Aside from founders telling you that their company is their baby, families don’t often figure into the mythology of the tech startup. One simple reason is that many of the people who are focusing on family life are not in the office: they’re at home with said family. And while some of them are happy with that arrangement, for many it’s less a choice than an inevitability, because the American workplace still hasn’t figured out how to support working parents — especially moms. 

In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that mothers work an average of 25 hours a week, up from 9 hours in 1965, and then go home to do 18 hours of housework plus 14 hours of childcare. In comparison, fathers work 43 hours a week and do 10 hours of housework and 8 hours of childcare. 

Bottom line: women in heterosexual couples are still primarily the ones sacrificing time at the office and career progression in order to run family life. 

As the CCO of The Mom Project, Colleen Curtis is working to help companies introduce and implement policies that support parents at all stages of childcare — maternity leave through the teenage years. 

As a mom to two, Colleen was actually pregnant when she was hired at The Mom Project, so you know they practice what they preach. In her interview at the WGN Studios, she shared practical actions that companies can take, no matter their size, and explained how The Mom Project helps bring them to life.

Let’s start with conception 

Scott: Tell us about The Mom Project.

Colleen: I’d love to. The Mom Project is a digital talent marketplace. It was originally conceived of as an idea to match highly skilled professional women with interesting career opportunities that allowed them to stay in the workforce on their own terms. It’s built on the insight that 43 percent of women will step out of the workforce at some point after having children for caregiving duties  and that ultimately the economy and businesses are suffering because of that. Could we fundamentally change those work structures and allow people to come back in on their own terms, and allow companies to reap the benefits of that?

Colleen Curtis, CCO, The Mom Project (Sam Fiske/Technori)

You have an acute pregnancy period, which requires some accommodation. You have a postpartum period and return-to-work period that are very acute as well. And then you’ve got these parents and caregivers for 12 years. Do you have little kids that are in school? They have different needs, different schedules. 

And so we look at, can we work with these companies? Looking at can we help them with their programming on how they support working parents. And obviously it focuses on moms, we’re The Mom Project, but ultimately, when dads do better in this period, moms do better. 

If your workplace is accommodating and you’re able to have a flexible schedule to support your wife who’s at home, or you have paid leave and you’re able to take it, it’s better for her. She feels more emotionally supported, she has help at home, she does not feel like she’s in it alone. So we help companies with that. 

We also help companies that can’t afford to lose that 43 percent — they’re the head of accounting, VP of finance, high-end operations — these really critical roles. They’re just hitting their stride in their careers and they’re stepping out because they’re like, I cannot do this, I cannot manage the way this feels to me, and I was not prepared. And so we’ve seen the companies that can truly commit to that — and it’s not just bringing the women in but having these programs that feel really inclusive and really are supportive — they’re going to win. They’re going to be on the right side of history. We’re benefiting right now from a very tight labor market, so they’re being forced to really evaluate how they’re retaining this group.

More than lip service

Scott: What can companies do now to start making those changes? 

Colleen: We find that there’s this optimal mix of perks and benefits. And that’s different for every company, but ultimately you should get to the core insights through interviews and qualitative and quantitative research — which is one of the products that we work with — to really understand, what do your employees who are working parents really care about, and at what level should you invest in that to ensure that your business can continue to drive forward?

The signal that program and that investment shows to other people in the business is that this is a place that’s inclusive of caregivers and parents. Once you start showing that inclusion and that respect for this segment who’s in this acute period of their life, that reverberates to the entire population that’s within your company. It’s showing this really strong signal of, hey, we care about working parents and this is all the ways that we’re tangibly doing something about it. And it becomes less of this lip service around gender diversity. Because you can hire a ton of women, you can hire a ton of working parents, you can launch all these programs without the respect and the real continued investment, and you’re still going to end up not seeing the full impact. And those people are still going to feel a little bit, is this the place for me now? 

Scott: What can early-stage companies do to start the process and be helpful, even if it’s just minimal? 

Colleen: My personal story is interesting in that I joined The Mom Project [at the] seed round. No funding, really, to date. I was eight months pregnant. They paid my maternity leave: eight weeks, fully paid. They were very early stage at that point. Obviously, we’re walking the walk and it’s an important piece. If you can’t get hired pregnant at The Mom Project, we don’t have any hope for anyone! But then I was thinking, okay, if this weren’t a possibility or you didn’t even have an A round in the future, what are things that we can do?

You’re ultimately coming up with what I like to call, “the mom stack.” So you’ve got your tech stack and that’s how you operate your business. You have the mom stack, or the working parents stack: what are all these solutions that you can put in place that ultimately solve or ease the pain for some of these things? One of them might be a nursing room, but ultimately it’s not just about the nursing room; it’s about creating a culture that supports that mom being able to go into that nursing room and actually use it. What we find is, oh, yeah, my company has this amazing suite of nursing rooms, but no one can use it because we’re back-to-back-to-back all day long, and our bosses don’t understand that we need to have a little bit of buffer. So it’s creating the perks and then creating the culture around it that supports those people using those perks.

A whole lot more than helping companies hire great women

Scott: What is it about this that makes it so easy for you to be passionate?

Colleen: It’s the moms. I talk to moms every day: I hear from moms via email, I hear from them on LinkedIn, I hear from them on social. The demand for a solution and a champion for working moms — and working parents — is so vast. It’s something that’s close to my heart, obviously, as a working mom. But just to see this groundswell of traction, but also their willingness and aspirations to help each other. Almost every day I get emails: I want to volunteer to help The Mom Project; how do I mentor someone? How do I help someone get a job? Because once you’re in it and you become a working parent, you’re like, wow, this is so much harder than I thought it was going to be. So it’s ultimately this connectedness that I think The Mom Project mission embodies. And it’s more than just, hey, we help companies hire great women

The secondary thing and the thing I’m really passionate about is our ability to solve this at a company level, and then also at a policy level. So once we can start getting these big players in better shape, supporting working parents, we can start advocating at a higher level, then this problem starts to get better — because we’re currently in a place that’s all-in crisis for working parents.