Chieh Huang, founder and CEO of online wholesaler Boxed.com, wasn’t paying much attention to the issue of family leave until he had his first kid, an event he believes physically changed his brain. Now as a father of a three-year-old daughter and a five-month-old son, Huang has established a slate of family-centered benefits for his 200-plus employees that seem, on first blush, untenable: unlimited parental leave, wedding reimbursements, and college tuition for the children of employees. He insists that his company can afford it. He insists that he’s happy to pay.
Since their implementation, the policies have worked, both to increase retention and garner the startup a fair share of ink (case in point). But lest people view the programs as a cynical marketing ploy, Huang notes that they are inspired by his own experience and are woven into the fabric of his company, which now does $100 million in business annually.
Fatherly spoke with Huang to find out how Boxed’s family-first approach is working and whether or not Huang thinks he’ll ever be paying for funerals too.
What is the leave policy exactly? Is it just unlimited—you go for as long as you need to go, you come back when you need to come back?
Yeah, 100 percent. It’s funny, because when you look at the data over the last almost four years that we’ve been doing this, it worked. The longest paternity leave someone ever took was about five months. The shortest was two weeks. Now, I would say the most recent change is that you should give an indication to your department of roughly how long you were thinking, knowing, that might change. First time parents might think, ‘Ok, I’ll be back in three weeks,’ but when you see your baby’s face you’re like, ‘Alright, I’m never coming back to work.’ Or there’s the opposite end when you’re just like, ‘I’m gonna take six months,’ and during the fifth week of getting an hour’s night sleep you’re like, ‘I am definitely needing to deal with adults rather than babies.’
And this is full paid leave, correct?
Full paid leave.
What has been the reaction to the policy from the male employees?
I think it would be hubristic to say it was great, that people clapped and were like ‘Yes!’ The reality was most folks kind of shrugged, especially the non-fathers. But during the last four years we had folks who never thought they would have kids, and now they have two. And when they’re put in that situation, especially after the delivery of the baby, you can tell when they’re very, very appreciative. I harken back to when I didn’t have children. I didn’t know the first thing about kids. I didn’t even know how I would react as a dad. When you see your baby for the first time, your life changes—your thought process and everything else. Also what you value changes greatly. So I would say I wish folks were more appreciative before, but when it’s real for them, you can tell they appreciate it.
A lot of men are very hesitant to take their full leave if they have generous policies. They might worry they’ll be seen as vulnerable to the company or their coworkers. Have you seen any of that at Boxed? Have you had to push somebody into paternity leave?
The only time we had to push someone to take longer was maternity leave. A mom wanted to come back in two weeks and we didn’t allow her to, so she took a month. I hope, and I think, folks know that it’s a genuine policy and not just a trap to find the “weak ones” taking paternity leave. So folks feel comfortable to take however much they want and come back when they feel ready. One guy was only out for two weeks, but in the following few weeks, he was in and out, but back in the saddle two weeks after the birth of his daughter.
Why did you feel this policy was important for the men in your company as much as maternity leave would be for the women? What turned you on to the idea that this would be beneficial for your employees?
The first year of the company this was not the policy. The thing that changed me was my personal experience of just having our daughter and realizing how much time I personally wanted to spend with her and my wife. Also, on the flipside, seeing how much my wife wanted to be with the baby, and what could potentially happen if she were forced to go back to work before she was really ready. Before then I could never really value how special a time it was. I genuinely feel like my brain physically changed after I saw my daughter that first night. So maybe I’m a little more empathetic. As embarrassing as it is to say, even when I’m watching Pixar movies I get a little teary-eyed, like “Oh my gosh, dude, I’m changing!” Like “Why am I like this? Why am I crying?” And so, I would say yeah, it was just personal experience.
Is it hard as a CEO to be an example? How do you navigate modeling work/family balance?
