Lifeed founder Riccarda Zezza is here to share her story of how motherhood gave her the idea to create an EdTech company centered around life based learning and transitions, much like the ones working mothers, fathers, and carers face as they add another notch to their list of roles.
Despite having been a manager in reputable companies both in Italy and abroad for 15 years, upon returning from maternity leave, Riccarda was made to feel as though her being a mother was now conflicting with her role as a manager, and she experienced this not just once but two times. This prompted her to do some research around this, and thus, Lifeed was born.
A popular Lifeed expression is “Maternity as a Masters,” implying that maternity leaves should not merely be seen as a chance for a mother to rest and look after their child, but as a person of training as well. This leads on to their principle of life based learning, which is a methodology of practicing and applying soft skills both at home and in the workplace.
In 2015, Lifeed went digital, and originally, it was made for mothers, but later on, it expanded its user base to include fathers and caregivers as well, as these groups all have to make major transitions. Today, they have a team of 35 people and are working with 80 companies to adapt and implement this new way of learning, working, and living.
Using what they call “prompts,” Lifeed helps its clients break free from stereotypes and transfer behaviors between home and work to see where it is lacking or where it can be more effective, and these help people break the barriers between their different roles.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020, Riccarda and her team developed the Transitions program made specifically for helping people deal with a global pandemic. Now, they have helped thousands of people manage this transition.
Riccarda’s advice when looking for clients is to not educate companies, as this is both time-consuming and resource-heavy. Instead, she recommends looking for companies that are ready and open to making that change. The three main challenges to this entire process would be finding the right people, turning an idea into reality, and finding the financial resources to make this all happen.
In 10 years, Riccarda hopes that life based learning becomes the norm in all companies so that parenthood or similar major life events are seen as an advantage in the workplace rather than a disadvantage.
Maiko Schaffrath 00:02
You are listening to Impact Hustlers, and I am your host, Maiko Schaffrath. I've made it my mission to inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs to solve some of the world's biggest social and environmental problems. And for this reason, I am speaking to some of the best entrepreneurs out there who are solving problems such as food waste, climate change, poverty, and homelessness. My goal is that Impact Hustlers will inspire you, either by starting an impact business yourself, by joining the team of one, or by taking a small step, whatever that may be, towards being part of the solution to the world's biggest problems. In today's episode, I speak to Riccarda Zezza, the CEO of Lifeed. Lifeed is an EdTech company that helps people through life transitions, such as becoming a parent, becoming a carer for a family member, or other changes in people's personal or professional lives. Lifeed has developed an augmented learning platform that makes us digital and real life experiences and is based on scientific research. The platform has supported more than 15,000 employees at 80 companies such as Accenture, Danone, and Generali, and has been named as one of the 10 Most Innovative Companies for Employee Reskilling by McKinsey. It's really good to have you on the show, Riccarda. Thanks for joining me.
Riccarda Zezza 01:36
Thank you for inviting me, Maiko.
Maiko Schaffrath 01:38
Thank you. So, you founded Lifeed a few years ago as a result of your own personal experience and returning from maternity leave, I think your second child. And you came back to your job, but you found that you had lost your managerial role that you actually had before, and there was kind of a mismatch of your motivation to get started again with work and the company kind of treating you slightly differently. Can you tell us more about that story and how that inspired life feed?
Riccarda Zezza 02:15
Yes, I've been a manager in big companies for 15 years, so quite a long time, and having a good career between Italy and abroad. I was also in Helsinki, in Finland. And it seemed to be normal until I became a mother. And when I became a mother, it happened twice, in two different companies. I experienced the fact that becoming a mother was perceived to be as a problem, like something that would conflict. The role of mother was conflicting with my role of manager. And the first time it happened, I just changed company and I wanted to move back to it. I thought it was fine. But then the second time when it happened again, I was really puzzled, because on the other hand, as a manager, I was going through many trainings to develop some soft skills that I had realized I was developing much better in my role as a mother. Think of soft skills like crisis management, listening, empathy. So, those skills are very much needed by companies. They spend a lot of money for developing those skills in their people, and they're very difficult to develop. And in the moment in my life in which I had more motivation to develop those skills, more opportunities to practice them, as well as really improving them, I was seen as having a problem, and that was really, really weird, too. So, the second time it happened, I realized that this was not my chance. And actually, I started reading data, and I realized that this happens everywhere in the world. So, anywhere in the world still in the 21st century, becoming a mother and becoming a parent, but fathers have a different story, but it's changing also for fathers, you feel seen as a problem in the workplace, and this is incredible, not only under a sustainable perspective, but also under the perspective of losing resources or the time they are developing.
