They say necessity is the mother of invention. Nothing could be truer for Stephanie Conduff, a 35-year-old Cherokee mother of two for whom the need to pump breast milk privately, in public, inspired her to create the Leche Lounge in 2015.
“I was in the law library at school and was pumping breast milk in a side room when the janitor walked in on me. I felt really violated and started thinking about other women,” Conduff recalls her lightbulb moment. “I have family and friends who are hourly employees and don’t have offices or doors to close. And I thought, ‘What are they supposed to do?’”
This tribal lawyer got to work prototyping portable, modular lactation stations, and soon this “side gig” became a full-time, revenue-generating business. “It is really exciting to be providing a solution for women in the workplace and for businesses who want to meet the legal requirements and really empower families,” says Conduff, referring to federal and state requirements for businesses to provide private spaces for women to pump food for their babies.
NBM: You started Leche Lounge in May 2015. How has business been?
Stephanie: A lot has changed, especially since I returned from Project Entrepreneur’s accelerator program in New York City over the summer. This incredible experience really “accelerated” my business. We just completed our first international bid for eight Leche Lounges on a military base in Germany. And I recently submitted $200,000 in bids for other projects. But the way I like to quantify my success is by how many women we are able to keep in the workplace who can feed their babies that liquid gold that is so hard to come by without a private, reliable place to pump every three to four hours.
NBM: Tell us about the Project Entrepreneur experience.
Stephanie: Seven hundred female business founders applied for the five-week accelerator program and they picked only 10 women. I was one of them! They gave me $15,000 to move to New York City for the summer and work exclusively on my business with their mentors. So, I packed up my 4-year-old daughter and my 18-month-old son and we moved to SoHo for the summer. My husband joined us for his two-week vacation. It was an experience of a lifetime. It took my business to, “We are all in!” and gave me the confidence to fight it out to success.
NBM: What did you learn specifically from this experience that helped with the Leche Lounge?
Stephanie: It was really empowering to learn about the benefits of being a female founder and the general negativity surrounding it. I got a better understanding of venture capital, too. Last year, Forbes reported that only 2 percent of venture capital went to female founders, which is hard to believe. I also met with a lot of investors and was able to put together a good advisory team. I left with the tools necessary to find strategic investments when I need them.
NBM: Who are your clients?
Stephanie: Moms are the end users. But our paying customers are human resource directors, facility managers, casino operators and other decision makers. We work with a lot of e-commerce and fulfillment centers, places with a 24-hour, third-shift workforce where you have over a million square feet and efficiency is important. For a woman to lactate, she must clock out, walk to her locker, go to a specified room, pump, store her milk somewhere and walk back to her work space. It can take from 30 to 40 minutes in these larger facilities. Our portable Leche Lounges provide a more efficient, time-saving solution. Oklahoma State University, the United States Air Force and the Chickasaw Nation’s WinStar World Casino and Resort have been supportive clients and partners from the very beginning.
NBM: How many employees do you have?
Stephanie: About 30—full-time, part-time and consultant-based—all from the Cherokee Nation. All our manufacturing is done on the Cherokee Nation, too. My employees work in sales, graphic and web design, government procurement, marketing and advertising, installation, prototype design, engineering, manufacturing, insurance, project management and bid estimation. It takes a lot to get a company off the ground!
NBM: How large are the lactation suites?
Stephanie: They are 36 square feet and ADA-accessible for wheelchairs. They are made of a high-end manufactured wood product, and we use food-grade materials on the inside so it is easy to wipe down and keep clean, like in a restaurant. That’s how we perceive our space—as a place to prepare food. We work with each client to provide a curated mom experience, and many lactation suites are equipped with a multi-user, hospital-grade breast pump.
NBM: How much do they cost?
Stephanie: They range from $14,000 to $24,000, depending on the client’s needs. There are a lot of advantages to a more modular solution. It is less expensive than a traditional construction buildout. And if you don’t need it, you can break it down and store it away until someone requests it again.
NBM: How has being a lawyer helped your business?
Stephanie: Many employers don’t understand that there is a legal mandate to provide a private space for female employees to pump breast milk, so I am able to explain that. It’s been nice to be that advocate for these women, who may feel uncomfortable going to human resources after they return from maternity leave. Some tribes even have lactation policies. The Chickasaw Nation has proactively identified that this is a priority for its citizens and employees. Its lactation policy is very empowering to women.
NBM: What are you most proud of?
Stephanie: So far, we are completely self-funded through our family’s earnings and we have built up the business from revenue only. We still have 100 percent equity in the company. And we are Native-owned and -operated, which is a great source of pride for me.