Helen Mayer is mother of twin boys. In March 2020, when the pandemic hit, Mayer’s first startup company failed. At the same time, the twins’ childcare closed. Mayer became a stay-at-home parent by default.
She began applying for jobs but had to turn down opportunities because her access to safe, reliable, quality and affordable childcare was illusory as COVID-19 spread. She began researching childcare to better understand why a generation of parents – especially mothers – are fleeing the workforce.
In July, Mayer reached out to several parent communities and asked for input on child care solutions they were looking for. She received a whopping 2,000 responses in a week. She initially tested 50 childcare exchanges where parents worked with other families to coordinate care. Swapping with a stay-at-home parent providing care was, not surprisingly, the most successful. However, the working parents who got childcare were excited, while those stay-at-home parents were not paid.
She convinced parents who exchange care to switch to a model where parents who need childcare pay a stay-at-home parent to care for their child. In October 2020, she started Otter with this model. By January 2021, Otter had launched in a second city and had their 1,000th caregiver on board. By July, Otter served 3,500 providers and raised $27.8 million from Sequoia Capital, Andreessen Horowitz and other funders to expand its efforts.
Otter is an example of a childcare innovation born during the global pandemic, which seeks to address the lack of supply of quality childcare. Is this a desirable solution? Yes. Is it a panacea? No. The reality is that we need a variety of solutions for the diversity of children and families’ needs.
The childcare crisis predates the global pandemic. Child care was already unaffordable for 63% of parents. Half of families live in childcare deserts. One in 3 working families struggle to find childcare. Only 10% of childcare provision is quality.
COVID-19 has further exposed and exacerbated the serious shortcomings of existing childcare options in terms of affordability, supply and quality. While policymakers work on appropriate public policy and funding responses, the good news is that private, family demand-driven childcare innovations and funding are on the rise.
Here are seven areas of childcare innovations, which aim to:
1/ Lower the business-related barriers to becoming a childcare provider and sustaining as a micro-entrepreneur. Brightwheel helps childcare providers manage attendance, billing, enrollment, learning plans and parent communications. The company has raised $55 million in 2021 to expand its work.
Meanwhile, All Our Kin supports family childcare providers on quality through licensing, coaching and group classes. As a nonprofit organization, it has received support from major philanthropies, including the cooperative Home Grown.
2/ Connect parents to childcare providers through online marketplaces. Winnie is a marketplace where parents can identify childcare, and childcare providers can optimize enrollment and connect with resources. Similarly, CareLulu allows parents to search for childcare providers. Urban Sitter connects parents with a network of babysitters and caregivers.
3/ Provide community-based platforms to create support systems for providers and parents. Wonderschool is a platform that connects parents and high-quality family childcare. In doing so, it promotes the provision of childcare and education in smaller nurturing home-based environments.
Now rolling out nationwide in New Mexico, Indiana and Nevada, Wonderschool recently received $25 million in funding, led by Goldman Sachs, to accelerate its work with black women child care providers and black mothers. Similarly, MyVyllage supports family childcare providers starting to provide services.
4/ Rethink business models to help employers provide care benefits. Vivvi (which recently raised $15 million in funding), LegUp and Kinside all target employers and connect working parents with childcare. This sector is poised to grow as companies with policies and tools that support parents have an edge in recruiting, retaining and promoting talent.
5/ Support stay-at-home parents who want to supplement their income. In addition to Otter, Tinkergarten has reached 450,000 families through its outdoor play-based classes, led by trained parents who earn an income for leading the sessions.
6/ Encourage the sharing of childcare. Versightt and Komae organize childcare exchanges between families at little or no cost. Abulé uses blockchain as barter for childcare.
7/ Democratize access to child-centered models. Montessori public offerings have steadily grown across the country. Trust for Learning recently partnered with Head Start to improve Montessori pedagogy. Wildflower Schools is expanding its network of micro-schools that bring quality Montessori education to all children through one-room schools. Higher Ground “mainstreams and modernizes” Montessori through its network of more than 80 sites.
Tinycare is also expanding its Montessori-inspired microcentres. Jeff Bezos’ Day One Fund has committed $2 billion to Montessori-like education for young children from lower-income backgrounds. The first school opened in October 2020, and it is now expanding.
The pandemic has created an unprecedented need and opportunity to reimagine how Americans access and receive child care. Demand for quality solutions is increasing, and innovations are meeting the diverse needs of families seeking childcare. Now is the time for the next piece of the childcare puzzle: greater public funding to make access to innovations and quality solutions more equitable.