How one leader is revolutionizing opportunities for working moms
“It’s time for a work revolution.” This is Mary Kay Ziniewicz’s motto when it comes to women and work. Mary Kay started her career in media, law, and marketing but today she is the Founder of Bus Stop Mamas, a career reentry program for moms to pursue flexible work. Mary Kay and I talk about the importance of access to career knowledge, the bus stop experience that inspired her to launch Bus Stop Mamas, and what she wishes companies would do to keep women in the workforce. Read on for more about the revolution Mary Kay is leading!
Let’s hear about your early career. How did you start out your career?
I am the first generation in my immediate family to go to college. I come from a very blue collar family in Cleveland. College was one of those things that my family didn’t say I should be doing. In fact, they were against it and were pushing trade school. But I decided I was going to college. So I left home and went to school. I had to pay for it myself so that was the beginning of my career, because I always worked jobs while I was in college. I worked jobs that were in line with what I was studying. I was a Communications major and I worked in newspaper and radio and television. My college experience wasn’t like most people, or like my roommates who had a very enjoyable experience! I worked a lot and paid for everything. But, by the time I graduated, I had a full resume of solid experience.
I graduated in 1991 when the economy was not very good, but I never had a problem finding work. A lot of that had to do with my survival mode. My movements were based on necessity. I was good at finding work because I had always been fighting, fighting, fighting to get what I needed when it came to work. In my early career I was still in that survival mode. I just worked. I worked for the Akron Beacon Journal, I worked for a radio station, I worked for PBS channels. And I learned so much. I learned so much about people that I never before had access to when I was growing up.
I really had no idea what a “good” career looked like. When you don’t have those influences in your life, you are carving it all out on your own. You don’t have examples except the one in front of you. And unless we are in a situation to see otherwise, we only know what we know. When we talk about equity, it goes back to this–we only know what we know and we can only dream as far as we can see. If you don’t know what’s possible, you can’t think ahead. That’s a big, foundational piece of what we do today with Bus Stop Mamas.
The work that you do today at Bus Stop Mamas is different from your media career. With limited exposure to career options early on, how did you envision Bus Stop Mamas? How did you find the right access and “career capital” to get started?
One of the most memorable times in my career, and where I grew the most professionally, was when I worked with a law firm as their Marketing Director. I took that job very accidentally. I didn’t even want the job. I had worked for a law firm prior and I swore I would never go back to a law firm. But when I got the offer, the law firm’s Managing Partner asked me: “What will it take for you to come on board?” Nobody had ever asked me that before. I was shocked. So I put together a list of things that I thought would make the Partner aghast–including a four day workweek. I said to my husband: I don’t even want this job, so if they don’t give me everything on this list, then I’m not going to take it.
Well. They gave me everything on my list.
I went in there with the mindset that I would do it for a year. When I started I put together a marketing plan, presented it to the partners–and nobody said anything. So I just moved forward and did everything on that plan. I did some big initiatives that got a lot of attention and publicity for the firm. Then, the end of the year came and I got my reviews. And they were scathing reviews. That same weekend I saw my work and the law firm featured in a local Star Tribune on the front page of the business section and in an international legal publication. I thought, they don’t know what they’re talking about.
The next week I went to a legal marketing conference with my managing partner in Florida. I thought he was going to apologize for the review. Instead, he told me that five of the partners were turning 50 years old that year and he wanted me to plan their birthday party. I was thinking, oh my gosh. Begrudgingly I proceeded to plan this birthday party. I couldn’t stand it.
But in this process, my life changed. My first idea was just to slap together a video of each decade of their privileged lives. I started gathering information about the Partners from their spouses, their kids, their parents, and getting old photos. And I started hearing stories about each one of them–who they were as human beings, what they really wanted to be when they grew up before they became lawyers. I learned so much about them and I had compassion for them that I didn’t have previously. One day I was reading Vanity Fair and I saw an article about a Ralph Lauren car exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. I knew one of the Partners would love that because his passion was fashion, cars and he loved Boston. I called the museum curator and I asked, do you have any ideas for a gift? The curator said, “well how about a private tour?” So from there I had a new idea for this party. I decided I would create an individual experience for each partner as a gift.
At the birthday party I played the video, which everyone loved. And then I got to present these gifts to each lawyer. These partners had worked together for 20 years, but they didn’t really know anything about each other. Through the gifts they were learning about each other in this way for the first time. And it was a life changing experience for everybody there, including, perhaps especially, me. With the gifts I demonstrated my commitment to them. I demonstrated that they could trust me. I demonstrated that I cared about them. From that moment on, with their trust finally behind me, I was able to achieve so many amazing things. I created a ton of different marketing programs that resonated internally and externally. I changed the way we reached out to clients to generate business. They let me do anything I wanted. I achieved great things. I realized that while I had done a lot of great work the first year at the firm, no one felt like they were a part of it. I was learning about the power of inclusivity, and how amazing things happen when assumptions are left at the door.
