Baby. Boom! A new co-working model disrupts office sharing, child care and work-life balance as we know it.

Originally Posted on Oregon Business Magazine:

On a hot July morning, six women are gathered around a kitchen table, eating hearts of palm quiche and talking about child care, work and how tough it can be to balance the two. The conversation also covers solutions, specifically, a new co-working model the women are developing for working mothers, to include an on-site child care center. The Portland facility, called Women’s Plaza, will provide space for entrepreneurs as well as employees who work for other companies.

“The women will be able to be close to their children and to take care of themselves socially, emotionally and professionally,” says Glaucia Martin-Porath, the owner of Women’s Plaza, who on this morning is hosting members of the board in her Northeast Portland home. “It’s a full circle.”

Tall and energetic, 43-year old Martin-Porath, a native of Brazil, has a background in business and childcare. “I’m really good at marketing and I’m really good at networking,” she says. At age 18, she co-founded an apparel company focused on university-branded merchandise. After a stint in Australia, where she nannied to learn English, Martin-Porath decamped to Montreal, earning a Master’s in creative arts therapy from Concordia University.

In 2001 she and her husband — Jason Porath, founder of mobile communications company Storycode — moved to Portland. For the past decade, she has worked as a child mental health therapist for the Morrison Center and Multnomah County.

Now, the mother of two children, ages 8 and 11, is once again channeling her interests in an entrepreneurial direction. The idea for a women- and child-centered co-working space grew out of her long-standing dedication to family and children’s issues, as well as her own personal experience. “I suffered!” Martin-Porath says. “I couldn’t balance family and work. Why do we have to suffer? I’m passionate about solving the problem.” In addition to offices and child care, Women’s Plaza will offer other services for working mothers: yoga, counseling. catering and career development.

“I want to rescue the concept of ‘the square,’” Martin-Porath says. “I want you to have everything you need, conveniently located.”

“The women will be close to their children and take care of themselves socially, emotionally and professionally. It’s a full circle.”
— Glaucia Martin-Porath

The first co-working space to offer child care in Oregon, Women’s Plaza, slated to open in January 2016, is a twist on a red-hot business model. There are over 1,000 co-working spaces nationwide, and a growing number are cropping up in Oregon. Scottsdale, Arizona-based DeskHub recently leased 18,000 square feet in Portland’s Pearl District. The New York-based company WeWork is opening in the Pearl District this month. The city of Bend is on the bandwagon, with three new co-working spaces launched this year.

Women’s Plaza also highlights growing momentum around family-friendly workplace policies. The U.S. has never been a leader in this area; we are the only Western nation without paid family leave and few states have implemented policies aimed at working parents. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 does provide employees at companies of a certain size 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but many employees can’t afford to go without a paycheck.

Today the climate appears to be changing. After years of focusing on jobs and economy, public- and private-sector leaders are turning to work-family balance — a shift propelled by millennial work habits, corporate recruitment pressures and an increasingly sophisticated, globalized labor force. In fact, something of a parental leave arms race is underway, at least in Silicon Valley. In August Netflix announced it would offer a year of paid leave for new parents. Microsoft and Adobe followed up with enhanced paid maternity and paternity leave polices.

Closer to home, Intel made headlines last winter by announcing eight weeks of paid “bonding” time for all new parents, mothers and fathers alike. This summer, Portland companies Boora Architects and Salt & Straw, the popular ice cream chain, implemented new paid family-leave policies. Oregon legislators also passed a family-leave law last spring ensuring employees who took leave wouldn’t lose health insurance coverage.

We have gone from being a country that didn’t know what maternity coaching meant to having a conversation about parental leave being a major work and life transition that needs support in order for companies to be successful.
Awareness of maternity and paternity leave has increased dramatically over the past decade, says Amy Beacom, founder of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership, a Portland-based organization that works with companies on family-friendly policies, a practice she calls “maternity coaching.”

“Since I began my work nearly nine years ago, we have gone from being a country that didn’t know what maternity coaching meant, to where we are today,” Beacom says: “having a cultural conversation about parental leave being a major work and life transition that needs support in order for companies to be successful.”

Women’s Plaza is part of the moment, says Beacom, who was drawn into Martin-Porath’s orbit last year through a mutual acquaintance who was working on the Oregon family leave bill. “It will provide a place for women employees in transition around maternity leave, a stepping stone back to the workplace, until our laws and paid leave catch up to what is actually needed. It’s an idea whose time has come.”

From a social movement perspective, “it [Women’s Plaza] is intriguing,” says board member Kate Kilberg over breakfast at Martin-Porath’s house. The co-founder of Catalyst Law, a firm that caters to nonprofits and socially responsible businesses, Kilberg was working at Hatch, a Portland office sharing space, last spring when Martin-Porath stopped by looking for legal advice. Later Kilberg, a single mom, attended a Women’s Plaza event that drew more than 100 attendees.

“It was really eye-opening to me, discussing these [child care] issues with perfect strangers, realizing it wasn’t just me,” Kilberg says. A veteran of corporate law firms, Kilberg used to work for a company with an on-site child care center. “But there were only 20 spots for 500 people. For people who were able to get into it, it was wonderful. But they weren’t able to do it for everybody.”

The other board members weigh in. Ana Chaud, the owner of Garden Bar, a fast casual restaurant chain, relays a story about her brother-in-law, a Thomson Reuters employee who was given a subsidy to set up a home office after the company eliminated a corporate office. Women’s Plaza, she says, can market itself as an “Airbnb” for corporations looking to outsource office space. Chaud, also a native Brazilian, recalls meeting Martin-Porath in IKEA in March 2008, the day after Chaud moved to Portland. “I said, ‘I need a friend!’” Martin-Porath interjects, “I said: ‘I’m a good one!’”

Stephanie Austin, a 27-year old communications manager for First Tech Federal Union, doesn’t have children. “My mother chose not to work and I saw the toll it took on her,” says Austin. “As a millennial looking for work life balance, I see Women’s Plaza as a solution.” Liana Walters, a Montessori teacher, worked at a summer camp Martin-Porath’s sons attended in 2014. “I saw her ethics, how she dealt with parents and children in such a friendly manner,” Martin-Porath says. “I was like: ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to get this girl!’”

Martin-Porath laughs when asked if the Women’s Plaza model, and her passion for it, betray her Latin American roots, where plazas and family support systems are arguably more common than in the U.S. “It’s a concept that comes from my heart and from wanting to help people.” These kinds of statements, which spring forth as spontaneous outpourings of feeling, can make Martin-Porath sound, well, sentimental. Yet as social entrepreneurship becomes the buzzword, feelings and emotions are becoming the new green among entrepreneurs and C-suite denizens alike. (Portland’s “Love Summit,” which featured CEOs like Dan Wieden and David Howitt, attracted more than 150 business people this past June.)

Martin-Porath is “not all Kumbaya,” Chaud observes. “She’s a go-getter. She finds a way to get things done.” Kelley Tralle, a training director for Multnomah County, where she met and became close friends with Martin-Porath, says, “Glaucia is an inspiration, constantly checking in with folks, giving you a hug and kiss. But what’s amazing is she has the vision, the charisma and the passion, and is also able to dive into the details and put an action plan into place.”

In an email, Sara Kushner, a small business owner who is interested in relocating her home office to Women’s Plaza, explained the allure of the co-working space and its leader: “Glaucia, I’ve learned, is a magnet for great people.”

As this article went to press in mid-August, Martin-Porath was negotiating a lease on an 11,000-square-foot warehouse space in inner Northeast Portland. The plaza will have capacity for 124 workers spread out over 11 offices, 12 cubicles and several “hot desks,” long tables where individuals can work communally. Rental prices will range from $150 to more than $1,000 per month, she says.

