Episode 7: WERKIN with Michelle Kennedy on how to support returning parents in the workplace

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Michelle Kennedy, co-founder and CEO of Peanut, the social discovery app dedicated to connecting new mums, quickly learned something needed to change when she returned to her executive position at a tech company after maternity leave. Navigating busy work and playdate schedules for her toddler was a challenge that sparked an idea: why not use the same social discovery technology used in dating apps to help connect new mothers?

‘I just felt like the technology was there. I just wanted to take what was there and apply it to a different vertical. Motherhood.’

Having established her career in tech, overseeing the emergence of dating apps like Baddoo and Bumble, Kennedy was well-familiar with the power of algorithms to help people land a date. Could the same be done to help busy mums land playdates?

‘On a much more personal note, it was quite lonely having a little one. I had been in a very senior position at Baddoo, around people all the time, very engaged, working long hours. Loving it. I loved what I did. And all of a sudden, you're at home at 2 o'clock in the afternoon and with this tiny person who doesn't really do anything at that point. And you're not around people, your girlfriends are at work.’

Just as dating apps have broken many taboos related to online dating, Kennedy saw an opportunity to use social discovery technology to help new mums seeking connections.

‘I just thought I can't be the only person who feels like this. So obviously to me it felt like a natural progression: take the algorithms that we're using for dating and apply it to women so that we can meet someone else who's going through the same thing as me, who maybe doesn't actually want to spend a day talking about baby poop, which of course is fine too but just not me. So that's the concept and the idea I'd had, I went back to work.’

After leaving her position with Badoo, Kennedy set out to build a team and raise money for her idea. Like her experience returning to the workplace as a new parent, her pitch was met with mixed reactions of those who ‘got’ it and those who didn’t.

‘Anyone who said, "well, do mums really need this?" It's incredulous to me. What? Yes! Yes. How many mums have you spoken to? And so the fundraising process was interesting.’

Kennedy’s experience with dating apps paired with identifying the need for a better way to connect with other mums proved to be the perfect combination to use technology to tackle a longstanding problem. It’s also the answer to why representation matters in the tech industry.

‘"What is the problem? Well why do you use it?" I think that women really took the product and felt like it was “yes this is our chance to tackle a subject that perhaps people weren't talking about. I don't think it's massively comfortable to talk about loneliness or isolation. And I felt like we were giving people a voice to be able to do that.'

Still operated by a small team of five, the app, launched in 2016, now has hundreds of thousands of users. Kennedy is still amazed by its global reach, a testament to the shared desire by mums around the world to connect.

‘So I was in France recently, in Paris for a talk, open the app, and I see a woman from Oklahoma using Peanut in Paris. Amazing.’

For Kennedy, it’s about more than an algorithm, it’s about creating a platform to discuss how workplaces must change to retain top talent, who also happen to be new parents.

‘Particularly, if you are the first [returning parent] or one of very few [in your office, it] can be very challenging. I found it challenging for myself. Also, I'd suddenly become the, ‘she’s a mum now.’ For me, I know that mothers are superhuman, I know that they have been up since 6 a.m. They’ve made packed lunches they've got kids to school. Now they’re going to do their day in between all of that, they’re going to arrange a playdate or they're going to make sure their child has the right vaccinations or, you know that piano lesson is going to happen and then they're still going to kill it at work. Then they’re going to go home, do bedtime and start again.’

Kennedy describes the conflict that comes with wanting to deliver at work and at home,

‘You feel almost betrayal. I want to be at work. I want to be seen to be at work, for people to think that I'm the same as before I left. But equally, I know that something has to change whether it's my working hours, whether it's working practice, how efficient I have to be in order to get through everything…. the facetime is important. The interaction is important. It took me a while to realize it's nowhere near as important as getting the job done.’

Overcoming both the demand by employers and the perceived need by employees for physical facetime will be essential for the modern workplace if workers with diverse caring responsibilities are going to be able to manage professional and personal responsibilities. ‘It's almost that we need people to give us permission to say ‘I don't care where you work. I don’t care when you work. As long as you get the work done.’

Kennedy’s advice for managers committed to attracting and retaining top performing new parents?

Don't let that talent go. They are brilliant people doing amazing roles and that old culture has to go. We have to move on. We're always online. Don’t let that go. Find a way to make it work…. and this massive talent is exiting because they don't feel that they can go back to the role that they once did. And I think the message has to be it doesn't have to be exactly the same. It can be the new version, and the new version can be just as efficient, and just as effective and just as rewarding for the company.’

To hear more from Michelle about the power of mentorship, the need for diverse vantage points and why sometimes it’s OK to wake a sleeping child, listen to the full interview on iTunes or SoundCloud.

Links: @shellkennedylon | @peanut_app | Peanut