Back in January, I took a deep breath, summoned my courage, and sent a message to someone I hadn’t ever met but who really inspired me: Sarah Wells. If you’ve pumped at work in the recent past, you’ve probably heard of her company, Sarah Wells Breast Pump Bags. Not only did Sarah respond to my note, but we wound up meeting for coffee.
As a fellow health-policy-person-who-also-started-a-business-helping-working-mamas, I truly valued her insights and wanted to share them with you here. Here is Sarah, on how she started her business, pumping struggles, and working mama life. Enjoy!
Mindful Return: Sarah! I’m so delighted to have the opportunity to interview you for the Mindful Return blog. So many graduates of the Mindful Return program are huge fans of your amazing pumping bags. When and how did the idea for your company start?
Sarah Wells: Thank you! I just love what you have created in Mindful Return; thanks to the community for your support!
For me, it all started after the birth of my first baby, Maddy. I came back to work as the director of a healthcare policy nonprofit organization in Washington, DC. It was my own experience of having to carry multiple bags, many of which were not very professional looking, that started this awesome entrepreneurial journey.
I told my friends in new moms groups and at work that there really should be a better pump bag. A wonderful friend connected me to a mentor, and from there, everything took off. I learned everything I could about starting a small business. I sourced a supplier. And after a couple of years of ramping up, I had my first product, the stylish, functional Maddy breast pump bag, to sell!
Mindful Return: Will you tell us a little bit more about your family?
Sarah Wells: I have two awesome daughters, Maddy (now age 8), whom I exclusively pumped for, and Abby (almost 4), whom I nursed for a while and then pumped for when I returned to work.
I had two very different breastfeeding experiences with my kiddos and learned that every child is different. There are physical differences in babies and how they eat, and in their needs and their personalities and behaviors.
I am so happy I had a chance to experience a wide range of breastfeeding approaches. This has given me greater understanding and perspective on what my customers go through in their journeys.
Mindful Return: Do you miss the health policy work you worked in before you transitioned full-time to Sarah Wells Bags?
Sarah Wells: Yes and no! I love the thrill of being in the fray of politics and policymaking, but I don’t feel like I ever truly left health policy work when I started this business. Everyday, there is an opportunity for me to be an advocate for women, which is my passion.
I support mamas through the biggest change in their lives, entering motherhood, emotionally, practically and through my advocacy.
Mindful Return: You mentioned having a business mentor as being so important to your company’s success. How do you recommend women find great mentors?
Sarah Wells: My mentor, Nancy, has been truly instrumental in my business success. I highly recommend entrepreneurs talk to the good folks at SCORE.org, which is where Nancy and I connected, for free, confidential business mentoring.
Mentoring is such a gift. It’s also hugely time consuming and a very big commitment. SCORE does the job of recruiting, vetting and facilitating a connection to a mentor who is “all in” for helping you achieve your goals.
Mindful Return: Your company now sells bags internationally. Where (outside of the US) are they sold? What do you think makes them popular in those countries?
Sarah Wells: Yes, I sell all over the globe! We sell quite a few bags in Asia, where the maternity leave policies are similar to the United States. (Mamas are going back to work and pumping a few weeks or months after having a baby.) We just launched on Amazon Australia, which is super exciting. I cannot wait to see that take off.
Mindful Return: What do pumping moms struggle most with these days? And what advice would you give them for overcoming these struggles?
Sarah Wells: Women are SO amazing. When I first started out, there was a LOT of talk about the “Mommy Wars.” I have to tell you, 99.9% of the time, the moms I encounter personally and in this business are super serious about supporting each other.
Breastfeeding mamas understand that we are all on a journey that even in the easiest of experiences, has struggle. There is mad respect for this among mamas. I see moms constantly lifting each other up, with advice, tips, humor, and a shoulder to cry on.
This is true in business too. My female colleagues, mentor, and partners have been extremely helpful. I cannot remember anyone who turned me away when I was looking for help or advice, even if the help was time consuming or meant they shared some more private details of how they built their business. They have lifted me up.
Seek support and help; there are good people out there who want to help you along your journey!
Mindful Return: What’s been the most helpful strategy for you as a working mama?
Sarah Wells: To recognize that I can “have it all” but I cannot be DOING it all at the same time. I can have a successful career (and entrepreneurial experience), kids, a great marriage, my own friends, and passions. But everything cannot happen at once.
I have wonderful people around me who understand that some days I can give them all the attention. And on other days, I have to shift elsewhere. I am also willing to leave some sales of bags on the table to spend time with my kids on an important day. Acceptance of my own limitations (of time, energy, stress, etc.) and just working with that has been one of the best strategies for feeling good about myself in all these different areas.
Mindful Return: Anything else you like to share with the working moms who read this blog and who want to navigate career + family in a calmer way?
Sarah Wells: Surround yourself with amazing people: family, friends, and colleagues. Invest in people whose goal it is to lift you up as a working mother. Friends who give you kudos and high fives regularly and who don’t let negative self-talk enter the space. Family who are unconditionally loving on you. Colleagues who value you. To the extent you have control of this, do so. (And if you are stuck with people who bring you down, such as at a tough job situation, find positive people to counteract it – even an online support group – it helps!)
After the birth of her daughter, Sarah Wells had her entrepreneurial “light bulb moment” and launched Sarah Wells Breast Pump Bags, based on a stylish and functional designer handbag that replaces the frustrating tradition of carrying a cheap vinyl breast pump bag or five separate bags for all a mama’s “stuff”. Since that time, Sarah’s business has grown by leaps and bounds. Sarah is a mom, an entrepreneur and a women’s health advocate. Prior to starting her business, she spent 15 years running national nonprofit organizations committed to achieving quality healthcare for Americans, with a personal passion to improve policies for girls and women. You can find Sarah’s business online at sarahwellsbags.com.
If you need more help getting your head in a better place to return to work after maternity leave, join us for the next session of Mindful Return.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave