Lisa Durante is an entrepreneur, business-leader and intersectional feminist with decades of experience in corporate communications, writing and planning. With a growing family by her side and a supportive partner, Lisa is leading a boutique consultancy that is dedicated to helping mothers, families and companies thrive. Using her experience in communications, she conducts workshops and helps working moms and HR departments develop strategies that make change and lead to inclusive success for all employees and family types.
We connected with Lisa to learn more about how her brand, Lisa Durante International Inc., is making waves within her own home and across the country.
Read our full interview below:
- Why were you inspired to create Lisa Durante International Inc.?
Starting my company was my Lemonade moment. I returned to my hometown of Toronto after almost a decade in New York. There I was able to carve out a pretty niche career in change management communications that didn’t translate well when I returned to Toronto. When I did return – four months pregnant with my second daughter – I took a job with a company that supported my growing family, yet never really fulfilled me professionally. Plus, my experience working as a pregnant professional and then as a new mother returning with a six-month-old at home, was markedly different than what I had experienced with my first daughter when I was in the USA. It didn’t make for a good time and I knew I needed a change. I just had no idea where to go next. I began scheduling investigative interviews with others in my industry. Nothing was really sparking my interest and I was feeling pretty lost.
During this time, I found myself mentoring expecting and new moms at my company and within my personal networks. I loved these conversations. But they frustrated and upset me, too. These women – women who were younger than I – were facing the same obstacles and the same judgements I had faced when I was pregnant or returning to work. And, from research and other conversations I was having, they seemed to be the ones those ahead of me had faced. It was time to stop the cycle. Unfortunately, at this time, I had no idea how I would solve this problem. All I knew was that expecting and new moms were struggling at work and I wanted to help.
- What ultimately lead you to start your own business?
Before my youngest daughter turned two – so about 18 months after returning from maternity leave – I quite unexpectedly quit my job. It was the most irresponsible decision I ever made. A mother of two and one half of a household that depends on two incomes, I had to come up with a plan – fast. I quickly set up a communications agency, and began reaching out to my network to let them know I was available for freelance work. I took on writing, editing and strategy projects as they came up. By putting up my single shingle, I’ve been able to work with fantastic people and do work that I really enjoy. More than that, it gave me the freedom to try to figure out how I could help working moms.
I tried a number of different avenues and fell flat on my face a good number of times. But, I couldn’t give up. Then, in early 2016, I was no longer willing to sit on the sidelines as more moms told me about their struggles at work. I’d had enough, so I asked myself what I could do today to start helping. Writing and developing content is what I know. So, I started my blog and a YouTube channel. By doing the work, I’ve been able to develop a really clear vision on how I can help working moms. And, my background in communications and consulting executives for 15 years was a great starting point. The strategies I offer working moms are almost all based on communication and change management principles, my resources and workshops are developed to move my audiences from where they are today to where they want to be and my work with companies uses my strategy consulting skills.
- What do you think your experience in corporate communications and writing taught you about the world of entrepreneurialism?
While I never realized it at the time, much of my corporate experience was gearing me to become an entrepreneur. Working in a small agency right out of the gate, I got to see the inner workings of the art of the hustle to get clients and sell ideas. Then, when I moved in-house, it was at a time when a lot of NY-based companies were starting to create internal communications departments. The industry was starting to morph from a newsletter producer to one that was in charge of strategically engaging and informing employees. I had the opportunity to start two communication departments. The experience taught me the importance of building relationships and influence key partners, to take risks and to think creatively to figure things out.
- You’re a mother of two daughters. What type of feelings and thoughts did you have before announcing your pregnancies?
My brother joined our family when I was 13-years-old. And, because my mother was a working mom, I was thrown into the role of “mommy” – after the school bell rang, I had to get home to relieve the sitter and care for my brother until my mother came home. Usually, because my mother was busy preparing dinner, doing laundry, cleaning the house and taking care of everything a “traditional” wife and mother was responsible to do, my mommy duties extended through to bath and bedtime. I even attended parent-teacher interviews. It was hard work and I decided pretty early that I wouldn’t have children. I didn’t think I could have the career I wanted if I was a mother. I closed that part of me off and never gave it much more thought.
Then, I moved to New York when I was 27 and newly married. All of a sudden, I was working with these incredible women – smart, successful and so ambitious. I was always surprised when I learned they were mothers. These women were mentors and models to me and I started to open up to the possibility of having children one day. I started paying attention when other people announced their pregnancy and I started to gauge other people’s reactions. By the time I became pregnant, I knew having a baby was as much a career change as it was a life change.
- When you announced your first pregnancy, what was the reaction you received at work?
It was a bit of a mixed bag. A lot of people were very excited for me, which was great, but as I wasn’t quite sure how I yet felt about being pregnant, all of it was overwhelming to me. Yet there were two reactions that I think I’ll forever be grateful for.
