Six months after Oula opened its doors in Brooklyn, New York, co-founders Adrianne Nickerson and Elaine Purcell became pregnant within two weeks of each other. Just four weeks later, they learned another senior staff member, Joanne Schneider, was also pregnant. As a Seed-stage business built around maternity care (Oula combines obstetrics and midwifery under one roof), the co-founders realized they were in a position to define what modern maternity leave could look like for other early-stage founders building a company.
“We had to be very thoughtful about how we do parental leave,” says Elaine, co-founder and COO. “How we divide our maternity leave among the three of us is obviously different from what we would expect from the rest of the team, but it’s about: how do we create a policy that’s more generous, and how do we model it for our employees? We do it in ways like bringing our kids to work and ensuring that it’s okay to have these two different aspects of your life and figuring out ways to bring them together.”
Here, The Helm’s founder and CEO Lindsey Taylor Wood sits down with CEO Adrianne, COO Elaine, and Chief Experience Officer Joanne to learn how they navigated telling each other about their pregnancies, the realities of group maternity leave—and how they’re leading this conversation.
Lindsey: Three of the four of us at The Helm have been going through something fertility-related in the last few months, and it struck me that if we were to get pregnant around the same time, 75 percent of our company would, at some point, not be operating business-as-usual. This brought up many questions for me. A huge reason I started The Helm is to advance economic equality on behalf of women, and yet, there are very real realities of being an early-stage company that doesn’t have the financial resources, nor the governmental support, to buttress mothers in the way we would want. Can you share what conversations you had internally? As the three senior executives, did you come together and say when you would all like to get pregnant and here’s what this would look like?
Adrianne: I got pregnant first in the group and I told them the second I knew I was pregnant. They were the first people I told outside of my husband and my mom, because I had an inkling that they would also be wanting to try soon. I figured at least if we had the choice to be two weeks apart or six months apart, maybe we would prefer to have that conversation. But when I told Elaine, she had already started trying that month [laughs].
Elaine: We had side conversations about being on birth control and some high-level conversations as we were deciding to leave our jobs and start Oula—talking about the risks we would be taking, building this business at a time we both wanted to start family planning. Adrianne was a little nervous when she told me she was pregnant, but we both knew three things: work is not everything, there is no good time to have a child, and there’s no reason we can’t try to do it all. But when she did tell me I was like, oh, shoot, I should tell her that I’m trying as well. Then it turned out I got pregnant that cycle! We knew we would figure it out, and make sure that we could be transparent with the company in terms of what it means for us to go out on maternity leave together and setting clear guidelines around communication.
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When Joanne came to us, just four weeks later, we already had the confidence—at least between the two of us—that we could make this work. We knew we wouldn’t have a maternity leave where we’re all off the grid, but as long as we have a mutual amount of respect for each other and the flexibility to say, Hey, I got two hours of sleep last night, I can’t make this call and I can’t do this brainstorming session.
Lindsey: Joanne, did you know that Elaine and Adrianne were pregnant when you went to them? Or that they’d been trying? Or was this a group “holy shit”?
Joanne: I had a miscarriage five months prior, so I had planned to tell them when I was 14 weeks—when you’re kind of out of the woods a little bit. I was only 10 weeks pregnant when they told me, so I had this kind of moment of: do share or do I not share? But we had already established this culture of openness, and I trusted that, so even if my pregnancy ended up not being viable, I knew telling them was going to be okay, too. So it was a group come-to-Jesus that wasn’t necessarily planned.
Lindsey: So much of what I’m hearing is really about communication and transparency, and sort of managing expectations. That’s an aspirational way of approaching it. On our team, we are radically transparent and open about where we are at the moment—it’s been a beautiful and foreign experience to witness the culture we’re creating. But it brings me back to what if someone doesn’t want to share their fertility journey or their family planning journey? Joanne, as you said, some of us have had miscarriages, and some of us have had a really hard time on our journey. So if you’re not able, or willing, or you don’t desire to share that, how do you manage expectations in these scenarios?
