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14 Minutes

We talk breastmilk, pelvic floors and modern motherhood with Elvie CEO

Here at The Journey we are all about modern science. Empowering women with choice, evidence-based information and practical tools. We are rigid in our belief around providing unbiased information and tools for modern motherhood. We are also firmly against doing anything simply because of financial gain. I think we are all fed up of always being ‘sold something’ and told what to do. 

As a result, we rarely talk about specific products. However, there are some things that we are genuinely passionate about. Particularly when they are science-based forward thinking tools. Tools which genuinely help women improve their health. Elvie is a company we approached because they embody exactly this. 

So, to be clear this is not a #ad (!) 

We were lucky enough to be able to sit down with Elvie’s CEO Tania Boler. A badass tech entrepreneur and mother herself. To talk about smashing taboos, pelvic floors, breastfeeding and being a mother in our modern world. Here is what we learnt… 

Click here for podcast version.

TJ: Elvie is all about the pelvic floor trainer and the very modern breast pump. Why did you choose these products? What was it from your own personal experience that drove you in this direction first? 

Tania: I never actually planned to become an entrepreneur. In fact, I never planned to work in tech! I had a great job and team at Marie Stopes. I was head of research and innovation. Then, probably like yourself and other listeners, when I started on the journey of becoming a parent suddenly everything changed. For me, having been very much focused on my career and being a control freak there was a bit of a shift. The lack of control when you become pregnant and the total shift in focus: totally on the baby was very noticeable to me. Something that I think is pretty common in the US and UK where we are so baby centric. To an extent I think I was rebelling against this. I just thought where am I in all of this? I felt like I was having a bit of an identity crisis. Particularly with a newborn. I ended up feeling a bit trapped, depressed and anxious during this early period. 

My husband is French and we have a lot of French family. What’s interesting is that in France the approach is a bit different, a bit more balanced. In France women say: ‘happy mother, happy child’ there is a sense that we as women need to look after ourselves first. So for me that really resonated. I spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant to become a mother. For context I had been working in women’s health issues (mostly reproductive health issues). However, never on ‘motherhood’. More on the health side: access to contraception access to safe abortion etc. It was when I was first pregnant that I learnt about my pelvic floor. I didn’t know anything about it, I mean did you know about it before you were pregnant?

No! You don’t, it just isn’t something that people talk about, it is not something that is even on your radar really before you’re pregnant:

And it is not even an issue to do with motherhood. All women of all ages can enjoy the benefits of a stronger pelvic floor and should be thinking about it. However, most don’t think about it until you become pregnant/have a baby. What’s interesting is that as many as 80% of new mothers start having pelvic floor problems. So, for me coming from a public health area looking at this issue it was mind boggling. I realised that so many people of all ages face issues with this. Despite this, there are very simple exercises that can help with this. So for me, I hadn’t planned to set up a company. I hadn’t planned to go into tech, but really saw a burning issue in women’s health that needed to be responded to. Once I had my baby and got through the adjustment, I went back to my job. However, I kept thinking about this issue. I started to think more and more about starting a business and one day I took the jump and started Elvie. 

Why do you think pelvic floor is not talked about despite the fact it is something that can be dealt with relatively easily?

For those of you who are not familiar with the pelvic floor, it is a postural muscle that is between your lower abdominal and your lower back muscle. It wraps around your urethra and your vagina. The way you exercise is to clench ‘down there’ often around your vagina. Although 51% of the population have a vagina it remains a taboo issue. We just don’t talk about it. What grabbed me the most is the injustice around this. Why don’t we talk about it? I think it’s really for many cultural and historical reasons. Ultimately a lot of the core of our femininity: motherhood and sexuality society really grapples with. Breasts are both sexual and for feeding your baby (related to our second product) which is also why there is a taboo around negativity around that. However, I am an optimist and an entrepreneur and we are seeing change happen really quickly. Especially as part of this feminist movement. Women are starting to talk about things that are normal so that is a really positive change.

Speaking about the breast pump. It really resonated for me personally as I had a lot of trouble with breastfeeding. What is it that you noticed about what was available/existing? Why did you decide it needed to be changed and what would you say is so different about yours? 

We launched our first product and people thought we were a bit crazy as we were launching effectively a medical device and we were trying to change the language around that. It was less about motherhood or sexuality, more just about being a woman. Once I had been in this space I quickly realised that all technology products are horrifically and horribly designed for the female consumer. Women have been really short changed by health technology. I think the one piece of tech that epitomises everything bad with technology for women was the breast pump. For those who have used the old technology it is terrible. I really think that men would have never put up with this if they had to use this product. It is still based on the same technology they used for lactating cows 100 years ago! It is dreadful, many parts, difficult to clean, you’re tethered to this noisy machine. Pumping is never the same as feeding but it does offer choice. 

