How many times have you tried to get through airport security with an insulated bag filled with breast milk, only to be stopped and put through an interrogation that would haunt you for months? Or better yet, wondered how you would go on a 3-day work trip and transport your milk back to your hungry baby in a timely manner? Breastfeeding alone can be an anxiety producing experience but safely transporting it? Near impossible. Thankfully, Kate Torgensen was one of those brilliant women who took this challenge into her own hands and created one of our favorite start-ups today, Milk Stork. Inspired by a work trip that took her away from her 8-month old twins, this mama created a company that is beloved by working mothers around the nation. Read on…
Kate, we’re huge fans of your company! Tell us more about your background and how Milk Stork came to be.
In 2014, when my twins were about 8 months old, I was faced with a 4-day business trip. At the time, I was working as an executive communications manager for Clif Bar and I was also committed to breastfeeding the twins for at least 12 months (as I had done for my first child). Together, the three of us, had fought through a lot of breastfeeding challenges including tandem nursing, a tongue tie, latching problems and weight gain issues, not to mention all of the relentless pumping I was doing at work to maintain their half-gallon-per-day demand.
I was committed to being “all in” with my job and my career. And, while it wasn’t the most important business trip in the world, I knew that if I didn’t step up, someone else would. It was a chance to shine that I needed to take.
So, as I prepared for the trip, I started troubleshooting how I was going to make sure that they would have enough breast milk while I was gone. A four day business trip, meant that they would need two gallons to cover my absence.
Being able to ship breast milk back was the best solution because it meant that I didn’t have to pump two “extra” gallons ahead of time to create a stash for them. And, I wouldn’t have to manage two gallons in a hotel mini-fridge (and then bring 2 gallons back on a plane with me). But, I quickly learned that there were no turnkey services available to help me do this, and that the logistics, time and expense of doing it myself would be more than I could handle. It was going to involve sourcing dry ice and shipping materials to my hotel room and getting myself to a special FedEx shipping facility every day without a rental car. It was too just much to do on top of the conference and all of the pumping!
I ended up pumping the two “extra” gallons of milk before I left (which took a couple weeks to create). Then, while I was away I pumped like crazy to maintain my supply. I managed to squeeze 2 gallons of breast milk into a tiny hotel fridge. At the end of the trip, I lugged it all home – and through TSA – along with (4) gallon-sized Ziplocs filled with dripping, melting ice.
Dealing with all that milk amplified the logistical challenges, constraints, and frustrations that so many moms face when it comes to breastfeeding and business travel. I got back from the trip and was determined to create a solution to this really annoying problem.
Milk Stork launched a year later, in 2015, as the first-ever breast milk shipping company for business traveling, breastfeeding moms.
Way to solve a problem! What was the first step in turning your idea into a business?
When I launched Milk Stork, I was working full time with three kids who were three years old and under. To keep my idea alive and the momentum going, I focused on the areas of the business that excited me the most. I knew that if I slogged through all of the aspects of the business that I wasn’t passionate about, Milk Stork would forever get left behind in a heap of dirty diapers and sleepless nights.
So, for me, I enjoyed the challenge of creating a mom-friendly, 3-point, cold-chain logistics model. And then, once we built the model, we focused on developing a customized e-commerce platform to support it.
What parts of the company do you handle in-house vs using outside resources?
Logistics is a complicated business. We’ve been lucky to find key partners who are as passionate and committed to helping working, breastfeeding mothers as we are.
Did you encounter hurdles in the early days of your start up? How did you overcome them?
I still encounter hurdles – they never go away! One of the most common hurdles that I’ve come across both in the early days and today, is the “well, it can’t be done that way” hurdle. When you are trying to do or create something that is new and different, hearing this statement is incredibly frustrating because it is meant to shut down or suppress an idea, not give it lift.
The best way to deal with this hurdle is to steer around it and find people who are excited by the prospect of breaking molds and launching ideas. Hearing: “well, it hasn’t been done yet, but what if we tried this…?” is music to my ears.
