Founder and CEO, Milk Stork
Mom to Jax, Finn and Zoë
We’ve been loving Milk Stork from afar for a long time. Having traveled for work and for pleasure while pumping, we know how much of a logistical nightmare it can be! After highlighting the company on The Returnity Project, we wanted to know more, and were over the moon when Kate (founder and CEO!) agreed to meet us for a Friday afternoon coffee. No surprise, she's as real and genuine as you'd imagine the person who reinvented business travel for breastfeeding and pumping moms to be.
Kate started Milk Stork as a side hustle, while holding down a full-time job at Clif Bar AND raising three little ones. Ironically enough, she worked on building her business while she was pumping, as it was the only "free time" she had. Today, she runs the company full-time, and recently celebrated shipping over 1 million ounces of breast milk in partnership with the over 300 companies Milk Stork works with. Kate shared with us her Returnity story, talked about how she feels personally responsible to every woman who uses her service, and shared why she believes that motherhood is one of her greatest assets in business.
The Returnity Project: Before starting Milk Stork, you spent the majority of your career working in Communications at Clif Bar. Tell us about your Returnity story, and if you had different experiences returning with each of your children.
Kate Torgersen: My experiences returning to work were very different with my oldest versus my twins. With my oldest, it was very emotional. I remember crying in the parking lot on my first day back to work. I had separation anxiety and had spent my maternity leave trying to do everything perfectly that it was hard giving up control. With the twins, it was so different. I was ready to go back. My maternity leave with my twins was all about logistics, and I constantly had to find so many sources of support. I was having a lot of breastfeeding struggles with the twins. I didn’t believe in nipple confusion, but now I do. I remember crying and thinking, I don’t think Finn knows I’m his mom. He’s not held by me the most. He’s held by so many different people. I think it was actually true for both of my twins that they didn’t know I was their mother for a good portion of those first few months. And that was heartbreaking. I actually feel like, when I went back to work and they were in childcare, it allowed me to be more central. This is totally selfish but it made me feel more primary to them, because I was the one taking them, I was the one picking them up, they were excited to see me every time I came, and the rest just fell away.
I was very lucky with my situation at Clif Bar, and worked at a company that shared my values and was very family oriented. They have childcare onsite, which was a huge perk for me because at Clif Bar, all of the operations of my life could be centered around one place. I’d be working and the daycare would call and tell me that a “first” was happening, and I could run down and be there for it. That environment created a wonderful community of parents, all watching our kids grow up together. I always found childcare to be harder on me than it was on my kids. But I think with returning to work, there are a lot of logistical things that can make it an emotional and heartbreaking experience.
TRP: As a mom of three with a big career and a busy life, what inspired you to create Milk Stork?
KT: When my twins were eight-months-old, I had a four day business trip. And I was producing one gallon of milk every two days for them to eat. That meant I needed two gallons extra, on top of what they ate already, to cover while I was gone. The problem hit me before I left and I realized I needed to pump two extra gallons leading up to the trip. And then, to cover me while I was away, I brought Nalgene bottles to fill and zip locks for ice, and needed to make sure there was a mini fridge in the hotel that could hold two gallons of milk. The day after I got back, I told my husband I was solving this. We were both holding kids, standing in a pile of hot wheels, and he looked at me and asked, “right now?”. I called my Dad right away, told him I had this idea, and he asked “where do we start?”. My Dad then became my co-founder.
I worked on the idea while I was pumping, because that was the only free time I had. Eventually, while the kids were sleeping, I’d stay up and work until 1AM or later. Then, in August 2015, we flipped the switch on the website, and waited. And an order came in. And we were like oh my god now we actually have to fulfill an order. Then another order came. And another. 10-days in I got a call from one of the largest consulting firms in the country who wanted me to launch this as an enterprise model, so they could provide it as a benefit to their employees. I took the call in my minivan, in the childcare parking lot. The lady I was speaking to was like, “I know you just started this 10 days ago, but I know you can figure it out”. Fake it till you make it are words to live by.
By the end of the that year, we had 5 large clients. A pharmaceutical company, consulting firm, design firm. Then it was off to the races. Moms started using Milk Stork and then were rightfully asking their employers to cover the cost, which generated an enterprise pipeline. It was great because millennial moms are empowered, and have very high expectations of what their work life is going to be. And they’re such an informed group of parents too. So they became our foot soldiers, and our sales development reps. Their companies started contacting us. At the end of last year we had 89 enterprise contracts. Today, we have 157 contracts in place. This doesn’t include the companies that allow Milk Stork to be a reimbursable expense.
The most powerful thing a woman can say is that I’m not taking a business trip unless you provide me with breast milk shipping. If I’m truly high value, spending $139 per travel day is a small thing the company can do to make a big impact on me. I strongly believe that no mom should ever pay for milk stork out of their own pocket when traveling on business.
TRP: How did it feel quitting your day job, and going all-in on Milk Stork?
