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The Rebirth of Rachel Swardson

Her mentor is Robert Stephens, founder of Geek Squad. Her earliest investor was her baby brother, comedian Nick Swardson, who just happens to be good buds (and a frequent co-star) with Adam Sandler. Her business was called “one of the more imaginative entrepreneurial ideas I've encountered in my years of writing about creative business concepts” by veteran business reporter Dick Youngblood. A venture capital firm just gave her a million-dollar infusion, hard to come by for a small firm in a niche as specialized as hers.

And it all came within an inch of disappearing.

Treating “The Fourth Trimester”

Rachel Swardson seems to be holding a eucalyptus-scented ticket to the big time, all backed by a very simple philosophy: There has to be a better way to welcome new parents into this world. Swardson’s business is Bavia Health, a Postnatal Body Therapy Service™ for new moms (and dads), provided right in the hospital room with their newborn baby.

In Swardson’s perfect world, all parents will head home feeling rested, hydrated and ready to take on whatever challenges parenthood offers. Her roving teams of uniformed therapists are currently rolling their sanitized carts (“they’re like ice cream trucks for the other patients,” she says)--equipped with LED candles, eucalyptus-scented hot towels and sound systems loaded with relaxing music--down the hallways of 14 hospitals in the Twin Cities, and one in New Jersey. After the treatment is complete, the therapists say, “Not only are you parents of a newborn, but you're newborn parents. Take care of each other."

“It’s a wonderful first family moment, without interruptions and distractions for the new parents, and a great chance to bond with their newborn,” the 39-year-old Swardson says. The idea for the business was born when she found herself utterly exhausted after the birth of her third child. Realizing that mommy-focused prenatal care screeched to a halt once the baby was born, the former PBS “Medical Diary” producer devoted years of research into ancient postpartum healing rituals devoted to what she calls “the fourth trimester.”

A Major Setback

But just as she launched the business, originally called Go Home Gorgeous, her husband walked out on her and their three kids, then aged 5, 4, and 2. In a response that surprised none of her friends and family, she persevered, both personally and professionally.

Now poised for a major expansion, it’s clear that she’s come a long way from the day when, as a dead-broke single mother, she pawned her Tiffany engagement and wedding rings so she could buy the uniforms and carts she needed for expansion.

“I remember driving home from the pawn shop, thinking I was a bad mother because I honestly wasn’t sure I could keep food on the table, and here I was buying equipment for the business,” she says.

Setting the World (and Her Hair) on Fire

Nick Swardson has nothing but praise for his big sis. Currently starring in “Nick Swardson’s Pretend Time,” in its second season on Comedy Central, he took a break during a recent Hawaiian vacation to share thoughts about Rachel, her business and how it came to pass that he once set her hair on fire in the Planet Hollywood restaurant in the Mall of America.

While he makes no secret of the fact that her business’ focus is “not my world,” it was Nick, along with Rachel’s best friend, who provided the initial funding to get Bavia Health off the ground. And he’s front and center with props for his big sis.

“I respect her more than anyone I've ever met. We came from no money. And I mean zero. But Rachel did everything herself and put herself through college. It was amazing to watch. I've never seen anyone work that hard and not complain or be bummed out. Even through her divorce, she had so much love at the end of the day,” he says.

The support goes both ways, and Rachel is a tireless cheerleader for her baby brother, no matter what he’s doing.  One of their iconic stories happened the time Rachel was waitressing at Planet Hollywood and got Nick a job. Even then, she said, “he had to be the wacky busboy,” with endless stunts to amuse staff and customers. He had one gag involving a quick-reflex pretend light-and-toss from a book of matches. When he tried it on Rachel one night, the match somehow lit and set her hair ablaze.

Rachel remembers the moment vividly. “It smelled awful, and it burned all the hair in a big patch.” How angry was she? Turns out, not at all. “It’s impossible to stay mad at Nick,” she admits. Her brother adds, “We’ve always laughed through everything.”

The two remain close, with Rachel enjoying the perks of having a brother in show business, including some serious hang time with Jennifer Aniston during the recent filming of Just Go With It in Hawaii. “Yeah, we did a yoga class together,” Rachel laughs. “I’ve spent so much time working these past few years, I can barely bend over. But Jen, wow, she’s great at it.”

"Raised by Wolves"

Rachel and Nick, both Central High alums, grew up in St. Paul’s Crocus Hill neighborhood, with their older brother, John, a local songwriter and performer who’s been called “the Bruce Springsteen of Minneapolis.” The family was unconventional, to put it mildly. Dad Roger was an up-and-down real estate mogul and frequent freelance writer, but the house’s elegant façade concealed a host of financial problems. “The BMW got repossessed. There was a pool, but it was rarely filled, and there wasn’t a lot of furniture. There was no TV, so we listened to Bill Cosby albums or created skits together,” Rachel says. “It’s only looking back now that I realize how weird it was. Really, we were raised by wolves.”

Her Geek Squad Obi-Wan

Her trademark tenacity came into play when she realized that a friend of one of her brother’s pals was Robert Stephens, Geek Squad’s founder. After hearing from several people that her experience-based concept and branding were similar to that organization’s philosophy, she cold-called Stephens and asked for his opinion about how she was doing. He agreed to serve as a sounding board for her fledgling venture.

“I’ve had many mentors myself in my own life, guys I call my Obi-Wans, starting with my high school art teacher,” Stephens says. “The older I’ve gotten, the less I try to solve everyone’s problems and the more I just listen. And, as a Minnesotan, I want to see every Minnesota start-up be as successful as possible,” he adds.

The Future According to Rachel

Things are certainly looking up for the 39-year-old “mompreneur,” who is at the forefront of a Twin Cities constellation of businesses catering to the demanding needs of savvy maternity consumers. “My daughter told me, ‘Mom, isn’t it funny that Dad (the ex) just works at a company, but you started one?’” she says.

Swardson admits that she had a long climb to her current perch. She battled her ex, the medical establishment and anyone else who stood in her way to make Bavia Health a success. “I had a lot of fight in me,” she says. Now, with that million-dollar infusion of venture capital from Minneapolis-based Omphalos Venture Partners, she’s looking to add 40 additional locations in up to four cities. Her five-year plan includes an expansion of services beyond birth, with the addition of 500 hospital-based locations nationwide.

She’s already received a significant amount of attention from the community. Bavia Health was the 2010 Minnesota Cup General Division winner, and last year Swardson was voted a "Minnesotans on the Move" by Finance & Commerce and one of “25 Women to Watch” by the Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal. When asked if he thinks her business has what it takes to go the distance, Stephens says, “Who knows? But, as creative and motivated as she is, I’m sure that Rachel will be successful, no matter what.” When asked for his prognostications on Bavia Health, Rachel’s baby brother sounds a similar note. “I don't predict. I just support and believe.”

Julie Kendrick is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who focuses on trends, family issues and lifestyle reporting. She blogs about life, work and punctuation at kendrickworks.blogspot.com.

Photos, top to bottom:

Rachel Swardson. Comic Nick Swardson, her baby brother, says "I respect her more than anyone I've ever met."

The Bavia amenities, wheeled to the hospital bedsides of new mothers

Swardson and Bavia staffers confer.

The logo of a fast-growing company

All photos by Bill Kelley

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