Last month Martin-Porath also announced an unexpected partnership with New York City Explorers, a pioneering Brooklyn-based family of companies, including a co-working space for parents, babysitting services, a day care center and an after-school program. New York City Explorers will operate the Women’s Plaza day care center, to be called Portland City Explorers. It will have capacity for 70 children and mothers working at Women’s Plaza will be guaranteed a spot.

“It was timely. I was interested,” says New York City Explorers co-founder and CEO Kisha Edwards-Gandsy, who stopped by the Oregon Business office in July, when she was visiting Portland to scout the Women’s Plaza location. Her partnership with Martin-Porath is another 21st-century social and entrepreneurial networking moment. The two women met through Beacom, who in 2008 was living in New York as a graduate student and was an early investor in New York City Explorers.

When Martin-Porath told her about the co-working space, “I wanted to support her,” Beacom says. “I said, ‘You really need to talk to Kisha; she’s the expert on this.” The 33-year-old Edwards-Gandsy, Beacom adds, is a “true visionary.”

“We hit it off on a business level,” Edwards-Gandsy says, adding that she had been thinking about opening a West Coast location. “People have been calling us from all over the country because we are the only co-working space with child care in New York City. Glaucia was like, ‘This is what we need. And I was like, ‘Well, we figured it out.’”

Women’s Plaza isn’t the only co-working space with child care. There is New York City Explorers, and NextKids in San Francisco. A handful of others are set to launch in Seattle and Chicago. Women’s Plaza pushes the envelope. Martin-Porath’s marketing strategy involves selling memberships not only to entrepreneurs but also to companies that employ women with young children. “They can use the center as a satellite office and rotate the employees so they have all the professional amenities,” she says.

“The complicated piece is the capacity issue,” continues Martin-Porath: how do you keep all the spots filled as employees cycle in and out and children get older? She is creating a matrix to account for the variables and guarantee a steady income stream. As she crunches the numbers, she tries to stay focused on the bigger picture. “I want to shift the paradigm for companies so women have an easy transition between work, maternity leave and back.”

Martin-Porath is not alone in her ambitions. In the U.S., only 12% of private-sector employers offer paid family leave. But these policies are beginning to percolate down the food chain. In addition to millennial work habits favoring flex-time, global developments are also trending toward more family-friendly work policies, experts say.

“Women are falling out of the workforce left and right because of maternity issues,” says Beacom. “Companies are going, ‘Oh my gosh. What can we do?’” Beacom herself launched the Center for Parental Leave after Australia passed legislation in 2013 requiring companies with more than 100 employees to disclose the number of female workers and adopt strategies to meet gender diversity targets. Today, most of Beacom’s clients are in Australia, although she works out of a Portland office.

Disparities in national parental leave policies are also prompting American companies to add paid leave, Beacom adds. “A lot of companies are international in scope. If Nike is offering 32 weeks of paid leave in Germany and only two in the U.S., there is a real issue. You’re not able to bring talent to the company.”

Even smaller firms see the benefit. Boora Architects’ new policy provides all 65 employees six weeks of paid family leave at 60% of salary. “We did an analysis looking back five years — who in the firm would have qualified,” says principal Amy Donohue. “It averaged what is a very affordable investment, especially when you deduct short-term disability that we pay every year. And when you look at what it takes to search for new employees — it’s a retention issue.”

The statistics are compelling. Google, for example, increased retention by 50% after increasing the amount of parental leave from three to five months with full pay.

Kim Malek, owner of Salt & Straw, says the company’s three-month paid maternity and paternity leave policy was designed “to make it as easy for people to work and be contributing members of society as possible. We have to take care of our children and society. It takes a village.”

As Martin-Porath proudly proclaims, Women’s Plaza is (likely) the first co-working space in the country to cater to working mothers. But there is an elephant, so to speak, in the plaza: In 2015, a business model based on mothers as child care providers can seem like a setback for gender parity. Not everyone is keen on the idea. Asked her opinion of Women’s Plaza, Monica Enand, CEO of the fast-growing legal software firm Zapproved, responded in an email: “Ugh — men have children and women need to make sure men take responsibility jointly or women will never get anywhere in the business world! Why is child care a women’s issue so much still?”

