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April 1, 2024 Focus | DEI

Westport recruitment agency that places professional women back into workforce eyes Hartford market expansion

PHOTO | CONTRIBUTED Runa Knapp is the co-founder of FoundHer, a Westport-based recruitment agency that specializes in placing professional women back into the workforce.

Back in 2019, Westport resident Runa Knapp, formerly a successful CPA, was ready to return to work after several years at home with her young children.

She found she wasn’t alone.

“There’s so many friends, even just amongst our group, that had the same story,” she said. “Very successful corporate careers, very well-educated and very ambitious, and there was this kind of untapped talent sitting here.”

Jasmine Silver

Knapp and her friend, attorney Jasmine Silver decided there was a market for a recruitment agency specializing in placing professional women back into the workforce. The company they formed eventually became FoundHer.

The key difference with their pre-kid careers: most of their clients wanted to retain at least some flexibility on hours or remote working so they could balance their family responsibilities.

But back then, pre-pandemic, the employers Knapp approached frequently shut down that discussion.

“It was like the dreaded f-word, where you can’t bring that up because it just doesn’t work,” she remembers. “It was very much like, ‘no, if we have to bend the rules for one, we have to do it for everybody in the company.’”

All that changed in March of 2020. Remote and flexible work became the norm — not just for women returners but for employees of all kinds during the COVID lockdowns.

In tandem, women’s participation in the labor force took a huge hit as mothers of young children found themselves having to care for, and often teach, their children full time at home.

Megan Y. Carannante

“Unfortunately, that led to a lot of women leaving the workforce,” said Megan Carannante, a labor law specialist with law firm Pullman Comley. “They found it very difficult to balance the competing needs that they were trying to navigate with being caretakers.”

In fact, women’s participation in the labor force dropped by 2.5% from March to April of 2020. Carannante said this dynamic was concerning for employers.

“Women are vital contributors to the workplace,” she said. “Most employers have worked hard to try to attract, retain and promote their female workforce.”

Coupled with the more general COVID phenomenon of the Great Resignation, as employees began to rethink work-life balance, a dearth of qualified candidates post-lockdown led employers to search for new talent pools.

Knapp’s recruitment business took off.

“We were able to pitch, hey, flexibility does work!” she said. “And our business in 2021 and 2022 — I don’t think there was a dull moment in my day. It was a very busy time for us, which was great.”

Growth spurt

From January to August of 2022, compared to the same period in 2021, FoundHer experienced a 100% increase in placements. During that time, 85% of placements were return-to-work mothers.

Indeed, women’s labor force participation in Connecticut stands above the national average. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2022, slightly more than 60% of women worked, compared to a national average of below 57%.

Gregory Papajohn

“I’m the product of a mom who did not call herself a working mom. She was a professional,” said Gregory Papajohn, founder of Archie Group, a Darien-based public relations firm.

“Since our founding, 60% of our business has been delivered to women executives,” he said. “In my field, the demographic leans toward women, but we lose this talent too early. So, instead of just covering for their maternity leave, why aren’t we just creating a work environment where it makes sense?”

Papajohn said he first met Knapp when she came to present about FoundHer at a Darien coworking space, and the connections were obvious.

“I was like, wow, how serendipitous is this?” he said.

Since then, each year, his business has added at least some team members through referrals from FoundHer.

“FoundHer knows their customer very well,” he said. “Let’s say they refer two candidates for an open role. I don’t usually need to see a third.”

When it comes to the new ways working parents and many others want to participate in the workforce, Papajohn believes the old classifications of employees into either W2 or 1099 roles is outdated. He’d like to see tax regulations catch up with the new labor environment, so that workers who want more flexibility can still be rewarded with benefits.

“A lot of employers have started to be led by literally letters and numbers of a regulatory document. They’re led not by a business interest of the best possible talent, they’re led by these forms, by a downstream rule,” he said. “On Capitol Hill, I think there’s work to be done to embrace the fact that there are multiple ways of work.”

Logistical barriers

In this new environment, Knapp wants to reassure women that a gap in their resume, while they raised children or attended to other family needs, is not the impediment that it once was.

“Sometimes it’s intimidating, more to the candidate, I feel, than it is to the employer,” she said.

But some who might have five years or more out of the workforce do face logistical barriers.

“They’re ready to go. But honestly, sometimes they don’t even know where to start,” she said. “They’ve been so out of the networking piece of it that they haven’t even gotten to that step of, ‘am I confident my resume is ready to even start applying to things?’”

Knapp said she has placed one person who had a decade-long gap on her resume.

In the trenches of the recruitment industry, she has a detailed view of labor force trends, particularly in the hedge fund, private equity, investment management, financial planning and legal fields she works with most closely.

After their busy 2021 and 2022, Knapp said 2023 was a year of retrenchment and even layoffs for many employers, and FoundHer’s placements decreased in that period.

But so far, 2024 has picked up, with a 200% increase in placements during the first quarter over the same period in 2023.

She also observes the trend toward more in-office work in the fields she serves. FoundHer went from almost all hybrid/work-from-home placements in first quarter of 2023, to hybrid/in-office placements by the fourth quarter of 2023 and continuing into the first quarter of this year.

It’s something she also increasingly sees her clients looking for.

“I think the most ideal scenario for both sides is a hybrid arrangement,” she said. “Candidates were like, ‘I can’t be home and then do my second job as a mother at home. It’s a lot of home time.’ So, a lot of candidates were looking to get back [to the office] in a hybrid arrangement.”

And she and Silver are looking to expand FoundHer from its Fairfield County base, where currently 90% of its placements happen. They’re turning their sights toward Hartford.

“I think there’s just as good a market there in terms of the untapped talent as there is out here in Fairfield County,” she said. “So, we’d love to expand into that.”

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