Karen Laing: The Caregiving Changemaker

By Jessica Steinhoff | Photography by Hillary Schave

Karen Laing didn’t set out to become a midwife, lactation consultant or tech CEO when she enrolled in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989. Painting was her forte, and she planned to build an art career. To pay the bills, she took a caregiving job at Dana Home Care, an organization that paired home-based health care with Buddhist-inspired mindfulness practices — a novel idea at the time.

“Mindfulness roots me and informs all of the work I’ve done, from bringing babies into the world as a home-birth midwife to being with people in their homes at the end of life,” she says.

As Laing fell in love with the art of caregiving, she founded Birthways, a Chicago-area doula service. Since 1997, its doulas have offered home-based support for all sorts of childbirth challenges, from lactation struggles to postpartum depression.

Providing this care at home is essential, according to Laing.

“I think we feel our most safe and authentic at home, and receiving care there can help us see things differently than we might in a hospital or even a clinic setting,” she says.

As Birthways took off, Laing launched the WisdomWay Institute in Madison to help doulas, caregivers and other health care professionals continue their education while avoiding burnout and thriving at work. Her newest venture, an app named Okkanti, chases these goals through technology. Its first year, 2022, centered on planning and investor recruitment, and 2023 will be a year of product launches.

Laing is especially excited about Okkanti’s new Communities platform, an online space where doulas — and eventually other types of care providers — can gather to create the tools they need to succeed. Okkanti envisions “carepreneurs” being able to self-organize and to earn more while they serve more people who need them in their communities.

“Our care providers know the most about what they need and what barriers they’re facing, and they also have a deep sense of what the people they serve need,” she says. “Helping solutions grow out of the communities that need them, rather than creating them from the top down, is essential for undoing bias in our health care system.”

A secure social media platform helps care providers exchange knowledge and access infrastructure designed to shrink barriers to providing care sustainably. This infrastructure includes mentoring, which Laing views as vital for burnout prevention. Laing says a second tool within the app, an all-in-one booking, scheduling and practice management platform will also be rolled out in early 2023 for doulas to use to manage their practices.

“When caregiving organizations try to scale up to become more profitable, it’s often at the expense of the workers in terms of not only pay, but support resources,” she says. “Even a relatively small group of doulas needs a support system with plenty of professional mentors, people who understand what they’re going through and can help them find their way after complicated births and other difficult situations,” she says.

Without this layer of support, doulas often burn out and find another line of work. This leads to an even smaller supply of caregivers as demand grows.

Laing also looks forward to seeing doulas use the platform to create new organizations for problem-solving. By helping them team up, she hopes to increase their power to foster change for themselves and the people they serve.

“There shouldn’t be so many barriers to entering caregiving professions, and we need to see the value of the people who do that work,” she says. “We all need care at some point in our lives.”

What mindfulness apps do you recommend?

Laing says your smartphone can help. She likes the Mindfulness App and Mindfulness Coach for learning the basics, as well as the Madison-based Healthy Minds App.

Read more about the 2023 Women to Watch here.

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