Melita & Jonathan Shirley On How Breastfeeding Activewear is Empowering Mothers & Balancing Startup Life With A Family
Melita and Jonny are co-founders and directors of Mammojo, a social enterprise that design and produce breastfeeding-friendly and core-supportive activewear, or Lactivewear, if you will, for new mothers.
They are passionate about removing barriers and empowering mothers and use the proceeds from the sale of their range to support initiatives that address maternal and infant health issues around the world.
Melita and Jonny tell us how a spate of unlucky (or lucky?) events lead them to starting their social enterprise, they share key tips for entrepreneurs and those who are thinking about starting a business & discuss why Mammojo was built to help new mothers.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your backgrounds and what led you on this journey of starting up a social enterprise? [1:44]
[Melita Shirley] - I guess by way of background, I started out in media. I was a journalist initially, moved into corporate communications type roles, and then into various corporate affairs roles. So I did a lot of community relations, set up a lot of partnerships for large corporates and I also worked in Indigenous relations. That's a little bit about my background.
[Jonathan Shirley] - I've been in Australia here since about 2002. I came over [from Ireland] on a working holiday visa, planning to stay a year, ended up staying much longer than that. Travelled around in an $800 Ford Falcon panel van and ran out of money is Brisbane. So, I haven't moved too fast since then. I'm an engineer. I've worked as an engineer for most of my career.
But three very lucky events occurred to us that woke us up from our engineering and corporate kind of roles.
[Jonny] - Well, I was cycling to work one morning and a car reversed out in front of me and knocked me off my bike. I broke my neck and my arm, and I was very lucky in one of the less then 5% of people that have had no neurological damage from the break that I had. And the very day that I got home from hospital, there was a big storm that came through Brisbane, end of November 2014, and our house was hit by lightning and went on fire.
If the week wasn't bad enough!
[Melita] - It was a fairly dramatic time.
[Jonny] - It was a bit of a crazy time. You wouldn't read about it. But we managed to keep the fire under control until the fire brigade got there, and they put it out fully. And we were like, "What have we done?" And we said, "There must be a third thing." And unbeknownst to us, our second son Jack was inside Melita at the time, and his head sutures had fused prematurely, so he had a rare skull condition. This became apparent when he was born three or four months later. We took him to Texas when he was five weeks old to have pioneering surgery, and it worked out to be a great success. So, I guess the bottom line is, we had three very significant events, three very lucky occurrences, and I had a lot of time to think, especially after recovering from a broken neck. We decided we needed to do something with this good fortune. Not everybody is as fortunate as we are. We also wanted to take a bit more control of our lives and the directions that we were taking. And we decided we should set up a business. And Melita was currently breastfeeding Jack at the time...
[Melita] - Yeah, I was struggling with finding suitably comfortable clothing that I could be active in but also breastfeed my starving infant who needed to eat all day.
Every thirty minutes.
[Melita] - Exactly. And we identified there was a real gap in the market. There was nothing available in that sort of line that was stylish and didn't look like something that my Nana would wear. So we thought, "What if we designed a range that could support mothers to lead that active life that they want to live, but also use the proceeds then to support mothers around the world who are fighting far greater challenges than that?"
So Mammojo was born.
[Melita] - Mammojo was born, pardon the pun!
Fundamentally we exist to remove barriers and empower women. We know that motherhood can be isolating.
Personally, I know that I struggled, particularly after my first baby, returning to an active life when you've got a child that you're learning how to care for and learning how to breastfeed, and it can be quite an isolating experience.
A huge challenge.
[Melita] - Absolutely. And I think new mothers really need those connections. They need to be active. There's so many benefits associated with that. And we just felt that breastfeeding should not be a barrier to doing those things. So that was the original impetus behind the range. So it took a couple of years of designing the garments and refining them and ensuring that they were the quality that we were looking for. A lot of our fabrics are made from things like recycled fishing nets, old carpets, things like that, so there was a real environmental focus with the range as well.
We wanted to help mothers around the world.
Maternal mortality rates in developing countries are absolutely appalling. There are countries where rates as high as one in 30 women will die from pregnancy or childbirth, largely in developing countries and largely from completely preventable causes.