KT: I did not consider leaving Cliff Bar for a long time. Financially, I wasn’t able to. I have kids, I have a house, I live in the Bay Area. So I side hustled for two years, until August 2016, and I asked if I could go part-time, because the nights were getting really late. I personally feel accountable to every single mom who uses milk stork. I feel that. As traction was going up, I felt the stress of having 10,000 people counting on me. I felt so responsible for every single ounce of milk that went through my company.
But as we continued to grow, working two jobs wasn’t working anymore. And I got to a point where I realized I could start to pay myself, and save money in other places if I left my day job. I could save on my commute, and my oldest was going into kindergarten so I wasn’t going to have that childcare bill anymore. So it was the best financial opportunity and best time for us to make it work. It was both really sad and really awesome to leave. I’ve gotten so much encouragement from Cliff Bar, I don’t think I could have ever done this without them. They’re the best people, and they’re investors in my company. At the same time, after I left, I told myself that I’d never go back to a desk job.
The thing I didn’t expect about becoming an entrepreneur was that it felt very lonely. You’re used to talking to people every day, water cooler talk, and that goes away, instantly. You’re working and working and realize, I haven’t been outside all day, I haven’t talked to another human being! It can become very isolating.
TRP: How did you find your experience as a working mom changed going from a corporate role to an entrepreneurial role?
KT: I can’t say that my family balance is better. It’s different. I immediately felt like I had more time with my kids, which was part of the adjustment period. I have more flexibility to go to cub scouts and volunteer in school. I own my time for better or for worse. But here’s the hard thing about working for yourself - there’s no off switch. There is no “not working”. I could work 24/7 and never get it done.
The other big shift is that you’re used to being an expert in one area. And when you become an entrepreneur, you all of a sudden need to become a jack of all trades. You’re in sales, product development, brand, talking to investors. You’re doing so many things, don’t feel like an expert at any of them and feel pretty shitty at all of them. You have to do stuff that you’re really bad at, and spend time on the stuff that you’re really bad at, when you really want to spend time on the stuff you’re good at. When you start a company, it’s all about the stuff you love, you’re very fired up about the problem that you’re solving. But then, at some point, you wish you had an employee handbook. Figuring it out is exciting, it’s like being a student again, and I love it. But it’s also exhausting.
TRP: As you were figuring out this business from the ground up, doing things you had never done before, did you ever have doubts about the path you were taking?
KT: I don’t have insecurities or doubts about my business at all. I have blind optimism. All entrepreneurs need to have blind optimism. Because if anyone would have been like, “listen Kate, you don’t know anything about logistics or e-commerce, and you’re starting a logistics and e-commerce company”, I don’t know if I would have tried it. I have moments where I recognize that I need to step outside of myself. I’m not a salesperson. And in the beginning I’d need to have sales calls, and I would envision putting on a costume, my sales costume, and I was assume a new identity, and it felt very uncomfortable.
TRP: How did you use motherhood as a strength, either through skills learned or experiences you’ve had, while building Milk Stork?
KT: I used it often as a CEO, going into funding rounds. I’m not a Harvard MBA. I had to go into founding rounds as a working mom. That was the position I took. My solution was born out of real experiences. I grew two human beings in my body and fed them for 18 months. Try to take me on. I feel absolutely empowered and righteous as a mom. When I was working while pregnant, especially because I was so huge, it became a primary identity in the workplace. I don't relate to it as my sole identity. It’s my source of strength, but it’s not the only thing I am. I don't think anyone wants their identity imposed upon them. They want to cultivate it themselves and find power in it.
TRP: What are you most proud of?
KT: I’m proud that we’re normalizing the experience of being a mom at work. That we have a tool that can help moms feel like they don’t have to make a heartbreaking decision. Breast milk shipping is a small thing, but it’s one less sacrifice. I’m proud of all the milk we’ve shipped, I’m proud of the conversations that moms have been able to have to get their employers to support them. I do feel like we’ve changed the work landscape and I’m proud of that. I’m personally proud of stepping outside of myself. I hope my kids will feel free to chart their own path because of it. That they’ll also have blind optimism for something they care about.
TRP: What do you find most rewarding about being a working mom
KT: What feels right about being a working mom for me is that it goes back to the idea that I know I’m not just one thing. And that’s not to say that being just a mom isn’t fulfilling. I really like to make things. I went to art school. I feel compelled to make things. Of course you can make things with your kids. But I have a desire to be authoring my own builds. For me it’s very fulfilling. To build something with your own two hands, on your own or in this case with my Dad, on a stage that my family sees, feels really right. Not all of my adventures are just about being a mom.
I do look forward to a day when just like the kids leave the nest that Milk Stork takes off on it’s own. There’s going to be a moment of separation and I do not fear it. I do look forward to it. To be something else again. I look for the day when there’s another adventure and an off switch.
Founder and CEO, Milk Stork
Learn how you can request breast milk shipping as a reimbursable expense at work