Thursday, September 16, 2021

Leaving an Unsupportive Work Environment to Start My Business

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Kate Stewart
Kate Stewart is the Founder and Managing Director of Stay Tray. Stay Tray is a reusable drink tray made from 100% recycled plastic.

In late 2016, I returned to work after a 12-month maternity leave with the birth of my first child. My beautiful baby boy. I had been working for the same large corporate for 17 years. Many different roles, but all with the same global business. Before children, I loved my job. It was fast-paced mayhem. No two days were the same. I had a great team and was well supported by amazing leaders.  Work-life was fabulous.

Returning to work was great. I had a boss who supported me in returning part-time. Being a mother herself. She knew the challenges I faced being a brand-new mum, juggling a career and a newborn. My work at that stage involved a lot of travel around Australia. It was challenging to say the least.

In 2017, I was blessed to fall pregnant again. This time I was over the moon to have a little baby girl. I took 12 months off to spend with my new daughter. Trading laptops, client meetings and boardrooms for nappies and breastfeeding. That 12 months with my daughter was fabulous. But before I knew it, it was time to return to work.

Returning to work the second time was different. My previous boss, a super supportive mum herself, had moved on. I had a new boss. He had his own unique management style. I didn’t feel supported in the workplace at all.

When I returned to work after my first child. I returned four days a week. It was important for me to still have time at home with my young son. This wasn’t offered the second time. In fact, my new boss said the job couldn’t be done part-time. If that is what I wanted, I would have to resign and look elsewhere. I felt he really didn’t want me to return at all. He wanted the person who had been acting in my role for the last 12 months. He was being as unsupportive as possible to achieve this.

Everything had changed. Including myself. Now a mother of two small children. I no longer wanted to spend all my time in the office. I worried about my young family when I was away from them. Travelling all over Australia no longer appealed. I also began to worry about the future we are leaving for them. What will the world look like when they are my age?  What sort of planet will they inherit?  

Climate change, bushfires and floods. It seems a natural disaster is unfolding somewhere in the world each month. Pollution and garbage fill our landfills, litter our parks and beaches and pollute our oceans. In Australia alone, we produce 2.2 million tonnes of plastic waste and 5 million tonnes of paper waste each year. Thirty per cent which isn’t even recycled, ending up in landfills. I’ve always found these statistics overwhelming. Too large for me personally to make a real difference. I use reusable bags at the supermarket, a reusable cup for my daily coffee and a reusable straw for my mid-morning smoothie pick me up. But the numbers are just so staggering. I began to wonder; how can I make a difference for my children?  What can I really do to help?

Every piece of plastic ever manufactured anywhere in the world still exists today. It’s scary to think about. Plastic was first produced in 1907. That plastic still exists today. Single-use plastic items litter our parks and beaches and pollute our oceans.

It really was a stressful time for me. A 2-year-old and a newborn at home. Constantly worried about my children’s future. A new, unsupportive boss who didn’t understand what it’s like to be a mother.

Making things even more challenging. I was commuting 3 hours each day to my role in Melbourne. I would leave the house at 5:30 am.  I wouldn’t get home till 6:30 pm at the earliest. The best I could hope for was to get home in time to read my children a bedtime story. My husband was fabulous and supportive. He worked from home so could look after the kids. But it was all getting to me. The mum juggle was real, and it was wearing me down. Not being supported at work was getting to me. The guilt I felt leaving my kids every morning was real. I knew they were happy and were being well looked after, but it didn’t stop the Mum guilt.

I felt a massive weight on my back every day. I had to do something about it. I had to escape bosses and boardrooms, commuting to work and travelling interstate. So, I walked away from my secure corporate role of 17 years in the pursuit of something more meaningful. Something that would make a real difference to people and the planet.

I was in a café with a colleague, getting morning coffee for my team. We had six drinks to carry back to the office in reusable cups. The barista asked if we wanted a tray. The type used at every café and fast-food restaurant all over the world. There we were, making a conscious effort to use reusable cups, but carrying them back to the office in a single-use tray. A tray that would be used once or twice at best. It would then be recycled, using energy and water in the recycling process each time. There must be a better way I thought. A reusable tray that could be used again, and again, and again. But there simply wasn’t anything out there.

So, I did something about it. I spent 12 months designing, engineering and manufacturing Stay tray. Stay tray is a reusable drink tray made from 100% recycled plastic. It is a reusable alternative to single-use drink trays used at every café and fast-food restaurant across the world. Whilst it would have been half the price to engineer and manufacture overseas, it was very important to me to support the incredibly talented designers, engineers and manufacturers in Australia. Everyone involved in bringing the Stay tray to life, including the manufacturing, is within a 60 km radius of my house.

Stay Tray
Stay Tray

I now work from home. I drop my kids off at school each day. I can do school pickup. I can take them to their after-school activities.

When I look back, I realise the mum juggle was getting to me. The guilt I felt leaving my children really wore me down. I wasn’t happy. I encourage all women who are feeling overwhelmed, guilt or trapped in their jobs, to look for a way out. Find your idea and pursue it. Over the years I have had lots of business ideas. Some are much better than others.

You will know the right one when it comes along. You will feel it deep in your stomach. Just make sure it is something you are interested in or passionate about. Most businesses don’t just fly out of the gate. They aren’t successful immediately. You will have to put in the hard work. Lots of sacrifices in the early days. Lots of time away from friends. Lots of late nights after a long day at your day job, once the kids are in bed.

But all of it will be worth it in the end. For me, the last few years have been more work than I thought possible. More late nights and early mornings than I can remember. But it has all been worth it. I am now my own boss. I set my own hours. I can spend all the time in the world with my children. I have never been happier.

When your business idea comes along. The one that makes you feel nervous and excited in your stomach. Take it. Grab it with both hands and don’t let go. The freedom that comes with owning your own business is incredible. You will never look back.

Read Also: Simone Biles – Queen of Air

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