Interview with Amy Henderson, CEO & Co-Founder of TendLab, about building a movement to optimize the workplace for parents
By Lee Burgess, President, Natural Resources Board of Directors
Welcome to the “Listen and Learn” Interview Series...part of our “It Takes a Village” Fundraising & Awareness Campaign!
[Note: there's some adult language if little ears are present]
Today, most parents in America are facing crippling challenges. We were struggling before COVID, but now we’re drowning.
It seems normal to feel like you’re regularly failing either at work or at home or both. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Parenthood is an opportunity that forges new things within us — we gain values and skills that possibly nothing else could force us to develop.
As a working mother, Amy Henderson, discovered that supporting parents is good for everyone, especially in our workplaces. And she’s building a movement to recognize and realize the value of parents in the workplace. She’s the co-founder of TendLab, founder of Fam Tech Founders Collaborative, and author of the book Tending. We’re excited to hear her thoughts about the future of parenting and work.
In this episode, we discuss:
- Amy’s background and her work advocating for parents in the workplace.
- How parenting skills add value to the workplace.
- Results of parents leaving the workplace due to the pandemic.
- Amy’s predictions about the workplace 5 years post-pandemic.
- What led Amy to create the Fam Tech Founders Collaborative.
- Communication mistakes parents make at work.
- Three things new and expecting families should know.
- How to find Amy’s work and her book.
Lee Burgess: Welcome to the Natural Resources It Takes A Village interview series. We are speaking to contributing members of the parenting and birth community here in the San Francisco Bay Area. Thank you so much for being with us and for supporting natural resources as a community non-profit supporting new and expecting families.
My name is Lee Burgess and I am the president of the board of directors at Natural Resources. Today I'm talking with Amy Henderson, one of the nation's leading voices on the critical role of parenting and caregiving in developing the future of work and author of the book Tending.
Amy’s Background and Her Work Advocating for Parents in the Workplace
Lee Burgess: So Amy, thank you so much for being with us today. To get things kicked off, could you share a bit about yourself and your journey to advocating for parents in the workplace?
Amy Henderson: Yeah, sure. So I am a movement builder by background and I had co-founded an organization I started with Van Jones and the support of the Rockstar Prince back in 2000... Well, many years ago. I was running that organization when I accidentally got pregnant with my third kid, and when she was born, I had three under the age of four. Because I am fortunate enough to be in the 14% of Americans who had access to paid family leave, I was able to stay home with her after she was born.
And during that time I had what I call my breakdown to breakthrough, where I felt like I was staring down the barrel of a gun. I couldn't imagine how I was going to manage the career that I loved with being a mother to three kids under the age of four.
So I started calling up first the working moms and eventually also the working dads to say, "How in the hell are you making it?"
And I specifically called the people that I admired, people who looked like they were doing well, both in parenting and in their careers. And two things happened in these conversations.
The first one was that almost every single person I spoke with, and if it wasn't in the first conversation, it would be in the second one...every single person I spoke with talked about how they felt like they were regularly failing either at work or at home or both.
And we talked in very real terms about what that looked like. I call it the shame moment. Everybody had something that was dark, that they were harboring about themselves and specific instances that reinforce this really dark belief about themselves and how they were feeling.
And then the second thing that happened was once we'd had that reckoning conversation, many people shared with me for the first time about this shame that they felt, once we'd had that, and it got out in the open and it was no longer stuck inside us, then there was the space to recognize that parenthood was forging us, that we were gaining something and earning something that possibly nothing else could force us to develop.
And that second revelation is what led me to eventually leave Yes We Code to launch the business that I now run, which is called TendLab, which is focused on optimizing the workplace for parents.
And one other really important thing I want to add just because I think it's really important to talk in today's landscape is... Yes We Code was focused on increasing racial diversity in the tech sector. So when I got pregnant with my third, I was looking specifically at diversity in tech from a racial standpoint.
And then when I started focusing on parenthood, I was shocked that no one was talking about the intersectionality of race and gender as it related to the workplace... I mean, people were talking about gender and caregiving, but people were not talking about race and caregiving.
People were not talking about the groups that are already the most marginalized in the workplace, being those who are most impacted by caregiving responsibilities, and the importance of looking at that intersectionality, particularly today, is something that I want to continue to highlight.
How Parenting Skills Add Value to the Workplace
Lee Burgess: So I read about your writing and your work, and one of the things that I found interesting was that it sounds like skills that parents have actually make them more valuable than they maybe even were before in the workplace.
