ST. PETERSBURG — Haris Lender says it with a peculiar mix of confidence and surprise: After years of running far from her family legacy, the yoga teacher is ready. She wants to be an entrepreneur.
She has the genes. Her father, Murray Lender, helped build his family's business into one of the biggest bagel companies in the nation, Lender's Bagels, spreading public acceptance of frozen food by shipping their chilled products across the country in the 1960s.
Now, armed with a cheeky idea for a new bedding product, Lender wants to build her own business success. And she's hoping daytime TV star Kelly Ripa's new show with TLC and HSN, Homemade Millionaire, can help her get there.
"I've waited my whole life for my own thing," said Lender, who appears on Ripa's show tonight, facing off against two other female inventors vying for the big prize of a slot pitching the product on HSN's airwaves tonight and Saturday. "What could be more different from making bagels than teaching yoga? But this is what I've been waiting for."
Lender, 48, is shown pitching a simple product: a divided, king-sized blanket for couples who feel temperature differently, dubbed the Luv-a-cuva. On one side, warm down for the partner who feels chills more readily; on the other, a light cotton. (Evan Cohn, Lender's husband, likes to say his perspiration — sweating through layers of bedding his wife used to keep warm at night — was the inspiration for her invention.)
Her competitors: a Texas-based inventor of environmentally friendly cleaning products and a New Yorker who developed a system for arranging curtains into different shapes she calls Window Origami.
In segments taped months ago, viewers will see the trio face focus groups, product testing and experts from HSN to determine which product deserves the top prize. But fans and some who watch the industry already have groused a bit about the show, which first auditioned participants in mid 2009. On blogs and Facebook pages, they have complained about the long delay in airing the show, the difficulty in understanding judges' choices and even the fact that Lender's first name and product were misspelled for days on TLC's website.
A spokesman for TLC couldn't make a producer available to answer questions by press time. But Bill Brand, an executive vice president at HSN, said the company sees Homemade Millionaire as a success, mostly for getting the home shopping channel's brand before a new audience. "Supporting women in becoming strong entrepreneurs — that's in our DNA," he added, noting TLC and the production company owned by Ripa and her husband, actor Mark Consuelos, approached HSN about 18 months ago.
Lender shrugged off the whispers, hopeful Ripa and HSN might love her Luv-a-cuva enough to help sell it, even if she doesn't win tonight's competition (she has been sworn to secrecy on the result). Reaching for her DVR remote, she called up a recent segment of the Rachael Ray talk show in which Ripa called Lender's product one of her favorite inventions.
"If I don't make it, who knows … maybe she'll have the losers on (Live with Regis and Kelly)," Lender said, laughing.
Teaming to sell, sell, sell
Standing in a crowded dressing room in the bowels of HSN's studio complex in St. Petersburg Saturday morning, last week's Millionaire winner Jennifer Martinson looked happily dazed — like she'd just stepped off a roller coaster. Minutes after the last of three pitching sessions selling her "magic dress" to HSN's audiences, the tall Texan knew she was living the dream of most Homemade Millionaire contestants, hawking her wares on the same channel that made fortunes for Suzanne Somers, Wolfgang Puck and Mariah Carey.
"It's so much less intimidating than I thought it would be," said Martinson, a moonlighting real estate agent who looked a lot like the models HSN hired to show off her magic dress — an outfit with special zippers to transform into different looks. Now she hopes for a bigger deal with HSN, after selling hundreds of dresses at $59.90 each Friday night and Saturday morning.
This is the lottery ticket TLC and HSN have teamed to sell, joining a trend epitomized by Tampa infomercial king Anthony Sullivan's Discovery Channel series Pitchmen. Ripa's show slaps a female-friendly spin on a simple hope; anyone can come up with a product idea that lights up the telephones.
It's a dream that hooked Lender the moment she heard Ripa's show was auditioning inventors, prompting a trip to New York in June 2009 where she camped out for hours to be first in line for tryouts. Later that day, she was called back to meet Ripa and Consuelos, taping an interview with Access Hollywood and soaking up praise from HSN executives.
Now, after long months of uncertainty, she's sitting in her home in St. Petersburg's Old Southeast neighborhood, wondering whether she's on the cusp of building an enterprise that might redefine the Lender business legacy in a new way.
"I'm milking this, I admit," said Lender, who is also developing a network of kid-friendly yoga franchises called Kidding Around Yoga. "But it's also kinda like having a baby — in some ways, I just want it to be over, already."