Maiko Schaffrath 04:13
So, you came back, you had all this energy and eagerness to get back and grow professionally again and kind of get back into it. What was specifically the reaction of the company? What did you face at the time?
Riccarda Zezza 04:32
The reaction starts before. The reaction starts as soon as you tell them you're pregnant that, in a way, that is the culture that makes companies think that becoming a mother, having more roles means you will have less dedication or less time for your professional role. And this is wrong under a sociological perspective, because science shows that when people have more roles, they have more opportunities to recharge, more opportunities to develop skills, and more strength, because they have more places where they can find their balance. If something goes wrong in your role as a worker, you can go in your role as a mother and recover, and the other way around. But this is cultural, if we talk about work-life balance. This means we are considering work and life as being opposites and needing to find a balance. Well, they are not anymore, I think we have seen this. They are integrated. They are interconnected. They are part of the same person. So, this happened before I left the company. I was already told, "Oh, so when you're back, you will want to do less. You will want to step back a little bit," and I'm like, "Why? I mean, I'm organized. As you said, I want to contribute even more to society where my children will grow, so I don't want to step back. I want to be there. I want to take decisions." And I realized this was a big problem. That's why I started studying. When I did, I really started it. I took a couple of years of study while I was doing other things, so not just studying. But I started studying, is it real that becoming a mother develops skills and leadership as I feel personally? And could these skills and leadership be sold to comprises as a benefit instead of a problem?
Maiko Schaffrath 06:24
Amazing, yeah, and that's where it all started. So, tell us a bit more about the actual solution that you saw and how Lifeed works and solves for that problem.
Riccarda Zezza 06:37
So, the phrase with which we were born as a company is "Maternity as a Masters." The initial idea was, if it's true that mothers leave the job for a while being on maternity leave, and this is different from country to country, but they're still away from four weeks to three, six months, but it's true also that people do leave the workplace for trainings. So, can we help companies seeing this leave as a training leave and not just the person on leave? And we started developing this methodology, which is called Life based learning, that allows people to find their own skills and their own resources in the real life. So, they get the theory about the skill, let's say listening, you know what listening is about, you know what behaviors you can use for listening, and so on. That's not theoretical. But then, the experiential part, that one happens in the classroom, which is very challenging to have this kind of experiential part happening in the classroom, but you go looking for it in your real life. You go looking. How do you listen in the real life to the people you care about? What kind of feedback do you get? What behaviors are more effective? And I started believing in this kind of training in the classroom to companies, because that's the word where it comes from. I know how companies work, and it really worked very well, because it was fitting a big need. It was, in a way, solving two problems at the same time. One is, how do I let mothers come back to work with all their strengths instead of feeling demotivated? And where do I find the soft skills that my company needs? So, we were putting it together, and it was working so well that I was frustrated, because I was thinking, "How far can we go if we keep it in the classroom?" And that's when we thought of bringing it digital, and that was a major change. It happened five years ago, when we really found that the company Life Based Value, which is the mother of Lifeed, and we started selling to companies a platform where their new mothers could access and find how they were developing their skills, and very quickly, it became a platform also for fathers. And then a bit later, we opened a stream for caregivers, because every life experience, every life transition is a moment in which people at the same time have to make a cognitive effort to redefine themselves, so their brain goes back into learning mode, looking for different networks, looking for different resources. So, they are particularly visible. They're particularly, I wouldn't say needy. I think we have to change the perspective from being in need to being ready, okay, for something, and they have opportunities to train new skills, because they have new situations, new relations. So, this works for mothers, for fathers, for caregivers. This works for every type of transition in life, if you change jobs, if you move houses. There are so many transitions in our life, every time you have the opportunity to rethink about who you are and find your own skills in your life event. So, five years later, we are a bigger company. We are 35 people. We have, as you said, 80 customers, big companies. We're working with big companies because they are more already. This is a very new way of learning, and innovation is strange, because you would think that if you have something that nobody else has, you can sell it in a minute. But it's not true, because basically, you have to explain everything from A to Z about what it is, why do they need it, how does it work, does it work. It's not like selling a pizza that everybody has tried a pizza sooner or later. You're selling something that people don't even know they need. They don't have the meat. They don't recognize it. Nobody else has showed it to them. So, it's quite challenging, and it's easier with companies which already have this capacity of looking at it in a broader way of things. But in these years, we could really prove that the methodology works. Life based learning is a new way to learn, that brings to the economy and the society the kinds of skills that the economy and the society need, and at the same time, allows people to know themselves better and become at peace with the fact that we all have a complex life and many identities at the same time.
