When popular car service company Uber announced that it was launching a fleet of cars equipped with car seats, they reached an under-tapped demographic of American consumers: families.
Calling families “under-tapped” may sound odd, since so much of American consumerism targets parents and their children. But most of that marketing is geared towards consumption of concrete goods, rather than the use of services. Very few corporations and entrepreneurs have taken advantage of the fact that American parents, especially those in urban settings and those who travel regularly, are desperate for convenience.
Exercising marketing savvy, Uber launched uberFamily in select urban areas on Mother’s Day, a nod to the reality that it is mothers especially who are seeking ways to make modern life with children more doable. And while cynics might argue that Uber doesn’t actually care about helping frazzled parents trying to get from point A to point B while obeying traffic safety laws, the reality is that Uber found a way to help families while expanding their customer base. It was a family-oriented, free-market win-win.
An older example of American entrepreneurialism helping to make society more family-friendly can be found in the story of Koala Kare, the producer of the now-omnipresent built-in changing table found in most public restrooms. A businessman in the 1980s saw an opportunity to both make outings easier for parents of babies and to make a profit. The social landscape was changing such that mothers wanted to leave home more and dual-income parents, wanting to spend more time with their children, were increasingly inclined to take their kids to public places like restaurants.
But there was nowhere to change their babies. With just $15,000 in start-up funds, Koala Kare founder Jeff Hilger sent restaurants and stores pictures of mothers changing their babies on the bathroom floors, and soon his product was everywhere. His company has since gone public and is worth tens of millions. As he puts it, “We changed the public restroom. We got the babies off the floor.”
Nearly five decades later, surprisingly few entrepreneurs have followed in Hilger’s footsteps. Most restaurants, airports, shopping malls, churches, subway stations, and grocery stores, to name a few, remain extremely challenging spaces for parents of small children, especially the mothers who are frequently alone with those children. Airports remain a particular challenge. As a mother of two small children, I am constantly amazed by the complete lack of amenities for moms and kids. One can typically find a smokers’ lounge in any given airport, for example, but nowhere to nurse a baby.
Two female entrepreneurs are trying to change that. Sascha Mayer and Christine Dodson have started a company that designs and sells small, clean, and private pods for airports or other public spaces where women can nurse or pump. Their first lactation suite was recently installed at the Burlington International Airport. They have also designed lounges for public venues that fit in the spaces that previously housed pay phones. Of their for-profit company, Mamava, the founders say, “All mothers should feel supported throughout their journey, from home to work and beyond. Because how you feed your child is your business. And providing mothers with a private, comfortable, clean, and serene place to do it is ours.”
Here’s hoping that the ladies behind Mamava become multi-millionaires, too.
But pro-family capitalism stories like that of Uber, Koala Kare, and Mamava should not be so hard to come by. Their innovations serve the interests of women and families and should be encouraged by policymakers and by academia.
Business schools, many of which have seen double-digit surges in applications as the economy recovers, should urge students to tap into the family market. Policymakers should consider offering tax credits to companies that implement costly pro-woman, family-friendly innovations, much like they offer “green” tax credits for environmentally friendly products and buildings.
Conversations about supporting families usually revolve around homes, child care centers, and workplaces—but parents and their kids go other places, too. Let’s support the companies that make it easier for them to do so.