Abbey Donnell, founder and CEO of Work & Mother, shares how the pandemic's return-to-work policies are affecting new moms. Courtesy of Work & Mother

Consensus seems to indicate that working from home has proven more effective than previously believed, though most would also agree that there is still a need for an office outside the home.

By now, I've received about a million different emails with guides on how to reopen businesses safely amidst COVID-19: how to protect employees, social distancing in the workplace, the future of office space and the effects on commercial real estate…the list goes on and on.

The majority of these guidelines include some version of:

Employers should discontinue use of common spaces such as lunchrooms, breakrooms, meeting rooms and other gathering spaces to avoid unnecessary person-to-person exposure.

This is surely wise. After all, the place with the most germs in the office is usually the faucet of the break room sink.

However, what these recommendations have all failed to consider, what not a single one has even mentioned, is the mother's room.

The majority of mother's rooms, unfortunately, double as some sort of communal wellness or other multi-purpose room. This should not be the case even during non-pandemic times, for a variety of reasons, which you can read about here. But now with COVID-19, for obvious reasons they should not be one and the same. There is a real issue at hand — one with long lasting repercussions for not only working mothers, but their employers too.

The majority of in-office mother's rooms do not have a sink. Therefore, women are forced to carry their used pump parts to the break room or bathroom sink, exposing themselves not only to scrutiny and often even harassment, but also to germs. So, what happens if this common area break room, this already subpar solution, is closed? What do mothers do then?

What about the cleaning and sanitizing of the room? What about room usagee schedules to ensure proper distancing and cleaning between each use? What about including not only hand sanitizer and surface disinfectant wipes, but also the proper pump part cleaning and sanitizing supplies?

What if the mother's room itself is closed, as that too is considered a "communal space?" (Though let us not forget that there are federal and state requirements for the majority of employers to provide a mother's room.)

Fortunately, many offices are implementing more flexible work policies, allowing many to work from home. But, I worry that this "option" will end up becoming a forced "solution" for working mothers. Oh, you're pumping? Just stay home.

On the one hand, great! If you're lucky enough to have in-home childcare, you will actually be able to take breaks and breastfeed your baby. Win! Even if your little one is in daycare, you can at least pump in the privacy of your own home. Win!

However, here's the problem: This approach may actually hurt women's careers and exacerbate the already brutal motherhood penalty. When an employee works completely remotely, particularly if their job isn't intended to be fully remote, or the rest of their team isn't remote, there are serious side effects:

Passed up for promotions and projects
Sometimes this occurs intentionally: "Oh, she shouldn't work on this because it requires in-office time so we'll assign it to someone else." Sometimes it's unintional — simply, out of sight out of mind. If some members of the team are in the office and others aren't, those who are not there often miss casual conversations or spur of the moment brainstorming sessions that leave them behind and in the dark.

Cessation of learning
When cut off from the rest of the team, it's hard to be exposed to learning opportunities. As soon as the learning and growing stops, the dissatisfaction, restlessness, and turnover begins.

Loss of fidelity
Without contact with the rest of the team or organization, we often lose the connection to our cause. We could be working for anyone. Loyalty suffers when there isn't a meaningful connection.

Loss of leadership
Most experts agree that 70 to 93 percent of all communication is nonverbal. Leadership and culture is often most effectively conveyed via modeling behavior. How do you grow your next generation of leaders if they can't see leadership behavior for themselves?

The turnover rate for new mothers is already high — 43 percent — despite the fact that over 75 percent of women want to remain in the workforce to remain in the workforce after becoming mothers, according to an April 2013 article in The Atlantic. This should signal to all employers that they are failing at providing the proper facilities and support for new mothers returning to work. So, what happens when we close the already lacking mother's resources?

This isn't just a women's issue. It's a business issue. Replacing an experienced employee who leaves after childbirth can cost anywhere from 20 to 213 percent of the employee's annual salary. Companies with at least 30 percent management positions held by women tend to be 15 percent more profitable than those without.

Companies such as Goldman Sachs have taken note. They now require at least one woman on the boards of their companies before they can go public. Therefore, employers need to ensure that they can keep top female talent beyond childbearing years. It's worth nothing that according to the CDC, birthrates in the US are declining for all age brackets with the exception of slight gains for women in their 30s and 40s. Meaning, women are waiting longer, until they're more established in their careers, to begin having children. Translation to employers: a more valuable employee you're at risk to lose.

Now, let me be clear about something: I am NOT advocating for a full return to the office for strict, structured working hours. Nor am I saying that women need to run right back to the office right after delivery. Quite the contrary. In fact, I am a firm believer in better parental leave policies and general workplace flexibility with the option of working remotely.

I believe flexibility is actually the very key to leveling the playing field for working mothers. However, to assume that the mother's room is no longer necessary because moms can just stay home, is discrimination, plain and simple. It's the same assumption that's been setting women back for years. "Oh, she probably wants to have kids soon, so she won't want this promotion that will require travel." Or, "oh she's probably just going to get pregnant and quit so I'm not going to hire her."

