Bobbie CEO Laura Modi Wants to Fix Parenting—Through Formula

Life & Love

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Laura Modi couldn’t believe how unprepared she was for baby formula. When she gave birth to her first daughter in 2016, Modi was dealing with mastitis, a fever, and milk production issues. Formula would help alleviate these issues. But going that route—one that the majority of American families take—felt like she was failing her daughter.

A year later, Modi, who was working as the director of host operations for Airbnb at the time, left her job to start Bobbie, a formula brand made in America with a higher bar for quality ingredients. (Bobbie is what Laura’s daughter, Mary, called her bottle.) The company was successful out of the gate, but found itself at an inflection point in 2022, when a formula recall created a national shortage that left parents desperate. It also demonstrated how critical the need for additional formula manufacturers was. Modi worked for two years to help the Infant Formula Made in America Act of 2024 pass in Congress. It went through two weeks after the birth of her fourth child, Etta.

Modi, who started Bobbie with fellow Airbnb alum Sarah Hardy, spoke with ELLE.com about the passion that led to her creating the company, namely the idea that parents are being underserved. Formula is part of that, but so is the need for paid federal leave, better childcare, and an end to the Black maternal mortality epidemic.


You know it’s mission driven when you start to question how you got into it. You don’t wake up one day and go, Oh, I’m dying to get into powdered milk. I came from the world of technology and this was entirely personal. When I had my first daughter, I went into motherhood with all of these expectations of what it would be like, from the ease and the joy, to how breastfeeding would come naturally—and none of those things were true. Something I say all the time is that disappointment equals expectations minus reality. I was faced with major disappointment in that first year, and it was because reality just did not meet the expectations I had of becoming a mother.

I thought I would breastfeed and it would be easy and beautiful and all of that jazz. Five days into having her [though], I had mastitis, a terrible fever, and I realized that I was not able to produce enough breast milk. So I’m standing in a pharmacy crying, realizing that I needed to feed her a product that I had never considered. Everything about it was very emotional. I went home and read every ingredient, and I went down a deep research rabbit hole, questioning everything. Why are these ingredients in here? Why hasn’t this industry changed? Why is it that the same government telling me that I should breastfeed for six months, also not giving me paid federal leave to be able to do so? The conflicts, the frustration, the disappointment, were all part of the bubbling and inspiration to start the company.

Society has changed [the thinking] on what it means to be a parent. What hasn’t changed is our belief in how we should be feeding our babies, how we should be parenting. Where the disappointment and guilt comes from is that we are led to believe there’s only one way of [feeding a baby], but we are not living in a world where it’s possible [for everyone] to do so. There’s more same sex couples, surrogates, [people who have had a] double mastectomy. Parents who need to choose medication or their own health, over deciding to breastfeed. There’s more women in the workplace, dual income households. The big elephant in the room is that there is no paid federal leave.

There is a slew of reasons why one may not be able to or not want to breastfeed, that results in just over 80 percent of parents who turn to infant formula. For whatever reason, it doesn’t feel like that percent. What it feels like is that there is this small group of people who need to turn to formula, and it’s actually the opposite, all in the silent majority. One of the things I am most proud of is that we are telling the stories of the silent majority. We are showing that there needs to be choice, and that choice should be received with open arms, less guilt, and joy.

The crisis around the shortage is a story of being in the right place at the right time, or maybe in the wrong place at the right time. Eighty-five percent of the country was being fed formula from two companies. The duopoly has owned this market for decades. One of those companies had a recall. The FDA did exactly what they should have done, they came in and closed the facility.

bobbie unboxing

Courtesy of Bobbie

As a nation, we didn’t fully [understand] that when you close a facility feeding close to 30 percent of the country’s babies, then that meant it needed to be produced somewhere else. There was no somewhere else, so over the course of several weeks, as products started to get diminished and depleted, and no production was being made to fill the gap, a shortage came into the country. It was a very simple supply and demand problem. When people ask me, How do you solve for this? How do you ensure that you’re never in this situation again? This might seem like a very reductionist response, but it’s very simple. We need more manufacturers. If we do not have more manufacturers, then we’re not able to have resiliency. If one of them closes their doors, the whole country shouldn’t come down to their knees.

I always knew that we were bringing a product and a message into the market that the world needed, but within the first year we were doing what we thought we’d be doing in our fifth year. We’re only entering into our fourth year now, and we’ve purchased a manufacturing facility so we’re owning our end-to-end production. We are now the third-largest manufacturer of infant formula in the U.S. That’s surreal. You start something and you always believe one day you will own manufacturing, you will grow to the size we’re at now. I just never thought it would come so fast.

Formula is, in many ways, symbolic of so many other things that we need to fix for our next generation of babies and parents. It’s a baby’s first food. It’s a parent’s first entry into reality versus expectations. When you look at everything from the lack of paid federal leave, to the Black maternal mortality crisis, how bad childcare is in this country, and the fact that 40 percent of babies born are on WIC [the government’s supplemental nutrition program for women, infants, and children], under an income level to be able to be fed… We have to address some pretty systemic problems and [re-examine] what it means to bring a baby into this world and to parent with the support needed to be successful. Infant formula is symbolic of all of these issues. I hope that in 10 years, 20 years, when we get to look back at Bobbie, it has become a company known more for changing policies and the culture in which we are parenting, than formula itself.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lettermark

Adrienne Gaffney is a features editor at ELLE and previously worked at WSJ Magazine and Vanity Fair.

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