What Motherhood Taught this CEO About Starting a Business

She was on her first business trip after having her twins when Kate Torgersen became an unexpected entrepreneur.

“Sorry ma’am, we have to dump all this,” the TSA agent said to Kate as he threw out the ice in the cooler she was using to store her breast milk. “Why do you have so much milk, anyway?” he added, making it clear how unknown the experiences of breastfeeding are for anyone who hasn’t lactated.

Realizing how challenging it must be for working mothers to maintain a commitment to their professional ambitions and their desire to breastfeed spurred Kate to find a solution.

Now, as the founder and CEO of Milk Stork, the world’s first breast milk shipping solution, Kate is on a mission to prove that breastfeeding and work can coexist. In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, she shares her story of how one nightmare travel experience turned into a successful business and the lessons she’s learned about purpose, leadership, and motherhood along the way.

 

 

How Milk Stork Started and Scaled

Ask any mom that has had to travel while breastfeeding and she’s got a story to tell. Moms have to pump while they’re away on business to keep their milk supply going. But storing and transporting the milk while keeping it cold is a logistical nightmare.

Milk Stork aims to lighten the load—physically and emotionally—for these women by providing kits with coolers and everything else they need, including pre-addressed shipping labels, so women can send their breast milk home as easily as possible.

When Kate had twins, she was producing a half gallon a day. For a four-day business trip, that meant she had to figure out how to get two gallons of a highly perishable substance home. On the flight back all she could think was, “if I could just get the milk shipped home, it would solve so many problems before the trip and during the trip.”


“Having a business was never part of my strategy. Let’s be clear, solving a problem was what I was after and then it became a business.”
Kate Torgersen


She didn’t have any experience in cold-chain logistics (shipping cold liquids) but she dove in anyway. The fact that she wasn’t entrenched in the way things were traditionally done was a tremendous asset for her. “If I had a background in [it], I probably wouldn’t have started,” says Kate. “The fact that I was coming at it from a totally different angle is what allowed me to ask questions like, ‘why does it have to be this one way’ or, ‘why can't we do it this way.’” It offered her the freedom to challenge assumptions and push edges—something innovators must do to be successful.

Within 10 days of launching, the largest consulting firm in the country reached out to request Milk Stork as a benefit to 48,000 of their North American employees. Sitting in her family minivan, she quickly agreed to find a way to serve them within 30 days. Just like that, what started out as a B2C idea quickly scaled to a B2B offering as more and more women began approaching their HR departments asking for the Milk Stork service as a company-provided benefit.

 

Motherhood-Inspired Leadership Mindsets

Kate attributes a lot of her success to motherhood and what she’s learned from that experience. Being a mom is hard. You have less time, you’re tired, you’re operating in the unknown, and you have new stakeholders depending on you for nearly everything. At the same time, it has unique benefits. “As a mom, you’re inherently comfortable with hacking solutions together,” says Kate. For her, motherhood is a constant exercise in innovation and has inspired her approach to leadership. The mindsets she’s adopted are not only great for motherhood, but essential for any aspiring entrepreneur.

1. Work with Grit

It takes perseverance to launch something new. “Any mom who’s tried to get a toddler to sleep knows that it takes a thousand failures to get to one glorious moment when they actually fall asleep,” says Kate, and this has prepared her for endless cycles of iteration in attempts to find solutions that work. When you ask Kate about working moms, the first thing that she’ll tell you is how much grit they have to get things done.

2. Have a Bias for Action

Kate started Milk Stork just after giving birth to her twins, making her a mom of three. When she approached her husband with the initial idea he was a bit thrown by the timing: “You want to do this now?!” Kate feels similarly about parenthood and starting a business—you can’t wait around for the right time because things will never be perfect. You might as well just go for it.

