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 Kate Torgersen. Kate is founder and CEO of Milk Stork®, the first breast milk shipping service for business traveling, breastfeeding moms. Launched in August 2015, Milk Stork provides working moms with everything they need to ship or tote their “liquid gold” home to their babies. For progressive, family-friendly companies, Milk Stork provides an in-demand employee benefit that helps attract, retain and supports working mothers. As a full time, working mom of three kids, Kate was committed to breastfeeding all of her children for the recommended 12 months despite the many challenges of pumping at work. In 2014, when faced with a four-day business trip, she struggled to get her breast milk home to her eight month-old twins. After returning from her trip with two gallons of breast milk and eight pounds of melting ice, she was determined to create a solution. Within a year, she launched Milk Stork, effectively lightening the load — both physically and emotionally — for countless hardworking, business traveling, breastfeeding moms across the U.S. Fueled by grassroots word-of-mouth among moms, Milk Stork quickly became in-demand, employee benefit with many of the country’s leading companies and firms. Kate’s mom-led innovation and entrepreneurship have been chronicled in publications such as the Harvard Business Review, New York Magazine, Lifehacker, Fortune and Travel + Leisure. In 2016, Kate was named one of Red Tricycle’s “Power Moms of the Food World” and, in 2015, Business Insider named Milk Stork, one of the “19 Coolest Companies in San Francisco”. While launching Milk Stork, Kate was senior executive communications manager at Clif Bar & Company. From 2000 to 2007, she served as the company’s national field marketing manager. Prior to joining Clif Bar, Kate chased her wanderlust to the Sierra Nevada Mountains where she worked as an archaeologist and wild land firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. In the winter, she was a professional ski instructor at Squaw Valley–Alpine Meadows ski resort. Kate holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley and she earned her MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. When she isn’t working, playing with her kids or picking up Hotwheels, she is running or pursuing her quest for eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Working motherhood, and specifically the logistical challenges involved in working and breastfeeding, have been my gateway to entrepreneurship.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
A career in business was never my career plan — and I certainly never intended to become a founder and CEO of a startup.
After graduating from UC Berkeley with a degree in anthropology, I went to Tahoe where I worked as a ski instructor at Squaw Valley in the winter and as an archaeologist and wildland firefighter for the US Forest Service in the summer. From there, I landed a job and a long career at Clif Bar. During my sabbatical from Clif Bar I earned my master’s degree in fine art from the San Francisco Art Institute.
It wasn’t until I had to take a business trip while I was breastfeeding my twins that my career path changed and I became an entrepreneur.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”? How do you think this will change the world?
Milk Stork is the first breast milk shipping company. By shipping breast milk, working mothers can shatter glass ceilings.
Today, 47 percent of the workforce in female and most moms are working moms. Also, amazingly, breastfeeding rates are on the rise even in the face of painfully short and/or unpaid maternity leaves. By all measures, more breast milk is being pumped in America’s offices than ever before.
We’re changing the world by helping working moms (a huge portion of the world’s population) perform in their jobs AND continue to breastfeed their babies — by eliminating heartbreaking tradeoffs. In doing so, we are creating a societal impact that is shining a light on the realities and challenges of breastfeeding women face and helping to normalize breastfeeding. As an employee benefit at hundreds of companies, we are actively changing workplace cultures — ensuring that the contributions of working mothers are being acknowledged, supported and celebrated.
No — unless it would be considered “Black Mirror” to have more working moms thriving in their careers and at higher levels of their organizations!
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
Milk Stork started with two gallons of breast milk and a four day business trip.
It was 2014 and it was my first business trip after returning from maternity leave. I was breastfeeding my twins, and I couldn’t figure out how I was going to supply the babies with breast milk while I was gone. The twins and I had endured many breastfeeding challenges — latching issues, tongue ties, slow weight gain, and nursing strikes, not to mention tandem nursing! — and I didn’t want a business trip to derail all that we had overcome to maintain our breastfeeding relationship. At the same time, professionally, I was ready to be back-in-action. And, while it wasn’t the most important business trip of my career, I knew that if I didn’t step up and shine, someone else would.
The business trip was set for early June and my twins were together consuming a half-gallon of breast milk a day. So, to take the trip, I was going to need to pump two “extra” gallons of breast milk to cover my absence (on top of the gallons they were already consuming) and then, I was going to have to manage the two gallons of breast milk I would generate while I was away in a hotel mini-fridge.
