In Conversation with Debi Yadegari of Villyge

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Describe Villyge in a few words?

We are a back-pocket resource, paid for by companies, to support their employees through working parenthood and to create parent-friendly workplaces. From breastfeeding and/or navigating teen hormones (with an almost 13-year spread between my kids, that was me!) to handling personal burnout and/or going after professional success, Villyge is there to assist. Our platform provides 1:1 personalized guidance to working parents by virtually connecting employees with parenting specialists, career coaches, and wellness experts, from preconception to college. We also work with employers to improve the workplace for working parents – manager trainings, legal compliance, lactation rooms, breastmilk shipping, and much more.

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

I left corporate America after my own negative experience as a pregnant employee and working mother, and I was upset about it. Rather than complain about what I needed to be successful as a working parent in the workplace, and ultimately how my employer failed me, I vowed to change the corporate landscape for those who followed in my footsteps. Villyge is building the future of work so that all working parents (moms and dads) can achieve personal and professional success. 

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

I was a corporate lawyer. Pretty boring, right? I worked in Big Law for a few years, before being poached by an investment bank. I was counsel for the investment banking division of a large multinational financial institution. For lawyers, achieving this was the holy grail. I held a coveted in-house position and my career showed all signs of up – until I got pregnant.  One week before I announced my pregnancy, I was told that if I were to ever get pregnant, I would ruin my career there.  And they were right! How I handled that then is a lot different than how I would handle the situation today. Six months later, I simply walked away. I spent the next few years focused on motherhood and expanding my family. I had 4 kids in 5 years and when my little guy went off to preschool, I launched Villyge. I was pregnant with #5 just three years later, but by then Villyge didn’t skip a beat.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Absolutely not. While it was always in me to lead, create, and innovate, I saw myself climbing the proverbial corporate ladder. I think it was how I was raised; there was security in working for a big firm. Today, there is nothing further from the truth and I am raising my children differently. 

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

I started with friends and I asked for help; I asked for introductions and I asked for people to spread the word. It was a lot harder than I expected to get people, even well-intentioned friends, to help. So, while I began by reaching out to potential clients via warm intros, I learned quickly that getting started just takes hustle and we were never above the cold call.

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

I made a lot of mistakes in the beginning surrounding new hires and contractors. When you are starting out, budgets are tight, resources are slim, and most entrepreneurs do not have developed networks of resources. I certainly didn’t. As a result, I made poor choices. But those experiences taught me a lot.  

First, thoroughly vet and background check all new hires and contractors. Poke around, get references and move slowly in the decision-making process. Next, ensure that you have thorough policies and an org chart in place so there is never a question when it comes to how a situation is supposed to be handled. Finally, do not hire someone that you cannot fire. We have all heard it before, but when you are first starting out, we often turn to our inner circles for references. And holding on to someone for the wrong reasons can become quite costly. 

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

That is easy! My kids. Professionally speaking, I am so proud of how many working parents we have empowered, how many working moms we have kept in the game, and how we have made a difference in the lives of so many working families. My clients still make me cry when they share stories with me.  

The best part is, we make it win-win for the employee and employer. We save our average client over $3 million annually. Working parents are some of a company’s best assets and working together, Villyge decreases attrition, increases productivity, reduces litigation, and improves the bottom line.

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

“What parts of this job will be the most challenging for you, and what parts of this job will come easy?”  This question provides an indication of ramp up time, demonstrates the applicant’s ability to self-assess, and shows me how much thought and research has gone into the application. 

Always check references. Even if the applicant was pre-vetted by someone you know, get a second or third take. Even if you move forward with the offer, you will learn things during the reference check that will allow you to best manage the new employee. I always ask references for advice on how to best manage the new hire for success. It is also a way to have the reference reveal some of the applicant’s shortcomings without asking a negative question.

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Demand has exploded. Working parents are suffering more than ever, having to juggle a lack of childcare with remote learning in a work from home situation, and they are burnt out. Our personalized 1:1 support has been able to walk more than one stressed out working parent off the proverbial ledge. And what we are really proud of is that despite all the talk of the current “she-cession,” we have maintained the same pre-COVID 96% retention rate for our clients. It’s further evidence that our services work. Villyge cuts attrition and increases productivity, even amidst a pandemic.

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

Growth and expansion. We have a few tricks up our sleeve that will enable even more employers to take advantage of our services. We plan to roll out an updated technology platform in 2021.   

The future of work is now. For so long, working parents have tried to keep their home lives behind the veil of secrecy, hiding their kids and pretending that work was the be-all, end-all. Now, with kids running amuck in the background of Zoom business meetings, that is impossible. And this is a good thing. We have long argued that employers have not only an ethical duty to support their working parents, but also a financial incentive. Working parent support positively affects the bottom line. Flexibility and remote work is sticking around and employers are going to need to adapt. In the next few years, working parent support programs, lactation rooms, and breastmilk shipping for business traveling moms are going to be commonplace.  

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

Know who you are! This last year has been hard for us all, but knowing who I am, what I stand for, and being absolutely resolute in my mission – personally and professionally enabled me to have grace, patience, and the vision to look ahead.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

The ABCs of fundraising. We have been revenue generating since 2015, but we bootstrapped the entire way.  I am embarrassed to say that I didn’t even know there was any other option. I was familiar with business loans, but it was not until my participation in the “Project Entrepreneur” accelerator with the Female Founders Collective and UBS that I learned the basics of how to raise capital. Investors have since approached us, and we plan to begin our fundraising campaign in 2021.

How have you managed to stay grounded this year?

As a working mother of five, being grounded is a necessary constant. It is not something I manage, but my state of being. I have to be that way for my kids. And with two teenagers and one tween, they make sure that none of my success goes to my head. I have always prided myself on being down to earth, but the kids keep me 100% grounded. 

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

Absolutely not. We are not tightrope walkers, and it goes without saying that some days we need to give our all to work, and other times more attention is required at home. And we cannot forget to give attention to self-care.  Never lose sight of what matters most though – we must stay in tune with our homes, our children, our partners, and our family. To do this, we may need to schedule check-ins, family time, and self-care. Get it on the calendar and make those appointments sacrosanct. Planning is the key to success on all fronts. Beyond planning, there is also an absolute need for boundaries, especially now with the majority of us working from home. Without physical boundaries between work and home, we must create habits that change our mindset and lend themselves to boundary creation. End your workday at the same time every day, even if you go back later. Grab fresh air before starting your workday, or after the end of your workday. 

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

At the age of 35, I discovered a love for hip hop and joined a dance family (some may call it a class, but those ladies and our choreographer are my peeps!), and at the age of 38, I picked up my first tennis racquet and began playing competitively. To this day, dance and tennis are my two favorite ways to spend a little “me time.”  

And, while I have 5 kids, I am actually an only child myself!

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

Get a good night’s rest. Start your morning off right with an early dose of exercise, followed by a healthy breakfast and kind words to all who surround you. And get dressed for business. No time? Spend 10 minutes stretching. And no, dressing waist up for Zoom doesn’t count! The way we are dressed on our bottom half affects how we sit at our desks, how we carry ourselves, and in turn, how we present on screen and paper.  

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

It means I am not alone. It means I am part of a larger community of women who have been down this path before, experiencing their unique challenges, and coming out ahead. I am proud to be an Entreprenista. 

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