This Founder Is Winning the Maternity Leave Fight

Michelle Feiner, founder of Emissaries. 

Michelle Feiner, founder of Emissaries. 

Michelle Feiner, founder of Emissaries says she is "a hustler and entrepreneur at heart." The mom and business woman created the first U.S. recruiting agency to service the niche of parental leave coverage and "to support the U.S.’ evolving leave policies and growing gig economy."

Maternal and parental leave is a hot 2016 election topic, but it's also something that's been close to Feiner's heart since working in the freelance world herself, often as a maternity fill-in. 

Hear what she has to say about pregnant lady bosses (which, she currently is herself), what policies in the U.S. need to change, and why her company doesn't take a cut of freelancer pay. 

Women in the workplace! From pay gaps to covert and overt sexism, it’s still a complicated place. What has been your experience as a woman in the working world?

I’ve always enjoyed work – even in my teens. I’m a hustler and entrepreneur at heart. My career gives me purpose, fulfillment and perspective. With that said, I have had some negative experiences as a woman in the working world. The most memorable: I was sexually harassed by one former manager many years ago, early in my career. He grabbed a fist full of my butt in front of clients. I turned around and looked him dead in the eye but said no words, out of shock. Unfortunately, this manager had a reputation in the office for this sort of behavior and somehow, he got away with it several times because no one spoke up. I was about to be promoted and I didn’t want to risk the raise. A shame, right? But now, for the most part, I can choose who I work with and altogether avoid shady characters! ☺

You spent a large portion of your freelance career filling in maternity leaves. How did that happen? What’s that trajectory?

The transition from full-time to freelance was one of the easiest transitions I ever made. I created a portfolio. I positioned myself as a freelancer online. I let my professional network know I was available for freelance work and landed my first gig within a couple of weeks. One gig led to another (referrals accounted for the majority of my projects) and fortunately, I was often booked months in advance. A lot of the maternity leave fill-in work I did was in the magazine industry – which is predominately female (read: lots of women inherently going on maternity leave). I raised my hand for the right opportunities, developed a niche in digital sales marketing, constantly networked and was very aware of my reputation as a freelancer and maternity leave fill-in. 

"I raised my hand for the right opportunities."

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For many, the freelance world is a hard, hard hustle that can leave workers feeling undervalued. But you’ve said it made you feel more valued in your career. Can you chat a bit about that?

Freelancing isn’t for everyone. I know many talented people who tried their hand at freelancing yet prefer full-time employment. Personally, I enjoyed the hustle and constant change. Plus, I made more money, worked less and was more focused on producing good work vs. navigating office politics. Maternity fill-ins are particularly amazing projects for freelancers because often the expecting mom is in this planning state-of-mind as she prepares for her baby’s arrival and that translates to the most detailed turnover reports you’ve ever seen! The women I filled in for trusted me to be their ally at work and I truly wanted them to come back to their roles with their workload and team in a good place. Speaking of teams, many of the teams I worked with during maternity leave fill-ins were incredibly welcoming because they were just so stoked the workload wasn’t going to fall on their shoulders while their colleague was out on leave. This is one of the most important benefits of parental leave covers – the entire team feels valued and supported.  

Then came Emissaries. Why was it important for you to start this company?

Most everyone knows parental leave policies in the U.S. are pretty horrible compared to the rest of the world. Starting in 2015 it became a hot topic in the national news. I had the idea for Emissaries years ago when I was freelancing and covering maternity leaves. The timing was right last year and Emissaries launched in November of 2015 in order to support the U.S.’ evolving leave policies and growing gig economy. There are models like Emissaries in Europe and Australia but Emissaries was the first U.S. recruiting agency to specialize in parental leave coverage. On another, but equal note, I wanted to create an agency and marketplace that would sincerely behoove freelancers. We’ve never and we won’t take a cut of freelancers’ pay. That’s vital for attracting the best freelancers to our network. The best freelancers get constant job and gig offers; it doesn’t make sense for them to give up a portion of their pay. It does make sense for them to sign up with a talent-matching agency like Emissaries if it helps them get access to new clients.

Post-launch, you found out you were pregnant, which surprise! has the ability to derail anyone. But you’ve used this to your "professional advantage.” What does that mean and how did you do it? 