And so I did what most breastfeeding, traveling moms did at the time. In an effort to create two “extra” gallons of milk, I added incremental pumping sessions to my already busy schedule in the days leading up to the trip. I went from pumping every three to four hours for 20 minutes at a time to pumping every couple hours. Then, while I was gone, I continued to pump relentlessly around the clock to maintain my milk supply (i.e. my ability to lactate). And then, somehow managed to cram two gallons of breast milk into my hotel mini-fridge.
On the last day of my trip, I packed a soft cooler with the milk, along with four gallon-sized Ziplocs filled with ice (it was too much milk to cool with a couple of gel packs). I lugged my sloshing, dripping 25+ lb. carry-on of milk (along with my purse, breast pump bag, and suitcase) to the TSA line and then endured an embarrassing inspection process which required opening all of the milk containers — not to mention the process of explaining (read: justifying) to several TSA agents why I had “so much breast milk.”
Once through airport security, I ran to the nearest bathroom to drain the excess water out of the ice bags, and rushed to the nearest bar to replenish the bags with fresh ice. I barely made my flight. On the plane, I continually checked on my milk and the Ziplocs out of fear that my milk wasn’t cold enough and that the Ziplocs might leak.
For me, that trip was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I came home frustrated by the logistical barriers and burdens that I faced during the trip as I tried to maintain my commitment to breastfeeding. I was determined to create a solution for these very specific pain points that so many working moms face.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
We have had explosive growth over the past 3.5 years. Our growth has been fueled by the voices of working parents, specifically working mothers, advocating for the employee benefits and support they need to be successful in their careers and in their family life. The momentum working moms have created has been been welcomed and supported by progressive employers who are eager to see the women in their companies thrive both professionally and personally. Widespread adoption will only continue as we see more breastfeeding women receiving support from their families, communities and workplace.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
I have 3…
Raising money is like getting married. You wouldn’t just marry anyone who asked — likewise, you shouldn’t just take any money that it is offered to you. I knew that raising money was going to be stressful, but I didn’t realize that it was going to be emotional too. I invested my blood, sweat and tears into Milk Stork and I wanted to make sure that the investors we chose (and who chose us) were a good fit for the Milk Stork family. I feel very luck that we have investors who genuinely care about our purpose, are aligned with our goals and are helping us play our best game.
Be brave– Starting a business is extremely difficult and risky — the risk isn’t just financial, it is personal. I feel it daily. For example, I’m a pretty introverted person so sales calls, pitching and public speaking feel uncomfortable and risky to me — sometimes a big decision that feels risky. When I have to do these things I would prefer not to — and I know that I have to kick ass at them, I imagine flipping a “bravery switch” — I visualize how someone who is good at these things would do it, and then I do the same. When it feels like I’m jumping off a cliff, bravery helps me believe that I will fly.
But, be humble. In order to stay agile, entrepreneurs and founders have to be learning. There is no terrafirma in the white space, there’s no “figuring it all out”. Starting a company and scaling it is an open ended adventure — and in my experience, humility is the best guide for the tackling the unknown. Hubris and ego will sabotage you.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
A side effect of a long career is expertise. Becoming an expert in something is a rewarding accomplishment, but it can deliver you to a very narrow, comfortable place. To future proof a career, you’ve to fight the inertia of your own success. It is critical to be a student of the trends impacting your industry — whether it is through networks, mentors, communities, classes, research or all of the above. Stay curious and keep learning.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
For me, it isn’t really “what” as much as it is “who”, I would invest it in one of the countless underrepresented founders who are working on world class and world shattering ideas.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
You’ve got one life to live — pursue what interests you, go after it with guts, embrace the adventure of it.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
Everyone has to define what success means for them. For me, success is the fulfillment of tackling issues that I care about and knowing that the work I do will have a positive impact in someone’s life. To achieve this, my mindset is to constantly question and challenge the status quo, to embrace the excitement that comes with uncharted territory and to persist in the face of obstacles — keep moving forward!
One success habit that I think is essential and often overlooked is sleep. Get 8 hours of sleep. I truly believe that sleep unleashes creativity, creates stamina and ensures level-headedness during stressful situations or tough decisions. It also helps me loosen (what I call) brain-knots, all those problems that we are working through in our heads and trying to find a solution for. Going for a good run helps too.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Today, 47 percent of the workforce in female and most moms are working moms. Milk Stork exists to topple the logistical and cultural barriers of pumping through industry-leading innovation and to unleash the power and potential of moms. In a universe where moms control 85% of household purchases and have $2.4 trillion of spending power, Milk Stork is the gateway to the mothership.
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