Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

At 32, Katherine Wintsch hit a maternal wall, a barrier more pronounced and intractable than any glass ceiling.  The high-powered marketing executive and mother of two small children was simply too exhausted—mentally and physically—to carry on.

“I just could not continue the life that I had anymore and I could not continue the expectations that I had for myself anymore,” she says. “I looked around me and I saw all the trappings of success that would cause anybody from the outside world to think that I was very happy, and I wasn’t happy.”

She spent two years working through that dilemma with a signature mix of Oprah-inspired introspection, therapy and life coaching, and emerged the CEO of a mom-focused marketing firm with global impact.

Today she makes it her business to turn the challenges of motherhood, which she knows intimately, into growth opportunities for brands, including Walmart, Kellogg, Colgate and Johnson & Johnson. She travels the world researching moms in all walks of life and then works with companies to develop products that better serve them. Talk about work-life alignment.

  • Name: Katherine Wintsch
  • Age: 37
  • Work: Founder and CEO of The Mom Complex
  • Family: Husband Richard; Children Layla (6) and Alex (4)
  • Education: Bachelor’s degree in marketing from James Madison University; Master’s degree in communication from the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter

You seem to have a dream job. As a mother yourself, you have ideas about things that are missing from the marketplace or could be tweaked to be a little more appropriate or relevant.

How do you meld your personal expertise and experience with the information you collect from mothers around the world whose circumstances may be very different from yours?

It absolutely is a dream job. I love coming to work every day. It’s a deeply personal mission to me. What’s so personal about it is representing these women’s lives in front of the biggest companies in the world and representing their struggles and pain points and where they need more help. I certainly bring my own trials and tribulations into the equation. It’s hard not to.

I do think of myself as being a voice for these women and representing them. When I’m in front of Walmart and I’m telling them about lower-income families with a $30,000 household income, I do it with great pride. I wish sometimes that those mothers could see me in front of these companies representing their lives.

The way that I avoid bringing my own situation to bear is by doing a lot of research with these mothers themselves. We have a smart phone research app that we use, we do a lot of in-home visits, we travel all around the country, and we shoot videos with these mothers so I am able hear their very specific stories and bring them to life. I don’t think you can do that through traditional research methods like focus groups. I don’t think that’s as real or honest.

Can you tell me more about the traditional ways that companies have researched products for moms? You mentioned focus groups. What other kinds of old-school ways of collecting information are there?

Focus groups are problematic for two reasons. One is that you bring people into a lab-rat-like focus-group facility and it’s very hard for them to relax and be honest, open and forthcoming.

Secondly, the biggest problem with focus groups is that when you put eight strange moms in a room who don’t know each other and ask them the highs and lows of being a mother, they will posture and say they have everything under control, their husbands are really helpful, they feel like great moms and their kids are really obedient, because moms want to look like good moms in front of other moms.

The other thing a lot of companies do is they just do surveys with moms. That is another old-school way of doing things, because it doesn’t get at the real passion and pain points or their real lives. You’re not in their home and they can be quite sterile and void of emotion.

The third thing is that a lot of companies just create new products and services in a vacuum and assume that mothers will like them. We have some other tools where we will co-create ideas with companies, with the company itself and mothers in the same room so that it’s not done outside of that input.

Within companies, is there a lack of women in the position to design some of these products?

I would say that is the case. Most product development and innovation positions tend to be more male-dominated, but I really don’t think that’s the actual problem. I think the actual problem is a lack of interesting tangible research about these lives.

We’ve seen plenty of cases where when we bring fruitful, interesting and provocative insights about motherhood to bear, men are perfectly capable of turning those into new products and services. I don’t believe it’s a male-female thing. I think it’s a lack of interesting research.

What’s strange to me is, I would venture to guess that 100% of people inside these companies are a mom, have a mom or are married to a mom, so it’s astonishing to me the way they talk about mothers inside of boardrooms.

