After returning to work following the birth of her twins, Kate Torgersen was on a business trip in San Diego in spring 2014. It wasn’t the most important trip professionally, but personally, she recalled, proving that she could seamlessly transition back to the workplace was a big deal.
There was just one problem: As committed as Torgersen was to her career, she was equally committed to keeping her newborns healthy by providing them with breast milk — one gallon every two days.
Like many working mothers who find themselves on the road, Torgersen faced a tough choice. Stop pumping altogether, and her body would produce less milk, and her twins would be without food upon her return home. Continue pumping, and she’d have to find a way to store a couple of gallons of highly perishable breast milk at ice cold temperatures during her four-day trip. Torgensen continued pumping and decided to store her milk in Nalgene bottles that she kept in an ice-filled cooler in her hotel room.
Eventually, she realized, she’d have to find a way to get the milk back to her home in San Francisco.
“At the airport I had the pleasure of explaining to some very confused TSA agents why I had a supernatural amount of breast milk on me,” she said, noting that they made her throw out the ice. “Past security, I had to find an airport bartender with ice to refill the cooler, which I had to lug onto the plane.”
“It sounds like a crazy experience, and that’s because it was,” she added.
It was so crazy, Torgersen decided, that no working mother should have to face similar circumstances again as they navigate the rocky transition back to the workplace. Upon her return home, she began working on a new start-up: Milk Stork, a service that allows traveling mothers to ship their milk to their baby from the road with a cooler that arrives in their hotel room as a postpaid package. Mothers can ship up to 72 ounces per day with the materials provided, and packages are shipped overnight anywhere in the United States.
Along the way, the company says, shipping updates arrive via email.
Milk Stork arrives as a growing number of companies are assisting female employees who are nursing.
Last year, Peter Fasolo, Johnson & Johnson’s executive vice president, announced the launch of a “temperature-controlled delivery service” that lets mothers ship breast milk home during business travel.
Ernst & Young, IBM, Accenture and Twitter all offer breast-milk shipping to their employees as well.
Federal law requires employers to provide nursing mothers with a “reasonable break time” and a place to express milk, but those requirements do not extend to business travel. The result, mothers say, is that many mothers are forced to “pump and dump,” a frustrating habit that some mothers compare to throwing out “liquid gold.”
“If I were traveling and had to throw away my milk each time I pumped, I would dread it, and I would probably try to avoid travel,” Samantha Lott, a 32-year-old consultant senior manager at Boston Scientific who uses Milk Stork when she travels for work. “Some women want to stay home with kids, and others want to go back to work, but not at the cost of their child’s health.”
Milk Stork launched in 2015 and has amassed about 3,000 users from about 70 client companies, up from 25 at the beginning of the year, including Unilever and SAP, the company said. Many of those companies added the service to their health benefits after female employees requested it, Torgersen said, noting that — at about $140 per day — Milk Stork is often cheaper than extending maternity leave.
For companies looking for innovative ways to attract top talent, especially women, being able to offer milk shipping sends a particular message, according to Jason Russell, the North America Total Rewards director at SAP. Of the company’s 15,000 employees, about a dozen are currently taking advantage of Milk Stork, which the Fortune 500 company began offering employees this year alongside medical, dental and vision benefits, he said.
“I think when you put yourself in the standpoint of a potential employee who has options and is thinking, ‘Where would I want to go and work,’ you’re going to look for a place that values the whole person and doesn’t consider you just another number,” said Russell. “You’ll consider what the company will actively do to make your work-life balance and your experience there enjoyable.”
Russell called the program an “investment” and said Milk Stork’s value is greater than the modest number of employees using it.
But it’s that small number — a result of the reality that only so many breast-feeding mothers want to travel for work — gives some experts pause. Barbara Corcoran, the well-known business executive and investor who makes regular appearances as a judge on ABC’s “Shark Tank,” said she believes Milk Stork appeals to a particular segment of traveling mothers — the “die-hard business executive who will only breast-feed.”
Most women are willing to pump, she said, but when it becomes too inconvenient they resort to formula. Corcoran said she believes the majority fall into the compromise category, but she thinks Milk Stork offers companies a great way to support female employees.
“I think it’s a very clever and inexpensive give for companies to offer,” she said, referring to the service as “great PR.” “It sends the right message — ‘we want to wrap your job around your personal needs.’ ”
But if companies truly want to attract a “slew of great women,” Corcoran said, there’s an even better way to do it.
“Extend maternity leave,” she said.