Alma Klein & Liz Rinaldi take lactation out of the closet


In a few weeks, Arc Worldwide Vice President Creative Director, Alma Klein and VP/Design Director, Liz Ranaldi will be spreading a lactation ‘gospel’ at South by Southwest. 

The journey to the pulpit, which is actually a four-person panel, started years ago, when Alma was a new mother who altered her nursing schedule to avoid operating a breast pump at work.

“I was too shy to go into the bathroom or the kitchen to wash my pump parts,” she recalls. “I was sad about it.” 

Since then, Arc’s parent company Leo Burnett has taken extraordinary measures to accommodate new mothers. In 2018, the agency completed an in-house, 500-square-foot, Scandinavian-inspired Mothers Lounge in its downtown Chicago office. 

The space earned the No. 1 spot on Working Mother’s list of the nation’s most impressive company lactation lounges and helped Leo Burnett maintain its spot as a Working Mother Magazine Top 100 Company for the twelfth time.  

Klein spearheaded the effort to build the lounge, which was designed by Ranaldi, who runs the agency’s own Retail Design Group. 

Taking Lactation out of the Closet

Alma and Liz will share their experience and expertise in a discussion called, Moms and Work: Taking Lactation out of the Closet, on March 15 at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin (SXSW). Joining them will be Sascha Mayer, the visionary CEO and co-founder of Mamava, a company that creates “design solutions for breastfeeding mamas on the go;” and Christine Dansereau, Research Knowledge Manager and Senior Associate at Perkins + Will in Chicago.

The discussion will highlight smart lactation space design, identify best practices for bringing facilities into compliance, explain how companies can boost moral by accommodating mothers, and more. 

Here, Reel Chicago took an exclusive opportunity to catch up with Klein about the personal and professional experiences that helped her recognize the importance of Taking Lactation out of the Closet. 

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Meet Alma Klein, a mom at work

You recently referred to the Moms-and-Work theme as a ‘gospel’ in a LinkedIn post about your upcoming panel — what makes it a ‘gospel’?
I have found a little bit of a religious truth in that this is something that people should believe in, that employers should believe in. 

What inspired you to join ‘Taking Lactation out of the Closet’ at SXSW?
A lot of the credit goes to Christine at Perkins+Will. She is the one who came up with the idea of pitching a SXSW panel. She is the mothers’ room evangelist at her firm and she has built a number of mothers’ rooms for her clients. Christine reached out to me through a common friend. I brought in Liz Rinaldi, the head of Arc’s Retail Design Group. Christine brought in in Sascha Mayer, the CEO of Mamava.

How did you determine the topics to discuss at SXSW? 
The issue is having a little bit of a moment that’s unique to America in that
we don’t give women a lot of maternity leave. The average mom returns to work after just two weeks. When they return to work, they’re still breastfeeding. Until recently, there wasn’t a lot of legislation around providing a space. Now, employers need a space with a lock, and many of them are recognizing the need for providing a comfortable place for women to pump. We’ll be sharing our best practices in terms of what a space should provide, but more than that, mothers’ rooms boost morale. Leo Burnett doesn’t want to lose valuable employees when their children are at that vulnerable one-to-two-year age. A thoughtfully designed mothers’ room helps retain our workforce. 

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Where are recent successes and remaining challenges for this movement? 
Employers are now required to provide time and space for mothers. Mamava is an example of a basic nursing pumping station that can be built into an airport hangar, ballpark, and various public spaces. 

What makes Arc/Leo the ‘gold standard’ for mothers’ rooms?
We have two suites. You enter an anteroom that contains a full-size refrigerator and lockers to store pump parts. There are additional rooms that are somewhat akin to a luxury dressing room complete with a mirror to make sure you’re readily attired to walk back into offices spaces and meetings. By having enough rooms to accommodate our workforce, we were able to do away with scheduling of rooms. That removes the pain point of scheduling mishaps due to meetings that overrun, etc. We also won recognition in Working Mother Magazine as the nation’s number one lactation lounge.

How does a lactation lounge make things better for everybody in the office? 
We’re not hiding the fact that moms work here. We’re celebrating the fact that moms work here. We’re celebrating parenthood and motherhood. Leo Burnett is known in Chicago and beyond for advocating on behalf of women, and it helps attract top talent when moms everywhere know that ‘I don’t have to hide the fact that I am a mom and I can work there and advance.’

There are a lot of sacrifices during that first year of childhood. You’re separated from your child. The fact that our Mothers’ Lounge is not hidden away means that you can bring your whole self to work and not feel like a second-class citizen. Much like we wouldn’t require someone in a wheel chair to ask for ramps, we do not want to put the burden on the moms to advocate for the time and space they need to care for their infants, and that’s part of what diversity and inclusion is all about. 

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What was it like for a new mom to return to work before you built the lounge?
I can tell you my personal story, which is why this is close to my heart. I started at Leo Burnett | Arc when I had a six-month-old baby. I was a nervous mom who had to ask where the mothers’ room was on day 1. Getting there required changing elevator banks and taking a hike through another floor. There was a lock on the door, but no sink inside. I was too shy to go into the bathroom or the kitchen to wash my pump parts and answer questions, like ‘what are those horns?’ (In case you’ve never seen one, breast pumps kind of look like milking machines. They have these plastic horns that attach to your breasts, and those need to be washed after use.) 

So, I decided to stop pumping and I was sad about it. As I got further into my career and started to hire and mentor new moms, I didn’t want them to have a less than satisfactory experience and I’m really happy that Leo Burnett supported our efforts. I was also happy that we had the skill set in Liz’s team to interview moms and identify their real needs. The kind of research that we would usually apply to our clients we applied to our employees.

What unexpected challenges did you encounter while building the Mothers’ Lounge? 
One of the things that we heard was, ‘can this just be a wellness room?’ 

The problem with general wellness rooms is that the volleyball team might use it as a place to change. Sick people might go in there to lie down. But a lactation room is really a food prep area. You’re making milk for your baby and you don’t want all kinds of people in that room. It’s not healthy if someone is sick or changing into their sports gear. 

If there is a limit in space, you’re going to have a harder time advocating for a room just for pumping. 

What are the most important elements of a lactation lounge?
Locker, mirror, refrigerator, outlets within reach so moms don’t have to get on their hands and knees to access power are a few of the essentials. Leo Burnett went far beyond the basics, but we created a little info-graphic showing the bare bones of what a room should have that we’ll be sharing at SXSW. 

Any lactation room should be designed with input from the women who will be using it. Mamava and P+W are making a similar effort noticing that a number of mother’s rooms are built to look like nurseries. There are no babies in there. It should be an oasis for working women, so no duckie decals, please.