As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Sascha Mayer, the CEO and Co-founder of Mamava, Inc. in Burlington, Vermont. Mamava designs solutions for nursing mamas on the go, and since 2015 has placed over 700 lactation suites in locations as diverse as airports, sports stadiums, automobile factories, and military bases. Mission-driven, women-owned, and B-corp certified, Mamava created the freestanding lactation space category and is the leading expert in lactation space design. Mamava’s smart lock-enabled lactation pods and mobile app are designed with consideration of the biological, physical, and emotional needs of nursing mamas (and babies) on the go. Sascha speaks regularly about lactation space design, breastfeeding legislation, positive work cultures, and entrepreneurship.
Sascha started with Solidarity of Unbridled Labour (Mamava’s birthplace) in 1995. She helped to develop the Living Brand®, Solidarity’s philosophy on brands and brand creation. As Strategy Director, Sascha participated in the production of many brands, including HP, Levi’s, Lululemon, Merrell Apparel, Nike Women. Before joining Solidarity, Sascha worked for the office of Congressman (now Senator) Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), where she served as staff assistant and assistant press secretary. In 2018 Sascha and her Mamava co-founder, Christine Dodson, were the SBA’s Small Business Persons of the Year from Vermont.
Beyond her work life, Sascha is a Board Member of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, sits on the marketing committee for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, and was a founding board member of Mobius Mentors. She loves to spend time outside with her husband, two children, seven chickens, and her rescue dog.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’ve always cared deeply about both design and social justice issues. I was the five-year-old kid who begged her parents to let her choose the paint colors in her room and had strong opinions about the household furniture.
I was also very attuned to women’s and civil rights issues, and even joined a group called “Students for Peace and Survival” at my suburban high school. We activated around issues like ending apartheid in South Africa, reproductive rights, and environmental issues. I continued my activism in college and minored in Women’s Studies. My first job out of school was working for then-Congressman Bernie Sanders.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
My parents and siblings are artists, and I was the jock in the family. I knew I didn’t want to be an artist, but I also shied away from business, as I thought it wasn’t creative. What I have learned is that running a business has allowed me to be extremely creative. There are so many amazing tools and SAS applications out there that help the business run, so we can spend our time being really creative about how to execute on our vision and mission and how we want to build our company culture.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
We created Mamava from a place of experience and empathy. When I was breastfeeding and traveling on business, the only place I could plug in and use my breast pump was a restroom. As if it wasn’t hard enough to be away from my baby, making food in a place designed for the exact opposite function was demoralizing and undignified. I knew many other moms who were experiencing the same thing and often were forced to stop breastfeeding because it was just too hard for them. I had it easy compared to many women who didn’t have supportive work environments with the ability to take breaks or have access to a quality breast pump. At the design studio where Mamava was incubated we were in the business of solving problems through design, and so we came up with the design for a freestanding lactation suite, and even more importantly, the brand we would use to frame the story for the world to help better understand the problem we were solving.
How do you think this will change the world?
We are already changing the world. Since we placed our first prototype in 2013, the rate of women in the United States who initiate breastfeeding after giving birth has increased, and more women are breastfeeding longer after returning to work. We see our company as creating a network of infrastructure, information, and community connection to support moms who choose to breastfeed.
Keeping “ Black Mirror ” and the “ Law of Unintended Consequences ” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?
In the past, a few people suggested our units might contribute to the desire for society to hide breastfeeding. But we believe our units act as billboards, reminding people “breastfeeding happens here.” It is interesting to note that the naysayers have often been men or women who haven’t had to work outside the house while breastfeeding. The generation of millennial moms who use our units is all about wanting choices. Mamava and the moms who use our products are part of a generation who are looking for solutions, so one future consequence might be that our work helps to influence the passage of paid parental leave, which might limit some of the demand for products like ours. If the United States establishes paid parental leave, and more women can meet their breastfeeding goals, our mission has been reached regardless.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
On Labor Day 2006, with a baby on my breast, I read an article by Jodi Kantor on the cover of the New York Times. (You might recognize Jodi’s name, as she won a Pulitzer Prize for her investigative work which contributed to breaking the Harvey Weinstein scandal in 2017.) In the 2006 piece, Jodi wrote about the health benefits of breastfeeding and identified the fact that a corporate class of women with workplace autonomy were able to meet their breastfeeding goals, but many hourly wage workers weren’t afforded the same space or time, setting up a two-class system where wealth begets wealth, and health begets health. At that moment, I decided to do something about these social inequities — and then it was a long journey from the time I had the idea, to creating and placing a prototype, to starting the business.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
Legislation really helps. We didn’t have a business case until the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was amended, as part of the Affordable Care Act, mandating that employers provide a space other than a bathroom for moms to pump and the break time to do it. Since the passage of this amendment, other states and municipalities have passed even more robust legislation that employers and facilities must comply with, and our design provides an easy solution and fast alternative to building a room.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
1.) Business isn’t math; it’s actually really creative.
