always helped to keep me focused and manage my time wisely.  In addition to starting a new business, I have had the privilege of also being on the supporting end of a new business venture as a friend from those UW Triathlon Team days back in college partnered with Brodie to start an event and race production company that put on a national series of women’s mud runs.  This experience gave me a new appreciation for the support that Brodie had provided to me as I went through the start-up years with my Orange Shoe studios.

Through all these crazy twists and turns I always felt it important to be involved in some level of volunteering, some connection to the community that I call home.  And, all along I also knew that I eventually wanted to be a mother.  There was always that constant question of “when are you going to have kids?”  To which I’d typically just reply, “when we’re ready.”  A couple of years ago, that time came and I knew that the next big adventure I wanted was parenthood.  And, what an adventure and blessing it has been.  I am currently a happy momma to a 20 month old spunky little girl and I am very very pregnant with twin boys (due early this summer).  I am ready for chaos, smiles, laughs and lots of caffeine.  :)

Your 20s were full of experiences and milestones that (at least from the outside) totally shaped where you are now - as a business owner, mom, wife, etc. It's always easier looking backwards, but when you were in the thick of it trying to figure it all out did you ever feel "lost" or discouraged? How did you get out of the rut and keep looking forward?
My mantra is Smart, Steady Smooth Strong.  It was rare that I felt stuck in a rut.  I just always kept looking forward.  I find it important to have a big goal out in front of you - something that gives you purpose and passion.  It has to be something that is going to require some serious work - not just getting through the items on your daily or weekly to do list.  I also believe in that cliche of “doing one thing every day that scares you.”  Yes, you need to be smart and make plans but you also have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone and take some risks.  If you do that, you can’t get bored and you’ll keep a pretty high level of internal motivation.

What 3 products can you not live without?
For sure my iPhone (see must have item for mamas below!!),  my Moving Comfort bras for working out (Ladies, if you have gone through pregnancy and nursing and are continuing to be active - check these bras out.), and Lara bars (yum and not bad for you either).

As a manager/leader, how do you build a strong team?
I really believe this starts first with finding the right people for your team.  Take the time to get to know the candidates.  They can have a great resume but will they fit with your organization’s culture.  Just because someone is smart and nice, doesn’t always mean they will be a shining star for your team.  The interview process as a big investment of my time and energy but it is worth it.  Once you’ve found the right team members, that’s not the end of the road.  Now the work begins - it is a relationship where all parties have to earn and give trust and respect. Find out what motivates your team and what drives their passion.  Then celebrate and reward them in ways that will continue to build that fire.  Set clear expectations, lay out goals and then let the person or team manage that process.  I can be guilty of puttering around and sticking my hands in every little detail (sometimes because I’m just really excited about what’s going on or because I felt the need to be involved) but I am slowly learning that is not always the best way to lead.  Everyone has different processes and utilizes different strengths to be effective.  Trust the team to deliver the outcome.   Sounds all peachy, most of the time it is but, as a small business owner, building and managing a team is surely the area that I find myself spending the most time on.

How do you find time to take care of yourself as a busy mom and entrepreneur?
Set priorities or goals - don’t just say “oh, this is a priority” - write it down, put it in your calendar, tell your family, colleagues, close friends or anyone that will help keep you honest to those priorities and then write out the specific action that you need to execute to make sure at the end of the week, month or year you have achieved what you set out to achieve.  Never feel guilty for taking time for yourself (this is a hard one for me!!).  I plan my workouts and put them on the calendar each week because that precious time is what makes me feel strong, confident, happy and sane.  Learn to say no to things that don’t fill you up with passion, energy and joy. Another big thing is to delegate and then let it go, don’t micro-manage.  Last, ask for help (another hard one for me!!).   I don’t like to show weakness, I want to be be self-sufficient but asking for help is an important part of managing stress and not getting overwhelmed.  Sometimes it is as simple as asking Brodie to pick up milk on the way home, other times it is much bigger like asking a team member to take over a project.

What is one tradition or routine that’s really important to you? And why?
There are a couple of big family traditions like Christmas Eve dinner with my family or hosting Thanksgiving at our house for both my family and my husband’s family that are important for obvious reasons.  But two daily (or as close to daily as possible) traditions that I cherish are family dinner time and evening family walks.  Both of these are the best times to connect in conversation, to laugh or share the daily frustrations, to make plans, to dream up big goals or to think strategically together.  Brodie and I both have enjoyed this time (especially going for evening walks) since the beginning of our relationship and now with a toddler joining in the family routine, it just makes this time more valuable.