Maiko Schaffrath 11:03
On a practical level, the companies you work with, they give their employees access to your platform, which is this digital platform. I believe there's also some real life experiences on top of that. Tell us, what do people actually use? What are the activities they do as part of this?
Riccarda Zezza 11:25
So, as I told you, we are scientifically based, and this is very important, because if you want to change the mindset, if you want to change the culture, you must have very strong knowledge behind you. And most of what we do was already discovered in a way or another, but just wasn't used the way we are using it. For example, we have our roots in the theory about breaking stereotypes, because that's the starting point. You have to break the stereotypes. You have to break the previous schemes in order for people to apply a different framework on things. And so, how do we do it? People apply on a voluntary basis, so it's their choice to do it, and imagine how busy you are when you just became a mother or a caregiver, and you also find the time for doing this, which means they are very motivated. And the motivation is key, and motivation is what lacks in traditional trainings. People are rarely motivated to learn. In this case, they are motivated. They apply themselves. And what do they get? They get a mix of components. First of all, to break stereotypes, you have to provide some knowledge. So, they get information about, scientifically speaking, what is happening to them, why do they feel tired or confused, if it is normal to need new maps, if this is a transition, and everybody has some in their life, so you're not alone, and so on. So, you get this kind of information that helps you break the previous frameworks, then you get the opportunity to reflect, and that's very, very keen in our methodology. You get some prompts. We call them prompts. They are questions, but they're not traditional questions. They are questions which break stereotypes. Instead of asking you, "How tired are you now that you have a baby?," we asked them, "How did your way of listening change since you had a baby?" And so, the power of questions is that they trigger your own knowledge. They don't provide you with some content. They give room to your own content. And so, you feel the frame with who you are and what you're discovering, and then you really learn in that sense. That's why we say that we are framing but we're not giving content. We're just giving a new framework. And then, the next step is we tell you, "In the next week, look at yourself when you do this, when you listen. See what behaviors you're using. See if you're more effective in listening at home or at the office and ask yourself why. Why? Since this is the same skill, why do I use it better somewhere than somewhere else? What are the behaviors I'm using? And then, try to transfer the behaviors from one role to the other, which might seem strange, but in fact, it's very funny and it's very effective, so utilize it." For example, when you're listening to your kids, you get closer to them. You get in contact with them. You really listen. And when you're listening to your colleagues, you're distracted. You're looking at something else, and so on, and you're more effective with your kids and you can transfer those behaviors at work. But it works also the other way around, which is also very useful. Because most of us, especially in Italy, we become parents when we are 31, which is quite late, and when we become parents, very often, we don't know how to do it. We think we don't have the skills to be a parent, but we have a lot of professional skills. For example, you can use delegation at work much better. You should take it from your professional role. You can use motivation. You can use management, and you can use leadership. So, there is a lot that you can find if you break the barriers between all your roles. And in this, we have a lot of good partners with universities, for example, because this research about role overlap, so how many roles does each one of us have? How do they overlap with each other? Do they overlap or do we keep them separate? Because that's how we think we are meant to be. What is the impact of overlapping them more? For example, Kellogg's University showed that the more role overlap people have, so meaning I am the same person when I'm at work and when I'm at home, the more ethical is their behavior, which is not surprising because, of course, if I look at myself in the mirror and I see the mother, the friend, the manager, and the founder at the same time, I tend to behave better in all of those roles, because I'm the same person, so it gives me awareness about that. So, there are a lot of implications if you manage to change this perspective on how people see themselves.
Maiko Schaffrath 16:01
Amazing. Obviously, 2020 is a really good or fitting year to discuss this. As you say, you're helping people with all kinds of life transitions, and I think if I talk to people in my networks, I think almost everybody's going through some sort of transition this year. So, what's your observation on that? What are the most common themes with transitions this year? And what do you think can be done about them? Is your methodology right for that as well? What can be done for people that are currently struggling to transition?
