Moms frequently use very spiritual words like “oasis”, “sanctuary”, and “totem for breastfeeding” when describing our pods. Mindfulness is really at the center of what we provide for the world. Our lactation suites, with their feminine curves and intentionally designed interiors, exist to give mothers and babies both the physical and emotional space they need to connect and create sustenance in a hectic world. In the locations where we exist, we have created a form of “choice architecture” that sends a signal that breastfeeding happens and is supported. I feel we’ve given visibility to a fundamental human function that has grown less visible in our society. The yogic greeting “namaste” and the Zulu greeting “sawubona” share similar meanings “the divine in me recognizes the divine in you” or “I see you.” Our pods and the partners who host them are saying to moms “we see you.” In turn, moms send us notes of gratitude via email and on our social platforms. Moms also leave handwritten notes to each other in the pods and in our app. These words of support from mom to mom create a virtuous cycle that helps feed the movement.
As a part of my series about leaders who integrate mindfulness and spiritual practices into their work culture, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sascha Mayer.
Sascha is 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 1,250 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.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you please share your “backstory” with us?
On Labor Day 2006, with baby number two on my breast, I read a New York Times cover story by Jodi Kantor. You might recognize Jodi, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist whose work contributed to breaking the Harvey Weinstein scandal in 2017. In the 2006 piece, Jodi wrote about the health benefits of breastfeeding and pointed out 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. When it came to breastfeeding, there was a two-class system where wealth begets wealth, and health begets health, and I decided to do something about it. It was a long journey from the time I had the idea, to creating and placing a prototype, to launching the business. When Mamava was conceived, I was lucky to have been working for a design studio where the owner believed in the idea, and my co-founder Christine Dodson — the right brain to my left — and I were able to incubate the business before striking out and hiring our first employees in late 2015.
What role did mindfulness or spiritual practice play in your life growing up? Do you have a funny or touching story about that?
I didn’t grow up in a religious household. My parents were artists and I’d guess you’d say we worshipped at the altar of creativity. The family unit was pretty traditional, my dad worked outside of the house as a college professor and my mother focused on the kids and the household. Our tradition wasn’t to go to church on Sunday, but for my dad to take me and my sister and brother for a hike in the woods, which gave my mom some much-needed time to do her art. We definitely found enlightenment and ritual in spending time in nature together. The enlightenment often came from new discoveries driven by the seasons, finding a brightly colored salamander, stomping on puffball mushrooms, cracking through the thin layer of ice on the creek in winter. One funny ritual was for at least one of us to get what we called a “soaker” which was what happened when your foot accidentally slipped into a creek and soaked your sneaker and sock. You’d have to finish the hike with a soggy, often-freezing foot. It inevitably happened to at least one of us on every outing, and it became a family joke that if someone didn’t get a soaker, it wasn’t a good hike. Walking outside in nature is still where I find the most grace, and the fact that it includes physical exercise helps me feel balanced.
How do your mindfulness or spiritual practices affect your business and personal life today?
Our company is based in Burlington, Vermont. Our office windows overlook beautiful Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains beyond. The love for nature instilled in me as a child brought me to this place, and made me want to build my life and business here. Vermont is a place where the seasons impose themselves on our daily lives — where enjoying the outdoors, especially in the short warm seasons, is mandatory. For this reason, we close early on Friday afternoons in July and August so our employees can take advantage of Vermont’s beautiful summer days. Those are the afternoons I hike or go for a long bike ride, or spend time in my garden and tend to my seven chickens. Regardless of the season, I try to walk every day, even if that means just a short walk by the lake at lunch. It clears my head and the exercise relieves stress. I encourage my colleagues to do the same.
Do you find that you are more successful or less successful because of your integration of spiritual and mindful practices? Can you share an example or story about that with us?
What we call “Thoughtful Thursday” is Mamava’s experiment in flexible work time. We recognized that our open work environment — and the daily jobs we each do to keep the business running — can make it challenging to focus on more long term projects, or those that require deeper thought, focus, or sequestered collaboration with co-workers and partners. In an effort to give ourselves the dedicated time and space to work on these more thoughtful projects, we instituted “Thoughtful Thursday” as a day when employees can work wherever they feel most comfortable. We don’t schedule meetings on Thursdays unless absolutely necessary — and it’s rare. We have found this practice to be one of the best-loved of Mamava’s work culture. Most certainly, “Thoughtful Thursdays” have contributed to our success in terms of employee happiness and work quality.
