At Microsoft, finding the path to parenthood

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Alyssa Place (00:00):
Welcome to Perk Up!, a podcast about workplace culture and benefits brought to you from the team at Employee Benefit News. I'm Alyssa Place, executive editor at EBN. With Perk Up!, my colleagues and I are sharing the stories of businesses who have implemented forward thinking, covetable workplace policies and benefits, keeping their employees happy and their company's bottom line thriving. This week, Editor-in-Chief Stephanie Schomer explores how Microsoft's offering of fertility and family building benefits helped one employee get on the path to parenthood.

Stephanie Schomer (00:42):
Hi everyone, and thanks for joining me for this episode of Perk Up! Today we're going to talk about that life-changing moment when a person decides to become a parent, it's a time filled with anticipation, uncertainty, and an overwhelming hope for what the future might bring. But for more than six million women in the U.S. who struggle with infertility, that hopeful vision for a family may seem painfully out of reach. The Department of Health and Human Services defines infertility as the inability to get pregnant after one year of trying or after six months of trying. For women 35 and older, the World Health Organization estimates that globally one in six people, male or female, will face reproductive challenges. In recent years, employers have significantly expanded their supportive employees struggling to start a family. According to Mercer, as recently as 2015, just 6% of employers with 20,000 or more employees covered egg freezing.

Read more: Doulas boost maternal health outcomes, according to an analysis of Medicaid data

By 2020, that number had spiked to 19%. In 2015, 36% of large employers offered some kind of coverage for in vitro fertilization. By 2020, that number hit 42%. Of course, there's still work to do. A recent report from family benefit provider Maven found that 41% of all employees think their employer could do a better job of supporting family and reproductive needs, and 64% have missed worth this year due to fertility and family health needs. In turn, nearly two thirds of employers are planning to increase their family in fertility benefits in the next couple of years. According to the report, what does the impact of family building benefits look like in real life? For Priscilla Martinez, a Chicago based sales excellence and strategy manager at Microsoft, the tech giant's benefits provided support at an unexpectedly challenging part of her life. After roughly a year of trying to conceive with her partner in an increasing count of negative pregnancy tests, she knew she needed medical guidance.

Priscilla Martinez (02:40):
We were just sort of at a loss. We're like, okay, this isn't working. But my doctor didn't really give me specifics on, okay, if this isn't working, like this is what you should do next. And sometimes doctors are hard to see, like to get into the office if you don't have like an actual urgent matter happening, which I wasn't classifying it in that way.

Stephanie Schomer (03:03):
Martinez and her partner first started trying to conceive in 2019 when she was 29 years old. They didn't take a particularly aggressive or scientific approach, she says, and they weren't anticipating any significant challenges, but Martinez wasn't completely unfamiliar with health issues related to her reproductive system. At age 19, a burst ovarian cyst required her to have surgery, and while the procedure was successful, she was warned that it may cause problems down the road. A decade later, shortly after they decided to pursue Parenthood, Martinez was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS, a hormonal imbalance that can present through a variety of symptoms, making it challenging for doctors to diagnose with certainty. In Martinez's case, those symptoms included ongoing ovarian cysts and irregular menstrual cycles that could stretch as long as 50 days rather than the standard 28. She was again told by doctors that getting pregnant may be a tricky journey, though they didn't provide any additional insight or guidance and simply reassured her that she could get pregnant naturally. In turn, Martinez was hopeful and moved forward like so many hopeful parents do.

Priscilla Martinez (04:14):
Yeah, I would say that I was naive to the process, and so I just chalked everything up to, oh, we're not really necessarily trying because I've heard of much more in-depth manners of trying and so I didn't view ours as being in that way, and I just assumed that it would occur naturally. I had not been tracking my ovulation. We were just trying a regular old way.

Read more: How the Roe v. Wade decision puts fertility care at risk

Stephanie Schomer (04:42):
Fast forward to 2020 and Martinez and her partner were processing a year's worth of failed attempts, which because of the cycle irregularity caused by her PCOS translated to seven negative pregnancy tests over 12 months. They knew it was time to make some changes. Both started looking for doctors who could provide insight and help them understand if they were battling additional unknown fertility barriers. Martinez met with four separate gynecologists searching for a connection. Each one failed to provide her with a sense of trust and security she was craving at the stage. She felt like she was at a perpetual step one, but a serendipitously time meeting at Microsoft where Martinez had worked full-time since 2017 spotlighted some of the company's available benefits. One of those offerings was Maven, a benefit provider that offers virtual care coaching and access to a robust network of providers that can guide members from prenatal care all the way to pediatric care. The benefit is largely provided to employees through employers. Though a consumer facing app helps independent users schedule 100,000 appointments annually at an out-of-pocket cost, but for Martinez, Maven's services are free. And following that benefits meeting, she downloaded the app, spoke to a care advocate, and was advised to schedule an appointment with a fertility specialist. After a one hour discussion, her entire approach was made over.