You recently raised $900K seed money (congrats!). What was the most surprising lesson you learned while going out for funding?
I was surprised by what an emotional experience it was. Investors are trusting you with their investment, and you are trusting them with part of your company. There’s a lot a stake for both parties.
Really, it is a little bit like getting married, you should only say “yes” if you are 100 percent sure you’ve picked the right partner and you definitely don’t want to walk down the aisle with cold feet.
Do you feel like you are treated differently because you are woman in a tech-driven company?
No, not really. My number one priority with Milk Stork has been to meet the needs of working, breastfeeding moms – so my focus and attention has been on connecting with the mom-community. As a female-founder in Silicon Valley, I have also made it a point to connect with other female founders – these women have become my brain trust, providing me with support, resources and wisdom.
We love that you started Milk Stork with your dad. Do you have any advice for working with family?
I feel so lucky to have my dad as my co-founder, I could not ask for a better partner! Not only have we been able to build something together that is helping working moms and babies, but we have had the opportunity to see and accept each other in a new light. At work, we are not a dad and a daughter, we are business partners – so the structure of our relationship is very different.
My advice for anyone working with family is to recognize that your work relationship is different than your familial relationship. Understanding this will allow you to see and appreciate your family member from a different perspective and it will allow new relationship dynamics to emerge. In doing so, it will improve your ability to collaborate and it will also expand and deepen your relationship.
Above all, working with family gives you a precious gift that many people wish they had more of in their life… time with a loved one.
We’ve had one too many bad experiences traveling with breastmilk for our babies. Do you foresee a change in the Family & Medical Leave Act which only provides a woman with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job protected leave?
While the lack of momentum on parental leave on the policy-level can be discouraging, the women’s movement gives me tremendous hope. Women have a collective voice, we are speaking our truth, and we are being heard – this also includes our experiences and the challenges we face as mothers. I believe we’re at a tipping point and change is inevitable.
It’s so true. We love that you are now working with companies to offer Milk Stork as a service to their employees. What can mothers do to encourage their work places to support pumping mothers?
Today, women make up 47 percent of the workforce and 72 percent of mothers with children under the age of 18 work. On top of that, approximately 50 percent of women continue to breastfeed 6 months after giving birth – in spite of short or non-existent paid maternity leaves. So, by these numbers, there is more breast milk being pumped at work in the U.S. than ever before. And yet, the realities and challenges of pumping at work remain largely invisible to the greater population — or worse, they are still considered taboo.
To normalize breastfeeding in general, and pumping at work specifically, we need to be vocal about our experiences as well as our needs. I recommend finding allies among other breastfeeding women (and/or former breastfeeding women) – ideally, at all levels and areas within the organization – and coming together to create a collective voice. As a community you can demonstrate a strong need, recommend changes and solutions as well as act as a resource to your organization. It is also important to articulate the benefits that corporate lactation support can deliver to the company including attracting/retaining great talent, less absenteeism, positive PR, etc.
Since Milk Stork launched, I have been heartened by the number of companies that are eager to support their working mothers. And, the majority of our 115 enterprise partners that have launched Milk Stork as an employee benefit did so because one or more of their employees asked for it.
What tips do you have for moms who are traveling while breastfeeding?
There a are a few things that can make traveling and breastfeeding a little bit easier. In addition to using Milk Stork to send your milk home, here are a few other tips:
What’s next for Milk Stork?
We want to make sure that every breastfeeding woman who travels for work has access to Milk Stork through her company – in the U.S. and beyond.
It is ok to relax in the face of messy playrooms, piles of dirty laundry, unsent emails, and long to-do lists. It will all be ok.
When things feel chaotic, we have found that spending time outside as a family is immediately grounding. It is like a “hard reset” and it puts everything back in perspective.
Lastly, I tell my kids that I love them every single day... no matter what.