Stephanie (Vogel) Blackwell

Stephanie (Vogel) Blackwell, M.S.’76

Businesswoman Extraordinaire

By Carol Olechowski

s wife, mother, stepmom, biochemist and multi- tasker, Stephanie Blackwell wears many hats. Thirteen years ago, the Aurora Products Inc. ( president and CEO/owner added another: “entrepreneurial businesswoman.”

Blackwell, who had “a very sheltered” upbringing in Kingston, N.Y., never anticipated embracing that role. She earned her baccalaureate degree in science at Wells College, then enrolled at Albany – “my first exposure to the ‘real world’” – to complete master’s studies in chemistry.

Professor of Chemistry Harry Frisch later helped Blackwell find a job as a polymer chemist at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. She worked there for two years before realizing “I wasn’t where I wanted to be” and going into sales. Shortly afterward, she met Harvard M.B.A. Richard Blackwell; the couple married and had four children within six years. With “three in diapers at the same time,” the busy stay-at-home mom promised to “do something for myself in the future.”

In 1998, Blackwell, by then divorced from her first husband and remarried (to George Bailey), kept that promise. Inspired by Americans’ focus on health and fitness, she launched Aurora Products Inc., a line of all-natural foods, in a small warehouse in Bridgeport, Conn., with a staff of four and a credit card. Today, in a bustling 75,000-square-foot facility in Stratford, Conn., more than 150 employees process and package container loads of dried fruit, nuts and other high-quality ingredients shipped in from all over the U.S. and the world.

Anne Trimble and her son John

Aurora Products contain no artificial colors, flavorings or preservatives. Only natural sweeteners, such as fruit juice, are used in the preparation of granola, trail mixes and other healthy snacks. The product line can be found at major East Coast supermarket chains (such as Stop & Stop, Big Y, A&P and Hannaford); national warehouse clubs (including BJ’s and Costco); and “in alternate channels” (such as T.J.Maxx, Marshall’s, Christmas Tree Shops and Mohegan Sun). About half of Aurora’s business consists of privately labeled packaged goods sold under retailers’ own brand names.

In addition to guaranteeing her customers fresh, wholesome products, Blackwell is working to sustain the environment. Much of Aurora’s packaging is both manufactured from recycled materials and recyclable. Organic sunflower oil left over from the nut-roasting process “is sold and re-used as fuel,” she adds.

Blackwell, who prefers that all her employees call her Stephanie, recognizes that people are key to Aurora’s success. She gives back to her neighbors, supporting such Stratford-area initiatives as Habitat for Humanity and Sterling House, a community center. Some of her employees are hired through The Kennedy Center, a non-profit rehabilitation agency that supports more than 1,500 disabled and mentally challenged adults.

Anne Trimble and her son John

Blackwell's children Matthew, Laura and Gregory, pictured left to right, work with her at Aurora Products.

Aurora is flourishing: Seasonal employees aid in handling holiday production. A move to an additional 90,000-square-foot plant in nearby Milford is anticipated soon. The company, which ended
its inaugural year with gross sales of $900,000, looks forward to finishing 2011 at close to $40 million in sales.

Blackwell is gratified at Aurora’s growth – and delighted that her children Matthew, Laura and Gregory are working with her now. As director of Operations, national marketing manager and customer service associate, respectively, they are bringing a fresh perspective to the business while learning to carry on their mom’s commitment to product quality, her concern for the environment, and her loyalty to those who work for her and live in the surrounding community.