I stayed at the firm for seven years. And that experience prepared me for everything else. I learned how to have an idea and then make that idea come to fruition. How to execute it. And how to get results.
After that experience, you were led to Bus Stop Mamas. Tell me about that pivot to launch your own organization. How did you know it was time to do something different and start Bus Stop Mamas?
I became a mom in 2006 and that was transformational. That was another thing I said I never wanted to do, by the way! But then I fell in love with my daughter. My husband and I saw and heard her heart beating at six weeks and our lives were transformed. We fell in love with a dot! When I became a mom, my husband was a stay at home dad for the first 10 years of her life. During that time, I left the law firm following an acquisition and started a consulting firm, Horse’s Mouth Creative. The work I did for the firm provided a launching pad for me to work with law firms around the country. Meanwhile, my husband, like many parents who stay at home, was feeling kind of sad. Even though he loved being home with our daughter, he also wanted to be around adults, exercise his other talents and contribute to our household income. So he went back to work. When he went back I brought my business in-house. Literally.
With my husband back at work and owning my own business, I became a “bus stop mama.” For the first time I was the one standing out at the bus stops waiting for my daughter to come home from school. And there I was with these incredible women, all of whom left very promising careers to care for their children. We would wave to the kids and as the bus left we would turn to each other and say, “what are you doing today?” I saw the same sadness at the bus stop that my husband had. I saw all this incredible talent with no way to work just because their availability was spotty–they needed to be back at the bus stop in the afternoon. But so many of them didn’t do anything. They were thankful they had the opportunity to care for their kids, but also they felt they were not complete.
I didn’t know human resources and I didn’t know anything about job searches except for my own. But what I did know is that the system was broken. And it was broken for the mama at the bus stop. Businesses needed her, but she never made it through to their desk. She never got to meet the decision maker. So that was the problem that I saw and felt I needed to fix. The access was broken. I went down this path of discovery and learned there was a huge workforce deficit. I talked to businesses and at first they said “we have plenty of people in the pipeline, we don’t need your idea.” But I kept watching the market. And sure enough at the end of 2018 the movement was in full swing. The need for pipelines and people had caught up to businesses. I wanted to build a website but didn’t have money to do it. Then my daughter, who was 12 at the time, said, “I can do it.” So in January 2019 my daughter built our first website. And Bus Stop Mamas was alive and kicking.
I just started doing it. I was still doing my consulting work, which had a lot of flexibility. And I was thinking I needed money to start the company. But truthfully, money is the easiest part. Moving an effort forward and taking it from idea to action is the hardest. I met with a young and successful founder and he said, just start doing it. So I did. I started matching moms with jobs. And before long, Bus Stop Mamas was growing. I was up all night reading emails from moms all over the country. I saw that, even though we’re all different–we have different support systems, different values, importantly, different children–but we all have one thing in common–we all want the very best for our children, and how we choose to get there is different for all of us–compassion gives me all of the fuel I needed to keep going. No mama judgment is at the top of the Bus Stop Mamas mission statement.
What’s the biggest benefit of the Bus Stop Mamas platform? What do the moms you serve need the most?
Our big value is access. We are a marketplace. We bring flexible work to moms from the companies who need them. We have three plus mama segments: moms with kids in the car seat,, moms with kids in the bus seat (these moms also our 9to3 Movement), moms with kids in the driver’s seat and beyond. As our kids mature, our availability, generally speaking, increases. That corresponds to moms looking for temporary, part-time, or full-time jobs. Employers that post jobs with Bus Stop Mamas, gain access to a critical segment.
Because we are a marketplace I don’t tell employers what to do. And I don’t tell moms what to do. We let mom drive her job search. If a mom was a Director of Business Development for 15 years and three kids later she decides she wants to be a gardener? We let her do it. We don’t say, oh we’re only giving you business development jobs. We let her do whatever it is she wants. She self-selects. She decides if she has the skill set, the interest, and if the schedule meets hers. And if it does, she hits the “Introduce Me” button. And then she’s immediately introduced to the decision maker.
It’s just like a friend doing an email introduction for you. We give a little bit of information on both parties. And then they move forward. The system is designed to remove all barriers for both parties. Once she’s in, it is up to the mama and the business to move the conversation forward. Our employers often report that it is hard to narrow their search down to one candidate after meeting the moms–sometimes employers plan to hire one mama and instead hire 2 or 3! When given an introduction, mama usually wins.