How did you think about how to innovate

It was actually quite straight forward. Typically when you’re an engineer and you’re thinking about innovation you think of a single aspect to change. It could have been size, comfort, noise. That is typically the best approach. What we decided to do however, which was risky, was to essentially just tear up the whole concept of what a breast pump is. To essentially start with a blank piece of paper. We innovated in every angle. It is the smartest (connected to an app and can tell how much milk you’re tracking). It’s the smallest. It is fully integrated. It is so discreet that you simply put it in your bra and it is completely silent, which is a game changer. You can also use it one handed. We just wanted to go for gold and try and make it the best experience. The engineers did balk a bit at the start. It is risky to completely change the concept and understanding of what a breast pump is. Some of them had worked at Dyson and they said at Dyson if you reinvented the hoover beyond recognition it would be a commercial disaster. However, we thought women are not stupid. If you explain that although it doesn’t look like a breast pump and that if you just put it in your bra and let it get on with it they will get it. 

Women are not stupid, and at The Journey we are a bit tired of people speaking to us like we are! We are always told that Breastfeeding is best but often not actually told why, explained the science behind it or given the right tools for modern life. What is your view? Is this another reason you’re passionate about this area?

Absolutely. I am passionate about improving health through technology. There are clear health benefits for breastfeeding mothers and children. However, your point is absolutely right. Once we become mothers we become open to people’s constant judgement about what we decide to do with our own bodies and for me that is what I am most passionate about. We are very pro choice and the fact that women have the right to choose what they do with their own bodies and the right to choose whether or not they breastfeed. So many health professionals try and push us one way or another. In terms of my own experience, someone leading a support group that I went to told me that under no circumstances should I have any formula at all. That if I do its a ‘thin edge of a wedge’. There is a sense that seems pervasive that we as women cannot be trusted to know and do what is the best for ourselves and our baby. I think that fuels a big sense of guilt. At Elvie we don’t push one thing or another we are just there to make the lives of those who do choose to breastfeed easier. 

Empowering women with the tools to do what they want to do is key for us as well at The Journey. My own experience is that many of these support groups often masquerade as supportive but are not. What we love about what you do is that you provide genuine support to enable people to do it if that is what they choose to do. We think that is lacking:

We are supporting breastfeeding. But, we are not doing it in a way that is suggesting that this is the way it has to be done. What we have found however, is in the UK more than 80% of women later regret how early they stopped giving breastmilk to their babies. We also know that only 1 in 3 are still giving their babies breastmilk by 6 months. We have very low breastfeeding rates. It is about giving women choice and opening up options. 

Have you looked at the rates of longevity/ease of use by giving someone an Elvie Breast Pump vs those who don’t use one? 

We only launched less than a year ago but we do have data. It does seem that Elvie is changing the way people pump. Taking a step back there are very different use cases. In the UK it is often people on maternity leave do so for lifestyle reasons (partner feeding/enabling a bit of time away from the baby). Perhaps pumping twice per day. in the US it is because of going back to work after 6 weeks. We really see pumping 4x a day going to an expressing station in their office for example. However, now with Elvie in the UK we are seeing people pump 8-10x per day. Essentially people are just keeping it in there and getting on with their lives as it is easy to do. The data is still coming in but it seems that things are shifting. 

Dr Mona Amin a leading pediatrician on our advisory board is very passionate about helping people breastfeed. She is based in the US and although many of the modern changes happening for women are great. The US has very short maternity leave. That can obviously lead to some women giving up as it becomes too difficult. So it is great you’re doing this: 

However, there is one positive: under Obamacare all women get money towards a breast pump. This is why a lot of our revenue comes from there. Although i’m not sure the NHS will be doing that any time soon!

You are all about empowering women and female health. This is something we are very passionate about too. What about other areas where you think there is an opportunity

Ultimately the tech sector, where I have been over the last 6yrs, has been dominated by men. As a result, there has not been so much tech for women. Many of the products are simply pink or in the form of ‘jewellery’ for example. I think there is a big wide open space. Anything from fertility/postnatal/menopause, which are things that the majority of women go through I think is open. There are areas where technology can solve issues relatively easily. There have been a few startups now and we are all focusing on different things. However we are all essentially saying the same thing and it is creating a tipping point. It’s very exciting.

Modern life has given women many opportunities. But there is a lot of anxiety around being a mother and our lives changing around motherhood. We have to juggle work, breastfeeding and many other things. You’re a badass entrepreneur with two kids, you are a shining light of ‘doing it all’, how do you do it? How do you find balance?

