Minnesota's Jenna Kutcher grows fanbase with popular podcast, New York Times bestseller
The marketing guru and host of "The Goal Digger Podcast" talks about her new book, "How Are You, Really?" recently featured on the "Today Show."
HERMANTOWN, Minn. — A snap decision to purchase a $300 Craigslist camera was the turning point for how Jenna Kutcher , then 22, pictured success.
Kutcher was raised in a rural setting on five acres in Esko , Minnesota, with her father, mother, older brother and younger sister, as well as a family dog and a couple rabbits. Her parents held traditional jobs: Her father worked at the paper mill and her mother was a nursing instructor.
An entrepreneurial spirit was forged from childhood through driveway lemonade stands and face painting at Grandma's Marathon Whipper Snapper race when Kutcher and her siblings wanted new bikes.
"We thought it would mean more to them if they earned the money," said Sue Shelerud , Kutcher’s mother and close friend. "Values we worked hard to instill in all our children included kindness, compassion, respect, work ethic and faith. We worked to instill these by the way we lived our life, as well as opportunities we sought out for them, including academics, sports, camps and family time."
Throughout early teenage years, Kutcher worked as a nanny and at a golf shop, cleaned limousines and was a tour guide at the local paper mill. In school, Kutcher was involved in diving and gymnastics. The entire family did remodeling at the Gymnastics Academy in Duluth as a trade for Kutcher's gymnastics tuition, Shelerud recalled, adding that each of her children also paid their own way through college.
After graduating from Esko High School, Kutcher moved to Wisconsin to attend the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point . As a freshman and captain of the college swim team, her hair was tinted green from the chlorine at the time she met her future husband, Drew Kutcher. She received a bachelor's degree in business administration and management.
Then in 2012, she took a chance by quitting her 9-to-5 corporate job in a windowless office to capture life through the lens of a wedding photographer.
"Honestly, my greatest fear was that I was a fool for walking away from security and into uncertainty, both of which are valid concerns," Kutcher said. "I remember sitting down and creating an action plan surrounding what exact steps I would take if things didn’t work out. That exercise gave me the feeling of flipping the light switch on when you’re worried there’s a monster under the bed."
By 2014, that camera led to a six-figure income — an accomplishment that came just two years after taking the leap to starting a wedding photography business. By that time, Kutcher had shot more than 80 weddings. The journey was fully funded on her own without any investors or partners, all while paying student loans, funding a wedding and working a 9-5 job to get it all off the ground, she said.
Kutcher remembers the day vividly, as well as the feeling that accompanied it.
"Six figures felt like this elusive goal and the day I hit it, I thought my life would suddenly change. I waited for the angels to sing or balloons to drop and they never did. In fact, on that day, I remember thinking to myself, 'I thought this would feel different,'" she said. "While it was an incredible milestone, the means of getting there had led me to burnout, and I knew I had to change something.
"From that day forward, I started looking at time, rather than money, as my most real currency."
"It has been amazing to watch her entrepreneurial business evolve, and I know I may be biased, but she is honestly so gifted and visionary in her work," said Shelerud. "I also have worked for her business in the past as a mastermind event coordinator and have traveled with her to different speaking and work engagements. This has given me even deeper insights into her business and her positive impact on the world."
As her popularity grew, Kutcher reached 10,000 followers on Instagram , launched her "Jenna Kutcher Course" and was recognized with the Wisconsin Bride Best of Weddings Award for three years in a row.
In 2016, Kutcher launched " The Goal Digger Podcast" — now with 500 episodes and over 50 million downloads worldwide. The podcast covers digital marketing topics; how to market your business; how to obtain a successful Instagram following; leaving your 9-5 job and following your dreams; content creation; and SEO.
Most recently, in 2022, the online marketing guru appeared on the "Today Show" after publishing a New York Times bestselling book, "How Are You, Really?"
"I will honestly say that hitting the New York Times bestseller list for my book, 'How Are You, Really?' feels incredible," she said. "Stepping into the writing space and working on a project for two years was a big departure from my online work, and choosing to write about life, rather than business, and how to live out your truth felt incredibly vulnerable."
Meanwhile, she got married, traveled the world, purchased a lake home and came into her own. How does she make having it all seem so easy? That wasn't exactly the case. In her book, she speaks from experience.
"There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this profile, you might be someone who hasn’t checked in with yourself in a while," she said. "When is the last time you paused long enough to determine if you’re happy, if you’re faking the enjoyment of your life, or if you are on a path that lights you up? A lot of times we avoid the answers and shield ourselves from having to even ask the questions with the busyness of our lives."
In the midst of the ups, there were downs that were cause for a step back to reevaluate her goals and priorities. In 2016 and 2017, Kutcher and her husband experienced two miscarriages prior to welcoming their children, Coco in 2018 and Quinn in 2021. Kutcher shares more on her shift in perspective in her book.
"Loss has been my greatest teacher and my three-year season of waiting was just as important as what I was waiting for," she said. "Often, when we’re stuck in a waiting season, our tendency is to waste it but looking back I can see how I thoughtfully, slowly and intentionally worked through the waiting to build the type of life that would allow me to relish and enjoy the miracle I was waiting for.
"Motherhood has changed me in a million ways: from the way I perceive time, to the boundaries I set, to the way I show up in the world."
Helping women harness the power to take control of their lives is the driving goal for Kutcher. Her inspiration is drawn from within, and her small town upbringing sticks with her regardless of heights reached, she said. The confidence, kindness, empathy, respect she was taught are what carry her forward, no matter where she goes.
"I have a deep knowing that the work I am doing is a direct answer to the call I’ve been given," she said. "There’s no other way to describe it, but it’s this innate desire to try, fail, experiment, share and teach."
In her youth and today, Shelerud describes her daughter as confident and vibrant — someone who can carry on a conversation with anyone and has always been comfortable expressing her opinions.
"I have always described her as an old soul with her innate wisdom," Shelerud said. "I would say she was surrounded by love and support. Not only from us, but from grandparents, teachers, coaches, friends and church."
Kutcher added: "My deepest desire is to be around people who aren’t afraid of the idea of change, who usher in the notion of evolving, who love to learn, who welcome being stretched, and who are eager to meet the next version of themselves. In a world that loves to categorize people or measure worth based off of accolades and titles, I want to surround myself with students of life."
In 2018, Kutcher shot her last wedding ever, moved to Minnesota, and was named "Aerie Real Role Model," with the campaign photos appearing in Times Square.
"I would say we have become closer since she began her business and even more so since she moved back home and became a mom," Shelerud said. "My husband and I have loved seeing her joy in being a mom. She truly puts that as a priority in her life and is thriving in the role. All three of our children are entrepreneurial and most important, good humans and we are so thankful for our children, their spouses and our grand-kids!"
Kutcher's family splits their time between two homes: one in Hermantown and one in Grand Marais . Having spent over a decade away from the Northland and returning just a few years ago, Kutcher said she is constantly inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit present in the city.
"From the revival of West Duluth to the genius curation of the shops up the shore, I love this city and the creative minds who are ushering it forward. There is something so grounding about living where we live and while I have changed and grown, my feet are firmly planted on this Minnesota soil," Kutcher said.