Untethering the breast-pumping experience: An interview with Sarah O’Leary

Senior Design Strategist
Strategy Director

Smart Design is proud to partner with female entrepreneurs who are transforming women’s healthcare through innovation and design. Today, we feature Sarah O’Leary, CEO of Willow Innovations, Inc., the first fully in-bra wearable breast pump.

Willow addresses the constraints moms face during the breast-pumping process. Designed for enhanced mobility and convenience, the award-winning Willow pumps feature a tube-free, cord-free design with quiet motors, giving mom the freedom to pump and manage daily activities on her own terms. Sarah talks about the need for moms to be better supported postpartum and the opportunity for innovations that prioritize the motherhood experience.

An NIH study reported that “breastfeeding was identified as the main source of concern and the biggest problem mothers faced in the first two weeks postpartum.” The next two largest concerns were lack of sleep and time for self-care.

What’s Willow’s origin story?

Sarah: What’s unique about Willow is that we started with a deep understanding of a customer need. The founding team were part of a medical device incubator where they talked to moms. What they learned was women hated their breast pumps and they could not stop talking about it. There was this incredible gap in the category where breast pumps had not been reimagined in decades. It was at this intersection between mental health and physical health where there was this tremendous opportunity.

We have continued to grow our business since and witnessed how Willow completely transformed the breastfeeding category. About a third of all breast pumps sold in retail are wearable now.

Breast-pumping experiences can be fraught with challenges. Why do you think it took so long for this kind of innovation in this space to happen?

Sarah: I honestly think that nobody was thinking about what new mothers really needed. If you see the purpose of a breast pump as giving milk to a baby, the existing pumps did deliver on that. What they didn’t do was allow a new mother to have her dignity. They didn’t allow a new mother to live any life besides being chained to the pump.

I’m a mom of two, and my kids are everything, but what I’m most proud of with Willow is that we have pushed the world to see the new mother as deserving of being at the center of the products that are built for her. The folks who built traditional breast pumps also revolutionized things by allowing mothers to be away from their babies and still breastfeed, but they weren’t designed for the mother’s needs.

What I’m most proud of with Willow is that we have pushed the world to think about the new mother as deserving of being the center of the products that are built for her.
Sarah O‘Leary
CEO of Willow

What do you think are the remaining taboos in this space?

Sarah: We’re still at the beginning of recentering healthcare postpartum around mom. I had this experience myself, and I think all the time about how you see your OB for your entire pregnancy journey. Near the end, you’re seeing them weekly, maybe even daily. Then you go to the hospital, you have this incredibly transformative medical experience, and two days later, you go home with your new baby. You go back to the doctor once, six weeks in, and that’s it. That’s the structure. That’s how this is set up. There’s just so much strain that’s put on a new mom, to figure all this out without a support network. There’s still so much work for us to do to better support new moms.

Previous pumps didn’t allow a new mother to live any life besides being chained to the pump.

When you were breaking into the market, did you face any kind of pushback or challenges?

Sarah: I think there are still stigmas and taboos around how visible breastfeeding is in the world. One thing I love is women proudly showing their wearable pumps on Instagram. But early on, women were much more worried about discretion. I love seeing that there is now this sense of pride. But it’s not universal and it’s not universally supported.

One of the biggest challenges as an innovator is price. It’s expensive to invent a product, like a wearable breast pump. These are incredibly technical medical devices. We have worked hard to try to bring the cost down over time so more parents can access these products. We have also worked to bring affordability programs from insurance coverage to programs for women who work as teachers, nurses, health care workers, and other essential services. If I could wave a magic wand, what I would wish for is that insurance plans covered more than $80 for a breast pump.

One of the biggest challenges as an innovator is price. It’s expensive to invent a product, like a wearable breast pump.
Sarah O‘Leary
CEO of Willow

Are there any statistics that have informed your work and keep you motivated around women’s health?

Sarah: More than 80% of moms start out breastfeeding [1]. And yet, less than half of them make it to their breastfeeding goal. To me, this says that they were not set up to succeed. It’s another instance of products and tools failing moms. Although there are now better tools, like Willow, there’s still so much that isn’t being done to fully support the feeding journey. The worst of that is moms feel ashamed and guilty when they don’t reach those goals. And really, it’s the society around them that needs to be set up to allow them to better meet those goals.

As a new CEO, I’m curious if there are unique ways you plan to run your company, or anything unique already in place?

Sarah: I am incredibly motivated by the idea that we can do business differently for our team and our employees, while still being successful. With the emergence of FemTech, it’s not just about the products and the impact those products have. It’s also about how we work and how we support our employee base. We want to ensure that we have policies that shift the category forward. For example, we made an effort a couple of years ago to ensure that our paid family leave policies were leading policies. And when we work with our venture investors, as investors in our company, we expect them to review our policies and have the same values.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Sarah: One piece of advice that sits in between parenting and business leadership is from my former mentor and boss at Willow. When I first joined the company, we talked a lot about how motherhood was an asset. It’s not something you had to solve around, but it made you stronger and better at what you did at work. I think I’m a better leader because of my home life, and I’m a better parent because of my work life. These things can sit together – and, I firmly believe that that’s not something we should apologize for.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Sarah: About less than 3% of venture investment goes toward women-led, women-founded, women-focused companies. [1] Willow is a trailblazer as the industry has continued to evolve, and now there’s this term FemTech. But, we still have a long way to go.

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