Well you don’t! When I started I had no idea what I was getting into. My co-founder says you are often very naive when you start which is probably a good thing. If you really knew how hard it is then you’d run! I have never pushed myself as hard as I have over the last five years. It is a good thing to do in life, but there are moments where it is overwhelming. The key thing is to look for support. I have done CBT for example which I found helpful. I needed to find a support network. We cant do this alone. There is also the realisation that there is no one ‘perfect’. There is no ‘right way’ to bring up children. You need to do it your way. Work out what is important to you and your family. You also need to recognise that there are some things you have to let go of. Things that will fall by the wayside. You need to make peace with that. For me I have had to make peace with the fact I have no social life! Hopefully my friends will understand! 

It’s great that you openly go against this thing that social media often projects. That idea of ‘perfection’. You also talk openly about CBT and you tackle charged/taboo subjects like pelvic floor and breastfeeding. How do you address these tricky subjects in the right way? 

This actually goes to the heart of what I care about the most. When I think about my own family, there were so many things we didnt’t talk about. So what is the answer? Well I think it is just the more you talk about it the better. You’ll soon find that there are many people who think the same thing. That’s when change can happen. I mean with Pelvic Floor it was seen as ‘yucky’, no one wanted to talk about it. We wanted to shift it to something more positive. We changed the dialogue from ‘bladder incontinence’ and ‘prolapse’ to ‘inner strength’. We found that resonates. Now we are going bolder still and talking directly about bladder problems. The reality is that 1 in 3 are having bladder problems. We need to talk about it otherwise people won’t get help. 

Is it a bit of a vicious circle? If you don’t realise that many people have these issues, you keep quiet and you don’t seek help? 

Absolutely. Mental health is like this too. Prince William and Harry have really done a great thing but talking about it and their experience with their mother’s death for example. With Pelvic Floor we started to talk about it, we launched with Gwenyth Paltrow and sold out straight away. I think that shows how much people want help around this issue. 

As a mother, do you have any tips and tricks how you picked up making breastfeeding easier. 

Well, how did you find breastfeeding? 

I found it very hard. I found being stressed wasn’t good. I also hadn’t realised simple things like eating and drinking enough was so important. I had a lot of guilt as well. Which is why we want to open the debate and tell people it is not abnormal to find it hard:

We couldn’t agree more. Even 50 years ago being a mother was so different. Often now we are quite isolated and lonely. Sometimes the education, particularly with breastfeeding, can be very complicated. Personally I also had a very stressful time which creates a vivacious circle. People shouldn’t feel guilty if they cant.

Here at the Journey we are very big on being proactive vs reactive. The pelvic floor is something we only tend to be conscious of after we have had a baby. Do you think there is something to be said about getting ahead of it and actually thinking about strengthening this even before pregnancy? 

For sure. What’s interesting is that less than half of our users are mothers or have children. We have three main groups who use it in fact: A lot of women in their twenties, then new mothers and then post menopause. The women who are having problems are not just new mothers. People that do a lot of impact sports for example. Did you know that everytime you go running you have 3x the amount of pressure shooting up through your leg into your pelvic floor? Runners, tennis players women who do cross fit often have pelvic floor issues. We have looked into the issue of ‘prevention a lot. Ideally women should be thinking about prevention and thinking ahead. However, no one really ever does. Most people dont really think about changing behaviour or think about prevention of something 20years ahead. So, instead we have tried to flip it around and turn it into something positive and fun. There are sex benefits for example. Sometimes that makes people confused. Is the trainer a sex toy, is it a medical product? The way I see it is if there are sex benefits and health benefits then it’s win win! What we have also tried to do is to make sure the work outs are personalised and fun as that was what was missing before. 

As a mother yourself, if you were going to give yourself advice knowing now what you do, what would you tell yourself?

I look back when I was first a mother and I was worried about everything. All the time. Instead I would try and take a breath. Ultimately parenthood is temporary. In some ways this is bittersweet. There are moments where you feel like you cant cope but, you soon realises that these are all phases. You may feel very stressed but it will all pass. The negative of this is that it does all go by so fast! I woke up this morning with my 8year old and was cuddling him. He doesn’t really want cuddles anymore so I linger on when I can! I found myself thinking: ‘when did you stop being a baby?!’ There are ups and downs, it is a rollercoaster but I would just try and enjoy the ride and go with it. There are tough bits and talking to people does help. Society’s expectations of modern mothers are also unrealistic. Especially when we don’t have the support networks and childcare/more flexible work that some other countries have. Support is key. 

For more information on Elvie check out the link here.

Or to jump straight to the breast pump – here

Or pelvic floor here. 

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Each month we will be giving away a curated box of goodies to suit the individual stage of your Journey, worth £100. To enter the draw and join us, enter your details below. Winner announced at the end of the month.


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