Former VAP Participant, Leche Lounge, in the Journal Record
Frustrated mom launches portable lactation lounge business
By Sarah Terry-Cobo
Copyright © 2016 The Journal Record
TULSA – Stephanie Conduff came up with an idea for a product after months of preparing her infant daughter’s meals in bathrooms. Her solution could help hundreds of Oklahoma businesses follow labor laws, and potentially create a more loyal workforce, said Oklahoma Disability Law Center director Kayla A. Bower.
Conduff said her main challenge is finding the right investor to help her scale up her business, Leche Lounge.
Conduff gave birth to her daughter in 2014, while still attending law school. She was forced to pump breast milk in bathrooms because there weren’t adequate accommodations at her university. She ran into the problem in many public places, from sports stadiums to hotels. She even took a break from the bar exam to express milk in the bathroom.
Federal labor laws require employers to provide a private space for lactating mothers to pump breast milk at work. A 2010 amendment requires that employees also have break time for pumping. A February 2016 study in the scientific journal Women’s Health Issues found that only 40 percent of mothers surveyed had access to a private space and break time for expressing breast milk.
A 2006 Oklahoma law urges employers to provide a private space, other than a restroom stall, for lactating mothers, but the law has no enforcement mechanism.
Conduff said she realized there was an opportunity to create a solution to the problem she and so many other breast-feeding mothers faced. It was also an opportunity to create local jobs for Native Americans. She and her brother designed portable lactation rooms.
The stalls include hospital-grade breast pumps, have locking doors for privacy and are insulated to provide comfort and to mask the sound of the pumps. There are two sizes: a 4-foot by 4-foot and a 5-foot by 7-foot, which can accommodate a wheelchair. Prices range between $10,000 for the smaller size with no pump to $15,000 for the larger size with custom features. The units can be purchased or leased.
She said it was important to find a local manufacturer run by a woman, but there aren’t many women-owned manufacturing businesses. She uses Parks Custom Cabinets in Chelsea, owned by Cherokee citizen Bruce Parks.
Conduff installed one lactation room in the Winstar Casino. The stall can collect anonymous data on how often it is used, and she discovered that it had been used seven hours per day. Only two employees stated they were breast-feeding, but the data showed there were more using the lounge who hadn’t requested accommodations.
She said many women who return from family medical leave after giving birth are happy to have help from their employers.
“The last thing they want to say is, ‘I have a legal right for this, make it work,’” Conduff said.
She said her market potential is large; she’s had discussions with 45 interested parties including airports, hotels, casinos, universities, military bases, even a payday lending company. She projects that she can gross $10 million in revenue if she sells 1,000 in year.
But it hasn’t been easy to find the right angel investor, she said. Though she’s won several business competitions, including $15,000 from a Native American entrepreneur investment program, she is still searching for the right person or venture capital firm to help her scale up the business.
She said she’s left more than one meeting because of sexist comments. One potential investor asked her what her husband thinks about her running a business. Another suggested she should wear high heels to the pitch meeting.
Conduff said there is an opportunity for government contracts, to provide the lactation stalls for military bases. As a small, woman-owned, Native American-owned business, she has a leg up on the competitive bidding process.
“There is a lot of momentum to provide space for people,” she said.
Bower wasn’t familiar with Conduff’s product, but said she has seen great benefits providing a breast-feeding-friendly workplace for nearly three decades. She allows her employees to bring their infants to work so they can feed their babies.
She said she was nervous at first, but no mother has brought her child to work after the baby was 6 months old. Her employees were so grateful that she allowed them to adjust to motherhood, it created more stability and loyalty.
“You set yourself apart if you do this and you create an incredibly productive workforce,” Bower said.
The Oklahoma State Department of Health has certified 167 employers as breast-feeding-friendly workplaces, up from 144 the previous year. The majority of those businesses are in the health care industry. The Oklahoma Disability Law Center and public relations firm Public Strategies are the only non-health care industry businesses that have been certified, according to a list the Health Department provided.
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