Can You Hang With Your Baby and Hang On to Your Career?
Allison Robinson looks young for a mom, let alone a chief executive officer. But, days from turning 30, she’s both—the mother of a 14-month-old son and an even younger company, the Mom Project, which matches women who want flexible work with employers who want them.
Robinson had been at Procter & Gamble since college, most recently working on the Pampers brand as a senior account executive for the North America baby-care market and strategy team. While on maternity leave, she read about the many highly qualified mothers who leave their jobs. Returning to work after a leave can be difficult, and women’s earning power can take a hit.
“I felt like the decision of being a full-time career mom or a stay-at-home mom was too binary, and I wanted to create a solution in between, that allowed moms to stay professionally engaged through rewarding, challenging work to keep their skill sets current,” said Robinson, who lives in Chicago with her husband, Gregory, a business operator at a private equity firm, and their son, Asher.
Robinson never went back to P&G. In early April, she launched her “digital talent marketplace.” The service, for which more than 6,500 people have signed up, is mainly for women but will help connect anyone with work ranging from project-based, its focus, to permanent. 1 A good match can lead, and has led, to a project being extended or a worker being hired permanently, according to Courtney Hyde, vice president for sales. For employers, it can provide skilled female candidates eager to work in flexible roles.
The Mom Project, free to job hunters, collects information on their backgrounds and aims and on companies' needs. In candidates, it looks for an undergraduate degree, at least, and five years of work and verifies education and employment histories before someone gets an offer. Employers pay Robinson a service fee of 20 percent of what they pay their new hire. The business has signed up more than 150 employers, including Hyatt Hotels and Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co., and more than 50 have made a match or are close to making one.
Resources such as iRelaunch are for women who want to return to work. Après has a job market, while the nonprofit Path Forward focuses on midcareer internships at companies for people following a caregiving stint. 2 Those who have left law might also want to check out the OnRamp Fellowship. Robinson said she’s looking to keep millennial women in the workforce, by letting them scale back when they need to. The brand new network currently has some older members.
It took Kate Thomson, 37, to the marketing department at Penn Mutual, in Horsham, Pa. She’s on site Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for an initial six months and has Penn Mutual’s permission to maintain her clients in a consultancy she started in the summer of 2015. The setup allows her to get her five-year-old on the school bus for kindergarten and drop her two-year-old at preschool before work, then reverse the process on the way back.
“So it’s almost like they won’t even know I’m gone,” she said. “Which is sort of incredible.”
Before she began consulting, Thomson had spent 15 years in marketing and advertising, telecommuting the last several years but with a lot of travel. She came across the Mom Project on Facebook.
“I want to wear clothes and talk to grownups,” she said. “But I don’t want to sacrifice my children’s babyhoods for that, and I did that for a long time.” Ten days into her new schedule, Thomson wrote by e-mail that things were going well. She was treasuring spending time with her kids, “soaking them in,” she wrote, but “there's a special joy to be found in commuting BY MYSELF,” when “nobody is touching me or needing things.”
Still, untraditional work arrangements may not come with benefits, and years of project-based work could leave a woman ill-prepared to ratchet her salary back up for full-time work. And not every job pans out.
Catherine Siris, 34, a millennial mother of two, had already left her career. The Hershey, Pa., resident has an MBA from George Washington University and completed Johnson & Johnson’s human resources leadership development program. She hasn’t been employed since she had her first child, who is three.
“I feel like I’ve lost a piece of my identity, because [career] was such a big part of my life,” she said.
The Mom Project submitted her as a candidate for a four-month, full-time, remote position in recruiting, which she thought would be a good test of whether she was ready to return to work full time. Siris, who has also signed up for Après, recently learned from the Mom Project that the company is holding off on the role until early next year.
Robinson doesn’t have a monopoly on flexible work. The Second Shift helps find projects for experienced women; it takes a 5 percent cut when processing a member's payment from an employer and charges the employer 15 percent. MomSource Network charges users a one-time $50 fee and focuses on finding people flexible, long-term positions. 3 Employers pay a placement fee equal to 25 percent of the hired individual's salary. FlexJobs, at $14.95 a month, with quarterly and yearly options, boasts tens of thousands of job listings. Prokanga offers a network of “vetted flexible talent” and charges that talent 20 percent of their payments. 4 That's for a project or fixed-scope engagement (as opposed to an ongoing role or retainer-based engagement). For projects and fixed-scope engagements, organizations pay only a fee to start their searches. Fee waivers and discounts are available.
If Robinson’s venture expands over time, it will be harder to maintain an intimate environment. Both Thomson and Siris had introductory calls after signing up. Now that isn’t feasible, Robinson said, and the service is trying to engage women digitally.
And scale requires money. So far, Robinson and her husband have been financing the business themselves. The company is working toward closing a round of funding.
Robinson took Thomson to a brick-and-mortar office. She may one day return Siris to work. Courtney Hyde, 40, found a job at the Mom Project itself.
Hyde, who has a three-year-old daughter, was working as an account executive for LinkedIn Talent Solutions when she saw a Facebook ad for the Mom Project. She signed up in March, before the official launch, looking for project-based or part-time work, wanting a sense of what was out there. Instead, she got a phone call from Robinson and, in June, joined the company full time as vice president of sales, responsible for building and maintaining the base of its employer partners. A big company might want to support working parents, gain employment flexibility through peaks and valleys, or bring in an expert for a project without paying a consultant’s fee, Hyde said.
Employers also come to the Mom Project, signing up on the digital platform. Interface, an Atlanta-based maker of modular flooring with a focus on sustainability, became a partner after Global HR Director Jillian Adams saw an article about it on LinkedIn and was drawn its similar focus on purpose.
In the traditional staffing model, Adams said, you deal either with headhunters (or recruiting agencies) who find full-time professionals or with staffing agencies that fill temporary and permanent positions with less-specialized workers. To find highly trained experts to work as consultants, it usually takes a formal consulting or specialized vendor, she noted. A mom Interface hired through the network will soon start a job in communications on a project basis.
In the grand scheme of things, it isn't clear whether millennials or Gen X-ers or anybody will find it easier to navigate flexible work, keeping a baby toe in the workforce while caring for babies. On a smaller scale, there’s Asher, who started walking several weeks ago, with both Mom and Dad in attendance. It was late afternoon, in their basement, where Robinson and her toddler hang out because it’s carpeted.
“I feel like I’m making sacrifices to make this model work,” she said. “Being there was a taste of what I want to solve for.”