Illinois State alumna Zara Griswold is in the business of creating families. The agency Griswold created with Staci Swiderski helps couples who cannot physically reproduce their own child navigate the expensive and legally complicated process of using gestational surrogacy with egg and sperm donation to have a baby.
The company started out of a single office in the Chicago suburb of Oak Brook with two other employees. Now the partners are based out of a skyscraper in the Loop and employ 19 people, including Spanish- and Chinese-speaking coordinators.
In little more than a decade, Griswold and Swiderski’s Family Source Consultants has become a world-spanning operation with clients from Asia, Europe, and Latin America. There are offices in Chicago, Miami, and San Antonio.
“I eat and breathe this agency,” Griswold said. “Besides my children, this is my life. I call my agency my third baby. I have put my heart and soul in it, Staci too. It’s not only about the business; we genuinely care about the people we work with and want them to have a family too.”
Griswold ’93 does not compare her agency to her children lightly, as it was through surrogacy that she now has twins and began the journey that led her to starting her own company.
Shortly after graduating from ISU at age 23, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and underwent a total hysterectomy. “I knew I wouldn’t be having children on my own.”
In the early 2000s, when she and her husband wanted to start a family, they explored adoption. They dropped that idea once they learned they needed to be married for a couple of years before they could become eligible parents.
“By this time, surrogacy is becoming a little bit more common, enough so that a girlfriend told me about surrogacy,” Griswold said.
Gestational surrogacy is the process through which a woman becomes impregnated and gives birth to the child of adoptive parents who either provide the egg and sperm themselves or find donors to provide them.
It was, and still is, very expensive, costing couples upward of $150,000—of which $30,000 typically goes to the surrogate. It is a cost infrequently covered by insurance.
“I loved the concept of it, and so I told my husband. He was very skeptical at first. He thought it was too expensive, he thought it wasn’t going to work out. I had to really convince him.”
Griswold found a surrogate, who had twins in June 2003. The sperm was donated by her husband. The egg donor was a friend of Griswold’s. It was an especially risky investment at the time they went through the process.
“Up until then, when people did IVF (in vitro fertilization), it was kind of a crapshoot,” Griswold said. “There was a 20 percent chance or less of success. So yes, very expensive—tens of thousands of dollars—for very low chance of success.”
Things have changed dramatically in the ensuing years. A law enacted in 2005 has made Illinois one of the most surrogacy-friendly states in the country. Medical advancements mean an 80–90 percent chance of success on the first try, Griswold said.
She coordinated her surrogacy arrangements herself, working with a fertility center in her native Chicago. At the time there were few agencies like hers to help people through the process. She found a support community through the Internet, which is how she met Swiderski.
“We went through the process together, and we supported each other through both of our journeys,” Griswold said.
They remained active with online support groups after their surrogacies and gave guidance to other would-be mothers. Griswold wrote a book, Surrogacy Was the Way, which tells the stories of 20 mothers whose children were born through the process.
“It came to the point where we were helping a lot of people, and it was time-consuming,” Griswold said. “And also simultaneously, once we started to think about opening an agency, we started to research more and more, and just heard terrible stories about people who had gone through agencies that we found completely unacceptable. So we thought to ourselves that we could do a much better job.”
The partners formed Family Source Consultants in 2006. They quickly added Griswold’s surrogate and a Spanish translator to their staff—the latter because many early clients came from Spanish-speaking countries who found the agency on the Web.
Family Source Consultants assists intended parents as they go through the entire surrogacy process. The agency finds a surrogate, and if necessary, sperm and egg donors. There is help completing the legal work that ensures the child is their own. This can be complex considering surrogacy laws vary from state to state and country to country.
Despite its growing popularity, surrogacy is still a controversial practice. Paid surrogacy is a felony in some states and outlawed in many nations. In other places, the laws are so loose that the surrogate could change her mind about giving up the child to the adoptive parents.
“Basically the (Illinois) law outlines the entire process for both the intended parents and the surrogate. Everything is very legal, very defined, very clearly stated that once the baby or babies are conceived, that they are the baby or babies of the intended parent immediately upon conception.”
Griswold does not buy one justification for outlawing surrogacy—the argument that the practice demeans the woman carrying the child.
“I might be biased because this is my passion and business, but I don’t see what the problem is or why anyone would not want to legalize it. It’s a win-win situation. Women who become surrogates—no one is forcing them, this is something they want to do and are excited about. And they’re helping someone to become parents.”
Her agency has grown substantially over the years, especially as surrogacy has become more popular among same-sex couples. She began with about 10 surrogate-parent matches the first year and doubled those numbers the following year. The company currently has about 85 intended parents and surrogate matches happening at any one time.
Swiderski and Griswold have used the Internet and word of mouth to grow their business. To garner trust with potential clients from around the world, they have begun using Skype.
“When we first started, it was phone calls with international clients,” Griswold said. “But now Skype allows us to have face-to-face conversations, which is very helpful for them to have that reassurance that we are real people and not a scam. We want them to trust us, and be able to look into our eyes and know we are real people.”
Having studied to be a nutritionist at ISU, Griswold had no formal business training before starting her company. After graduation, she worked outside her major and eventually became a high school teacher. She held that job until her twins were born.
Griswold credits her time at ISU with teaching her life skills—like how to be independent and how to make her own decisions. Both have helped her make her business a success and pursue her passion—just not the one she initially planned to follow.
“I never felt complete fulfillment in my career until we opened the agency. The agency has always been closer to my heart since I had my own children via surrogacy, and I know what it feels like to want a family so desperately and not be able to just have one on your own,” Griswold said.
“When they have success—received the news they are pregnant—we are crying with them, we are happy with them. Everyone has the same goal—for them to have a family.”
Kevin Bersett can be reached at kdberse@IllinoisState.edu.