It starts at the top. I want to set the tone, especially for new employees, that it’s ok to take time off and come back refreshed. You should spend time with kids. I would say I don’t as much as other folks here. It’s not because I feel like I need to set the tone that I’m a hard-charging CEO, it’s just that I love what I do, man, you know? But I do realize that most folks won’t understand that, so actions speak way louder than words. I try to set clear boundaries. So hell or high water, I am at every single doctor’s appointment. No matter how important the meeting is, if it’s a doctor’s appointment I’m there. When I’m home, between the hours of 7:00 pm and 10:30 pm that is family time. I don’t take calls. I don’t respond to emails. I do sneak a peak once in a while, so I’m not a saint when it comes to that, but definitely it’s kind of a no-go zone. You make it work through sacrifice. I go to sleep later than I’d probably like to. At 10:30 pm everybody’s gone to bed and I’m usually writing emails and taking calls until about 1 am.
Any parent would acknowledge that parenting is a tradeoff, regardless of who you are or what you do. Are these things you would encourage your employees to do also? Like fencing off some time in the evening?
The amount of time “family first” is thrown around here is probably way above average. Anytime anyone ever says they have something family [related], I just say “Tell me no more, come back when it’s taken care of. Family first.” I grew up in a very difficult environment, but I had a really loving family. We didn’t have a lot of material possessions, so the thing that were most important to me growing up was time with family. Even though we were a family of four on my mom’s minimum wage salary for years, I wouldn’t say my childhood sucked. It was very difficult, but I was quite happy as a child because my parents were present. I want to impart that on the folks here.
You’ve committed to this great leave policy. But Boxed also pays for weddings and the college tuitions for employee’s children. Why is it important to be involved in these milestones?
I’ll read between the lines. You’re like “That’s crazy shit, man. Why do you do that?” With the danger of sounding like a country bumpkin, I only know and feel what I’ve experienced in my life. I don’t want to run a company where when folks sit around the kitchen table at night trying to make ends meet, they’re blaming the man and the man is me. I’m not Oprah. I can’t go out and buy cars for everyone. But what worked for me and my family is education. So really helping folks with education, and getting their kids to go to college to have upward mobility, was very important to us. That program is tied to a large portion of my stock. So the more valuable the company gets, the more money there is in that fund. The less valuable the company is the less money is in the fund. So there’s a business incentive too.
You wanna hear something interesting about weddings? Two folks got married this weekend. We asked for the receipts so we could get them reimbursed. One just didn’t want it. He said he didn’t need the money and just didn’t put in the receipts. He wasn’t like a C level person either. I’m sure everyone could use a few thousand bucks. He said, “I don’t need them, I’m good.” It’s a really interesting social experiment. When you treat folks like adults, it’s so interesting what comes about.
Seeing the arc of this, at what point does Boxed start paying for funerals?
Oh shit dude, I’ve been asked a lot of questions, I’ve never been asked that. I don’t see that in the cards but I will never say never. Weddings came about because we had someone crying at work in the fulfillment center. He was working seven days a week, two jobs, overtime. He had to pay for his mom’s medical bills and couldn’t pay for his wedding in time for his mom to go. So unless there’s some extreme example of something totally heartbreaking, where we have to step in and do a funeral, I don’t see it in the cards right now. We’re still digesting all these programs. Luckily there’s been no abuse and you have folks that don’t even take advantage of it even though they’re available. So that’s been good.
That said, at Boxed, you don’t play into some of the corporate perks that have dogged the perception of startup culture, like kombucha on tap. Is that true?
That’s true. You come to Boxed and the main thing missing as a startup is ping pong tables, beer taps, kombucha taps, free lunch every day. It’s not available. And all the crazy ones you see these days like dog walkers, dry cleaning pickup, we don’t have any of that. It’s a drop in the bucket when it comes to the expense of some of the programs we do have, but it also kind of sets the tone. I will say, in hindsight, when you look at how much the programs’ cost and how we offset that, it even makes sense when it comes to investor’s eyes. In our corporate environment with 200-some employees, we’ve lost less than 10 people voluntarily. So there are no headhunter and recruiter fees, and we’re not needing to retrain people and their productivity. I would say that has certainly played out in our favor. That’s why I’m still the CEO and i haven’t been booted yet. Even though it comes from a good place there is a business justification for it all, too.