Why is child care still so much a women’s issue?
But in the next sentence, Enand, who stayed home for four years raising her two children, dialed back the criticism — sort of. “I think [Women’s Plaza] is good for women who have made the decision to prioritize their children and want to do something professional on the side. I think if you are prioritizing building an ambitious startup, this will not be the right environment.”

Women’s Plaza, of course, cannot legally discriminate against men who want to use the co-working space. “Fathers are welcome and will certainly find many of the services offered at Women’s Plaza valuable,” Martin-Porath says. But she is unfazed by intimations of political incorrectness. “Day care is not a mother’s issue,” she agrees. “It’s a national issue; it’s a quality and affordability issue. But we wanted to communicate to women that this space will take into account needs that are unique to women, such as facilitating the needs of nursing moms. Our niche market is working mothers, and that is where we will focus our marketing efforts.”

Tralle defends the plaza’s female-centric approach as a smart business model. “Anything focused on women and children, people wonder: how are you going to make enough money?” she says. “That’s a very cultural, systemic and inequitable way of looking at things. This is a model that starts to understand and elevate the possibility of women being able to manage and innovate and partner in small pockets.”

Since the networking event last spring, hundreds of potential clients and partners have expressed support for the Women’s Plaza concept. Martin-Porath has 422 people on her mailing list — she is planning a presale so women can get in on the ground floor — and testimonials continue to pour into her inbox. “Tears welled up in my eyes when I read about what this would offer,” wrote one woman, an environmental professional identified as Katie O. “It would be a total game changer for me toward less exhaustion, less feeling held back in my career, and more balance and satisfaction with all aspects of life.”

The next generation Women’s Plaza is one of several co-working and child care spaces springing up around the country. A few are
up and running but most are still in the planning stages. NextKids, San Francisco, Ellie’s Coworking and Child Care, Seattle,The Workaround,Brooklyn, NY: Pop up child care and office space, Collide Coworking, Chicago New York City Explorers.
Last spring, Martin-Porath’s husband sold Storycode to Six Dimensions Global, where he now works as vice president of business development. Proceeds from the sale will help fund the center — the estimated cost of the buildout is $500,000 — and Martin-Porath eventually plans to issue stock through Oregon’s new community crowd-funding rule. “I want the women at Women’s Plaza to invest in themselves.”

Bigger players are taking note. A venture capital firm has indicated interest once the center meets certain benchmarks. A marketing strategist in Austin, Texas, is working with Martin-Porath on franchising the model. The CEO of a research firm with a 90% female workforce had planned on using WeWork, Martin-Porath says, but now favors Women’s Plaza.

It all speaks to an emerging ecosystem. In the United States, people either leave their babies with someone else or they drop out of the workforce. Those people are mostly women. If Women’s Plaza sounds anachronistic, Martin-Porath suggests, it’s because our family leave and child care policies are anachronistic.

Creating a female empowered space in business is a critical part of getting women back into the workforce, she argues. Yet she is as flexible about the plaza’s long-term goals as she is adamant about its short-term purpose. The value of Women’s Plaza is not so much the building, but in getting employers and communities to rethink the structural divide between work and family. The true measure of success, Martin-Porath jokes, will be rendering the center obsolete — to rescue, as she says, the concept of the square.

“I’m working toward putting myself out of business.” She turns serious. “This is a business and we have to make money. The way the system works now it doesn’t support working mothers; it doesn’t support millennials. I’m preparing for that. I know it’s going to explode.”

The child care dividend
A survey by the Child Care Partnership Project found that almost two-thirds of employers that provided child care services reduced turnover; almost half reported it helped boost employee productivity.

U.S. companies lose $3 billion annually as a consequence of child care-related absences, estimates the Child Care Action Campaign. Yet, nationally, only 2% of employers offer a subsidized child care center on-site or nearby. In Oregon, only 2% of employers provide child care benefits, according to a 2013 report by the Oregon Employment Department, Workforce and Economic Research Division. —  KIM MOORE