The first was my own manager. She didn’t jump up and hug me, instead she got very serious and asked: “Will you come back to work?” I didn’t miss a beat and answered absolutely, and provided her an outline of what I thought my mat leave plans could be. Afterwards, when I thought a little more about that conversation, I realized how her honest reaction was a reminder that I needed to strategically manage my career going forward. See, my manager had championed me to take on the promoted position I was now in, and she and I had some very specific talks about my career goals and how I could get there. So, if she was unsure of professional intentions, that meant others would perceive me differently now that I was pregnant.
The second one was the executive I supported. I wish everyone could have someone like her in their lives. Her initial reaction to my news resulted in a warm hug. She was genuinely happy for me. Then, a few weeks later, while we were going over her speech for an upcoming meeting, she stopped our discussion and put on her grave face and tone, and said, “Lisa, you’re pregnant and I’m excited for you, but at no point am I going to lower the bar for you.” You could think she was setting me up for failure, but she gave me exactly what someone as career-conscious and ambitious as me needed to hear. She then shared that as much as I will want to keep growing my career, I need to set the ground rules on how I’ll make it work. Nobody, she said, will do that for me. It was up to me to figure out how to decide what I wanted and how it would work.
- Was there a difference in the reaction you received when you announced your second pregnancy?
My second pregnancy was a very different situation. I became pregnant while my family was transitioning our life from New York back to our hometown in Toronto. My husband had moved in October to start a new job and I had stayed behind in New York with our 10-month-old. I was searching for a job, but it was tough going. I was interviewing with one company for about five months, during which time I discovered I was pregnant. When I told them, I wasn’t sure they’d take me on. But they did. On my first day, I was just shy of being three months pregnant, but since this was my second, I was already showing. I joined a predominately young female-staffed team, and at three months pregnant, I never felt less supported by women in my life. It’s a wound that still runs quite deep for me.
- From your experiences as a mom, partner, employee and now entrepreneur, how many parents experience systemic challenges in their career/the workforce?
Unconscious or implicit bias is so deeply rooted in every facet of life – our cultures, religions and upbringings instill sets of beliefs and ideas about women and mothers. All can be fine if you and everyone have the same beliefs. The problems come when your ideas differ from those around you. In a place like Toronto, where so many cultures, religions and families come together, it’s much more common that your personal choices are going to butt up against someone else’s idea of what you should be doing or how you should be living your life. This is happening at work, in families and social circles, in governments and across societies. So, I don’t think there is a parent that hasn’t had at least in some way faced the systemic challenges imposed on mothers.
- Through the media and information we consume, it seems rare to see messaging about mothers, families and companies simultaneously working together to better one another. Do you feel the same way? Why or why not?
No, not at all. We are all part of the same ecosystem – mothers, families, companies and I’d also add schools and government to the mix, too. We are interconnected and if one isn’t doing its part, we aren’t going to be able to achieve our true full potential. About 43 per cent of highly qualified moms leave companies. It’s not that these women are going to raise their families full time. A new study shows that only two per cent of women are doing that and that’s about the same rate as men who are leaving their careers to become stay at home dads. That means companies are losing their female talent to competitors, or as we’re seeing a lot more lately, starting their own businesses. If companies want to stay competitive, they’ll need a pipeline of talented, qualified, innovative leaders. How can they pick the very best of their talent pool if almost half are leaving simply because they aren’t supporting women and families?
- What impact do you hope Lisa Durante International Inc. brings to work and family environments?
I want to see more mothers succeed at work and in life. I want to push the boundaries of the maternal wall that has held far too many of us behind. Companies play an integral role, too. More companies are offering incentives to support working families, but there’s more work to do with expecting and new parents. So, my work is to help companies rethink how they can support and manage working parents during pregnancy, maternity leave and as they transition back to work. This will improve productivity, increase confidence and build loyalty. However, we can’t sit idly by and wait for our companies to get their acts together. So, I want to empower moms with the strategies they need to create a more equitable partnership at home and more successfully navigate the transitions that come with pregnancy and maternity leave at work.
- In addition to personal training and coaching, you also work with HR departments to improve culture for parents. What is the most challenging part about working with different HR teams?
For the most part, the challenge isn’t with HR teams. These professionals – at least the good ones – are fully aware they have a leaky pipeline when it comes to their female talent. The challenge is convincing others to invest (not simply in terms of money, but as it relates to time and commitment) in thinking differently about how to better support working moms. Sure, it would be great to fully transform how companies are run, but we aren’t there yet. So, the focus needs to be on what we can do within the confines we have today to make things more manageable for working moms who want or need to keep growing their careers.
- There are a lot of stories in the news these days showcasing how HR departments protect the company, as opposed to the employee. What do you hope your work does to change, or to help us better understand, this perspective?
