The first babies who came into Houston’s Motherhood Center in slings and carriages are now getting around in their first cars. There’s nothing like 16 years of business to show you something about the human life cycle. And to Gabriela Gerhart, the company’s founder and CEO, the lesson is that if you target a perpetual customer need, you will always have a following, even if those individuals need you only for a brief time in their lives.
It’s not rare to run into those alumni families at the grocery store, Gerhart says. “I spoke to a grandma a couple of weeks ago,” she recalls. “I was the baby nurse to her first grandchild 20 years ago. Even now, she said, ‘I’ll never forget how you took care of my daughter while she was taking care of the baby.’”
That was in the years before Gerhart established the Motherhood Center. She arrived in Houston from the Czech Republic as an au pair with the professional training of a nurse. But it turned out that her credentials didn’t transfer to her new homeland. “I would have had to start all over again,” she explains.
But as she made friends, they came to her with questions about caring for their infants. Soon, one family hired her to help them with basics like teaching them how to bathe the baby, deal with breastfeeding, and how to make nights a little easier. One assignment led to another and before long, she was training other women to help with all the need she was encountering.
She realized that what her new American neighbors needed was a system like in her small Czech village, where the whole community contributed to raising its children. In spread out, fast-paced Houston, that wasn’t going to happen on its own. So she started the Motherhood Center to give clients the opportunity to pay for the same kind of support that arose naturally back home.
Essentially, the Motherhood Center works because Gerhart filled a gaping hole in the community. “So many of our clients are ex-pats, new to Houston,” she says. “All of a sudden, having the Motherhood Center, it recreated that village atmosphere. They’re all learning from each other, too.” The groups in prenatal yoga class, for example, offer tips to each other about pregnancy, then continue to grow their connections after delivery with Mom & Baby Yoga. There are more than 22 classes a week, so there are plenty of opportunities.
But there’s far more to the Motherhood Center than fitness classes. After working their muscles hard, moms can get help relaxing them with a massage. Parents and grandparents can learn all the skills they need, from breastfeeding to sleep training to transitioning from diaper to potty. There’s even a nanny school to train new childcare professionals, preparing them to be included in the Motherhood Center’s nanny and doula search.
This all takes place in the same building in which the business started 16 years ago, but in recent weeks, it underwent drastic renovations at night, which allowed for business to go on as usual.
It’s no surprise that Gerhart now says that her greatest challenge is keeping up with the evolving market. Not every facet of the business worked. There used to be a photo studio, “but with iPhones, now everyone thinks they’re a photographer,” Gerhart says. Social media, too, poses unique hurdles for her business. In the first trimester, when the professionals who use her services often don’t yet want to disclose that they’re expecting, they’re careful not to even “like” the Motherhood Center on Facebook, lest they give friends and family a hint. Once they have clicked, the life cycle of the clientele is only about 18 months, so the group is constantly evolving. An in-house social media manager helps part-time, but most of the marketing falls on Gerhart and her husband.
In 16 years, Gerhart has amassed 26,000 clients. That’s 26,000 new families that were successful at one of the most vulnerable times of their lives because of the Motherhood Center. Though she doesn’t have biological children (she does have step kids and grandkids), Gerhart is now the chic metallic-shoe-sporting godmother to a sizable village of her own creation.