Must have item for mamas?
iPhone (or smartphone of choice).  Early on as a new momma (newborn through the first few months), this was what kept me connected and feeling like I was still a part of the adult world.  I’d read the news, blogs and browse social media while I nursed my babe.  Quick texts were often easier for setting up “dates” than phone conversations held over a crying little one.  I captured so many sweet memories, both photo and video, throughout the past two years.  Not only great for me to have these memories but so fun to quickly, right on the spot send to grandparents that we don’t see as often as we’d like.  I can reply to work emails quickly and stay on top of my to do lists - while there are times this may add a little stress, overall it keeps me feeling in control and less stressed.  My husband and I share a calendar (we use google calendar) where I/we can keep my/our personal, work, childcare, social, volunteer commitments all handy in one place.  If either of us want to schedule something we just open the app and check to see if we’re free, if we’ll need to make additional childcare arrangements, etc.  I would be lost (or would surely lose my mind) without this at my fingertips.  All this said, I do make a point to put the phone away and have tech free time.  No Facebook checking during dinner time, bath time, bed-time, etc.  Oh, and the other must have item for mamas...dark chocolate...dark chocolate is my red wine.

When did you feel like you “made it”?
I’m not sure I’m there yet.  Or maybe I just don’t think of life that way.  I will always be growing, learning, and ready for a new adventure.  So while I can surely say that I am very happy, content and feel blessed with my life, I know I have lots more life to live and give.  Lots more to do before I’m ready to kick back and say “ I made it.”

I wish I knew how to___?
So so so many things.  I wish I knew how to play the guitar (and sing without scaring everyone around me).  I wish I could speak fluent Spanish and Chinese.  I wish I knew how to do handstands (without my feet against a wall).  I wish I knew more about current events and politics on a local and  international level.  I wish I knew how to cook and bake like my mom.  And so so many more things.  The good news is, most of this I can learn.  If I truly want it, I can make it a priority and make it happen.

What has been surprising about running a business?
For me, learning to balance is tough.  And it is a whole different twist now with a kiddo (and more kiddos on the way).  When I am working, I feel guilty that I’m not at home and I’m always thinking about home stuff.  When I am at home, I feel guilty that I am not working and I’m always thinking about the hours of work that need to get done.  So the surprise is really how hard I have to work to keep a good balance, stay focused and not let one area be a distraction from the other area.  I have to make a conscious effort to be present where I am and not let myself feel guilty that I might be letting home or work down. Because, deep down I know I am doing the best I can...sometimes I just want to be able to squeeze in more.  I don’t think this is specific to running a business.  I'd bet a million bucks that most all parents feel this way whether they’re working full time or part time or working as a stay at home parent or a work from home parent.

Any tattoos? What is it of/why?
Yep.  I have two tattoos.  The first I got is on my right foot and ankle.  It is a swirling design that wraps from the top of my foot around my ankle to the inside of my heel.  Within it are the words “Smart Steady Smooth Strong.”  These words are a mantra I have used not only in my endurance training and racing but also in life as well.  It is extra special because my mom also tattooed those words around her ankle as well.  The second tattoo is on my left forearm.  It is portion of the same design that is on my right foot but within the design I incorporated a small area with giraffe print.  At various points in my life when I have been working toward some big goals or making big decisions, it seemed that just as I made a decision to commit to one direction or the other I’d notice a random giraffe somewhere within the surroundings (ex: I look up to notice a sign for a zoo with a giraffe on it or I’m in a big meeting and have a good feeling in my gut and notice a giraffe figurine sitting on a shelf).  So a giraffe has become a symbol of “good luck” for me...but I really believe that good luck doesn’t just happen.  It’s the hard work that you’ve put in that makes luck happen.  The forearm tattoo is my reminder to work hard to get what I want in life.

What advice would you give yourself at 23?
This one seriously has me stumped.  I guess live with passion in your heart and make the best decisions for YOU.

Tell me about your Iron Chef series and how you all take time to gather around the table once per month... :)
One of my very good friends, Kristin, gathered a group of friends around the table over 5 years ago.  She picked an ingredient:  apples  (that very first month it happened to be September in Wisconsin) and asked everyone to bring a dish or two to pass that included that ingredient or theme.  It was a hit.  We loved it.  A tradition was born.  It was a reason to get together to see good friends amidst crazy schedules, a reason to see one another other than to celebrate major milestones.  With the exception of just a few months, this same group of friends have made time to sit down together to catch up over delicious and adventurous food once per month for over 5 years!!  Our ingredients have been everything under the sun from avocado to pretzel to ginger to beets.  Every now and then we throw in a theme rather than an ingredient - something like family traditions, fondue, tacos, tailgating - really anything goes and we all have fun coming up with ideas.  We don’t actually judge the dishes.  We just enjoy them.

How do you live on purpose, instead of by accident?
Smart Steady Smooth Strong.  Hard Work Makes Luck.  (See my tattoo explanation above)

This goes for personal (family/social/spiritual/etc.) and professional:  Always have a big, lofty goal out in front of you - something that builds a fire inside of you, something you are passionate about.  Write it down.  Make your actions around that goal intentional.  Don’t just go through the motions but be there in the present (and put that phone away from time to time).  Last, live with gratitude.  Be thankful not only for the big things but for all of those little things as well.


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