Joanne: I think it still comes down to a culture of everyone being able to have their own journey—and to inspire a culture where people trust that that’s true, where you can grapple with things on your own time. At the end of the day, if there is going to be flexibility, it does demand some level of communication so you can problem solve together. But that doesn’t mean somebody has to share their entire fertility history. It’s more about communicating what you need at that moment. And then it’s incumbent on the rest of us to respond to what you really need.
Elaine: We do believe that things should be on paper. I know we’re talking about being very flexible, but to your point, not everyone feels they can share that they’re pregnant at eight weeks. Some people don’t want to share it until they’re five months pregnant. And that’s okay. That’s why we have a policy to fall back on. We’re not expecting everyone to be open and everyone to want to have this kind of fluid approach to pregnancy.
We knew a lot of it was going to be trial and error—which is what motherhood is all about.
At the same time, with our written policy, we don’t want it to be stark and archaic. Currently Oula offers a mixture of paid and unpaid leave and also allows for a two-week part-time transition period at full salary. (So 10 weeks completely off and then two weeks transition at full pay.) This allows mothers to gradually shift back into work through different phases, from being completely offline, to scaling back part-time, then eventually returning to full-time. As we grow as a company—and with every time we raise more money—we’ll expand that time period. While we wish we could offer six months like Facebook, it’s not financially viable for us, unfortunately.
But we are a maternity care company, we know how difficult it is to have a baby and go back to work. It’s about making sure you balance a culture with a written policy and making sure that there’s fluid conversations to ensure you’re developing a program and a system to approach this in a way that works for everyone.
Lindsey: Where did you land for the two of you as co-founders in terms of your own policy, or the plan that you’ve enacted for yourselves?
Elaine: We knew a lot of it was going to be trial and error—which is a lot of what motherhood is all about. I’d love to tell you that Adrianne, Joanne, and I took long maternity leaves, but that couldn’t really be the case. We are a seed-stage company with a certain amount of runway and a certain amount of expectations from our patients. We’re delivering babies, we’re not making widgets, so we have a responsibility to make sure that we are figuring out a way to do both. I was offline for three weeks, and then three weeks part-time scaling back, and then continuing on a full-time basis after six weeks. With building your own company, you have so much more flexibility and control over every aspect, including how you do your work, even when you’re back at full capacity. That might mean you’re missing a meeting because you’re breastfeeding or moving things around, and showing the company what that looks like when you’re back as a working parent—that it’s not at 100 percent, that’s just not realistic.
Joanne: We have a responsibility to view this as an opportunity to rethink. What does it mean to go on leave and be a little bit more creative about what leave means? Right now we’re all female employees at this company. The concept of maternity leave is going to continue to be a thing. So how do we also be a different type of employer? What kind of leave do you even really want to take? For me, it’s not so much a desire to be off the grid for four months, it’s actually more of a desire for flexibility that the traditional workplace hasn’t provided. Currently, it’s this binary of you’re here or you’re not, and anything in between doesn’t compute. But is that even realistic, or what everybody wants? We have an opportunity to reimagine this. We are taking the time we need whether that’s to breastfeed or go to appointments. That is a precedent we want to set. For me, my priority is taking care of my new baby, but I also want to unblock my team members to be able to do their best work. I’m not going to be proactive, but I’m here to answer your questions. Allowing for that flexibility—and allowing for the fact you might not know what you want before you go on leave, especially if it’s your first time doing it. So it’s: how do you make it more of a conversation?
Lindsey: What was the perception versus the reality of you taking that time off?
Elaine: The only time I was online for the first three weeks was when I chose to be. So I’d say it worked out remarkably well, but we also hired incredibly well—we hired people who we were going to feel comfortable and confident with making decisions while we were out.
Lindsey: Joanne, I know Elaine and Adrienne gave birth two weeks apart and you were due just weeks later. Were there any hiccups, any fires, or holy shit moments? Or was it all totally seamless?
Joanne: For sure, there were fires. For sure, it was chaotic. But it’s about building an organization that’s resilient to fires. It’s not about nothing going wrong. You can’t have two people disappear and nothing happen.