If a mom chooses to work from home but needs to come in for a meeting, for example, there still needs to be a safe, appropriate facility for her. At a minimum, organizations must create a protocol for this. It is not the mother's job to advocate for this. It is the employer's responsibility to proactively provide for it. This should be an active conversation with landlords.

If mother's needs are not part of this vital return to work safety conversation, women may be left behind. So let's start the conversation.

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Abbey Donnell is a lactation counselor and the founder and CEO of Work & Mother.

A Houston mom is working hard on her startup so that next summer, breastfeeding moms can swim in style and worry free. Courtesy of Orolait

New mom-designed swimwear line makes a splash in Houston

mommy made

Houston mom Ana Carolina Rojas Bastidas feels there's been an oversight in the fashion industry when it comes to women who are in the breastfeeding stage of motherhood. With her new swimwear line, she hopes to spark a movement for women's fashion.

Bastidas, founder and CEO of Orolait, launched the swimwear line in September 2018 specifically for breastfeeding individuals. Orolait, which floats the tagline "by a mama for mamas," aims to give breastfeeding individuals back the dignity they deserve with bathing suit options.

"I decided to build this company to challenge and change the way we depict one's breastfeeding journey," Bastidas says on the website. "I stand on the pillars of advocacy, education, and inclusion. You will see the sizing and advertising featuring all shapes, sizes, and shades because each of us is so different and that is what makes us so incredible and I am going to unapologetically celebrate that in the most ethical way I know how."

Bastidas, originally from Bogota, Colombia, has been blogging about postpartum body positivity on her platform PowerToPrevail since 2015, sharing her personal journey with her children.

"I was spending a lot of time by the pool and water parks with my two older children," her website states. "I had a big fear of public breastfeeding, but I had a life to live and memories to make with my kids."

Orolait currently offers four different types of bathing suits, each designed to make breastfeeding easier. The suits range from $36 per piece to $72 for a full suit. The suits are designed manufactured by MIYH Design Services, a local business owned by adjunct Art Institute of Houston professor David Dang.

Bastidas tells InnovationMap that she noticed the need for specifically designed suits after experiencing discomfort herself, explaining that traditional suits were not accommodating for swollen milk ducts with the cut and wiring. Bastidas surveyed mothers across all walks of life to see what they struggled with when finding a bathing suit and found that the list was endless. She tells InnovationMap that they got 100 responses in three days.

Her survey found that moms worried about body image, functionality, confidence, feeling fashionable, and comfort, all when looking for a bikini. It became clear to Bastidas that the current market was not working for moms and causing even more stress.

"Our goal is not to be modest," says Bastidas. "I don't believe in modesty when it comes to breastfeeding, but I do believe that people are at different levels and we need to meet them where they are at."

This past November, Orolait launched their first-ever equity crowdfunding campaign through LetsLaunch, a platform based out of Houston, with a goal of raising $250,000. The company reached 10 percent of its goal within its first few days of going life.

"Our goal is to help women who decide that breastfeeding is a journey that they would like to take, to be able to take that journey," says Bastidas. "There are so many obstacles that are already in our way biologically, that to have a lack of product be the reason why you become so discouraged is unacceptable."

Bastidas tells InnovationMap that her goal for the company is to eventually expand offerings in addition to bathing suits and move into brick and mortar retail spaces. She hopes that Orolait will be a representation of all varieties of breastfeeding journeys.

"We want to make sure we represent those moms who are never represented," says Bastidas.

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Houston family's $20M donation drives neurodegeneration research

big impact

Neurodegeneration is one of the cruelest ways to age, but one Houston family is sharing its wealth to invigorate research with the goal of eradicating diseases like Alzheimer’s.

This month, Laurence Belfer announced that his family, led by oil tycoon Robert Belfer, had donated an additional $20 million to the Belfer Neurodegeneration Consortium, a multi-institutional initiative that targets the study and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

This latest sum brings the family’s donations to BNDC to $53.5 million over a little more than a decade. The Belfer family’s recent donation will be matched by institutional philanthropic efforts, meaning BNDC will actually be $40 million richer.

BNDC was formed in 2012 to help scientists gain stronger awareness of neurodegenerative disease biology and its potential treatments. It incorporates not only The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, but also Baylor College of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

It is the BNDC’s lofty objective to develop five new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders over the next 10 years, with two treatments to demonstrate clinical efficacy.

“Our goal is ambitious, but having access to the vast clinical trial expertise at MD Anderson ensures our therapeutics can improve the lives of patients everywhere,” BNDC Executive Director Jim Ray says in a press release. “The key elements for success are in place: a powerful research model, a winning collaborative team and a robust translational pipeline, all in the right place at the right time.”

It may seem out of place that this research is happening at MD Anderson, but scientists are delving into the intersection between cancer and neurological disease through the hospital’s Cancer Neuroscience Program.

“Since the consortium was formed, we have made tremendous progress in our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of neurodegenerative diseases and in translating those findings into effective targeted drugs and diagnostics for patients,” Ray continues. “Yet, we still have more work to do. Alzheimer's disease is already the most expensive disease in the United States. As our population continues to age, addressing quality-of-life issues and other challenges of treating and living with age-associated diseases must become a priority.”