Amy Henderson: The most important thing to know... And when I discovered this tidbit of research, this is really what led me to leave the work I was doing previously behind and commit fully to the work I now do… Which is around advocating for parents. I looked into brain research, what happens to our brains when we go through the parenthood journey.
And I discovered the work of Dr. Ruth Feldman, who teaches at the Yale School of Medicine, and she's been studying this for 20 years. She's found two things that blew my mind.
The first one was that the year surrounding the birth of one's child is the greatest potential for plasticity in the adult human brain. So your brain changes more during the year surrounding the birth of your child than at any other time in your adult life. And those changes appear to last a lifetime. So what happens really, really matters.
And the other thing I discovered was that this change isn't just available to biological breastfeeding birth mothers. This change is available to any parent of any gender who meaningfully shows up for the job.
So it's not this... I had a bias in my own mind against my husband, that he wasn't capable of taking care of our kids to the same degree I was. Before I had kids, I was like, "Of course it should be gender neutral." And then I had the kid and I was like, "He doesn't have any clue what he's doing." The baby would cry and I'd know what to do when he wouldn't. It was like, "Oh, I'll just do it."
And then I learned that for men and for non-birth parents of all genders, their capacity to show up for parenting is earned and it takes them longer to earn it than mothers who are birth mothers, because we're neurologically primed earlier. But they can prime the same neurological pathways that mothers can only by showing up for the job.
So I needed to give him more chances to earn that capacity. And when I did, he developed the same capacities that I had already earned. So that blew my mind.
And you said about the skills parenthood developed...It’s so important to acknowledge that what happens in that year matters, your brain changes more than at any other time in your adult experience.
If you get the support you need, you're going to unlock these incredibly valuable skills that matter more now than ever before in the workplace.
I coded all my interviews with data scientists, looked into the brain research, and came up with these five main capacities, which are: enhanced courage, efficiency and productivity, the capacity for emotional intelligence, enhanced purpose, and then I think most importantly in today's workplace, the ability to collaborate. You enhance the ability to collaborate, and what is more important in our world of team-based culture than the ability to collaborate?
Lee Burgess: I think that's fascinating because if I think about that first year after becoming a mother, I mostly think of sleep deprivation, not being able to show up as my whole self. So it is kind of interesting to think about your brain changing in ways that could be seen as positive, because I think for so many of us, we just felt depleted.
Amy Henderson: Well, I think that's another really important thing to acknowledge. And the underbelly of this fact that your brain changes more surrounding the year of your child than any other time in your adult life is that if you don't get the support you need, your capacity to function actually degrades. And there's been some alarming research about what happens if you don't get the support you need and how that has long term implications.
Results of Parents Leaving the Workplace Due to the Pandemic
Lee Burgess: So the pandemic seems to have shifted the conversation about parents and caregivers in the workplace, because I think it became really such a visible issue. We now know that a huge number of parents, especially mothers, have left the workplace to be able to be in that caretaker role since 2020. So what do you think is going to come out of this? What do you think is the result of that, and has it changed the conversation?
Amy Henderson: Yeah, it definitely has changed the conversation. Lee, when we were preparing for this, you mentioned that you found your co-founder on Twitter for the business you now run.
Lee Burgess: Good things come from the internet, what can I say? Sometimes.
Amy Henderson: So was the original VP of HR and the original VP of D&I at Twitter, and we came together back in 2015. She's my first co-founder of two co-founders. Janet van Huysse was at Twitter, and when we came together in 2015 to launch TendLab, I shared with her all this research…
I said, "Parenthood, more than anything else, possibly neurologically primes you to develop skills."
She said, "Holy shit, I spend more money than I care to admit training my leaders to develop those skills. You're telling me parenthood does it."
And I courted her and she joined me and we started a business to help companies unlock these skills for the benefit of their individual employees and for the organization as a whole. And we thought people were going to be banging down our doors, because we looked at the data and we knew then that up to 43% of women were leaving the workplace for an average of two years when they became moms.
And there's some really interesting research that Bob Fuller has done over at Harvard around the fact that about 30% of men leave the workplace when they become caregivers to find positions that are more flexible. But they're not transparent about that when they leave, so it's not visible to employers.
So we knew looking at this data that there was a really great opportunity for innovation to retain more of your workplace by supporting parents and to get more out of them. And we thought people were going to be knocking down our doors.
We had big networks, we had pretty solid reputations...and it was like crickets.
We had a few really solid companies who hired us, but it was the marketing department that hired us to do internal work, so they could brand externally that they'd done it. There was no HR department initially that hired us on their own accord just to do the work for the benefit of the company, independent of what it would look like externally.
