I first met Michelle Kennedy last year at a dinner celebrating the launch of the dating app Bumble, of which she was on the board. Glamorous, fashionable, and with a background in law, she had spent the last six years working in the tech sector. She was smart, interesting and interested. And she was someone you don’t easily forget.
Almost a year later an email lands in my inbox from Kennedy. She’s developed a new app. No great surprise. But it’s called Peanut and it’s for mums. Much more of a surprise. Because if I’m 100 per cent honest, I wasn’t expecting that the young, glitzy woman in tech wanted to go down the “mumtech” route.
One man asked me if I wanted to do something ‘sexier’, Kennedy laughs
This is, of course, my own dreadful, deeply ingrained prejudice against the word “mum”. For far too many, “mum” donates security, responsibility and Saturday mornings in Tesco. It’s used by the media to undermine women. The Daily Mail recently lambasted Gina Miller for being a “posh mum”. The Pool’s Lauren Laverne has spoken about how trolls on Twitter use “mum as a diss”; “GO AND TALK TO YOUR CHILDREN” one man tweeted at her when listening to her BBC6 Music show.
Of course, anyone with a functioning brain can figure out how incredible mums are and how these opinions (including mine) are sexist and archaic (and, subsequently, I have seriously checked my non-mum privilege).
But this was partly the thinking behind Peanut; after having a baby, feeling periods of loneliness and experiencing some pretty Mean Girls-equse mum-at-the-school-gates bullying, Kennedy wanted to create an app that introduced likeminded women who happened to be mums. And she wanted an app that felt like her. She wanted an app that didn’t reduce her to a lazy gendered stereotype, an app that she could still see herself in.
Peanut (co-founded with Deliveroo co-founder, Greg Orlowski) works on the premise of connecting mums who share interests in your locality. (Categories include Wine Time, Single Mamma, Geek Chic and Sleep Deprived). There’s an impressive calendar function integrated into the messaging system designed to make meeting up easier and kill the torture of hundreds of messages in a never-ending Whatsapp group. Plus, Kennedy tells me, Peanut was designed to be able to be used with one hand. “Because,” she says, “when you have a baby, you’ve only ever got one spare”.
The aversion to mums was, however, loudest from potential investors. The tech industry might be designing our futures, but they are in the dark ages when it comes to diversity and equality. “One man asked me if I wanted to do something ‘sexier’,” Kennedy laughs. “Often I’d walk in and say I had an app for women and they’d be keen because ‘women’ is such a buzzword at the moment. And they’d say, ‘Cool, go on’ and then I’d tell them it was especially for mums and then they were out.” Mostly, Kennedy says, they just didn’t see the problem: “But’s there are mother-and-baby groups, aren't there?”; “Why would anyone need this?”; “What about Mumsnet?”.
Yes, of course, Mumsnet. And there’s a lot to be said about the lifeline the website has provided women – but it was launched in 2000, nearly twenty years ago. The interface and the usability hasn’t really changed – and the tech market hasn’t been keen to produce much competition. As is so often is the case, once the woman box has been ticked, it’s job done. Much like pointing to Theresa May and claiming politics’ woman problem is fixed, the only people who could believe this to be true are (some) men and men are (mostly) still holding the purse stings in the tech sector.
Of course, women having been doing what they do best; getting on with things. Using Facebook, women have created their own communities of like-minded mums. Some sound terrifying, some sound incredible. A family friend gave birth to a stillborn baby. A Facebook group dedicated to helping bereaved mothers made her a patchwork quilt of all the things that reminded her of her baby and sent it to her. Mothers, for so many reasons, have always found a way of reaching out to each other.
Before there was Peanut, however, there was Mush, an app founded 18 months ago by Katie Massie-Taylor and Sarah Hesz, two women in London on their maternity leave looking for support. Mush is a similar premise of connecting mothers and now, Massie-Taylor tells me, there are Mush communities across the UK. Unlike Kennedy, they didn’t come from tech backgrounds but they too were searching for something online that they couldn’t find.
All three are millennial women who have come of age at time when a smartphone seems as essential as lungs. We do everything on our phones and we are curators; we have apps to design our days, our career plans, our relationships. We pick and choose what bit of the internet we want and we build our own windows into the world. Why wouldn’t women do that with motherhood, too?
Massie-Taylor agrees that since Mumsnet there hadn’t been any innovation when it came to "parenttech" and that they faced similar confusion from male investors. “They were dubious, they didn’t understand that mothers might be lonely.” She also believes that the scale of Mumsnet was too intimidating for many to try and challenge. But she points out their differences and says Mush is "making a difference”.
Speaking with Kennedy, it becomes clear she embodies a perennial dilemma for women: who is she and who defines her? Tech start-up founder? Mum? Woman in tech? And why does she feel the pressure to choose one of those labels? One national newspaper wanted a picture of her and her baby to run along a story on Peanut. “But this isn’t about my son,” she says to me. “This is my business, this is my job.” Kennedy seems conflicted: “It’s so important to talk around issues of sexism , and I’m proud of being a working mum but then I don’t want to just talk about motherhood and sexism. I want to talk about my business. I struggle with that.”
Peanut and Mush are products of that struggle; successful working women trying to find ways to make motherhood easier on their own terms. Their success is to have created products in a market that has pretty much ignored the lives of mothers, they are innovating in a space that the male tech world has not understood or bothered to explore. And in this way “mumtech’ isn’t just a Mumsnet forum or something to roll your eyes at; mumtech is one of the boldest things on the internet.