Women of Motley: Rachel Carrell, Founder of Koru Kids

16 MIN READ | by Ilana Lever on Mar 26, 2019
16 MIN READ | by Ilana Lever on Mar 26, 2019

Rachel Carrell was CEO of the world’s largest doctor service and had just had her first child when she learnt and experienced first-hand, the huge gap and lack of infrastructure that there was in childcare. So Rachel went onto start Koru Kids, a revolutionary nanny sharing service. We sat down with Rachel to chat what it’s like being a sole founder, investing whilst pregnant and setting up shop from a young age.

I wanted to be a teacher when I was growing up. 

When you’re very little, you only know what you see, and what you see is teachers, and my parents and lots of my extended family were teachers, so that made sense. My mum was very encouraging in setting up small businesses, though. When I was a kid, I set up a number of little businesses, which grew in complexity as I got older. Odd jobs around the house, selling chocolate bars at school, taking orders at a local bakery and selling them at a mark up to teachers.  

I had quite a little cottage industry writing into magazines for money when I was a kid. If you got your letter printed, you’d get $10. There was this one magazine, where they would send you a teacup and saucer if you wrote a good one, and if you got the star letter you got $100. Now, I had quite a lot of success but ended up with a lot of teacups and saucers, which I didn’t want. I got Star Letter once. In the early ‘90s, when you’re thirteen, $100 is a lot of money.  

I’ve always done a strange collection of things. 

I did a PhD in Ecuadorian politics because I really wanted to speak Spanish. I got really obsessively interested in Ecuadorian politics for a while. But it has no relation to what I do now. The only constant in the things I’ve done is that I’ve always been looking to do something new and different to what I’ve done before, and trying to be really broad. I’ve never specialised in anything. That might sound strange, having done a PhD but, in doing that, I was learning about a country I’d never been to, a language I didn’t speak; it wasn’t specialising really. And then I went to McKinsey, the crux of all the generalisms.  

I joined McKinsey in London in 2006, and the world was very different then.  

I’d never actually heard of McKinsey before then. When I was in my last year of university, and a guy I didn’t know that well called me up and said, “I’ve got this weird job, I can’t really explain it, but I’m going to come to your campus and it’s my job to get people to apply, so can you just apply?”. At the time, I wasn’t sure… I wanted to be a diplomat. I’d always wanted to work for the New Zealand foreign service. And it was only by going through the application process that I realised I wanted to do that instead. 

The start-up community in London wasn’t as developed as it is now. There were people who weren’t doing that corporate track, who were graduating university and starting businesses straight off, but those people were super hyper brave; I think they were exceptional people. Now there’s much more of a beaten track. There’s so much more support.  There are countless mentors, blogs, forums, networks; tons of support for female founders in particular.  

For me, what was great about McKinsey was the people – and the training. At Koru Kids, I try to replicate the training I had at McKinsey. We do tons of coaching and mentoring; we have a structured programme where we literally teach you what you learn at McKinsey when you first start. I think it’s possible to give junior people that training even though you’re not McKinsey or another corporate. 

And McKinsey’s a very different place now. Back when I left in 2012, McKinsey had no digital practice. I left to join a digital health business, and I knew nothing about digital. Whereas now they’ve acquired a ton of businesses and have spent literally billions acquiring digital agencies, designers. They’ve done an amazing job at reinventing themselves. 

My friends’ stories influenced Koru Kids just as much as my own experience. 

When you have a baby, all of a sudden you start spending time with other parents, and you talk about all the problems that you’re having with childcare. It came up again and again and again. I was working in healthcare at the time. I’d worked in the NHS and I understood health systems really well. I knew the amount of investment that was going into health tech and health innovation and all of the specialist teams working on it.  

When I first became aware that childcare sucked so much, I just assumed that there would be a different ecosystem of funding, teams working on it, people dedicating themselves to solving this problem. My first assumption was, “I feel incredibly passionate about this problem, why don’t I figure out who’s doing the cool stuff on this and go and join them, and maybe I can help”. The moment that was amazing for me was when I started Googling this and I couldn’t find anything. People weren’t even discussing these problems, let alone actually solving them and that blew my mind.  