We thought, "What the…”
So I doubled down on the research for what now is in the book Tending, and we continued to hone and refine our understanding of this space. And then COVID hit.
And for the first time, the conversation about parents and caregivers in the workspace was something that employers cared about. And I'm so grateful that happened, and I think we have an incredible opportunity.
So we saw what they call the “Shecession”, where up to 2 million women left the workplace during COVID. But now what we're seeing is the Great Resignation, or I heard someone call it yesterday the Big Quit, where so many people are quitting because they're unhappy with their workplaces.
One of our initial names for our business was the Canary, because we think parents are like the Canary in the coal mine, that if it doesn't work for them, it actually doesn't work for anyone else either. But the parents are the front runners.
And what we're seeing now is not just parents, but everyone leaving their workplace, finding somewhere else or starting their own venture, like you did, Lee. They're fed up with the conditions that have existed.
If companies are willing to look at the needs of their parents, as if they are the front runners who give visibility to the real challenges in the workplace and to solve for them, they're going to build workplaces that work better for everyone, and they're going to retain their employees and they're going to have a higher degree of productivity.
Amy’s Predictions About the Workplace 5 years Post-Pandemic
Lee Burgess: I think that's the great hope. Do you see, let's say five years from now, which I tell you in COVID times feels like decades. But if we look down the road five years from now, if the pandemic has subsided, if we're back into whatever the normal means at that point, do you think that there's been enough of a shift that these conversations are going to be still going? Do you think we're going to see some of the fruits of this labor?
Amy Henderson: I'll be honest, we started TendLab with the idea that we were going to be top down. We were going to go to talk to the C-suite within companies, convince them of the importance of supporting their parents, and then work with them to build programs that impact their entire workplace.
We started in 2015. Now we're in 2021. We've just been through a massive pandemic that finally revealed the need to support parents and caregivers in the workplace. And to be honest, I'm disappointed with what I've seen from employers.
I have some that I'm working with that I'm really hopeful are going to be making some great strides. But for the most part, what I see with employers is that they're sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what everyone else is going to do.
And maybe they're buying a benefit or two to support their parents and caregivers, but they're not really changing the corporate culture in any meaningful way to solve for the needs of their parents, caregivers, and all employees. That's what I'm seeing, and I'm being really transparent here.
Lee Burgess: I appreciate that.
Amy Henderson: So where I have focused my energy now is working with individual parents more directly because I think it's going to be more of a grassroots groundswell where parents get empowered, they recognize that they should stop apologizing for their caregiving responsibilities and start claiming it as an asset, and that that's really where the change is going to come from.
When we get a groundswell of people who are no longer willing to put up with the status quo and who have the agency to create that change either within their companies or in ventures outside the workplace that they've created of their own.
And one thing that I would say is that the most important thing that I've learned in this journey of my life, really, is that we're stronger together than we are alone. So in this fight to build a better workplace for parents, a better future for everyone, I've learned the power of bringing together community to drive that forward.
As a parent, you know that there are parents that you can find within your company, that you can come together and you can advocate for your needs and wants, and you will be stronger together than you are alone.
And if you leave the workplace and start your own venture, know that there are communities like you that you can find that will support you in your success, and that will validate your reality as you're creating it, because they're doing the same thing.
What Led Amy to Create the Fam Tech Founders Collaborative
Lee Burgess: And you have created some of these communities, you have the Fam Tech Founders Collaborative... So what has driven you to start those communities? Is it to give people a home for these conversations and a place of support?
Amy Henderson: I don't know how deeply you want me to go into that response, but I'll tell you that... I think it's important to mention that 20 years ago, I came home from the Peace Corps with post-traumatic stress disorder and had to do some really deep work to find my way back to myself.
And when I became a working mother in the US, I thought, "Holy shit, it's a good thing I have this experience putting myself back together again, because I'm going to have to do that here."
I noticed that my peers around me didn't have the same toolbox that I had, and hadn't already gone through the experience of putting themselves back together again. So the other working moms and dads around me didn't know that it could be done and didn't have a framework by which they could do it for themselves.
So I, in many ways, launched TendLab because I wanted to apply the wisdom that I've learned in my recovery from PTSD to help working parents in America.
There are three things that have helped me the most in my recovery. After I'd done these things, I found out there's some great research out of Pam Omidyar's Hopelab about recovery from trauma.
They found that there are three things that allow people who've been through trauma to be resilient in the face of it:
- The first one is a sense that you're not alone, that you're part of a community that can see you and understand you, in all of your shadow in all of your light.
