Founder of Classes At
Mom to Sammy & Syd
"Classes At was specifically born out of the desire to create something I wish I had had when my own babies were tiny. I used to go to new mama meetups, but didn't talk abut the real stuff that was going on."
Leah Fink moved from Michigan to New York City in 2003, and had only planned on staying for about 5 years. Sixteen years later, she's still in New York, has gained a solid career in education, a husband who is an entrepreneur himself (you must try Williamsburg Pizza next time you're in NYC), two children, and a very strong community that she loves.
Read our full interview below with Leah to learn more about Classes At, her return to work experience, and the amazing group of women that have supported her along the way.
The Returnity Project: Tell us a little bit about yourself and Classes At.
I moved from Michigan to New York City in 2003, and had only planned on staying here for about five years. In the SIXTEEN years I’ve now been living here, I’ve gained a solid career in education, a husband (via a family set-up!), two children, five pizzerias (a “side project” started by my husband 2011), a very strong community, and a business -- “Classes At” -- that I love.
Classes At was specifically BORN out of the desire to create something that I wish I had had when my own babies were tiny. I used to go to new mama meetups, but didn’t talk about the real stuff that was going on. The friends that I made at those meetups, and I, finally turned to one another, months later, and asked “Did you hate that as much as I did?” For my New Parent Pack mamas, I am determined to make the experience much less isolating than that.
Classes At currently has three separate arms: The first is our new moms classes, and one-on-one support for those moms. The cornerstone of this arm is the New Parent Pack, which is a five-week series that combines information and support. I make it very clear that I won’t teach the “right” way to feed, sleep train, or go back to work; but I will provide information and options that will give you the confidence to decide for yourself, how you want to do those things. I am also fiercely non-judgemental; and I help new moms take the pressures that come with these big decisions, off of themselves.
The second arm of Classes At is school consulting. It can be terribly overwhelming to navigate the NYC school system as a parent. Since I have 16 years of experience in education, I know the system from the inside out, and I help families learn about their choices, and make a plan that makes sense for them. It gives me great joy when a family says to me that they feel so much better after a consultation than before.
Lastly, is The Launch. After a mom has a baby, it can often see like there are only two options: Go back to a former role or stay at home. But what if neither of those options fits anymore? I help moms see that there is another option, which is to launch a side-hustle or cultivate a talent that has always been there, and create the freedom and flexibility that make might sense in this new stage of life. I have helped several people start business from personal training to organizing services -- and I look forward to creating whole network of Superstars. Like the other arms of Classes At, The Launch was inspired by my difficult experience returning to a traditional job after baby, and the joy I experience now in working for myself.
TRP: You’ve spoken What inspired you to create Classes At, and what gave you the courage to start your own business?
LF: During my maternity leave with my second, Sydney, I went to the mama meetups even though I already had a group of mom friends. I found myself naturally putting together workout-with-your babies classes for us, coaching people on sleep training, and organizing happy hours. One day, a mom who I’d give sleep advice to stopped me on the street and said, “I did what you said and it changed everything!”
There was a baby store/community space in my neighborhood that the founder and owner was ready to pass down. When I heard this news, I knew I was the person for the job. But because everything happens for a reason, the deal did not go through, and I was forced to figure out how to take the parts that I wanted, and run them outside of that existing organization.
Being forced out of my previous job was traumatic (see below!), but also made me take the leap into the work faster than I might have done otherwise.
My husband is an entrepreneur who started Williamsburg Pizza as a side project, and is currently working on opening our fifth location. Having him rooting for me, and knowing he believed Classes At would be a big success, helped give me the courage to really take this leap. (It’s also nice having him by my side because he knows the legal and logistical stuff backwards and forwards!)
I have met so many wonderful, strong women in this same line of work who have inspired me to keep going. Specifically, I remember DM’ing Lauren Smith Brody, who wrote the brilliant book “The Fifth Trimester” about going back to work after baby, when I was in that terrible transition going back to work after already having been replaced. She encouraged me, and I was inspired by what she had already built. Other examples of people who inspire and keep me going are Kari from Uplift Parents, Sarah from Mindr, and Alexis from Not Safe for Mom Group, and Katherine from The Double Shift. Each of them are all in the business of lifting up moms, and I truly believe that we are chipping away on flipping the the script on what it means to be a working mom.
