• Lis Harvey

Are Start-ups Doing All The Work? Workplace Culture In The Specialty Foods Industry

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

In a world where maternity leave, reliable childcare, and family-friendly policies are still rare, the monger is proud of its alternative workplace culture. Incorporated just before CEO Will Fertman’s first son was born, the company found that prioritizing the needs of team members who were also working parents had a powerful effect on productivity and morale. Scheduling, location, and vacation are flexible, which allows the team to deliver expert customer service without the drama that usually accompanies coverage constraints. We checked in with the team in December to see how the monger’s "caregiver-first" values are helping them create the best possible platform for the specialty foods industry.

Tell us a little about your family.

Will: My wife and I live together with our two children: 5 and nearly 2, here in Berkeley. My wife works long hours in the nonprofit field, so I take on a lot of the childcare.

Anna: We have three wild little children. Theo is 7, Thalia is 2, and Vivian is 1.

Lis: My partner and I have two kiddos: one in kindergarten and one in 7th grade.

Anya: I have a high schooler and an elementary schooler.

What's something you and your kids love doing together?

Will: I love reading with them—we're a big book household. Really, though, the best moments are the unplanned things in between school, work, appointments, etc. Wrestling on the bed, telling jokes at dinner time.

Anna: Theo is very into birding, so we can be found searching for Sandhill Cranes at least a couple of afternoons a week. We also love to hang out in our yard chasing our chickens around and making messes. Mess-making is their favorite collective past-time and they are very good at it.

Lis: We love playing games together. We also (shamelessly) adore watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. Best friends squad! My kids are... not yet best friends, but I'm convinced they will be at age 40/47. Maybe sooner.

Anya: We love eating delicious food together, as well as hiking, and playing video games.

What was your experience as a working parent before the monger?

Will: The monger IS my working-parent experience. I struck my first major business deal with a 9-month old baby in my lap. I've been lucky, because specialty food is so family oriented; many of our customers got their start in the family business, so they immediately understand where I'm coming from.

Anna: I've experienced working a very structured, very corporate full-time job while parenting and hated what it did to our family life. We were both too drained to parent once it was time for daycare pick-up and half of the weekend was always spent preparing for the next week, because nothing outside of survival was going to get done once Monday rolled around.

I have also owned my own business while parenting a small child. That was better in terms of flexibility but I was constantly working, even while I was parenting. My phone was an extension of my arm and was vital to growing my business. It was exhausting and made being fully present for my then toddler very difficult.

Lis: Before working at the monger, I mostly hid or down-played my role as a parent. I sacrificed a lot of family time that, in retrospect, I probably didn't have to... because of perceived optics. I was fortunate to have a boss who allowed me to feed my nurslings on my lunch break, but I also had to keep that on the down-lo. It was up to me to decipher the ins and outs of maternity leave. HR was no help, the state of California was no help. It was mind-boggling, exhausting, and like a second job just to figure out how to attain 55% of my pay for six weeks.

What were some of the struggles you faced in other work environments?

Will: The biggest struggle at the monger has been the expense and complexity of securing childcare during work hours. I was very fortunate in the early days of my business to be a member of the Hackermom's Cooperative here in Berkeley, which has low-cost integrated childcare on-site. In fact, that is where I met our CTO Anya Behn.

I feel strongly that if the government wants to support entrepreneurship, they need to support childcare and healthcare for everyone at the federal level. Starting or joining a new business is a huge risk, but it should never compromise your health or the welfare of your children. Taking these two burdens off the shoulders of families would free parents to pursue their passion, and would inject a huge amount of energy, ambition and talent into the American economy.

Anna: Caring for sick kids was always a juggling act. I knew I had had enough when I needed to drag my four year old with strep throat into the office because there was a health and safety inspection that only I could manage. That poor kid was miserable but I just could not take a full day off and my husband was out of town. Any transition in childcare would upend the whole delicate balance and lead to a lot of stress for my kids.

How has working at the monger benefited your family?

Will: I can take advantage of my company's own flexible work hours to help care for my children, without resorting to "boss privileges."

Anna: It's been wonderful. We are a productive team that respects caregiving and makes space for families. I have been able to care for my children when they are sick and keep up with my role in sales. It is accepted that I might not be available due to childcare shake ups or sick kids, but I will be back at it after bedtime making sure we are still moving forward.

Lis: Working at the monger, I'm able to be honest and up-front about my commitment to my family—which saves an intense amount of emotional labor. I can focus more on work, and don't have to juggle personal days/ sick days/ kid appointments/ conferences/ etc. As a result, I'm way more productive. I don’t have to spend any energy contorting myself around the natural cycle of motherhood, which means I get to do good work as both a parent and a marketer.

Was the positive attitude towards working parents a draw when you learned about the monger?

Anna: Yes, absolutely. I started working for the monger while very pregnant with my third child, so a family friendly environment was top of my list.

Lis: No—I was so accustomed to the hide-your-motherhood way of thinking. But it has kept me here! The monger’s deep acknowledgment that caregiving is part of what makes us whole people—that core commitment to understanding employees as human beings has kept me from considering other positions. It’s hard for me, now, to imagine another company measuring up to the monger when it comes to embracing the strengths of working caregivers. Being valued as a whole person, and encouraged to take care of my whole self… it’s really powerful. I didn’t realize how much energy I was expending before, trying to split my personality between “worker” and “mom.”

Anya: Yes, the positive attitude toward working parents was definitely a draw when I learned about the monger. It's really nice to be able to drop kids off/pick them up on the school schedule, as well as take care of them when they're sick and work at home when I need.

What is something you wouldn't be able to do as a family with a more traditional job?

Will: My younger son was identified as profoundly deaf when he was born. This kicked off a long period where our hearing family scrambled to educate ourselves and make sure he got what he needed to have his best start in life. I'm very fortunate that I was able to make it to all the audiologist appointments, parent workshops, sign language classes, Deaf mentor meetings, etc. So the monger allowed my family to become a bilingual English-ASL household, and helped us to support both kids while we made that transition.

It's something that confirmed my intention to make the monger a "caregiver-first" organization. It's important to remember that it's not just children, but parents, spouses and others who can depend on us. We support our staff regardless of their family situation.

Anna: School pick-up! My first grader needs help transitioning from school back to home and I am so glad that I am able to be there for him.

Lis: I volunteer in the computer lab and drive the kids to their schools. That means, instead of being limited by bus route, my kids were able to find schools that fit their personalities and interests. It's shocking that most educational systems are so dependent on parent involvement, yet many companies punish parents if they step away from work to fulfill a developmental need. Communities with a greater volunteer pool definitely flourish.

So I'm grateful that I can help from time to time, not only because I get to peak in on my kids' development, but because the ripple effect is huge. It's pretty clear that a workplace culture that supports caregiving is also a gift to the surrounding communities.

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