Stephanie Conduff’s infant daughter, named for Cherokee leader Wilma Pearl Mankiller, was the inspiration for a business that has brought her family together in a creative effort to enhance the lives of other women and children.
“After I had my daughter I was pumping breast milk in the bathroom at my university. The janitor walked in and saw me. It was a really awkward moment for us both,” says Conduff, Cherokee.
“I thought, ‘Is this really the best we can do for communities? Is this the best we can do for working women?’ I called the tribal government and asked where women employees go to pump [breast milk] at the casino. The answer was, ‘They close their office door.’ But what cocktail waitress has a door? It made me want to do something for women who were returning to work after their babies were born.”
So Conduff, with her mother, who now runs the day-to-day operations of the business, and her brother, head architectural designer at Nike, invented and are now perfecting the Leche Lounge—a self-contained, lockable portable enclosure fitted with a hospital grade breast pump for mothers who want to express breast milk. “It wasn’t until I had a personal problem and needed a solution that I became the entrepreneur I am today,” says Conduff, who is also a full-time practicing attorney.
This image is used by Leche Express to show how uncomfortable pumping breast milk can be for nursing mothers.
The feature that makes the Leche Lounge unique is the integrated breast pump. “This is important because not many new moms have an extra $100 for a high-end pump,” says Conduff. “We include it so all they have to do is buy a $30 to $40 hookup and they have the most efficient pump in the marketplace provided for them. It shows employees that they are respected.”
Or a mother can use the space to nurse her baby.
“We understand that [some] women choose to breast feed in public and we honor and respect that tradition as well. But sometimes, I know with my own daughter, we needed a distraction-free zone. We needed a space where we could go because it was hard to get a good feeding in if there was a lot of commotion or a lot of things going on in the environment,” says Conduff.
One version of the Leche Lounge.
The units are available in two sizes, one a small 4-foot-by-4-foot enclosure for tight spaces, such as a Starbucks or McDonald’s, the other a larger unit that can accommodate a wheelchair.
“In most work environments, children are with grandmothers or with sisters or a child care facility, so a lot of the mothers just need a clean, safe place to pump. We provide that. But the space is large enough so a stroller could come in if you have a couple of children and you need to keep everyone together while you are breastfeeding or pumping,” says Conduff.
The market for this product is huge. Conduff explains that the Affordable Care Act mandates that employers with more than 50 employees provide a space for women to express milk for up to one year after their babies are born. Many employers do not even know of the requirement, and oftentimes those who do have not recognized how best to meet it. “The mistake that you see in a lot of public lactation spaces is that they will put in a comfy soft chair like you’d see in your home, but that’s really hard to clean.” The Leche Lounge is made of food-grade materials that are very easy to wipe down, and the company does the maintenance on the units to ensure they consistently meet hygiene standards.
The first unit the company made, says Conduff, was designed for function. Since then, they have been refining the design to provide the best possible ventilation, sound insulation and comfort. The unit even includes a USB port so mothers can charge their phones. Talks are underway with content providers to explore the feasibility of adding TV.
Units will be installed soon at Oklahoma State University and the Chickasaw Nation. “At OSU the units will be out in an open foyer type space so anyone can access them, whether it’s an employee or if it’s someone who’s coming on site for a conference or a meeting or an immunization follow-up. You’ll be able to have a safe, comfortable, beautiful space to pump or to breast feed if your child is with you.”
Leche Lounge will be at RES Las Vegas 2016 March 21-24 with New Mexico Community Capital, who has invested in the company through the Native Entrepreneurs Residence Program. The rest of the money has come from Conduff and her family, who own 100 percent equity in the business. “I work, I save money, I invest it in the company,” says Conduff.
“This venture exists because we saw a need in our community and we wanted to do something that was significant to create change for women and families,” she says. And for the community: “We try to source each component through a tribally-owned business or a Native-owned business. We want to create jobs in Indian country, to continue to support the economies that we live in.”
“Going back to work is hard,” says Conduff. “Women shouldn’t have to go back and ask the HR director where’s the storage closet that she can shut and lock the door, which is what so many mothers do.”
Stephanie Conduff is the recipient of a Ted Med Front Line Scholarship.