I’ve been fortunate and my energy levels are through the roof. Perhaps I’m just excited for my future. Planning for a baby’s arrival forced me to think about the future of Emissaries. One of my immediate thoughts the day I found out I was pregnant (which, mind you was four months post-launch!) was: "what am I going to do with Emissaries?" I'm constantly advocating and evangelizing for parental leave and I'd be a hypocrite if I didn't make a plan for myself. So I devised a plan to build and launch a self-service, online platform that will enable our clients and curated network of freelancers to directly connect while I spend a few months prioritizing my daughter's health. Emissaries' new freelance marketplace (launching in late September at is the obvious next step for the company; it will make sourcing and connecting with qualified freelancers even more turnkey, transparent and affordable. Pregnancy has only encouraged me to expedite Emissaries' growth strategy. As the number of freelancers in our network and the quantity of clients have grown, the natural evolution of the business is to digitize the experience and utilize technology to improve the talent matching process. Many of the pregnant women I help find freelancer fill-ins for share a similar trajectory wherein pregnancy has had a positive effect on their careers.

Speaking of pregnancies— let’s talk about the #pregnantbosses. What does that hashtag mean to you? 

#PregnantBosses celebrates pregnant, professional women. There's a misconception that pregnant women aren't as committed to their careers as their peers - and that's the myth we're trying to dispel by profiling expecting and new moms who are dedicated to and enthusiastic about the future of their companies and careers. Pregnancy doesn't have to derail your professional goals and most importantly, pregnant women should not be seen as less valuable than their counterparts. Quite the opposite, these women are powerful forces! P.S. We welcome new submissions on our site,

"There's a misconception that pregnant women aren't as committed to their careers as their peers."

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Have you found someone to cover you? When you run a company is it realistic to take time off after baby? 

Obviously, being the founder of a self-funded startup is different than being an employee but I am certainly creating my “village.” I have a team that supports Emissaries and I’m in the midst of interviewing for a role that will be my right-hand person. Emissaries new online freelance marketplace is built to be primarily self-service but of course we’ll have a community to foster, freelancers to vet and support emails to answer. Additionally, I’ll be pausing our full-service recruiting services until I’m ready to recommit to that level of hands-on work. This is my first pregnancy so I’m adjusting as I go while making sure I have the support both myself and my daughter need.

What are some issues you’ve seen affect pregnant working women?

Some feel more professionally motivated and supported than ever before - thanks to improving parental leave policies, evolving corporate cultures and new social norms. Others face unjust challenges of additional gender discrimination and unfounded assumptions that they aren’t committed to their careers or companies. Various global surveys report that 30-77% of pregnant women and new mothers experience discrimination at work (statistics vary by country). Pregnancy discrimination is unfortunately alive and well! 

What would you like to see change?

In general, I think U.S. companies could do a better job of supporting employees - whether they need paid leave to take care of a newborn, a sick loved one or an elderly parent. Much of the opposition to paid family leave is centered around misinformation or confusion, especially around business impact. Particularly where we have data from CA or RI about their experiences, we can correct the record with the real story. I’m a big believer of the mantra: it takes a village. We could also do a better job of thinking about how paid leave affects teams. Many companies simply redistribute that employee's workload to the existing team.

"In general U.S. companies could do a better job of supporting employees."

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Some companies have the foresight to hire a seasoned freelancer to fill in for the individual and support the team. This strategy has many positive effects: one point of contact makes the transition less disjointed, colleagues will be less likely (even subconsciously) to resent the individual on leave, it provides an opportunity to glean expertise and insights from a reputable source in your industry, it's an excellent gesture for companies to demonstrate that they support working parents and an overall wellness-based, balanced culture and lastly, your company will attract and maintain top talent. If employees feel valued, they are more likely to reciprocate with their loyalty and hard work.

How and why is Emissaries rewarding?

We’re supporting two topics at the very forefront of the world’s workforce dialogue –  freelancers and working parents. There's certainly an element of social change to Emissaries’ business model. I'm motivated and inspired to create a new social norm for companies to offer working parent benefits, employees to take paid family leave and better support the booming independent workforce. We’re paving new paths!