Putting Parents’ Oxygen Masks on First

Discussion about parental leave has reached a fever pitch these last few weeks, and it marks an important turning point in the conversation about parenting: namely, that people are finally paying more attention to the needs of parents.

The US is the only country other than Papua New Guinea that does not provide paid maternity leave according to the International Labor Organization, and 40% of Americans don’t even qualify for unpaid leave. While some cultures expect new moms to have a three- to four-week “lying in” period for physical recovery following delivery, one in four US mothers who work outside the home return to work within ten days of childbirth. While it’s expected that people give up their seat to pregnant women on the train, new moms - still recovering from significant physical trauma - feel social and financial pressure to resume normal activity as quickly as possible.

Government and cultural norms play an important role in fixing this, but as an investor in companies that help kids and families, we see business as a crucial driver as well. This is an opportune moment: it’s been great to see NY and SF announce mandatory parental leave, and shows like Nashville and celebrities like Drew Barrymore have shone a spotlight on post-partum depression. It’s now time for more companies to offer parental leave, and startups should be rushing to fill the enormous gap in available products and services for parents (not just kids).

Offering parental leave is just good business. When Google expanded their maternity leave from 12 to 18 weeks, new moms quit 50% less. However, only 12 percent of US companies offer paid parental leave, according to the Department of Labor. Silicon Valley companies, in a bid to attract and retain top talent, have often been at the leading edge: Twitter’s expansion of parental leave - previously 10 weeks - to match its maternity leave of 20 weeks is a notable recent example. Netflix provides up to a full year of paid parental leave (though notably, not as much for its DVD employees). Recently, companies in other sectors and geographies are beginning to catch up. Wells Fargo recently joined JP Morgan and Bank of America in offering 16 weeks of paid parental leave, which will affect 23,300 employees in the Charlotte metropolitan area. Coca-Cola just announced six weeks of paid parental leave for 40,000 of its employees.

The other gap in the market is for products and services for new parents, which makes for an exciting opportunity for investors and entrepreneurs. Think about it: how many CEOs of baby or maternity companies in the US have likely been the primary caregiver for a child before? The math doesn’t look good: only four percent of S&P 500 CEOs are women, 86% of Gen X and Baby Boomer men said their wives were the primary caregivers for their children in an HBS survey, and S&P 500 CEOs have a median age of 55.

While innovation historically has focused on items for the child (strollers, cribs, toys, etc.), companies are increasingly innovating in areas that directly help parents. Moxxly and Naya Health are creating better, quieter, connected breast pumps, which make pumping less uncomfortable, especially in a conference room at the office. Mahmee is helping women access post-natal care, without necessarily spending $1000 on a sleep consultant. Power to Fly helps moms find remote tech jobs that enable greater work-life balance. Childcare and ride companies, from Trusted to HopSkipDrive and Zum, help parents manage last-minute appointments and meetings. Caer (and many meal on demand companies) assist parents with meal planning, while Barley and Oats provides nutritious weekly meals for new moms and moms-to-be. Contrary to typical Silicon Valley demographics, all but one of these companies have female CEOs, and all their founding teams include parents.

Companies, large and small, need to adapt to support parents or get left in the dust. An Ernst & Young study found that 48% of Millennials are likely to take parental leave, relative to 35% of Gen X’ers and 23% of Baby Boomers. That’s an important difference, especially considering that Millennials will make up 75% of the global workforce by 2025. In order to attract these new parents as employees and consumers, companies need to adopt better policies for parental leave and work-life balance, hire executives who personally understand the needs of parents and caregivers, and provide products and services that make parents’ lives better.