Lindsey: This is what I want to unpack. Because it all sounds very utopic, but how did this really shake out?
Adrianne: It is utopic in terms of respect, and that I don’t think that is lost on any of us, because that level of respect for colleagues and employees is not normal. At the tactical level, like what’s literally happening in the business, for sure things are going to break, especially when you’re a small start-up. You don’t have processes built out for everything where everything has a backup person and everything has been written down and documented. Of course, we’ve been trying to have good hygiene about those things. But it’s not reasonable to expect that everything would be that way, especially when you are early-stage.
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There’s a resilience thing about being able to prioritize—let’s say we had 10 priorities before, now we’re going to have three. Similar to that saying about juggling, always remember which one of the balls you’re juggling is glass, so you can drop some of the other balls and that’s okay. Hold the glass one. Our glass balls are patient safety and the general patient experience. So suddenly, that is more important than us building out great postpartum content, for example. Those balls can drop for now. Being able to move quickly and change decisions and say, hey, I know we said this last week, but this week, this is what’s most important. Our maternity leave required rapid reprioritization. Nothing went wrong that was irreversible. It was more initial chaos of people being like well, now, where do I go for this? Or, Elaine was going to make a decision about this, so therefore, who’s going to make this decision now? It was about quickly triaging those things.
Elaine: We are also a very collaborative management team to start with. Generally how we run the company has a fair amount of transparency and insight into what we do—a lot of weekly check-ins where everyone knows what everyone’s working on. We’re pretty good about being really clear about what our priorities are for like the week, the month and the quarter. When we took a step back and were gone, everyone knew what they should continue to work on. But it was a little messy in admin things, like who has access to that bank account or having to pay this invoice or transitioning someone that you never had the time to. You do get caught up in some of the trivial things, but the big picture things we were already on the same page, which made everything a lot easier—like the bigger decisions that needed to be made when someone else was out.
Joanne: The North Star remained clear. As long as the North Star is clear, it helps all the supplemental decisions go towards the tactics. For example, the number of times where our front desk person couldn’t access something because the two-factor authorization was texting Elaine’s cell phone number—there were plenty of those things. But that’s different from the higher level business strategy.
Lindsey: Was there any structure in terms of how you checked in for those three weeks that you were totally “out”? Did you check your email? Did the two of you speak once a day, once a week, not at all? Was there any communication during those three weeks?
Elaine: It’s important to say funnel. I was Adrianne’s funnel in the two weeks before I gave birth. Everything that needed to get to Adrianne needed to go through me, and kind of vice versa. That was super important, to have some person there to sift through and be like okay, I got this handled, or that can wait until Adrianne is back to make a decision. But we definitely weren’t talking every day—neither of us wanted to talk every day. I personally didn’t feel like I needed to. Again, I have so much trust in our clinical leaders. I really didn’t feel like I had to check in every single day with the team, because I had confidence that the company wasn’t going to fall apart.
We're trying to create a different standard and expectation for what women truly need during maternity leave.
Joanne: We did feel a need to make it clear to the team here’s the person that you can still go to. Like, we can’t have the whole company texting Adrianne or Elaine, but that doesn’t mean you are alone now. It just means there’s going to be different people to problem solve. And it might be a little less efficient, but you’re not alone. For me, I’m not that close to the clinical side of things.I basically had to say to the clinicians, I might not have the answer right away, but still come to me and we’ll talk about it and we’ll figure it out. That’s just an important psychology—that it’s always really clear that somebody is there to help.
Lindsey: It’s an incredible point one of you made earlier, that you’re providing a service rather than building a widget, which makes it feel even higher stakes. My hat’s off to you for seemingly navigating this so well. Where are you now? Are the babies coming to work with you daily? How are you thinking about integrating kids (or not) into your work life?
