Stephanie Conduff is inventor, founder and CEO of Leche Lounge, a startup at The Forge in Tulsa. Leche Lounge provides a solution for companies that need to provide breast-pumping space for employees. JAMES GIBBARD/Tulsa World
In Stephanie Conduff’s office stands a life-size poster of a mother, shirt pulled up outside a bathroom stall, pumps attached to her breasts.
It reminds Conduff of the indignity she herself had to experience while expressing milk.
“Until we’re successful, this is going to be the norm,” said Conduff, 32, referring to the image. “We have to do better than this being the norm.
“As a mom who traveled, worked for a law firm, went to a lot of client meetings, I found myself in cars (pumping). Even in the courthouse, there is no place to pump.”
Conduff’s new startup, Leche Lounge, seeks to fill that void.
Allowing CEOs and governments to comply with the Affordable Care Act, which mandates that employers accommodate nursing mothers by providing a private space other than a bathroom, Leche Lounge provides units that can be placed permanently or temporarily on site.
Seventy-seven percent of women attempt breast feeding, and 67 percent of employers are not compliant when it comes to mothers who are nursing or expressing breast milk, Conduff said.
“It’s a priority for it to be a great user experience and then a very great experience for the businesses that are going the extra mile to provide the accommodation,” said Conduff, who has a 2-year-old daughter. “For us, we need the solution to be easy and as cost-effective as possible and to make sure employers understand that it will reduce absenteeism of their employees.
“It has a direct correlation to the health and wellness of the family, which can save in health insurance costs, especially those employers who self-insure, which we have a lot of in Oklahoma. And it improves morale.”
At roughly 35 square feet, the Leche Lounge model ensures an ample turning radius for wheelchairs and offers space when a mother may need to bring luggage to the airport or a stroller to the zoo. The Leche Lounge Petite Suite is about a 4-by-4-foot area that provides a solution for businesses in employee dining areas or break rooms with limited square footage.
Other features of the units include a hospital-grade pump, digital media, USB charger, ventilation and small fan.
Conduff and her company are attracting attention.
She recently returned from Orlando, Florida, where she attended the “Dolphin Tank” Pitch Contest, sponsored by the International Conference on Business Incubation. Founded in May, Leche Lounge was among only eight companies chosen from worldwide incubators for the opportunity, which provides entrepreneurs with knowledge from industry experts, she said.
The Tulsa startup, 125 W. Third St., is a tenant of The Forge, an incubator of the Tulsa Regional Chamber that is sponsored by Tulsa’s Young Professionals.
“Getting feedback on your pitch, getting feedback on your business, hearing the questions that people ask, you can learn a lot from,” said Conduff, whose mother, Elena, also works at Leche Lounge. “I continue to learn from all that I observe. Each place that we go, each person that we talk to takes us to a different place in our business. We’re very coachable in that way.”
A member of the Cherokee Nation, Conduff is securing the help of Native American and Oklahoma companies to perfect and carry out her business model. She is working with the Chickasaw Nation and the WinStar World Casino in Thackerville to place a Leche Lounge there in May, and she also is working with the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences-Tulsa to provide a space for women to pump on campus.
Among Conduff’s supporters is New Mexico Community Capital, a community development financial institution that backs native-owned businesses. Cheryl Hill, who owns Hill Manufacturing in Broken Arrow, serves as one of Conduff’s mentors through NMCC’s Native Entrepreneur in Residence program.
Hill praised Conduff’s passion and determination.
“This girl has a drive and an intelligence that is uncanny,” Hill said.
Conduff has traveled the country — and world — serving and enlightening others.
She has been a reporter at newspapers such as the Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Tulsa World. A practicing attorney and graduate of the University of Oklahoma College of Law, Conduff has worked for tribal governments in Washington, D.C., contributed to a United Nations report from Bogota, Colombia, and worked for the State Department at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa.
But it is from her quaint Tulsa office that she hopes to effect the most change.
“To create social change, to empower women, to meet them where they are and the challenges they have, it’s pretty rare to have that opportunity as an entrepreneur,” Conduff said. “To do that while creating jobs in northeastern Oklahoma … you can tell that it’s a very strategic mission.
“I feel that I’m living my values. I feel like that I’m setting the example I want for my daughter.”
Rhett Morgan 918-581-8395