The Incredible Backstory of Dr. Marika Lindholm
“ESME’s mission is all about building bridges of support for one of the most vulnerable demographics in our society. Currently 23 million American children are raised by Solo Moms. By giving them support, resources, connection and information, we work to improve their lives and the lives of their children. Additionally, we make them proud of their parenting and afford them the respect they deserve.”
I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Marika Lindholm. Dr. Lindholm is the founder of ESME, Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere, the social platform for Solo Moms, by Solo Moms. ESME.com empowers a broad demographic of women who, despite differences in age, race, culture, and route to single motherhood, are bound together in a conscious coalition that is strong, proud, and dedicated to their children. ESME asks Solo Moms: “What do you need today?” Whether it’s a laugh, a question answered, a specific resource, a quick moment of inspiration or recognition, entertainment, or even a new ally, ESME is there for Solo Moms. And, in the process, ESME is redefining single motherhood.
Having experienced life as a Solo Mom after a divorce left her parenting her two children on her own and, later, when her new spouse’s work required him to be away for weeks at a time, Marika became aware of the myriad challenges Solo Moms face everyday. A trained sociologist and former professor, she taught classes focused on issues of inequality, diversity, and gender at Northwestern University. Marika brings that passion, focus, and analytical approach to refining the ESME.com platform and growing the ESME Sisters community.
Lindholm is a regular contributor to Psychology Today, Working Mother, Mind Body Green and Talk Space. She has published essays and fiction in the Daily News, Elephant Journal, The Hill, Silent Voices and Southern Indiana Review
Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I’m the founder of ESME (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere), a website that aims to redefine single motherhood by providing resources, inspiration, and a point of connection for the underserved community of Solo Moms.
Born in Stockholm, Sweden, and raised in New York, NY as a young child, I was always fascinated by diversity, global issues, women’s rights, and civil rights. I pursued these passions at SUNY Stonybrook and graduated with my Masters and Ph.D. in Sociology. I spent the next 15 years at Northwestern University, where I taught classes focused on issues of inequality, diversity, and gender.
Halfway throughout my tenure at Northwestern, I went through a challenging divorce when my children were three and five. It was one of the hardest times in my life, not only because of I felt plagued with guilt, was always worried about money, and demoralized by the legal process, but I became dangerously sick. I fell ill shortly after my divorce with a curable blood disorder, and while doctors were trying to determine what was wrong with me, I felt scared, weak, and alone. I was a strong independent woman yet felt unsupported and confused by the whole process; the reality of uncoupling sunk in hard.
It was then that I realized that I was in the midst of living what I had been teaching for so many years. As a sociologist, I was always giving lectures on issues like poverty and divorce, and the negative impact separation could have on someone’s economic situation. I had studied women’s issues for over a decade and was aware of the negative financial impact of divorce, but I wasn’t prepared for overwhelming sense of responsibility and loneliness that followed. In other words, I was always teaching about single moms but it wasn’t until I became a divorced single mom myself that I realized emotionally what women went through and how unbelievably hard it was. I thought about all my research and the thousands of Solo Moms across the county working for minimum wage while desperately trying to make a good life for their families. I thought about the challenges besides finances — — co-parenting with an ex, isolation and loneliness, the never-ending struggle to find much-needed time for self-care, etc.
So, amidst my struggle, I’d come to a powerful realization and made a secret vow that one day if I could, I’d like to make it easier for other women in the same situation. It took fifteen years but ESME.com was born out of that difficult, but ultimately empowering, experience. Along with my all-star team and utilizing my sociology background, I began researching, conducting focus groups, and talking to Solo Moms across the country to gain insights into their lives. We turned two years old summer of 2017, are at over 50,000 members, and reach over a million Solo Moms nationwide.
ESME really came out of my own personal passion — you can look at mountains of data and statistics on single moms, but until you’re IN that situation and until you’re feeling alienated and alone… it’s not until then that you realize how necessary it is to have a resource and support network of other Solo Moms to talk to who have been through it and “get it.” I’m thrilled that ESME continues to grow, and that countless inspiring women across the country are forming sisterhoods to encourage one another and let each other know that they’re not alone.
It’s very gratifying to apply my sociological imagination and expertise to building a company dedicated to supporting women who parent alone. I’m always inspired by hardworking Solo Moms, who do so much for their children. It’s an amazing feeling every time a mom says that she was helped by ESME.
Today, I’m remarried and living in New York’s Hudson Valley. In addition to overseeing ESME, I run an organic farm with grapes, apples, chickens and 350,000 bees. I’m the mother of a blended family of 5 children, including 2 daughters that my husband and I adopted internationally.
Yitzi: Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
ESME.com is branching into several new areas. This fall we introduce two college scholarships ($1,500) — one for a Solo Mom combining single parenting with college and one for a son or daughter of a Solo Mom. I’ve also written two articles: 100 Tips for Getting Into Your First Choice College & Writing a Winning College Essay. Our goal is to provide support for Solo Moms and their children as they strive for additional education without some of the resources available to wealthier families. It’s truly exciting to be able to apply my academic skills so that high school students can compete more effectively for college admissions.
