Meet Shea Kluender, a former kindergarten teacher with a passion for capturing raw family moments and turning them into cherished memories. Fueled by her desire to master the art of balancing work with raising her children, Shea took the leap and started her photography business in 2017. Keep reading to see how growing up the daughter of entrepreneurial parents gave Shea the confidence to turn a hobby into a career she adores.
Photo Credit: Reg Campbell
Tell us about True Mama Photography.
True Mama started with my own journey into motherhood. I had a hunger to learn about and lift up other women’s experiences through matrescence to help me better understand my own story. It is a documentary-style photography service capturing families in their homes through un-posed, honest portraits of their lives. Now, True Mama is growing into a collective of artists serving women, celebrating and supporting the essence of motherhood, telling heartfelt stories and building community together.
The Early Days
Describe your childhood in one word.
Describe your childhood personality in one word.
When you were a little girl what career did you dream of having “when you grow up”?
I wanted to be an artist. In my mind, I was a painter, specializing in rainbows. 🙂
What was your first job?
I helped out my dad with farm chores since I was young. Looking back now, I am really thankful to him that he trusted me with so much responsibility. I think it really shaped my self-confidence as a girl growing up on a hard-working farm where we all helped out.
The Learning Years
Where did you attend college?
I went to undergrad at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, where I studied human resources and minored in social work. Later, I went on to get my MS. Ed. in General and Special Education in New York and eventually, I pursued my principal licensure through the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program at Denver University.
What was your first job out of college?
I was interested in seeing how a large non-profit functioned, so I took a chance and moved to New York City where I worked as a teacher recruiter for Teach For America. We worked long hours and had a lot of fun together. Here began my interest in education and passion for working to improve educational outcomes for all children in this country.
List your jobs until you started your own business.
I spent four years working at Teach For America, moving from the recruitment team to the human assets team to the New York regional team where I managed large-scale operations efforts. Then I joined KIPP Academy Elementary as a founding Kindergarten teacher and spent two years teaching in the South Bronx. I moved to Denver and taught K / 1 for another five years, first in Montbello and then in Park Hill at The Odyssey School of Denver, where I continue to work now as the Gifted and Talented program contact. When I had my second child, I really wanted more flexibility in my schedule but wanted to stay connected to education, so I reduced my responsibilities to being a reading volunteer and took on education contract work while I stayed home and began incubating the idea for True Mama Photography.
The Entrepreneurial Years
What year did you decide to start your own business?
As a new mother, I felt so many complex emotions about my new identity and was hungry to feel more connected to others who were talking about the realities of what it took to balance work with raising healthy kids. True Mama Photography was born the beginning of 2017 after two years of teaching full-time with my first daughter and feeling spread way too thin. I stepped away from the classroom when I had my second baby girl and spent the first half of the year offering free sessions to all my friends to build my portfolio – it was so much fun! I loved the process of learning how to really use my camera. I loved creating my business from scratch. But most of all, it was validating to see how much others appreciated seeing the beauty of their real lives reflected back to them. It was (and continues to be) a gift to me to connect with so many mamas on this intimate and honest level and inspired me to grow into my new motherhood identity.
Why did you decide you wanted to start your own business?
I craved the flexibility to create my own schedule and realized I wasn’t going to get the level of autonomy I needed working in the education system. With two small children at the time, as well as budding creative interests and unlimited opportunities to enjoy the outdoors here in the Front Range, I just wanted to have more control over my time. I’ve always worked really hard, and it was finally time to focus my energy on my own terms. I felt like if I didn’t try to pursue this work beyond a hobby, I would always look back and wonder “what if?”. I had such a burning curiosity around exploring the identity shift through motherhood, work, and life that this seemed like such a natural way to spend my time learning from others and practicing how to translate their feelings into raw, often complicated images of motherhood.
How is your business different today than when you first started?
When I started, I really thought all I needed was a camera and an open heart. I thought I could figure it all out on my own. But the work so much richer when done in community, linking arms with other women along the way.
