Being Mama: Shazi Visram
Shazi Visram, founder and CEO of Happy Family Organic Superfoods, is a mama on a mission. When her son Zane, 7, was diagnosed with autism at two, she and her husband began researching what may have led to his condition and how to provide treatment. Today, they’re committed to using a variety of therapies and a diet based on good gut health, which also informs much of Shazi’s work at Happy Family.
How do you create a business that turns millions of dollars in profit annually… with two kids under seven? If you’re Shazi Visram, the answer is: by not feeling guilty.
“People talk about ‘balance’ but honestly, I don’t expect this time in my life to be balanced,” she says. “I have two young kids and a growing business – they come first. This time in my life won’t last forever, I know that. But for now, there’s no balance, really. And I refuse to feel guilty for that – I don’t have time!”
The founder and CEO of Happy Family, an organic, superfood-charged range of ready-made food for babies and toddlers, is mama to Zane, seven, and Asha, eight months. Inspired by a friend who worked full-time and had twins – and felt, yes, guilty about not having the time to make her kids homemade baby food, Shazi realized there was a gap in the market for delicious, nutritious baby food that moms would feel good about feeding to their kids. Launched on Mother’s Day in 2006, the company now does over hundreds of millions in revenue.
But at home, there’s something more driving Shazi than simply the desire to feed kids well. Her son, Zane, was diagnosed with regressive autism at age two, and since then, she’s been on a mission to understand and improve his prognosis. “Until the age of two, he was a totally typical little boy, hitting all the milestones you’d expect. Then he was diagnosed, and our whole world changed.” Shazi began researching autism voraciously, learning everything she could about the somewhat misunderstood epidemic. What she found was that there was hope to treat autism and that there have been cases of some children making dramatic improvements based on data-driven therapies and individualized medical treatment that includes a deep focus on diet and nutrition. She also learned that there is a connection between the brain and gut that we are just beginning to understand and that inflammation in the gut tends to manifest as inflammation in the brain. She found doctors who treated autism as a whole body disorder instead of simply a disorder of the brain and that many kids on the spectrum are “gut kids” who tend to have gi issues and imbalances of bacteria in the gut, and thus began her path to “bring Zane back” using labs as guidance to restore balance. To that end, the couple administer progressive therapies to restore gut health including probiotics, fermented foods and microbiota transplants. Shazi herself has brought her knowledge of the gut and brain connection to Happy Family. “Zane’s situation has made me hyper-aware of the importance of establishing healthy gut bacteria, and bringing products to market that support a healthy microbiome which essentially supports a healthy immune system.”
An advocate of breastfeeding, Shazi breastfed Zane for two-and-a-half years, and cautiously believes with some of his doctors that in Zane’s case, that because he was breastfed, he may have a better prognosis as a result. “Basically, it developed a beneficial bacteria environment for him,” says Shazi. “So at Happy Family, we’ve worked for years to develop a new formula for infants that is modeled on breast milk. I knew that we needed a product that would provide similar gut benefits as breast milk does, and this is it. It’s no replacement for actual breast milk, don’t get me wrong – but if you can’t breastfeed, or if your milk diminishes and you need to supplement, this is going to be the next best thing for your baby. We’re all for breastfeeding – we have a breastfeeding support line, we have lactation consultants, and so on. But if you can’t breastfeed, we can also recommend, with certainty, that this is the next best thing you can feel good about.” Again, Shazi is adamant that new mothers need to stop feeling guilty if they cannot or decide not to breastfeed. “I’m not into making mothers feel guilty for not breastfeeding. I do believe that breast is best, but I also think nursing is a personal choice. The last thing new mothers need is more guilt – life is hard enough!”
For Shazi, life is indeed pretty full right now. After a three year struggle to fall pregnant with Asha, she conceived with fertility assistance in 2015, and gave birth in July 2016. “Fertility treatment was hard – I went from 105 pounds to 150 pounds in weeks because of the steroids I was on,” she says. When she did fall pregnant, Shazi’s waters broke at 16 weeks, meaning she had to go on bed rest. She then developed obstetric cholestasis, a condition that “basically makes you want to tear your skin off, you’re so itchy!” she tells The Tot. “Still, every day we made it past 16 weeks we grew happier and happier, and less scared. Past 30 weeks, we felt so relieved.”
Still, not everything went according to plan. Keen to have a vaginal birth so the baby would be exposed to the bacteria of the birth canal, Shazi labored for 72 hours before doctors advised her to have a caesarean section. “Unfortunately the anaesthetic didn’t work properly – I could feel what was happening down there,” Shazi says, improbably laughing at the debacle. “But when Asha was born, she was just the most beautiful little thing. It all disappeared so quickly, the pain, the worry, the frustration.” In lieu of passing on the bacteria through the birth canal, Shazi opted for a vaginal swab for Asha. “It performs a similar function and is so important,” she says. “Now, whenever I’m talking to pregnant moms, I tell them about the swab. It’s such a great idea.”
Though Shazi describes Zane’s diagnosis with autism as “a game changer” and her life at present as “exhausting,” she says the experience has also taught her how to fight for what’s important in life. “I love my kids more than anything,” she says, “and I’ll do absolutely anything to help them.” Besides, she adds, “There’s so much satisfaction in nurturing little people. I take so much pleasure in watching these tiny creatures grow and develop and learn – it is truly amazing to see.”
As for the lessons this hard-working mama wants to impart to her children, Shazi says it’s all about putting in the effort to see rewards. “I want my kids to know that you have to work hard for what you want. I want to pass on a good sense of humor, and a love of play, but I do want them to know that you have to knuckle down and work for what you want.”