And we just thought, "This is totally unacceptable. This is not a statistic that we would accept in this country." So we really wanted to address that around the world. So every time somebody makes a purchase from our range, we donate a birthing kit to a vulnerable woman around the world so that she can have a clean and safer birth. And birthing kits are really very, very simple packs that contain simple items like gloves and soap and a plastic sheet. Very basic items that can have a profound impact on both that mother and her baby.
So where do these kits end up at the moment?
[Melita] - We have a partnership with the Birthing Kit Foundation, and they have a lot of field partners that work globally in identifying and delivering those kits to people in need. So there's a particular focus in Papua New Guinea. There's a big focus around Southeast Asia and also a lot of African countries. So they deliver in partnership with their field partners to the area where there's greatest need.
Fantastic. I'm sure you've come up against a lot of barriers when setting this up and no doubt it hasn't been an easy task. So what have been some of these biggest barriers until now, and how have you navigated your way around them?
[Jonny] - Yeah, you're right, Tom. There's been plenty of barriers, and we're still navigating our way around them. We certainly don't have all the answers, and we're relatively young. So we're trying our best to get our name out there. Exposure is one of our biggest challenges. We've had some really good feedback on our products. The customers have been very positive about them. We've won some awards, and obviously being on the Impact Boom Elevate+ Program has been really good for us as well. But we still want to get our name out there as much as possible. I think something that we didn't understand when we started out is how much effort and how much you need to put into trying to keep getting your name out there, and that's something that we're still navigating our way around. We've tried lots of different ways of marketing, and we are honing in on the ones that seem to work best for us. But it's a work in progress.
I really deeply respect that ability to balance having three young boys at home and family life with setting up Mammojo. It's a big task. So what advice would you give to other social entrepreneurs who have young children and who are starting out on this journey?
[Melita] - Don't do it! [laughs].
Step one, if you haven't already had your children, start your social enterprise first.
If that ship has sailed, I guess... This is something that we struggle with every day. There's just never enough hours in the day. But something that I think we have found works well is to have an element of planning and a bit of a framework around what you do, so that when you do get those elusive few minutes to get some work done, you're actually focused on the right activities and are prioritising effectively so that you can continue to move forward. I think sometimes when it's all a bit crazy and people are being knocked out in the room next door, you can kind of focus on just what's in front of you.
I think having a bit of a clear idea of what the priorities are makes you a little bit more effective.
And I think that we-
[Jonny] - Tag team a little bit. So if it's something that requires know-how or something to do with the website or the operations side of things, when I need the time to do it, Melita takes baby Hugo. And if it's something that Melita's concentrating on, I take the baby.
But I'd also add in, sleep is a hugely important thing, and it's amazing how productive you can be when you're well rested.
So, it's really challenging when you've got that little bit of time but you're really tired and you can't make it productive. So that's something that we're really try and focus on as well, even making sure we get as much sleep as we can.
Sleep? What is sleep?
[Melita] - I know. New parents will say exactly the same thing I'm sure. Who knows?
It's been an absolute pleasure to watch you continue to develop during our Elevate+ Accelerator. And something which is really admirable is the fact that you are already shipping globally around the world. I'm sure there's been some great lessons that you've learned from that. So what is it that you wish you'd knew right at the beginning of starting this process?
[Jonny] - We've got a lot from the Impact Boom Elevate+ Program. But something specifically that we thought that we would have got a lot out of, if we had of chased it at the beginning, was crowdfunding. When you're starting out a business, there's so many things that you've got to consider and so many approaches to doing things, and you just can't do them all. And crowdfunding is one we put down the line a little bit. But having seen how it can be effective and understanding it now a bit better, I think it is something that we probably should have done. It would have had us now in a little bit better cashflow. And it's something that we will consider going forward. So that's one.
And the other is I think there's a propensity, and this is something that I got out of an altMBA I did with Seth Godin as well, is that when you're starting a business, you just don't know where to start sometimes.
You can wait til you've got everything ticked off and you can know everything about everything, but you'll never actually get there. So, the most important thing is just to start.
And that's probably the biggest takeaway from both the Elevate+ and the altMBA is you won't change anything by planning. Planning is good to a sense, but in a sense it's just guessing, especially when it's a new venture or a new enterprise.