It’s a very idealized description. They say, “Moms want the best for their families, they work hard every day to put their families first, and they wake up excited to tackle each day.”

That’s honestly the reason I started this company. I sat in some of these groups and I would raise my hand and say, “Who are you talking about? I don’t know another single mother on the planet that sounds like the human being you’re describing. I know mothers who are stressed out, overwhelmed and feel like they’re doing a terrible job.”

There’s this whole phenomenon that happens when people walk through a corporate boardroom threshold and they talk about mothers in the most ridiculous way.

Do you think that some of it has to do with how mothers talk about themselves?

Yes, I do think that mothers themselves are the biggest problem. They show up saying they have everything under control. It’s very hard for moms to admit that they’re having a hard time or not doing a good job. I think that first and foremost is the worst problem.

I also think that companies don’t do as much due diligence in the homework to ask the really hard questions, ask about their struggles, or ask about the downside or hard parts of motherhood. We do both of those things.

How has this professional expertise that you’ve developed influenced your personal experience of motherhood? Are you bringing some of the research insights home?

Yes. The more I have been able to get mothers around the world to open up and be honest about their struggles, the more it has opened my eyes that I can admit that I don’t have everything under control. For a long time I wore a mask and acted like I had everything under control and that motherhood was roses and kittens all day long.

The more I saw other women in my research opening up about their struggles, the more it gave me the confidence and courage to say when I didn’t have it all under control.

I’ve pretty much become a therapist to a lot of my girlfriends.  Whenever they’re struggling with something about motherhood, I say, “Oh my gosh. I hear that all the time all around the world. You’re not alone.” I share it with my friends too.

You spun The Mom Complex off from its original home at The Martin Agency in December. Now do you have increased responsibilities, or do you have more flexibility to balance work and motherhood?

Surprisingly, I think most people think it is more responsibility or more stress, but I was telling somebody the other day that I’ve never slept better in my life now that I own my own company.

A lot of that is because for so many years in my career I was trying to live up to everyone else’s expectations for me and for The Mom Complex.

Now that I’m the owner of the company, I only have my own expectations to live up to, and that has been incredibly liberating. It has taken a lot of pressure off of me, to be honest. It’s the opposite of what most people would think.

That’s encouraging to hear.

There are a lot of worrywarts around me and people who love me. They say, “Are you sleeping at night? Are you stressed? How are you paying the bills?” Tactical things like paying the bills, taking out my own trash and ordering my own new phone for the business are things that are relatively easy to solve. [Owning my own business] has solved a big emotional burden for me.

Can you talk about the idea of setting a standard that’s “good enough,” whether it’s good enough as a mother or as a business owner? How do you define for yourself that point that is somewhere short of perfection but high enough to still be ambitious?

Something that really helped me as I was figuring out who I was, as a person, as a mother and as a business owner, is I that had an extraordinary life coach. She told me to first and foremost write a paragraph answering the question, “What is my definition of success in life?” After I wrote that definition, then I needed to write, “What is my definition of success at work?”

It was an extraordinarily liberating exercise. What I found in doing that is that I had to define for myself what success was. For 30 years I defined it by other people, what other people thought of me, what other people wanted me to accomplish and what other people wanted me to do.

My definition of success in life was basically to be a really good human being, do the best that I absolutely can and remain present in all things I could in the moment. When I wrote that down, it didn’t seem as hard to achieve as some hugely ambitious laundry list.

Before, I would have told you that it was this award, or that award, this recognition, this headline, this article and “The Today Show,” and all this stuff. When I really sat down and wrote it out, it didn’t include any of that, so for me it’s not that hard to live up to. It’s pretty clear.

After you wrote, “What is my definition of success at work?” did you also ask, “What is my definition of success at home or as a parent?”

No, I didn’t. Most of my struggles personally have been with giving too much to my job, so I felt that once I got those in check and they weren’t all about my job, they also incorporated life as a mother.