Priscilla Martinez (06:09):
Honestly, I don't know why it's not a must for a gynecologist, for example, to refer you to someone like that because I learned more in that one hour session than I had speaking to any of those four gynecologists that I had met with previously.

Stephanie Schomer (06:26):
That's exactly the kind of review that Sonja Kellen, senior director of global health and wellness at Microsoft, likes to hear about the company's benefits. With over 100,000 US employees in a global workforce of more than 200,000, Microsoft's benefits must be robust in order to attract and retain top talent. When it comes to reproductive support, the company has a longstanding partnership with Progyny, a fertility benefits provider that can guide employees through treatments such as in vitro fertilization. But Kellen and her team wanted to address pre and postnatal care in a more holistic way, which led them to launch a partnership with Maven in early 2021.

Sonja Kellen (07:05):
With eight babies born each day to our U.S.-based employees, we wanted to make sure that every new Microsoft family had the support and guidance they needed to start things off on the right foot. And there is an abundance of resources about the family growing process across the internet, across our services internally, but our employees and their families were really stuck with having to sort of individually navigate everything, whether it's finding a provider or fertility issues or delivery options, how to deal with their bills and anticipate what the cost might be, as well as like the parental leave and returning to work process. So we were really looking for somebody who could support our employees throughout that process. From the pre-birth to the postnatal care stages of growing the family. And Maven really stood out to us for a number of reasons, but I think one of the things that stood out was they offer our employees and their families a dedicated maternity coach throughout the process, and they give our families access to on-demand free virtual care across a number of key specialists. And then there's the mobile app that they have really offers this comprehensive library of maternity related resources and employees can kind of go self-serve on what to expect, as well as how to think about leveraging Microsoft benefits optimally. And that was full picture of self-serve resources to sort of personalized individualized care That stood out for us with Maven.

Read more: To support moms over 35, start by nixing the term 'geriatric pregnancy'

Stephanie Schomer (08:39):
For Martinez, that personalized journey started small. Maven connected her with a nutritionist, who didn't suggest a dietary overhaul, but instead encouraged her to be more mindful of what she was eating and to prioritize healthy fats and nutrients through foods like salmon and avocado. The aforementioned fertility specialist helped her understand cues from her own body that would help her track her ovulation cycle, from monitoring changes in cervical mucus to taking her body's temperature each day and understanding what small spikes may indicate as it relates to ovulation.

Priscilla Martinez (09:11):
I think I literally recall at the end of our session saying, who would've known that there was so much science to getting pregnant? Like here I was thinking that it's just a let's go try and that's it. And that was certainly not the case.

Stephanie Schomer (09:30):
Martinez's first interaction with Maven was in March of 2021. Just a few months later on June 18th, she got the results she'd been waiting for: a positive pregnancy test.

Priscilla Martinez (09:40):
I was so used to looking at negative tests that I called one of my really great friends who's a doctor, and I FaceTimed him and I showed him the test. He was actually the first one to find out, cause I was like, this says negative, right? And he's like, no, honey, that says positive. And I was like, no, but it says negative cause I can see the line and it's faint and I think it says negative. And he's like, absolutely not. You are pregnant.

Stephanie Schomer (10:10):
Martinez recognizes that her path to pregnancy was much less fraught than what many women who deal with ongoing and intensive fertility issues experience, but without the additional support from Maven, it's unclear how much longer her journey may have taken. The resources available to her through her employer weren't just supportive, but truly life changing. For Kellen, this outcome is indicative of the value she hopes all of Microsoft's benefits bring to employees.

Sonja Kellen (10:38):
Yeah, I love it when we hear stories where the solution is perhaps simpler than you think it's going to have to be, right? Like her path didn't lead her to more complex fertility, but rather it was more core sort of health and wellbeing practices. One of the neat things about Maven is it really provides that sort of personal and individualized care and really helps you think about the specific needs and situation for each person engaging in the app. And that enables them to be directed to the most valuable resources for their circumstances. And I love that it's, it's not going to just point everyone down the same path.

