A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk with Michael Belenky, CEO of Zutano. The unique baby clothing company stands out not only for their fun, bright, and different clothing for babies and young children but also with their progressive Bring Your Baby to Work program. Father of 2 grown daughters, Sofia (21) and Ella (23), Michael and his wife Uli understand the challenges parents face. Placing a high value on family is a foundational building block of the company they started and supporting breastfeeding is a natural part of that to them. A fitting value for this maker of baby and children’s clothing.
I was curious as to how the Bring Your Baby to Work program worked and how it got started. Michael was happy to answer my questions and though I already loved Zutanos products, I’m an even bigger fan of their family supportive policies.
The program has really been a part of Zutano since the company’s inception. Back in 1988 the company was run from Michael and Uli’s dinning room table. Inspired by their new baby, the couple wanted fun, comfortable, playful prints in baby and children clothes and created their own. New baby and a new company, it was bring your baby to work from the very beginning. More than just inspiration, the couple’s children were a part of the business early on.
After moving the company to Vermont, Zutano expanded and when their production manager Denice announced she was pregnant the idea to provide a more physical support for the families of their employees was born. While they would have supported her taking time of to raise her family, they offered for her to remain at Zutano and bring her son with her after her maternity leave is up, saving the company having to hire and train someone new, letting them keep such a key person in the company, provide a practical application of their commitment to supporting families, and having the added bonus of built in tester of their product. That product manager not only stayed with the company but has had 3 lovely babies go through the office with her. Zutano is family.
Since then, over 25 babies have come through the office in Vermont from the end of mom’s maternity leave, up to a year. With pure delight, Michael shared with me that he really can’t remember a time when there hasn’t been a baby in the office. If a mother didn’t have a private office where she could close the door prior to her maternity leave, when she returns to work with her baby in tow, they have rearranged offices and set up a crib, even installing blinds if she desires more privacy. Mothers are free to nurse and deal with whatever they need to deal with for the baby. Four years ago there was a point where there were 6 babies at one time. When I asked about how it works out, he explained that everyone is happy to pass the babies around, they all pitch in and help with the babies.
Surely all this baby passing and pitching in has to be distracting? How can anyone get work done with babies being passed around?
“Anybody that has babies knows that they are incredibly inconvenient but for the most part little babies sleep a lot. I think it’s a myth that babies are always crying, always miserable and making you miserable but we’ve seen that when babies have that connection with their parents, specially mothers, they feel secure. For the most part then they are really happy campers. People find ways to get it done. That may mean working extra at home at night. The idea that you hand your baby off at 6 weeks is a problem.” says Michael. Babies in a professional environment sounds like an oxymoron and sure, it helps that Zutano is a baby clothing company but Michael explained how everyone pitches in and it is just a part of the accepted culture in their office. “There have been many meetings where someone was nursing through a meeting, babies crawling on the floor. It’s just part of what we do, maybe there’s the sound of a gurgling baby in the background, it’s just the music of what it is.”
“Everybody is so great in the office- babies get passed around, customer service is more than just phones they’re always passing a baby around” Michael shared. “Breastfeeding is not only about that amazing nutrition, it’s about that strong connection that babies thrive on. We really see the difference between the babies that are well nurtured through breastfeeding and physical connection.”
But Zutano’s Bring Baby to Work program isn’t just good for the babies, it’s good for the company too.
“The program benefits Zutano in many ways. Employee retention. The people that have been in our company the longest, most important to our company are the people that have brought many babies, participated in this program. From a financial point of view this program costs us nothing. No liability, babies are with their parents. Offers a priceless benefit. Also, for a baby clothing company, it helps us be in touch and know what we’re about. We literally breathe baby every day.” Says the company’s CEO. “Having a baby in the office ads a social dynamic. There’s not been any big issues with resentment but it really has helped bring people together. You’re sharing a really big part of your life, people are much more connected. Everybody pitches in. if somebody has to go to a meeting where they can’t bring the baby, somebody steps in.”
When I asked about someone possibly being offended seeing breastfeeding in public, particularly a professional setting Michael sounded flabbergasted: “I find it astonishing that feeding a baby could ever be seen as inappropriate. There are people here that are more shy than others, one woman requested shades in her office, Zutano installed them to afford her that privacy. Having a healthy environment where someone should feel comfortable bring in a meeting, something we have to deal with in our society. People need to get over it.”
Michael points out that Quebec is just 2 hours from Zutano’s main office and moms there have a year’s leave available to them and he’d like to see that available to families in the USA too. “Families are really stressed people have to make decisions where children lose out in the whole thing. We need bigger investments, not just what companies can do, society. You do need to have a year to focus on your baby when your baby is born. But what can we do creatively to make it work now? In safe environments, like offices, what can do we do? It’s valuable to keep people for a long time, to support your people you get it back. So many of us now are working in front of computers in offices, for a log of people it can work. We have to have that understanding and flexibility, it’s really important, it’s why we’re here. Not just for baby clothes companies. If we don’t support moms and babies, families, we’re going to pay for it as a society. That first year is so important, a good start and you’re on your way.”
I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully more and more companies will follow Zutano’s example of valuing family and supporting moms and babies leading to a stronger and healthier society for our future.
Zutano is showing it’s support for The Leaky Boob by offering a giveaway from August 8,2012- August 16, 2012. One lucky Leaky will win a $75 gift card to the company’s website. Use the widget below to be entered for not one, not two, but three chances to win and please go comment on their Facebook page (where they do regular giveaways) showing your support for this supportive company.