Another thing I did in that process was ground myself in the fact that the only person’s expectations that truly matter about whether I’m a good mother or not are the expectations of my children, so I regularly ask them, “What makes me a good mommy?”

My children are 4 and 6. They are amazing and responsive. A couple of years ago when I asked my daughter she said, “You’re nice to me and you buy me pink clothes.” I thought, “I can do that all day long.”

We try to live up to the teacher’s expectations, our own parents’ expectations, the next door neighbor’s expectations and everybody else’s expectations, but it really only matters what your children think. Their definition of you being a good mom is pretty basic and simple.

All of the mothers that I get to do that exercise find that as soon as they ask that question and they hear the response, they realize that they’ve already achieved it. I am nice to my daughter and I do buy her pink clothes. In her mind she’s not striving or longing for something.

I think that’s important, because I’ve never said to myself or to anyone else that I have to lower my expectations. I’m not trying to be an average mother or an average business owner. It’s not that I’ve lowered my expectations. It’s just that I’ve gotten really clear about what my definition of success is.

For example, in my job, I’m a CEO of a company and growth is not my goal, because at work my definition of success is impacting the lives of mothers, making their lives easier, making them more understood and creating better products and services for them. That is not about size, growth or revenue.

If those other things happen, it’s okay, but that helps me pick projects I’m going to take on and turn projects down. If we’re not going to work with a company that’s going to allow us to have impact in the lives of moms, then we’re not going to do it. We’re not going to do it just for money.

It brings a lot of clarity and peace of mind.

Yes, it does. Before I had that focus, I would take on any project. I would do anything for anyone because they wanted me to do it. Now I don’t leave my two children at home every day to satisfy the needs of other people. As long as I’m having impact, I feel that’s worthy of not being at home every day. It’s such a better life.

How long after hitting rock bottom did you find the life coach and start that work?

I would say I hit rock bottom and first got a therapist. I think everybody should have one. I don’t know why it’s such a taboo topic and why nobody wants to admit it. I have a great one that I love.

I went to a therapist for probably two years. On the tail end of that I got a life coach. I would say that it was a two-year process of talking to other people. It was talking to my husband, my parents, a therapist and a life coach, etc. and I probably read three dozen self-help books. I just became obsessed with self-help books. Those were the only books I read for about three years.

I talked to other people, read, watched a ton of Oprah and then I did a lot of homework on myself. I wrote a lot. I wrote the answers to the questions I was telling you. I answered all the questions in the self-help books. I did a good two years of homework and research on myself.

At the end of those two years, it was clear as a lighthouse shining a light exactly what I needed to do, what makes me happy, what drains me, what energizes me and what type of person I want to be. It was crystal clear. I have never turned back from that path.

What did your 20s teach you?

My 20s taught me that I needed to learn to love myself.

What are you teaching your 30s?

I am teaching my 30s to live a more meaningful life.

Oprah, Martha, Michelle, Hillary, Sheryl?

That’s good. Definitely Oprah. Watching her for 20 years, I was able to see myself, and my flaws, in so many of her guests. I don’t think I would have learned about myself as quickly or profoundly if I hadn’t seen myself in those guests. It taught me that I could be open and honest about my flaws.

I’ll add one thing about my husband’s role in this. A lot of people would say I would never be able to do what I do without my husband, which is true. I travel a lot. I have a lot of responsibility at work. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without my husband.

The truth is that I wouldn’t be who I am without my husband. Throughout my whole soul-searching journey, he was always there with such a deadpan reality check to my insecurities.

I remember sitting with him one night, saying, “All this success with The Mom Complex, I’m just not sure I deserve it. Why me?” He looked at me and said, “Because you started it, stupid. Of course you deserve it.” I thought, “That’s a really good point.”

Yes, he’s physically supportive and helps with the kids a lot, but he was always this amazing sounding board. Again, like Oprah, I’m not sure I would’ve gotten where I am as such a happy and fulfilled person without that reality check along the way and how supportive emotionally that he has been.