Riccarda Zezza 16:44
When the pandemic started in March, we asked ourselves, "How can we help?," and we actually realized what you're saying, that this is another huge- this is a transition for a lot of people, a global transition. This is the first time ever that all the population of the world is going through the same transition in one way or another. And so, in one month and a half, we created a new program, which is called Transitions, and address exactly the transition, in this case of a pandemic. Actually, it could apply also to others, but we have been selling this for the pandemic itself, and we have now a couple of thousands of participants in this program. And so, I can actually tell you how it is going, and I can tell you that, now, the second phase of the lockdown is different. We have seen, especially the first phase, and after that, I can tell you about this phase next time we speak, because we're seeing it now. But from the first phase of the pandemic, people felt displaced, of course, and unsecure. But at the same time, they found a place where they felt safe, which was home and they, in a way, went back to the old maps, to some maps which are more basic for us. I think we went down in the in the Maslow pyramid in a way, but that reassured a lot of people. So, the kind of reflections they have been sharing with us, but maybe also guided by what we're telling them, because what we have them do is realize that it's okay to be in what's called the "neutral zone of transition," which is after the disaster has hit or after the changes happen, you have a long phase in which you are very uncertain, and you lack all the old reference points you used to have. All your habits change in a way or another, and you lose the perspective of what's going to be. But at the same time, this is a very precious and unique time to reassess who you are and realize that you have the power on what you can be in the future. If you are supported in becoming self-aware of how your story relates to the overall story, you get back in, I would say, control because I don't like the word control. You get back in becoming the author of your story. So, we are now going through a very intense and long neutral zone of dissociation that is rightfully uncertain, but the uncertainty is needed for us to get back in knowing who we are and what we want, and we can't use it this way. We have to avoid going back to the old reality. We have to use this transition to go forward. And the people who are doing this with us, they show that they're ready for that. That is, I think, the most amazing thing. What we say is that people have everything inside. They have wonders inside, but the problem is they don't have the space to express it. But if you ask them the right questions and if you provide them the space to express the wonders they have inside, the wonders will come out. And if it comes out, it's going to be available for the companies, for the society, for the economy, for themselves.
Maiko Schaffrath 20:05
Absolutely, yeah. Do you think companies, and you're working with so many big companies, are they very aware that they have to play a role with these transitions that are happening in 2020, the pandemic-related ones? Or is it still a lot of education, as you said, with the education you have to do around their role in supporting mothers that return to work or fathers that return to work?
Riccarda Zezza 20:38
COVID has been a good way, with some very bad effects, but a good way for a lot of pre-existing issues to become visible. So, we were really going in that direction, but we were, in a way, delaying the impact, and then we have the impact suddenly. And I see some companies are still, in a way, trying to just accelerate back to the normality, but most of the ones I see are conscious, are aware that things must change. And I hear a lot about how people are becoming key. I think companies realized that how people feel and the way they live is part of who they are and part of who they bring to the office, and they can't ignore that any longer, because they risk losing their people. They go looking for engagement, for motivation. They go looking for skills, but then maybe they have been looking in the wrong places. And now, the fact that we have seen each other's houses, seen each other's dynamics. We've seen each other's life, paradoxically, by being far, that is showing companies what we really are and what they could really get. So, I'm trustful that things will change in a good way.
Maiko Schaffrath 21:57
Got it. We have a lot of early-stage entrepreneurs listening to this podcast that may be at that place that you were when you first started the company or just before that. One of the topics I always like to speak about is obviously the more challenging parts of the entrepreneurial journey and lessons learned. I think the first thing I want to pick up on something that you mentioned earlier, which is that in many cases, companies don't even have a perceived problem. They think everything is fine and, "We're doing everything. We're a great company." Obviously, that's really challenging. If you're going to companies and with many of them, you kind of just don't find a natural demand. You have to educate them. How did you go through that journey? Was it very difficult to do that and how did you correct that?
Riccarda Zezza 22:58
So, my suggestion is don't try to educate companies. Look for the ones which are ready, because innovation is very fragile at the beginning, and it's already needing a lot of resources without having to fight battles with companies which are not ready. So, find allies. Find companies who can prove your solution together with you, and create case studies, create results, and then the other companies will follow. That's the only way to go. I think that's the starting point. And so, "find allies" means not only find the right customers. I have a few customers who really are like my partners for me. We are building this together. But also, find partners in a sense of people who you work with, people who can add their own experience to your work, and that's the most difficult part of creating a company. There are two difficult parts- there are three, at least three. One is finding the right people. This might sound obvious, but when you try it, then you really see what I mean. The second is going from idea to whatever. If I look backwards, I can see how we have gone from the idea to the reality. But if I remember how I was feeling at the beginning, seven or eight years ago, I had no idea of what I was going to do. It was not planned. And so, it was just doing my homework every day and keeping an eye to the future while doing everyday the right things in a good way that it took me here. But of course, going from idea to reality is very challenging. And then, the third point is, of course, finding the financial resources, because I thought I was putting something on the market that the companies would need and pay for and that's how I would find the adventure, the company, but it's not true. You need more financial resources than what the market can provide you if you want to grow at the speed of innovation. The innovation you create has a speed, and it needs more financial resources for the first years. So, I had to go fundraising as well, and that's another job. That's not the job. It's another [kind of] work, so you need different skills, you need extra time. And of course, I'm a mother, I have two kids, and I want to be home with them in the evening. But still, I think this is the best job in the world, especially because you have the feeling everyday that you are doing something meaningful, that is needed.