And for the magnanimous Belfer family, it already is.

3 Houston innovators to know this week

who's who

Editor's note: Every week, I introduce you to a handful of Houston innovators to know recently making headlines with news of innovative technology, investment activity, and more. This week's batch includes a podcast with the founder of a new venture firm, a former astronaut and recent award recipient, and a health care innovator with fresh funding.

Zach Ellis, founder and managing partner of South Loop Ventures

Zach Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that South Loop Ventures plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale. Photo via LinkedIn

Houston has a lot of the right ingredients for commercialization and scaling up companies, so when Zach Ellis moved to town to stand up a venture capital firm that made investments in diverse founders, he decided to go about it in an innovative way.

South Loop Ventures, which Ellis launched two years ago, invests in pre-seed and seed-stage startups across health care, climatetech, aerospace, sports, and fintech. While the first handful of investments, which have already been made, are into Houston-based companies, Ellis explains on the Houston Innovators Podcast that the firm plans to invest in promising companies from across the country and bring them into Houston's ecosystem to grow and scale.

"Any investor wants to feel like they are looking at the best possible investment opportunities in which to deploy capital," Ellis says on the show. "So that's reason No. 1 to cast your net as widely as possible.

"At the same time, you want to give any investment that you make greatest chances of success," he continues. "The biggest factor of success outside of the team and the capital you give them, is the customers that they can call upon. In bringing targeted companies to Houston or connecting them with Houston, you introduce the opportunity for them to achieve rapid scale and work with world-class partners very efficiently." Read more.


Toby R. Hamilton, founder and CEO of Hamilton Health Box

Dr. Toby Hamilton has secured $10 million to grow his company. Photo via tmc.edu

A Houston company that is working on a value-based model for primary care has fresh funding to support its mission.

Hamilton Health Box announced the completion of a $10 million series A funding round led by 1588 Ventures with participation from Memorial Hermann Health System, Impact Ventures by Johnson & Johnson Foundation, Texas Medical Center Venture Fund, and the Sullivan Brothers.

The company, founded in 2019 by Dr. Toby R. Hamilton, will use the funding to fuel its expansion into rural areas to help assist those living in Health Professional Shortage Areas, or HPSAs. Read more.

Ellen Ochoa, former astronaut and center director at the NASA's Johnson Space Center

Ellen Ochoa was recognized for her leadership at NASA Johnson and for being the first Hispanic woman in space. Photo via NASA

Two astronauts recently received Presidential Medals of Freedom from President Joe Biden for their leadership in space.

Ellen Ochoa, the former center director and astronaut at the NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, and Jane Rigby, senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, were honored at the White House on May 3.

Ochoa spent 30 years with NASA, which included being the 11th director of JSC, deputy center director of JSC, and director of Flight Crew Operations. She served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993, and became the first Hispanic woman in space. She flew four more times to space with STS-66, STS-96, STS-110, and more.

“I’m so grateful for all my amazing NASA colleagues who shared my career journey with me,” Ochoa says in a NASA news release. Read more.

Houston health care institutions receive $22M to attract top recruits

coming to Hou

Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine has received a total of $12 million in grants from the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas to attract two prominent researchers.

The two grants, which are $6 million each, are earmarked for recruitment of Thomas Milner and Radek Skoda. The Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) announced the grants May 14.

Milner, an expert in photomedicine for surgery and diagnostics, is a professor of surgery and biomedical engineering at the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic at the University of California, Irvine and the university’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

In 2013, Milner was named Inventor of the Year by the University of Texas at Austin. At the time, he was a professor of biomedical engineering at UT. One of his major achievements is co-development of the MasSpec Pen, a handheld device that identifies cancerous tissue within 10 seconds during surgical procedures.

Skoda is a professor of molecular medicine in the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel and the University Hospital Basel, both in Switzerland. He specializes in developing treatments for myeloproliferative neoplasms, which are a group of blood diseases including leukemia.

Other recruitment grants provided by the institute to Houston-area organizations are:

  • $4 million for recruitment of Susan Bullman to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She was an assistant professor at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, where she studied the connection between microbes and cancer.
  • $4 million for recruitment of Oren Rom to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Rom is an assistant professor of pathology and translational pathobiology at Louisiana State University Shreveport.
  • Nearly $2 million for recruitment of Lauren Hagler to conduct RNA cancer biology at Texas A&M University. She is a postdoctoral scholar in biochemistry at Stanford University.

The institute also awarded grants to five companies in the Houston area:

  • $4.7 million to 7 Hills Pharma for development of immunotherapies to treat cancer and prevent infectious diseases.
  • $4.5 million to Indapta Therapeutics for the Phase 1 trial of a cell therapy for treatment of multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
  • $2.75 million to Bectas Therapeutics for development of antibodies and biomarkers to overcome a type of resistance T-cell checkpoint therapy.
  • $2.69 million to MS Pen Technologies for development of technology that differentiates between normal tissue and cancerous tissue during surgery.
  • $2.58 million to Crossbridge Bio for development of an antibody-drug combination to treat certain solid tumors.