What three lessons have you learned running your own business?
All of my goals are rooted in nurturing meaningful connections this year. I’ve stopped analyzing how to grow the business and re-focused on how to make a meaningful impact and only make work that’s true to my heart.
- I’ve learned to tune out the noise of industry standard practices around marketing, pricing and sales techniques, and social media pressures, and trust myself. My model is different than most photographers, and I think that differentiation is what helps me stand out from the crowd.
- Time is so precious to me. Working from home with three children (ages 4 ½, 2, and 3 months), I’ve had to get really focused on how I spend my energy. I need to be extremely protective of my time, plan for exactly what I need to move forward each week, and say no to most other things.
- I’ve also had to learn a lot about setting boundaries with my business because I truly love working on it so much that I would give it lots more time than I have to give at this stage in my life. I have to constantly remind myself of my goals around personal connection and relationships, and if I’m not working toward those elements, it’s probably not a good use of my time.
What’s next for your business? Top 3 goals.
- Self-portraiture has been a transformative practice for me. You can read more of my reflections in a recent interview with Dear Photographer here. This year, I’m leading a diverse group of mothers of young children to develop their own self-portraiture practice through a year-long p52 project.
- This work can be isolating at times, so I am expanding True Mama to include more photographers and partnering with maternal care providers so we can work in a community in support of women and families.
- I hope to support other female entrepreneurs to share their unique brands through storytelling photography.
What’s your strongest skill set that’s helped you succeed?
I have been really clear from the beginning about what kind of work I want to do and how I want it to feel. This vision has helped me stay organized and drive my actions to create a really specific brand and service.
On this journey, who have been your three most supportive people?
My parents have been so interested in my photography and have always encouraged me to pursue my interests and passions. My husband has been a wonderful thought-partner and has happily stepped up to take on more responsibilities caring for our girls so I can go to sessions. My closest friends have been some of my most frequent clients and have really believed in my work every step of the way.
The Bumps in the Road
Have you had any hardships or setbacks in your business or personal life?
I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. Earlier this year, I researched pricing strategies to become a profitable business as soon as possible, and when I significantly increased my prices and restructured my offerings, I lost some of my favorite clients and my work really slowed down. My offerings were more aligned with the industry but less so with my personal values.
How did you overcome them – did they make you stronger or learn something new?
I became my own client and invited a friend to photograph me in the hospital when my third baby girl was born. I was reminded of how I wanted to feel through the process and re-aligned all of my messaging and packages to more closely reflect my values again. I was so invigorated by the care I felt that I invited my friend to join my business!
All About You
Did you always dream of owning your own business or was it a surprise on your career path?
It’s not really a surprise – I have always been interested in being my own boss. It runs in my family – my dad ran a successful family farm for over three decades and my mom was an independent consultant for many years as well. I went to business school, but working for a large company didn’t feel like the right fit to me. I always wanted to be able to be more nimble and flexible by figuring it out on my own terms. I guess I’m more surprised that I spent seven years as a Kindergarten teacher, ha!
What are your hobbies outside of work?
Photography has always been a love of mine. I love to hike and camp in the mountains. The fresh, dry air is fuel for my soul. I used to like running, although I haven’t been in a race in a few years. Otherwise, I just love raising my daughters – everything I do is that much richer with them.
Tell us about your family.
I’ve been married for six years to a wonderful man I met while living in New York. We moved to Colorado together to start this next chapter of our lives, and have since both started our own businesses and have had three beautiful, healthy little girls here together.
Describe your career path to-date in one word?
Every Mother Counts
Age you’d like to retire at?
Never? Photography is a gift in my life that I hope I always have and pursue.
Travel location on your bucket list?
Introvert or Extrovert?
Night owl or early bird?
Favorite podcast, YouTube channel, or blog?
This American Life by Ira Glass
Favorite business book?
You Are a Badass at Making Money by Jen Sincero and Worth Every Penny by Sarah Petty and Erin Verbeck.
Favorite business tool?
Dubsado is a great CRM tool
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