We recently completed a national study with moms and moms-to-be who plan to change employers, re-enter or enter the workforce for the first time in the next 18 months, and found some really interesting insights that support the need for businesses to 1) better leverage an increasingly large and important segment of the workforce (and would-be workforce) and 2) rethink the traditional ways of hiring and defining “work” to better align with the needs of that segment. I can share all the findings with you, but one to share now, 64% of moms choose not to apply for a job they are interested in due to fear of inherent bias against moms in the interview and recruiting process. 96% agree that if given the opportunity to connect directly with a senior hiring manager or executive leader during the recruitment process, they could better articulate the value they offer the company.
You have your pulse on the needs of moms and working moms right now. What do you wish companies would do to get rid of this problem altogether? In other words, how could companies make traditional roles work for more moms?
Yes, there is more that companies could be doing. Let’s use law firms as an example–but really it could be a law firm or anywhere else. We know that young women get recruited right out of college or law school to join the firm. Maybe a few years later many of these women get engaged. Then they might get married (or not), then, years go by and they may choose to have children. And from there it gets really hairy, especially in law firms. Women typically leave because there is not a lot of support for them. Firms invest in the growth of a lawyer and then lose her after children. Firms lose out at having more female partners. More women than men are graduating from law school, but we have way less representation at the Partner level. There is a big disparity at that level. As you say on your website, corporate work has been set up for men–not for her. That’s the truth. Business is not built for her. Bus Stop Mamas corrects the broken for business and for her.
65% of college graduates are female. But 43% of women exit their careers after they have children. This has been a static data point for many, many years. COVID made that exit rate even higher. We don’t even really know what the new number is yet. But it’s in the millions. At least 2.5 million women have left during COVID, maybe higher.
The other big issue is that businesses need talent. And the talent is us! Women are 65% of the intelligence base. So how do you keep up? Smart businesses are aware of this market shift. There’s another important stat. 86% of all females are mothers, which is a big percentage–perhaps the largest ever. And women are having babies later and later in life. So for these 43% of mothers exiting after they have their first child? They have significant experience. By the time they leave, they’ve had solid careers. They’re important players in the talent pool. How do you keep them? How do you get them back? That’s the big question.
As women we’re all different. We have different values. We have different support systems. We have different education. And our children are all different. But the common thread that binds us all is that we want the very best for our children. How we get there looks different for all of us. And there are phases. As our children mature, how they need us fluctuates and flexes. You’re not going to have a one and a half year old forever. Your sweet little baby is going to continue to change and develop and mature, and how she needs you is going to be different. Your availability may free up. Bus Stop Mamas is a way for “her” to achieve success, whatever success looks like for her. And also, for businesses to have access to her.
What advice do you have for women who are just starting out their career and eager to make it all work? Or for women hitting that pivotal mid-career point, struggling to balance work and motherhood?
First, everything changes and it’s not going to be this way forever.
Second, if you’re thinking about something, just do it. Courage, confidence and compassion are the three C’s my daughter and I pray for every morning. We hear a lot about courage. I feel like I am the weakest person ever. But courage doesn’t take strength–courage takes just doing it. And we can do so much. We see this as mothers: how much we can achieve, and do, and survive, and get through it. Motherhood prepares us for so much.
I hear from many moms who want the flexibility that Bus Stop Mamas offers. These moms are looking for career options that shift and flex with them. Careers are never a straight line anymore. Do you agree?
Absolutely. I wish we had more opportunities to opt in and at different levels. Even at the “car seat” level. If you are a new mom and you are able to select staying with your employer–even if it’s only 10 hours per week–you stay connected to your team, you continue to grow, you continue to be a part of it. Before long, your child is going to be getting on the bus. And then you’re going to have more space. You have 9am to 3pm now. The “9 to 3” movement is what we call it. You can get pretty much anything done between 9 and 3. That’s almost, by current business standards, a full day! Then in a quick second, your child is driving, another beat, in college. Yes. It happens fast.
So it’s thinking about your career in stepping stones. Instead of having these gaps in your career, you have stepping stone progress. I wish we offered that more. There isn’t one business that would say out loud that family doesn’t matter to them. We know that we need to care for our little people. We know that children are the future of tomorrow. But then we don’t behave that way.
It is time for a work revolution.
Mary Kay, thank you for sharing your story! And for the game changing work you do at Bus Stop Mamas. You can learn more about Bus Stop Mamas and join the network here.
Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Reclaim Your Career shares the stories of women who have made brave career pivots. They inspire and unlock what women always had the capacity to do: Break free from the traditional narrative of success to write your own story.