We have also integrated mindfulness in our app with our “Sounds for Let Down” feature. For pumping moms in particular, it is important to get in the right headspace in order for their milk to let down. Moms can choose to listen to our “Sounds for Let Down,” which includes a guided meditation, water sounds — and to really stimulate the let down reflex, we even have recordings of a baby crying and laughing.
What would you say is the foundational principle for one to “lead a good life”? Can you share a story that illustrates that?
Gratitude. I don’t have one story, for me “gratitude” is a way of feeling, being, and acting that keeps me whole and moving forward no matter how difficult things get.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are many, many people who have helped me along the way, but my friend Michael Jager comes to mind in particular. Michael Jager is the creative director and owner of the design studio where I worked for 20 years, and where we had the privilege of incubating Mamava. Michael taught me the power of the “we” — building empathy and collaborating with others in order to create change and do great work. He’ll laugh if he reads this, but I actually think of him more like an entrepreneurial big brother than a mentor. A big brother who I could watch and learn from both his successes and mistakes as he built his businesses. I’ve tried to take away the best parts while avoiding some of the pitfalls. I am lucky to still be able to work with Michael, as he remains a trusted advisor and board member. Now when we’re in the weeds trying to keep the day to day at Mamava going, he’s nearby reminding us to stay curious and keep experimenting and take risks.
Can you share 3 or 4 pieces of advice about how leaders can create a very “healthy and uplifting” work culture?
Because my background is in brand strategy I know the importance of building a work culture from the inside out. We use the framework of mission, vision, manifesto (Mamavafesto) and company values to guide what we do and how we act. I think we had our values documented before we even had a product to sell. Every year, we conduct a company-wide survey to gage how we feel we are doing vis a vis our values, and determine if the values themselves need to evolve.
We have evolved our values, for instance, to recognize that at the heart of what we enable is the nourishment of another human being. Knowing that food is really important to most of our staff, we added “Feed the Body, Feed the Soul”as a new value about a year ago. So, I would say the best thing a leader can do to create a healthy work culture is to write down your values and stick by them.
Mamava’s Company Values
Yes and… A concept borrowed from improv that reminds us to approach every opportunity, collaboration, and challenge with an open mind, open heart, and a willingness to hold hands and jump.
K.I.S.S.M. /Keep it Simple Sister Mister. For our mamas, for our customers, for our partners, for each other. Mamava is a solution born from design ideals, delivering on this tenet of good design is integral to our success.
Empathize to innovate. Empathy and understanding is what got us here. We honor every individual’s journey, and promise to engage, explore, and seek a deeper understanding to make our product and processes better.
Make them smile. Breasts and babies are beautiful and amazing, and they are also fun and funny. We take our mission seriously, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a sense of humor about it.
Feed the Body, Feed the Soul. We must remember food and nourishment is at the center of what we do. Good food is grounding, bonding, and transformative. We thoughtfully prepare, share, and enjoy good food as a way of staying connected to Mamava’s reason for being.
We each have different gifts for the revolution. Diverse backgrounds, experiences, talents, and styles make us stronger. Celebrate our differences.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We are already changing the world. Since we placed our first prototype in 2013, the rates of U.S. women who initiate breastfeeding have increased, and more women are breastfeeding longer after returning to work. Our company is creating a network of infrastructure, information, and community connection for moms who choose to breastfeed.
Moms frequently use very spiritual words like “oasis”, “sanctuary”, and “totem for breastfeeding” when describing our pods. Mindfulness is really at the center of what we provide for the world. Our lactation suites, with their feminine curves and intentionally designed interiors, exist to give mothers and babies both the physical and emotional space they need to connect and create sustenance in a hectic world. In the locations where we exist, we have created a form of “choice architecture” that sends a signal that breastfeeding happens and is supported.
I feel we’ve given visibility to a fundamental human function that has grown less visible in our society. The yogic greeting “namaste” and the Zulu greeting “sawubona” share similar meanings “the divine in me recognizes the divine in you” or “I see you.” Our pods and the partners who host them are saying to moms “we see you.” In turn, moms send us notes of gratitude via email and on our social platforms. Moms also leave handwritten notes to each other in the pods and in our app. These words of support from mom to mom create a virtuous cycle that helps feed the movement.
How can people follow you and find out more about you?