We are launching local meetups for Solo Moms. We call it ESME Café since we supply the mugs and pay for the coffee. We have over 50 local Facebook groups so we will start with those followers and work from there. We were inspired by Solo Moms who told us that they wanted to meet IRL — in real life. ESME Café is a natural extension of the on-line support and connection we provide.
Perhaps the most exciting development is that we are launching an App which will facilitate communication and support for Solo Moms. 80% of our users come from mobile devices so the app is a tremendous improvement in terms of ease of use and access to site content. It looks great and I’m incredibly excited to put it in the hands of Solo Moms!
Which person or which company do you most admire and why?
I’d like to give a shout out to FairyGodBoss a young company that helps women get the inside scoop on corporate culture, pay, work flexibility, maternity leave and more. Their mission is “to improve the lives and workplace for women through transparency.” I love that its women helping women by providing invaluable information about a potential workplace. A decade ago, when I taught Gender & Management at the J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Business, female MBA’s used to complain that their male counterparts not only had access to more information through networks but also that their job search required much more attention to issues around family/work benefits and pay equity. FairyGodBoss is a powerful resource that counters these hurdles and helps women make better decisions about where to work. And by highlighting companies that do well by women, FairyGodBoss promotes a future where gender isn’t used as an excuse to treat one group of workers better than another.
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
ESME’s mission is all about building bridges of support for one of the most vulnerable demographics in our society. Currently 23 million American children are raised by Solo Moms. By giving them support, resources, connection and information, we work to improve their lives and the lives of their children. Additionally, we make them proud of their parenting and afford them the respect they deserve. Our entire team works tirelessly to make sure that no one on the site is ignored or belittled. We have moms reaching out all hours of the day and many are in crisis or having a bad moment. The community is there for them. Kindness, respect and a desire to help drive us to make ESME a sanctuary and safe haven for any mom parenting on her own. We don’t judge — we honor and celebrate our superheroes.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.
1- You will become obsessed and you will need to manage that obsession. Once I started working on ESME, it took over my heart, head and every cell in my being. I wanted to spend every waking moment dedicated to building the company but of course I couldn’t abandon my family. I struggled with balance and felt guilty a lot of the time. In the first two years I sacrificed sleep and self-care but slowly figured out ways to let go of my workaholic tendencies. I knew things had to change when my kids started to say they were going to build a support site for kids of moms who start websites!
2- When building a team, aim for passion instead of impressive resume’s.As an academic wading into unfamiliar territory, I was overly impressed by applicants with padded resume’s. I was profoundly disappointed several times until I decided to make an applicant’s passion for helping single moms the key variable for hiring. Now we’ve got an amazingly dedicated and creative team driven by a shared vision.
3- Even if you conduct focus groups, it’s incredibly hard to predict what will resonate so be ready to adapt. Before designing the site, I conducted focus groups in LA, NYC & Chicago. The main components of the site were a direct response to these groups. We found that some features worked well but others were duds. At first it bothered me that my investment in focus group research hadn’t panned out but now I’ve learned that you need to try all kinds of approaches to gain momentum and grow. For example, we used to have our Resource Guides write notes each month but no one was reading them — literally no one. But moms were asking to meet moms with similar challenges so we put together Tribes of Solo Moms where they could connect over shared issues such as, raising a child with special needs or a breast cancer diagnosis. The Tribes are now a central feature of our App and the notes have been scrapped.
4. Trying to please everyone can mean pleasing no one. Our mission is to build bridges between a wide array of diverse groups so we were very careful to stay away from anything political or potentially controversial but it became clear especially during and after the election that a tepid approach could be equally alienating. Issues such as, healthcare, parental leave and equal pay are incredibly important to Solo Moms and by leaving them out of our content we weren’t addressing their experience. Now we grow our user base by being respectful of opinions but allowing our writer’s to express them.
5-Trust your gut. Every entrepreneur will make mistakes but the worst mistakes I made were when I went against my own gut feeling. I let naysayers or “experts” convince me to take actions that I regretted and convinced me to abandon ideas that later proved to be successful. For example, business folks said that my model of primarily relying on Solo Mom employees and freelancers was risky because single moms are unreliable. Fortunately, I never listened to that nonsense because I’m proud to say that our Solo Mom team is effective, hard-working and the heart of ESME.
Yitzi: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see just see this. :-)
J.K. Rowling is someone that I’d love to meet face to face. She’s an inspiration to all Solo Moms. Writing her way off public assistance to become one of the world’s wealthiest women is extraordinary. But even more amazing is that Rowling has made it a point to give back generously to organizations that focus on poverty, children’s welfare and literacy among others. At ESME, we often share quotes by Rowling that are encouraging and inspirational. I admire her intelligence and willingness to stand up for what she believes. Her tweets are often hilarious and spot on. I’d love to learn more about her journey and hear any advice on how to best help Solo Moms. I think it would make for an entertaining and informative lunch!