3. Embrace the Mess

When Kate watches her kids attempt to build something new, she notices they get frustrated and upset at the fact that it's not a streamlined process, and that it’s complicated and messy. The creative process of innovation is very much the same. To move forward, you have to get comfortable with the uncomfortable—a mindset that she’s working hard to instill in her employees.

4. Lead with Purpose

Purpose is why a company exists beyond making profit. When you have a strong sense of purpose, you have the belief that you can get through anything. As a mother, you can face many bad days in a row but there will be a silver lining at some point. As a business leader, a strong sense of purpose helps you stay focused on the needs of your customer and open to new ways of meeting those needs.

 

Doubling Down on Purpose

Purpose is an incredibly important mindset for Kate. She spent 18 years at Clif Bar where she watched the company scale and weather good times and bad. She learned from co-founders Gary Erickson and Kitt Crawford that building an enduring company is never about the money—it’s about embracing the experience as an adventure and letting purpose be your guide.

There’s no better time to lean into that mindset than right now as the coronavirus outbreak has brought the travel industry to its knees, directly threatening Milk Stork’s business. Like other business owners, she’s looking at a rapidly changing landscape and having to make quick decisions on how they can adapt. “For me it’s become a meditation on purpose,” says Kate.


“Meditating means being away from people to really get scared or excited by ideas and entertain different pathways.”
Kate Torgersen


By staying focused on their purpose statement of “supporting moms on a mission,” Milk Stork has opened up a new marketplace on their website selling products by moms for moms called the MotherShop. By sharing the Milk Stork audience and providing promotion, the MotherShop aims to help other mom-led businesses stay afloat while also connecting their customers to new products that align with their values and mission.

Milk Stork will also be donating 1% of its profits to mothers and babies in need in addition to supporting research into the relationship between COVID-19 and breastmilk.

 

Insights For Moms Heading Back to Work

When it comes to returning to work after having a baby, Kate’s got some insight and advice from her own experiences and what she’s seen since starting Milk Stork.

The first thing she learned was that no one knows the importance of time more than a mother. Kate worked on Milk Stork during 20 minute pumping sessions or in the precious, quiet hours when the kids had gone to sleep. When she returned to work, she found herself more focused on the projects that really mattered, which helped her invest and prioritize her efforts more effectively.

For Kate, having kids expanded her emotional spectrum, overall. In addition to being laser-focused and prioritized, she also deepened her emotional investment to work.


“When I had my kids all of a sudden the world went from black and white to Technicolor, from an emotional standpoint.”
Kate Torgersen


The metrics for success have changed. She no longer measures her ambitions and accomplishments by money or title, but by what she can produce in the world—an emotionally true place for her to operate from.

Lastly, she knows that asking for support for breastfeeding and lactation in the workplace can still pose a large challenge for working moms. “What makes the conversation hard is that we have a perception of women’s bodies and it’s based around objectification...the idea of lactation challenges that perception,” says Kate, and she acknowledges that it can be a tough conversation to have.

When it comes to opening the door on that conversation in the office, she’s learned a few things:

  • Don’t go it alone. The benefit of being in the post-Me Too movement is that women in the workplace have started speaking up more and more. Find a collective voice if you can.
  • Find an ally. Look for someone on the other side of the conversation that understands you. Milk Stork was able to expand their offering to the enterprise level because HR departments tend to hire more women, many of whom have experienced the same issues with breastfeeding and working. There was a chain reaction from moms to understanding HR departments that helped bring the service in as a benefit.
  • Speak their language. If you’re a revenue-generating, operationally-essential element in the business, you’ve got a business case. If you’re expected to go out and earn money for the company, they should offer benefits, like a service to ship your breast milk home, that enable you to be more effective and efficient on the job.

Kate knows that working moms are an asset to any organization: “Moms are bad asses, waking up every day to tackle one kid, three kids, five kids. We should be treated like professional athletes and spoken to as such.” Over time she hopes that breastfeeding will become more normalized for working moms everywhere and she’ll be working with Milk Stork to drive that effort forward.


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