Elaine: Yesterday, Adrianne and I were trying to do some strategic planning for our X-rays over the phone, and had a realization that we needed to whiteboard this out. We needed to be together. We brought the babies and just started doing it—we had to take a full hour break to breastfeed, but we managed. It’s not as productive [to work with children present], but at the same time, it’s better than waiting another week or two for the right childcare moment to come into play. I don’t think this is going to be an everyday occurrence, bringing our kids to the office; we do have to rely on our partners and childcare providers. But at this time of transition, it’s really great we can bring the kids along for the ride.
Lindsey: I’m inspired by your journey.
Joanne: Yeah. I mean, we really feel like we’re fighting a culture of false binaries, which applies to the conversation we just had, but it also applies to the services we’re delivering: that women are forced to choose these very stark camps, and most people fall somewhere in between. So whether we’re talking all-or-nothing maternity leave, or about a hyper-medicalized birth versus a home-birth, it’s about options and giving people viable alternatives rather than forcing people to choose between the best two bad options.
Lindsey: Were you fundraising while you were both pregnant? Did you have to deal with questions around pregnancy from investors?
Elaine: We raised during COVID, but I did have conversations about what was the right time to tell our investors. I wanted to make sure they had grown confident with Adrianne and myself. I still have never met the majority of our investors in person, which is rare for investors and founders to go through. But we wanted to make sure we had a couple of proven months, so that they knew Oula would be ok when we took time off. They were very receptive and very supportive. They all joked and said, this is part of your PR strategy, which it was not [laughs]. Most, if not all, of our investors are parents, so they’ve gone through this whether they’re male or female. They’ve either gone through it themselves or gone through it with their partners.
If there’s any kind of positive uptake of two founders taking a step back from their company at the same time, we’re literally walking in our customers shoes. And we learned so much more about our business! It’s been amazing to have the three of us talk to each other, ask questions about our pregnancy experiences. In the end, we’ve learned so much about how to improve the overall Oula experience based on our own.
Lindsey: It’s kind of the perfect storm. You have a number of female VCs on your cap table, you have a company rooted in family planning, you have co-founders and an executive team who are all women. You could argue that, really, it’s like a beta for your company: you’re all super users. But I think we also take for granted that this feels so seamless. It’s revolutionary that both Oula and The Helm are having these conversations internally and are able to make these decisions, but it also brings up what is missing for the mainstream. Where do you think you can be a real thought leader in terms of governmental policy?
Elaine: The crux of our business is about creating holistic support around women during pregnancy and into postpartum. Our role is in acknowledging that the transition into motherhood is difficult: you’re struggling with lactation, returning to work, and emotionally and socially. We’re trying to create a different standard and expectation for what should be supported, what a woman truly needs to be supported during this lifetime period, at the governmental level and the health plan level.
Lindsey: Do each of you have one or two best practices for other early-stage companies that could be supporting women on their journey, in a more holistic way, or a more flexible way? Because Joanne it was such a great point that you made: it’s not necessarily just about leave, it’s about flexibility.
Joanne: COVID forced everyone to figure out how to work remotely, which is actually very parent friendly (unless you’re having homeschooled kids). But in terms of having babies and figuring out breastfeeding, remote work is very parent friendly. For parents with young children, there is a real fear of having to go back to the office all day. So even just setting that as a precedent—that working remotely is normal—in itself enables a lot of flexibility in terms of timing, breastfeeding, and childcare.
Elaine: We just had an employee take time off for someone who passed away in their family. There are lots of other ways in which we need to support employees outside of overall parental leave, like bereavement leave, which starts to create that culture of flexibility.
Adrianne: My advice is communication preferences—making sure, as a new parent, you’re very clear on your needs, and as a company, you support those needs. For example, I said, “I’m going off slack, if you need me, text me.” Everyone is accustomed to different modalities in terms of rapidness of response; for example, I think everyone is accustomed to Slack being rapid responses so it’s important to make sure you’re actually starting to limit the number of modalities that people can reach you. That allows you to slow things down. Also set expectations around when you will respond. It’s about being very clear with the team: saying, I’m trying this but I’m going to take a step back if it isn’t working, because I need a 4 p.m. nap today.