This is why I think it’s really important to invest in and to have ecosystems that fund diverse types of businesses because when you fund women, you get these types of businesses that solve problems that are 99% experienced by women. 

The biggest challenge I had relating to being a woman while fundraising was that I was pregnant.  

And I was very pregnant. I had a baby in the middle of the fundraise, so there were huge physical demands on me, and also I’m a sole founder. Often you have co-founders and one founder runs the business while the other one fundraises. Well, I didn’t have that, I had to run the business and fundraise, and I also had a baby, but I do think that is related to the fact that we’re the only people in the world trying to do what we’re doing. Because you have to be a certain type of crazy. It’s crazy what I did, it’s crazy what I’m doing right now like if I told you about my week, the amount I didn’t sleep this week. We just came back from New Zealand, where I’m from, last week and I’ve got two jetlagged kids and am fulltime running a VC-backed startup and my husband works in private equity and works really long hours. Like that doesn’t work. That’s a nuts thing to try and do. So it kind of doesn’t surprise me that more women aren’t trying to do this. 

Whether the investor was a parent or not had more of an impact than their gender.  

When I’m speaking to a non-parent, you have to go into great detail about the many dimensions of why childcare sucks and you might have to explain that for fifteen minutes, whereas with a parent, you go “Childcare sucks, right?” and they’re like, “Yes!”. They just immediately get it. Whether or not it’s a woman or a man I’m speaking to. If there was a woman in the firm, I would be speaking to her, so my experience of pitching was relatively female. I probably pitched to 30% women, and the actual number of women in the industry is much lower, 5% or something. If there was a woman, that’s who I’d be talking to. 

Koru Kids’ ethos on childcare flows from my own parenting style. 

I’m one of those people who does read and learn obsessively about parenting. I think our ethos is around connectedness to children and giving them as much autonomy and freedom as possible within the constraints of safety. A lot of it is about developing intrinsic motivation. 

A growth mindset is one of the things we teach. Every Koru Kids nanny has received instruction in growth mindset, and attached to that is the idea of developing intrinsic motivation, and that goes through everything, including homework, which all our nannies help with. It’s not just about academic achievement, it’s about being a kind person, and not because that’s what your internalised parent expects of you but because you feel internally that’s what you want to do. Developing your own sense of ethics, that’s very important to how you think about things. 

We’re very respectful of each other and we argue like hell. 

Someone really aggressive wouldn’t fit in at Koru Kids. We’re very collaborative, very respectful to each other. Having said that, saying you’re collaborative might seem like you’re overly nice, like you don’t say what you think and that’s not us at all. We’re very open and honest and factual. Because we are really passionate and we care about things, we debate, and we do it in a super healthy way. If you’re not someone who’s used to having an evidence-based debate and backing up your view, you’ll struggle. Also, we’re totally obsessed with data. 

Being a sole founder just kind of happened. 

There’s a big debate about sole founders vs co-founders vs three, and the received wisdom is that two founders is the right number. People talk about the downsides of being a sole founder, but personally, I would do sole founder again. I LOVE being a sole founder. There’s a couple of reasons for that. I know a lot of founders that have co-founders and I cannot think of a single one where there are no issues; everyone has co-founder issues. And people talk about it being lonely or everything falling on you. I think the reason I don’t feel like this, is firstly my husband is unbelievably supportive and involved, and so he takes on a lot of that emotional support that you would need a cofounder for. And my first employee was Rebecca and she kind of played a co-founder role, she was absolutely all in, emotionally all in, all over the practical operational details. These days it’s not just Rebecca but others throughout the company, I feel such a sense of support. My team behave in such an ownership way, it’s almost theirs as much as mine, so I don’t feel like I’m a sole founder, if anything I feel I have thirty founders!  

In the early days, I spent one summer basically washing dishes.  