Maiko Schaffrath 25:24
Has there been a moment in the journey of creating the company or since you started the company that you were looking back at, it was really critical to get things right or a moment where maybe you were like, "Oh, god. This could actually make us fail," and that you overcame? Anything that you can share on that?
Riccarda Zezza 25:43
Okay. There have been critical moments. They were more about my emotions than the fear of failing. I don't have a fear of failing, because I think that we have already succeeded. I know we have already succeeded. We can do more. We can do better. We will do more and better. We could still fail, but that's not what scares me. Well, I have critical moments in which emotionally, it was too hard, and it can be emotionally to hard when you are stretched in a way that you don't feel yourself. You can't be yourself. I think that you are very strong when you can express yourself at best, when you know you are doing what you can do best, and you can't do this all the time. Sometimes, you have to do things that you're not very good at doing and it stretches you. And so, I had a couple of moments, which were emotionally very, very hard, but the motivation of knowing why I was doing this kept me going forward.
Maiko Schaffrath 26:45
Absolutely. When you talk to companies, even those that are forward-thinking, have forward-thinking management, and they're like, "Okay, we need this type of thing," what are generally the biggest hurdles for you to get them to use it? Is there any sort of barrier still, culturally or anything like that, for them to actually adopt it?
Riccarda Zezza 27:09
So, on a cultural perspective, the barrier can be that they see it as a support for people where it actually is a support for them, because this is not about helping people. This is about bringing resources to the economy and to the company. So, it's very important for me. I mean, I can sell it anyway. I'm not going to not sell it to those who don't understand. But for me, it's a pity if they buy it for the wrong reason. On a more rational perspective, I get crazy when they ask for the ROI of what we do, return on investment of soft skills. "Can you prove that if people feel better, they work better? What results can you show that if empathy improves, then sales improve?," and I'm like, "Okay. There is a lot of data about this. I can go looking for them and use them with you, but this is all like, okay, stop. Let's stop asking these questions, because, you know."
Maiko Schaffrath 28:08
Absolutely. That's really great to hear your perspective on this. I have one more question. That's about the future. If you think about the next 10 years, how does the world look like in 10 years if Lifeed continues to succeed?
Riccarda Zezza 28:30
My dream is that life based learning becomes a new, absolutely normal, obvious methodology of learning, so that all life events and the complexity of our lives is seen as a positive factor and not a conflicting factor with your work, and the collateral but very important aspect of this would be that we would bring much more care to the world. Because the problem is, today, this separation between roles is keeping the care aspect of life into the private life, and the public aspect of life is lacking it and missing it like crazy, and it's going to die if we don't bring more care to it. But if we open these doors, if we let ourselves care everywhere, I think we can improve the economy and the society a lot of times. A lot more can happen. So, my hope is that we find the technological way to expand it, to scale up enough, to embed this methodology everywhere, becoming visible.
Maiko Schaffrath 29:44
Well, it's a great vision to be part of. I think you're part of already this wider movement of companies that are bringing about and kind of tapping into this cultural change within even big corporates where it's not just, "Show up to the office between 9 and 5, and we don't care about your private life." I think there's a trend where life is just very connected. It's not separate like that. We've had companies like- I'm just remembering on the podcast. We had Nick, the founder of a company called Unmind in the UK, who is helping big companies manage or help support employees with mental health, but then also, again, having the benefits for the companies. We've had Quit Genius, which is helping employees deal with addictions. I think some of the most forward-thinking companies are really stepping up now, and it's great to hear from you that there are companies stepping up as well with the topic of life transitions, with the topic of a mother returning to work, as a carer returning to work. It's been really inspiring to listen to you, so thank you very much for sharing this.
Riccarda Zezza 31:02
Thank you, Maiko. Thank you for your questions, and your attention, and listening.
Maiko Schaffrath 31:07
Thank you, Riccarda.