2.) There is crying in baseball. When I first started the business and was building the company culture, and managing more people, I really thought that you could keep the emotions out of the proverbial board room. When people got emotional, I used to quote the Tom Hanks character in A League of Their Own “There’s no crying in baseball!” I soon realized that when people are really invested in what they do, there is emotion in business, and that is a good thing because it shows how much they care. Now I am very aware of the tone I set as CEO and my influence on company culture.
3.) Choose your first employees wisely. Your earliest employees are your cultural co-founders who lay the foundation for what the business will become from the inside out, and set the tone for customers and the broader community. We use the acronym of CAMP to frame-up what we want our team to feel –Connection, Agency, Mission, and Progression. Managers are tasked with fostering CAMP in their colleagues.
4.) Don’t hide your idea for fear someone might steal it. The more connections you make and input you get from others on your path to starting your business, the stronger your idea will become as it will be infused with the knowledge and experience of people who believe in you. In addition to our board of directors, we also have an advisory board of friends of Mamava with cross-functional expertise. These are folks who have built great businesses whom we can call for advice on any number of questions — it’s like having a Bat Phone connected to all the members of the Justice League.
5.) Perfection is the enemy of progress. You will never get to the bottom of the to-do list or have everything exactly as you want it, but it is more important to move forward. In the process of moving forward, you will have the opportunity to get feedback, iterate, and improve as you go.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
Creativity can not be outsourced to robots, so people need to learn to stretch their creative muscles by tapping into their humanity, building empathy, and becoming good storytellers. The second thing I would suggest would be to learn how to retrieve and integrate data, and use it to help you drive and enhance your creativity–whatever business you are in.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in? As a start-up, it is still all about hiring the best people, so I’d spend money to continue to build my team, and a data analyst would be at the top of the list.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
My colleague, Janet Stambolian, is a Baby Boomer who once lived in what you might call an “urban commune.” In the early days, as we were grappling with figuring out the business, I expressed to her my insecurities about my ability to make it all work. Her
response: “We each have different gifts for the revolution.” I find this notion so reassuring that I have it engraved on a silver bracelet that I give to new employees and wear myself as a constant reminder.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Use empathy to drive innovation. Empathy and understanding are what got Mamava where we are today, so honor every individual’s journey, and work to engage, explore, and seek a deeper understanding to make your product and processes better.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
Unicorns are mammals. Mamava estimates a $4+ billion market for lactation accommodations in the United States alone. The business is targeted to employers and customer care representatives who need to provide lactation solutions for their employees or guests who are among the 3 million women annually who initiate breastfeeding. Designed to be a simple one-stop solution, Mamava pods provide a clean, comfortable, and secure place for nursing mothers to use a breast pump or nurse in private.
In addition, they provide human resources professionals and facility managers an easy way to ensure compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and other breastfeeding-related legislation. In just under four years, Mamava has become the leading expert in design solutions for nursing and pumping mamas on the go. This unique positioning now opens opportunities to extend the brand and business beyond the current physical pods and digital offerings.
The business model is built on product sales/rental and the value of a highly-engaged millennial mom audience. Mamava delivers a unique combination of physical and digital products via publicly placed lactation pods, the Mamava mobile app, and online resource guides to empower and support breastfeeding mothers. The free Mamava app allows moms to find and unlock the nearest Mamava pod instantly and to locate more than 3,000 vetted non-Mamava pump-friendly places around the country. The app integrates with a proprietary smart lock on the units, ensuring that the intended users — moms! — have direct access, and provides usage data that we can share with customers to help optimize cleaning schedules and other maintenance issues.