You just need to get out there and get started and work it out as you go along because otherwise it just won't happen.
[Melita] - I think that's something to reiterate. I really struggled with having a bit of a perfectionistic nature perhaps, going, "I'm not happy to put this out until I'm 150% happy." And I've really had to change that approach to saying, "You know what, let's just get it out, and let's start getting feedback." And that's more important than never, ever, ever being fully happy with it. So that's something that I have learned along the way as well, which would have been useful from the beginning.
It's something you know now that you can carry forward.
[Melita] - We're incorporating that every day!
So, in your experience then, what is the best way to approach partnerships or collaborations with large nonprofits or charities in the health sector or other sectors?
I think fundamentally there needs to be a natural alignment between the organisations. I think if you try to force a partnership where there isn't that nice sort of alignment, it just doesn't work.
So for example, for us, we have a partnership obviously with the Birthing Kit Foundation, and we're very clearly aligned in our objectives. And I think that that's also a really key- point; all parties in the partnership need to be well aware of what the other parties are trying to get out of this relationship. And so it's great to formalise those into some sort of a memorandum of understanding at least, or some sort of partnership document where those KPIs are really clearly articulated. Because the reality is everyone wants everyone to succeed, and you have to be upfront about what it is that you want out of this relationship. And I think that that's critical to the success of any partnership, regardless of who the parties are.
So that alignment?
[Melita] - Yeah, absolutely. And then communicating is really important as well, ensuring that you're all on track to meet your KPIs and the things that you're setting out to achieve.
There's really good insights there. So, other inspiring projects, other inspiring initiatives; which ones do you guys really feel inspired by that you've come across recently?
[Melita] - This is just one I just saw the other day actually. I was reading about EcoDomum. It's a Mexican company that's basically turning plastic waste into affordable homes. I was really blown away by these. Because obviously we have a huge problem with plastic waste in the world, and these guys can actually build a house for about $300. So, they're really supporting low income earners in Mexico. And $300; that's my kind of mortgage. So, I thinking potentially they need to come here.
Sounds like a great initiative.
[Melita] - Yeah. It looked really interesting.
[Jonny] - When you consider that there's a floating garbage patch of plastic and other items in the Pacific that's bigger than Germany, France, and Spain put together, anything to do with reducing plastic and reusing is a good initiative.
[Melita] - I hope that down the track that that's the way that business grows. I think it is, but hopefully in 20-years' time all businesses are social businesses. Because there's so many issues like this in the world that we need to solve if we want to keep living here, so why not?
Why not make successful businesses that actually have an impact?
Why is this just not a part of every business, right?
[Melita] - Exactly.
So, to finish off then, what are a few books that you'd recommend to our listeners?
[Jonny] - The three books that we got a lot out of; "The Art of Possibility" by Rosamund Zander and Benjamin Zander. It's a fantastic way to look at life. If anyone has read it, they'll understand, and I would recommend it to anybody, not just social entrepreneurs. For example, there was a story about two salesmen who went to Africa in the early 1900s and reported back to the UK. One of them sent back a telegram saying, "Our situation is hopeless, no one here wears shoes," and the other one sent back a telegram saying, "Oh, fantastic opportunity. Nobody here wears shoes." So that's very much how the whole book is framed, and I would reread it and reread it.
Another one, and these are two that I was exposed to on Seth Godin's altMBA, was "A Beautiful Constraint" by Adam Morgan and Mark Barden. It's how constraints are actually good for creativity, and it's really helped shift my focus in terms of when I need to think of creative solutions to problems, constraints are not bad, they're actually very good. And they'll help you foster that creativity. And then "Rework" by Jason Fried. It's very practical advice on starting up and why, I think as I alluded to earlier, planning is often just guessing. And it's just about getting and doing things, but also little bits of advice about funding and why that's not necessarily what you should be chasing. But very practical advice on how things work in small business and growing businesses.
[Melita] - If you're looking for something to keep the kids occupied, Kate Maye has written a very funny book called "The Bum Book," which is hours of fun for the whole family. It's hysterical. Our boys go crazy for it every single time. So if you need a few spare minutes, go and pick up "The Bum Book." It'll keep your kids entertained.