Early on, we were running all day training for our nannies, and I would spend one day a weekend training nannies. And as a key part of that, I would be in the supermarket shopping for food and then doing the dishes. At the time, our office was a derelict Victorian hospital which was going to be knocked down for HS2, and they turned it into temporary startup space; it was so temporary. The tables were so rickety that if you knocked them, the whole table would fall over. One of the meeting room doors didn’t shut, so there was a 4 x 2 plank of wood, which you would use to wedge shut the door. And the toilets didn’t work for about three days in a row one more time. But it was free. 

I’m still not guarding my own time enough. 

A lot of people at my stage would have a PA or a Finance Director and I still do payments myself, and I don’t have a PA. I still do a lot of scrappy stuff myself, and I probably shouldn’t but that’s what I do. Earlier today I was just scrolling through LinkedIn looking for something that I should probably get a recruiter to do.  

The phrase “work/life balance” mathematically offends me – because work is a part of life. Now I only do work and family, really. There’s a tiny sliver of other things. That is tough but you can’t have everything. But I think, I can read when the kids are at university. There was a time in my life when I was a super voracious reader of fiction, and that time will come again, but it’s not now. Now is the time I’m building my business and hanging out with my kids. I watch fifteen minutes of Brooklyn 99 before I go to sleep. 

I would love to end up in New Zealand at some point. Until I had kids, I was happy for that to be a vague aspiration, but once you have kids, you have to start thinking about things in proper years because of school.  

People don’t talk enough about fertility. 

There was never any question in my mind about having kids. I kind of just thought it would work. But I worked in IVF for a while, so I am very familiar with the stats on having kids and age. It’s something I talk to other female founders about because I think that people, in general, don’t talk about this. The rate at which your fertility drops off after 35 is so, so, so hard. If you’re going to have IVF, you should do it in your thirties, ideally between 35 and 40. People think IVF success rates are a lot higher than they are and I think a lot of that’s influenced by seeing celebrity pregnancies and people into their mid-forties having babies and they do not realise that those are donor eggs, they are not their eggs. People think the success of egg freezing is vastly higher than it is.  

The people I’d rather tell this to are men because a lot of women do actually know this. Even if they don’t know the stats, they have a basic understanding. The bigger problem is that men have almost no understanding. The number of times I’ve seen a man essentially spending his girlfriend’s fertile years dithering, trying to decide whether or not to move forward in the relationship, because of those stupid social prohibitions about having an open honest conversation, the woman feels unable to say something because of the consequences of saying something…but the impact of this is destroying her, I think that is so, so, so terrible. I almost founded an egg freezing startup because I feel very strongly about this. 

I suspect the number of women who either propose or set an ultimatum is a lot higher than is thought.  

My husband booked just me and him into a karaoke booth and gave me my ring. We designed the ring together – so first, he proposed, then we designed and made the ring, and then he gave it to me in a karaoke booth.  

actually have a data point as to how messy I am. 

At my university, I was in a residence in an Oxford college that had 200 people and when they had the room tour, they said that of all the rooms, I had the messiest. My husband had exactly the same feedback in a different place. So together we are beyond messy. The overriding impression of walking into our place is pretty intense. My flat is beautifully designed but I’m not about my physical space.   

My ethics are based on the science fiction I read growing up. 

There’s a lot of philosophy in science fiction; I think it’s an amazing genre because people play with worlds; they create worlds, they try out lots of different experiments. I inhaled all of that until I was fourteen. Brave New World, for example – the idea is that these people are given joy – “soma” – and yet they have an essential spiritual emptiness at their heart. And the image of the savage who finds Shakespeare which has tragedy and loss; the idea of Brave New World is that you can’t just have untrammelled joy. You have to have suffering and the downs, that’s how we become human, and that’s something that I think about when I go through hardship like we all do. My dad is very ill right now, I think about that – you cannot have the light without the shade.  

What drives me is that no one else is going to do it.

What we’re doing at Koru Kids, this needs to exist, this is essential infrastructure. And I feel like we’re building the railroads in the west in America. If we don’t do it, no one will.