- And the second one is a sense of agency, that you have some power over your own life, you can take some action to build a better reality for yourself.
- Then the third one is a sense of purpose, that you can contribute to a greater good that goes beyond just your own needs. So I've structured much of my life based on those understandings and the harder I get broken, the deeper I go into those practices.
So for me, when I was launching TendLab and we had most companies were crickets in terms of seeing the value of our offering, I started a community called the Fam Tech Founders Collaborative, of other founders who were also solving for the needs of parents and caregivers, solving for the needs of the modern family.
What was so powerful about that is that, like you said, Lee, in starting your own business, we were all trying to carve out a new reality for ourselves and for the marketplace. And it was lonely, and it was hard. When I put out the call to action for people to come together, everybody showed up and there was this generosity of spirit that continues to this day. And now the community has almost 200 founders across the nation, and we've just hired this incredible executive director to lead it.
And it's going to be this beautiful, thriving industry association for a sector that didn't exist 10 years ago. And now, because there's this community that's galvanizing each other, validating each other, supporting each other, and working together to build the market as a collective, I think it's going to have a much greater chance of success in drawing new entrepreneurs into the sector, in securing funding, and in building this innovation sector that otherwise wouldn't have the same fire fuel potential.
3 Things New and Expecting Families Should Know
Lee Burgess: I can just talk to you all day about this. Unfortunately we have to start to wrap up. So I have two final questions for you. First is what are three things that you would like to tell all new and expecting families who might be watching this?
Amy Henderson: First thing I would say is it's okay, just like we were talking about, Lee, it's okay, and it's critical that you be honest about the range of your experience. And there will be amazing moments where you feel greater love than you've possibly ever known, and there will be moments where you think, "What the hell have I done with my life, and have I ruined it?" At least for me, that's the range.
Lee Burgess: I was there.
Amy Henderson: Right. So let yourself have that full range of experience.
And the second thing I would say is be really careful about who you surround yourself with during that critical phase of your life. It's a really raw, tender time, and we are the people that we are around.
So be really thoughtful about who you have in your life. If you have family members that maybe are not the most supportive, or if you have friends who are judgemental or harsh or otherwise not supportive, I would say be really thoughtful about being kind in eliminating or cutting down on those interactions.
And bring into your life the people, and they might be new people, but the people who can support you where you are. It's a nuanced thing, because I remember in my first journey of being a parent with my first kid, I ended up in this community of moms who had loved, but we just sat around and bitched. We were like, "This is sucks. This fucking sucks. The world sucks." I don't know if it's okay that I'm swearing so much on here.
Lee Burgess: Fine by me.
Amy Henderson: But it was honest and it was real, I think that was important, and I apparently needed that at the time, but what I found later was that I needed to be with the community of parents who could say, "Yes, this really sucks, but I have some agency here. I have something I can do here, I have some control over my own life, and I have some capacity to contribute to something better than myself through all of this."
If I, as a white woman in America, with a college degree, and all the privilege that that affords and the income that I have, if I'm struggling, then think about all the people who don't have that. Think about the one in five women who were back to work 10 days after they gave birth. And what can I do to bring visibility to my experience so that I can support those who need more than I have? What can I do to contribute to some greater good here?
That is something that I would support parents who are going through this journey. If you are floored by it, as most of us are, what can you do to contribute to creating a better future for others, especially those who are less resourced?
Then the third thing I would say, and I know this isn't very short, but I think the most incredible learning and development opportunity for yourself that you will have in your adult life, and really own your potential for transformation during this time.
How to Find Amy’s Work and Her Book
Lee Burgess: I think that's amazing. Well, as we wrap up, where can people find more about your work and your book?
Amy Henderson: Yeah, so my work for individuals is available on my personal website, which is amyhenderson.org, and you can find my book there, Tending: Parenthood and the Future of Work.
You can find the courses that we have for parents there. We have one around unlocking the skills that parenthood develops to transform your career, which is really fun and I love it. And then you can also find out about the other leaders that we elevate.
We profile men and women and people of all genders who are working to change the game for working parents, so you can learn more about that and you can nominate somebody there.
If you work for a company and you are wanting to work with the business that I run that works directly with companies, you can find that at tendlab.com, and our offerings and case studies and stuff are up there.
Lee Burgess: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time today and thank you to those of you watching for attending this installment of the It Takes a Village interview series by Natural Resources. You can find this in additional information on our website at naturalresources-sf.com, and we hope you'll learn more and support. We'll see you next time.