TRP: Many of the stories we've shared on The Returnity Project focus on both the challenges and beautiful moments of motherhood; specifically the return to work. What was the return to work like for you?
LF: How much time do you have?! I’ll tell the end of the story first: My return to work was so horrific that I ended up pursuing legal action against my former employer. The first problem was that I was fully replaced by someone else while on maternity leave. When I returned anyway (because, um, health insurance!), I was not re-introduced to staff, my office was fully painted and taken over with my stuff packed in boxes, which is something my former boss laughed and bragged about. My new desk was put in the corner of the basement (WITH one other pregnant staff member who opted to find another seat in another shared office), in a room that was later turned into a dirty, dusty wood shop scattered with saws, hammers, and nails. I was told that I could pump in the nurse’s office, but when I went there on the first day, the nurse told me it was too germy. I begged to be able to use it for one day while I figured out what to do next, and sobbed on the phone to my mom during that first session. Later I found myself pumping in that awful woodshop, and I tried to position myself as much as possible at the Community College where we had some of our students taking classes, AND where there was a clean, private, designated pump room.
Overall, I really love being a working mother for the different ways it challenges me, and allows me to contribute to the wider world. So suddenly hating work was a very foreign feeling for me. I found the main difference between loving it and hating it is how you specifically feel about the work that you’re doing and the difference greatly lies in being treated well, or horribly. And, of, course, having a normal place to pump makes a difference, too.
TRP: What advice would you give to other working moms?
LF: Before I went back from maternity leave after each of my births, I wrote a group of my working-mom friends to ask for advice and pep talks. I got some many good replies from “outsource whatever you can,” to “get two sets of pumping equipment,” to “be super productive when you’re there so that you can leave right on time.” These were all gold, especially the part where my friends said that they loved being working mom or just plain-old, I’m-rooting-for-you cheerleading.
The advice that I’d really give is this: If at all possible, make sure that what you’re doing is worth the time that you’re spending away from your family. Being a working mom can be the BEST, but only when you feel decent about your work and the environment; otherwise it can be quite the opposite.
Some other small things I’d say are: As much as possible, try to have a flexible schedule. I’ve found that even working from home one day a week can make a huge difference. Also, not everyone subscribes to this, but I used the time I was pumping to either read a book, catch up on a podcast, or even watch an episode of reality TV. It helped the milk flow.
And, lastly, just make sure that you have a really good support system, including, if possible, some of the people that you work with, friends and family outside of work (other working moms really help!), and of course your partner, if applicable. Over the years I’ve learned that sometimes one person is carrying 90 percent of the load, and then the other person is carrying it. If you’re lucky it might just even out.
TRP: What are you most proud of?
LF: I’m really proud of my family. Raising two kids is no joke! It takes a huge amount of energy, attention, decision making, not to mention patience. It sounds cliche, but parenthood really is the hardest job out there. My children are smart, kind, and empathetic, and I’m proud of that. I also have a partner who picks up the slack when I can’t and vise versa. I have to give myself some credit for picking the right one!
I’m also proud of my resilience. Aside from the pregnancy discrimination I’ve gone through this year, I have also had two really tough losses in both sides of my family. One friend said to me, “Life is so hard sometimes, isn’t it?” and this couldn’t be more true. I am proud of myself for continuing to keep going during really tough spots, and using my voice and my work to raise up others.
I often talk about how being raised in a big, close, loving family influences how I raise my children. While I live a few states away from that family (but visit often!) I have created a life where my children spend a lot of time with my friends, and my friends’ children, and hope to emulate some of that closeness and love. Beyond that, my husband and I are both our own bosses, leading businesses; which leads to a life of creativity and flexibility, and engrains us into the community that might not be possible otherwise. When I look at the life that I’ve built for myself, I think, “yep. I’ve done a pretty good job.”
Founder of Classes At