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How one tech founder navigated an acquisition while breastfeeding, and other boss mom feats

Practice cofounder Emily Foote started acquisition talks the same week her second daughter was born. Conference call after conference call, the baby was included in roll call.

Emily Foote, cofounder of the Philadelphia company, with her other daughter, Louisa Josephine Williams, 16 months, while at work.
Emily Foote, cofounder of the Philadelphia company, with her other daughter, Louisa Josephine Williams, 16 months, while at work.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Emily Foote was on an important conference call when her days-old newborn started wailing. She quickly hit mute.

Foote, cofounder of an educational technology start-up called Practice, was about to pitch a corporate client while her company's potential acquirers — an education software company Foote had long admired, called Instructure — listened in. Its executives wanted to see Foote in action.

But now, Hazel was hungry. So Foote turned her video camera off and started breast-feeding. Eventually, the child now quiet, Foote switched back the sound (camera still off) and made the pitch — while still breast-feeding.

It worked. Three months later, on Nov. 22, Foote and her team closed the deal.

Conference call after conference call  (and a few funny mishaps) with Hazel by her side is how Foote, 38, will remember the months leading up to the deal. The baby was so ever-present — Hazel was born the week official acquisition talks began — that lawyers included her in roll call.

The timing was, of course, not ideal — so long, maternity leave — but there was no question for Foote: Instructure was the company in the ed-tech industry on which Practice had modeled itself. She knew it was the right decision for her start-up, but more importantly for her staff of 21, which includes her husband, David Williams, the director of marketing, she knew their job prospects would grow if the acquisition were to go through. So she skipped any semblance of a real maternity leave and headed straight back to work — with Hazel.

Nowadays, Hazel, 4 months old, is part of the team — popping up on the screen during a video conference or being passed around the client success team as they take a break. She's usually by her mother's or father's side, but if one of them needs to run to the bathroom, someone on staff will happily watch her. Client success specialist K'Shelle Waller says that when Hazel comes in, it's a "special treat." She's become the office baby.

Foote knows her situation — what can be a blessing and a curse — is rare, that most mother-workers could only dream of such accommodation, such acceptance. It works partly because she can afford a nanny to stay at home with her older daughter, Louisa, partly because she works in a nontraditional environment where she's the boss.

"I realize we are extremely lucky," she wrote in an email. "The majority of working moms and dads don't have the flexibility we have at Practice."

Pennsylvania actually ranks among the lowest in the country for workplace policies that are family-friendly, according to a 2016 report from the National Partnership for Women and Families, because the state offers no regulations for private-sector workers that go beyond federal law. (The federal Family and Medical Leave Act requires private-sector companies to offer employees unpaid leave, but it covers just over half of private-sector employees, in part because the law only applies to companies with 50 or more employees.)

In Philadelphia, City Councilman Bobby Henon is developing a plan for a bill that would offer up to 12 weeks of paid leave to private-sector employees. Henon's chief of staff, Courtney Voss, said Henon hopes to introduce it this spring.

But at Practice's office, in the WeWork coworking space at 16th and Market, Foote, now Instructure's vice president of customer engagement, calls the shots. That means sometimes you will find Williams lifting Hazel into the air at his desk to keep her happy while Foote is on a call, or Foote stepping out to pump in the mother's room at Industrious, the Center City coworking space that Practice recently outgrew.

It's a way for Foote to live out her belief that a work environment that's supportive of employees' families ultimately helps a company's bottom line.

"I want our team to know that we are not one-dimensional," Foote said. "We aren't just mothers. We aren't just fathers. We aren't just children of aging parents. We aren't just employees."

Navigating the professional world as a mother isn't new to Foote, who raised $1.8 million in start-up funding in 2015 — a feat for any entrepreneur, but especially in Philly, especially for a woman, and especially for a woman who was pregnant (that time, with Louisa). But she still had to grapple with questions like: When do I tell my prospective investors?  No matter how progressive or respectful they seem, would they unconsciously assume she couldn't meet the demands of running a company that would make them a return on their investment?

And then there was the comment of one female investor — before she was even expecting — that Foote couldn't shake: Don't get pregnant if you're raising a round. It'll hurt your chances.

Foote ended up disclosing her pregnancy to her investors only once she knew the financing round was a sure thing, which, she admits, was difficult because she's usually a very transparent person.

But not everything is tough decisions and high-stakes breast-feeding. We're talking about an office baby here.

There was the time Foote was interviewing a woman for a job over a video call and started breast-feeding a 5-day-old Hazel. Foote threw on a cover, making sure she wasn't exposed: "You don't mind, right?" She didn't; the woman, Trish Delude, is now senior client manager. Foote laughed as she relayed her coworkers' later commentary: "That was wildly inappropriate! You should've turned off the video!"

Or the time that Hazel had an explosive dirty diaper in the middle of a conference call, forcing Foote to change her right after the call, amid her coworkers. It was all over Foote's arm. She looked up to see one of the team's younger members, account executive Tristan Hough, his face white. He appeared to be gagging.

It's hard not to see Foote's maneuvering as a feat of motherhood — a crew of women at the Industrious coworking space cooed #momgoals when they saw Hazel sleeping on the conference room table while her mother ran a meeting. But Foote said this setup is not ideal.

Sometimes, she said, "you feel like a failure at both: work and motherhood."

And though she's been able to make it work so far, Foote doesn't want her employees to follow her model.

"I want both mothers and fathers to focus on their newborns and not worry about work," she said. "We should have a culture where you should be able to work and be there for your families. Our country isn't there, and it should be."