Read more: Justworks and Kindbody extend free fertility benefits to small employers

Stephanie Schomer (11:16):
That individualized experience is baked into the DNA of Maven, which launched in 2014. Today, their members have access to more than 1,500 providers across 30 specialties and 350 subspecialties, each of whom works to deliver culturally competent care. "Culturally competent care" refers to the idea that healthcare providers should have an understanding, and in a perfect world, a shared and lived understanding of a particular patient's unique experience in the world impacted by their gender identity, race, sexual orientation, or spoken language among other characteristics. It's been widely demonstrated that when providers are better equipped to understand their patients, one's willingness to access care as well as health outcomes can improve. Looking back, Martinez admits that her expectations for Maven were low, both in terms of the breadth of options and the depth of available resources and providers.

Priscilla Martinez (12:14):
I wasn't aware of the level of depths to which Maven offers different course of education or specialties or backgrounds of people. And so I thought it was literally just [going to be], here's a few gynecologists that you can meet with virtually. And that's it.

Stephanie Schomer (12:32):
For Kellen, who's attempting to meet the needs of a massive and diverse employee population. Cultural competence is a big part of the appeal of Mavens offering.

Sonja Kellen (12:42):
Maven has really worked to create a diverse provider base to enable people to connect with a specialist or a care coach or provider that is more similar to them and people who people want to talk to someone who think that they think can understand their experiences, and I think that goes a long way as well. At Microsoft, our mission very broadly is deeply inclusive and we're really focusing on empowering every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. And so we think it's our responsibility to create this environment where people can do their best work. And a key component of that is supporting our employees with benefits that matter most to them, wellbeing is holistic, so if we want to create a culture where people can bring their whole selves to work and be allies to others, we have to produce a benefits package that is conducive to that

Stephanie Schomer (13:36):
Martinez's path to pregnancy ultimately arrived at a happy destination in 2022. She and her partner welcomed their son Santos to the world, but as she settles into motherhood, her journey with Maven is far from over. She looks to Maven's app, coaches and providers for postnatal support and care. As her network and care team continue to grow and evolve, the benefit provider ensures that more support doesn't mean more work for the individual member. Mave founder and CEO Kate Ryder explains.

Kate Ryder (14:08):
So, I mean, at the highest level, I think we all know that the women's and family healthcare model has been underserved for a very long time, and so to be able to tackle all of the problems, one of the big things you have to do is I ensure continuity of care and link all of the different journeys around growing a family. Whether your journey is IVF to miscarriage, to IVF, to pregnancy, whether your journey is a PCOS diagnosis and then pregnancy and then pediatric sleep issues, whatever it is. I think one of the most important things that I think we've done and the industry has really needed is this kind of platform approach to looking at the journey as one holistic journey and with a lot of different pathways through it

Stephanie Schomer (14:55):
To create that continuity of care, Maven created a digital system of record for providers, enabling them to share notes about patients and understand the full scope of a case as it progresses. That takes pressure off the patient. Writer says it makes it simpler and more efficient for a provider to offer top quality care.

Kate Ryder (15:15):
Let's say a postpartum mom is really, really tired and she's seeing a mental health provider and she's talking, that mental health provider can say, oh, well, I see that you're struggling with breastfeeding and I see that your infant hasn't slept through the night in two weeks and you're really, your exhaustion is part of this story. And so they can understand the patient better. And so that system that we've built out, we obviously like any product, we continue to add on it every year, but it's been just so important to ensure that the patients and the providers have the right resources to talk to each other and the providers can care for the patients.

Read more: Lost jobs, and lost hope: How layoffs are impacting employer-provided fertility benefits

Stephanie Schomer (15:56):
Throughout 2021, Martinez used Maven to meet with a birthing specialist and participated in a number of classes to prepare her for childbirth as a new mom. She's since worked with a lactation consultant through Maven as well as sleep coaches, all at no cost to her and her family.

Priscilla Martinez (16:13):
There's like a little option to choose which journey you're on in wait. And so I was very excited to toggle it over to that I'm Pregnant Journey within the app, and so that gave me a whole new set of people to choose from. As part of my care team. Anytime has trouble sleeping or I had trouble breastfeeding a little while back, it's just nice to quickly go into an app and say, Hey, so and so I'm having these issues. Please help and I can make a next day appointment or next week appointment, and I don't have to wait a month to get into the lactation department's office or pay and pay performative amount of money for a sleep coach. I remember going on a walk with my partner, and just telling him that I don't understand how women can go through pregnancy and then postpartum without literally been so helpful.

Stephanie Schomer (17:18):
I'm Stephanie Schomer with EBN. Thanks for joining us.

Alyssa Place (17:23):
Thanks for joining us. We'll be back in two weeks for our final episode on why we should stop overlooking Dads as caregivers. This episode was produced by Employee Benefit News with audio production by Kellie Malone. Special thanks this week to Priscilla Martinez and Sonja Kellen from Microsoft and Kate Ryder from Maven. Rate us and review us wherever you get your podcasts and check out more content from the EBN team at

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