Member Spotlight: Global Healthcare Advocate and Mitera Founder Yoko Shimada
Photo: Yoko Shimada
The link between mother-focused clothing label Mitera Collection and founder Yoko Shimada's previous life working to improve healthcare in developing countries may not be apparent at first — but it will once you hear her brand's full story. Before creating her brand, she spent 15 years working with organizations like the World Bank and the Clinton Foundation. Though Mitera wasn't born until after her second child, she came up with the idea in her company's lactation room, "which was in the basement, I believe, or on the first floor in the back of the building, with no windows and with just four chairs facing each other."
"I was half-naked and I remember thinking 'Who designed this room? Clearly not a woman,'" she recalls thinking. She faced the challenge that so many other working mothers of newborns faced: trying to fit regular breast-pumping sessions into her office schedule. "I just wanted to make things easier for myself and make myself feel better — confident as a woman, a mother and a professional," Shimada says, so she decided to design two dresses that would transition seamlessly into her pumping and work wardrobes.
Now mama to Hugo and Emmeline, the New York-based entrepreneur has found a way to continue her mission of empowering women around the world through Mitera, an ethically-made, bump-to-breastfeeding clothing brand designed to be worn throughout all stages of motherhood. Here, she tells us the socially-conscious goal behind the company, the digital organization tools she can't live without, her best advice for others looking to make a major career switch, and more. Read on below, then shop Mitera's collection of breastfeeding-friendly wardrobe essentials online here.
Photo: Yoko Shimada
You've got a strong background working toward accessible healthcare around the globe — how does that mission continue with Mitera?
We all know that the United States does not provide federally-mandated maternity leave, so women have little choice but to go back to work after a very short leave. Not having an adequate leave policy really makes things difficult for working mothers and we definitely have a lot of work to do to improve that. My initial goal is to help make women’s transition into motherhood easier with beautifully-made, functional, and practical clothing so that they feel confident and happy in being a mom and at the same time pursuing their career aspirations, and doing stuff that they enjoy doing like going on date nights, attending events and weddings, and simply hanging out with friends.
Ultimately, my mission is about democratizing access to opportunities for women who represent more than half of the world’s population. Through Mitera, even if it is in a very small way, I want to contribute in creating a society where motherhood is seen as an advantage and not a hindrance, set-back, or a penalty.
What's the story behind the brand's name?
Mitera means "mother" in Greek. I felt when you are pregnant, all the eyes are on you. But as soon as the baby comes out, not many people ask about how you are doing as a mom. All the attention goes to the baby and often the mom gets forgotten in all the excitement of the baby’s arrival. So, I wanted to shine some well-deserved light onto the mom, honor the process of creating and bringing life into this world and celebrate the nurturer — the unique, beautiful, determined, multifaceted woman who gives all she has, while still remaining who she is.
Photo: Mitera Collection
You've probably experienced some incredibly impactful moments throughout your career. What are a few that come to mind that really helped shape Mitera's socially- and globally-conscious business model?
There are so many that come to mind. Throughout my 15 year-career in global public health, I was fortunate to have worked in so many different projects across 13 African countries, South Asia, North America, and Europe — [including] running studies on HIV/AIDS prevention messages in India to designing and implementing a performance-based financing system in Rwanda and helping to rebuild its health care system after a devastating civil war in Liberia. I learned so much from every single encounter with the people I was trying to help in my own small way. My experience taught me the harsh reality where one cannot control the circumstances into which he or she is born and the world is full of unfair and unjust things.
But throughout my career working in the developing parts of the world, I also encountered so much beauty in humanity where I saw the ability of those who have nothing compared to us (in terms of money or materials possessions) to be happy. I realized, especially working with mothers and children, that what we all want as humans is the same no matter where you are born — we want to feel needed, sense of purposes, jobs, good health, good educations for children, and opportunity and hope for the future. When I became a mother myself, I felt personally more connected to the women and children I had the fortune to work with in Africa, India, and elsewhere and made a commitment to do my small part in improving the lives of those who happened to be born in less fortunate situation than me.
The first few years of a mother’s life, from conceiving to carrying to birthing to feeding to raising a baby, are profound and transformative — but they aren’t easy. In our part of the world, there is the career pressure to delay starting a family, discrimination at the workplace, absence of federally mandated maternity leave, and the challenges to breastfeed are just some of the obstacles women face. I believe that women, regardless of their circumstances and personal choices as mothers, deserve our support. That is really the underlying belief upon which Mitera was founded.
Photo: Mitera Collection
What were some of your earliest designs, and how has Mitera's aesthetic and design changed since then?
At Mitera, we have always focused on design first because we want our mamas to feel pretty and confident on the outside when many of us don’t feel so hot when our bodies are going through so many changes. But functionality, comfort, and practicality (machine-washability and pockets, for example) are equally as important as our design. We design all our pieces in NYC and Tokyo and and they go through the "mom-tests" to make sure they meet our strict standards. We always try to elevate the designs and incorporate little functionality improvements to make moms’ lives easier.
Our aesthetics have not really changed much from the beginning. Most of our original products are still there but we keep adding more designs like pants as we go along based on customer feedback. While our customers love the Ellen Dress (one of our best sellers), we are also adding more casual everyday pieces to our collection.
When you're not busy being a mom, working on Mitera, and participating in triathlons (kudos!!!), what are some of your other favorite ways to relax and unwind?
Exercise definitely helps me to unwind, because I am not on my phone while I am running or biking or swimming. I like the freedom from technology. Other than that, I love to go camping with my family again to be disconnected from technology even if it is for one night. If time allows, I like to catch up on politics via late night comedy shows or hang out with friends over dinner.
What are your favorite skincare or beauty brands right now?
I am not really a beauty person. I never wear much makeup but I tend to use organic skincare lines such as SavorBeauty. For makeup, I do my brows, put some mascara, blush and lip gloss and I am out of the door. I need recommendations! [Editor's Note: Check out our members' favorite beauty and skincare products here!]
Favorite apps or tools for staying organized?
For personal time management: Google Calendar. Idea management: Evernote and good old MoleSkine notebooks (nothing more satisfying than crossing things off your to-do list) and I think visually so I sketch a lot.
For team management, I use Slack and BaseCamp. [And for general] organization, Kon-Mari method — We have gone through clothes, shoes books and documents so far and we are now working to minimize stuff for the kids. Traveling with them makes you realize kids find stuff around them to play with and makes them more creative with what they have. So, my husband and I are really trying not to add more ‘stuff’ to their lives but instead thin it out to achieve less chaos. Ask us in six months how we do…
What's your best advice for other mothers who are looking to make a major career switch like you did?
Make sure you have the passion for whatever you are about to jump into. Do you have something you stay awake thinking about it even when you are feeding your baby at 2am in the middle of the night or driving your kids to nursery? A burning desire to create something or make something better? Then the next step is to do as much research about what you want to do as possible, just as you researched the best stroller you just bought for your baby, and talk to as people around you to learn as much as possible. But it is difficult to predict a lot of things unless you start your new journey so once you are ready, jump off the cliff! You only live once and your adventure starts when you are out of your comfort zone.