The HR department works for the company, so why is it that we expect HR professionals to be the whistleblowers? As someone in corporate communications, I, too, have had to toe the line even when I didn’t fully support the message. Over my career, I’ve worked with HR on many sensitive projects and I’ve watched them advocate and protect employees as best they can around the proverbial table. But, like any of us, there are limits to their power and they cannot speak out against their company publicly. That’s why I always try to understand where a company is today, so I can present solutions that will work within those confines. I believe that chipping away at a system that isn’t working is more effective than trying to blow it all up at once. If I’m chipping away at enough companies, my hope is that there will be general agreement that women and mothers bring tangible value to companies in the present tense, but also as it relates to a company’s future performance and profits.
- Throughout this journey, what has continued to keep you inspired, empowered and motivated to make change and have long-lasting impact?
Unfortunately, I’m inspired almost daily that we all need to keep doing our part to make things better for mothers, women, girls and boys, too. At four-years-old, my very own daughter told me she couldn’t be a veterinarian when she grew up because a teacher (a mother herself) told her good mommies stay at home with their babies. A little boy told me he couldn’t watch the TV show with my daughters because boys can’t like princess stuff. And, there was the time my youngest daughter was discouraged about playing hockey because the sport wasn’t for girls. It’s heartbreaking to witness these little people trying to process what supposedly wiser adults are saying to them and reconcile it with their inner desires or feelings. You see the conflict play out in their eyes and it pisses me off. I could just be angry and frustrated and go about my day, but what’s going on today – be it the Women’s March, #MeToo and the new Time’s Up movement – has empowered me to take action and to keep doing the work I believe needs to be done.
- When a tough situation or a lull in creativity comes to the surface, what do you do to recharge, reflect and take a step back?
There isn’t one thing that usually replenishes me. I believe in doing a series of things that keep my reserves at healthy levels. I’ve come to see them as my medicine. Working out and running is the first dose. When I’m working out or running, I can’t read or scroll through my phone, I can’t write or talk to anyone, let alone think about anything beyond how displeased I am in that moment at the workout gods. Plus, the endorphin kick I get afterwards is always welcome. Cooking is also quite meditative for me – my hands and mind are busy in one singular activity. Lastly, I take time to read fiction every day – even if it’s half a page right before falling asleep. When things are dire – and they have gotten quite bad – it’s because I haven’t been taking my medicine. At these times, I make a concerted effort to get back into my routine and within a few days I’m back.
- What have you learned about being a working mom since Lisa Durante International Inc. launched?
I’m redefining the idea of balance for me and my family. I get to speak with a lot of moms and I get to learn from them. What has been so fascinating is how each one has different priorities, different needs and wants for our lives and have different limits on what is acceptable and what is not. We’re all so different, yet, we’re all trying to achieve the same definition of “work-life balance,” where work sits on one side of the scale and everything else in life is on the other. Its preposterous and impossible. And, it sets us up for failure. I’m starting to see that my life is not made of two opposing forces. Instead, it’s a series of buckets, or slices as writer Samantha Ettus offers, that all come together to make a delicious, fulfilling pie. With this idea in mind, I’m finding it easier to integrate and move between my work, family and hobbies because they all contribute to making my life feel fuller and more enjoyable.
- With any project, visions and actual product can be so different. What did you want your brand to be when the idea first sparked? How has it changed?
At first I was trying to fit into everyone else’s vision of what “mothers” should be or should want. I was basically perpetuating the idea that women wanted to be mothers first and foremost. A lot of images were of babies and new mothers, and many of my topics focused on how to be a mother. I even tiptoed around topics related to career and ambition. It wasn’t authentic. As I gained a clearer vision on what I wanted this business to become and how I wanted to help working moms and companies, I started to shift my content. In September 2017, I underwent a full rebrand – both visual and content to better reflect me. I’ve named my company after myself, so it needed to feel and look and speak like me, too. It’s feminine and feminist (these are not contradictory ideals), bold and direct with a strong focus on the practical.
- What do you hope the future of Lisa Durante International Inc. look like?
I really don’t know at this point. If my journey has taught me anything, it’s to stay open to new ideas and new possibilities even if they seem completely far-fetched today.
- What do you hope you are able to teach your daughters through Lisa Durante International Inc.?
There’s a quote from Dr. Seuss that hangs in my office: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” I want my girls to know that it’s up to them to make things better. You have to stand up and find ways to use your talents and whatever else is in your arsenal to make things better for ourselves and others. Perhaps one day they’ll see that.
To learn more about Lisa, visit her website LisaDurante.com, where you can also sign up for her weekly newsletter. Here, she shares personal bits of her life and key insights she’s learned along the way. You can also follow Lisa on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube.
Lisa, thank you for taking the time to share your journey and expertise with us. Cheers to the road ahead!
Feature photo by: Tynan Studio.