A practical guide to being a successful founder while also building a family
Endless pieces have been written about motherhood and the massive toll it takes on women. We all know about the mental load, leaning in, not having it all, the pay gap, the equity gap and the glass ceiling. They are bleak terms ingrained in women starting early in their careers, and frankly, we’re all tired of hearing about them.
Instead, practically, how do we manage entrepreneurship and motherhood? How do we change the (very stale) archetype of what a founder should look like? And how do we put a new generation of female founder role models forward?
I sat down with Deena Shakir, Partner at Lux Capital and a mother of two young children, to discuss how female founders of high-growth startups have successfully built their businesses through pregnancy, newborns and young children.
Through her own experiences and those of the half a dozen founders in her portfolio with young children, Shakir has developed a conviction that becoming a mother, although incredibly challenging (especially without societal and infrastructural support for childcare), can lead to incomparable levels of productivity and efficiency.
Earlier this month, Shakir was catching up with Dr. Jasmin Hume, founder and CEO of Shiru, while she stepped out of a Lux founder event for a few minutes to pump breastmilk for her infant.
Dr. Hume, like so many other female founders, is flipping conventional wisdom on its head and showing that you can successfully grow a company alongside building a family. It doesn’t have to be either this or that or, to put it plainly, mutually exclusive.
“If more pregnant founders shared their experiences, then future generations of female founders would feel like they didn’t have to make impossible choices of whether to follow their dreams of building a business or starting a family. But could feel inspired to do both,” Hume said. “This is literally and figuratively the most productive time in my life – I’d love for more women to know it’s possible.”
I’ve put together a practical guide with tips from six female founders, including Dr. Hume, who combined have raised over $700 million in funding. These six female founders share their stories on what worked and didn’t work when building a company and starting a family.
#1:Turn the working mother narrative from a negative to a positive. There’s a tendency only to see the negatives of being a working mother when there can be many benefits to your children, marriage and career.
Carolyn Rodz, founder of Hello Alice, said, “Share your work with your kids in ways they can understand. The more they grasp what you do and why you do it, the more supportive they’ll be when you ask for silence while you’re on a phone call or when you travel for a work meeting.”
Growing up with a working mother, who is leaning into her career and building a startup, can be a powerful role model for children. There’s a saying that it’s not what you say; it’s what you do. Not only that, it can create a more equal marriage. And can make you incredibly efficient at work.
#2: Share your news on your terms, and control your message. There is no right answer for when’s the right time to share your pregnancy news with your co-founder, team and investors. Some founders choose to share their news early, while others may wait to share the news until they are later in their pregnancy and have a plan in place.
“I found out I was pregnant with twins when Guild was just five years old. I made the decision to be as transparent as possible with my team, recognizing that there were many known and unknown realities heading my way,” said Rachel Romer, CEO and co-founder of Guild Education.
If you keep this news to yourself early on, you aren’t misleading anyone. Ask yourself: Would a male founder tell a prospective investor his wife is having a baby in 6 months? Would he tell them he has a medical condition that may require him to take leave?
But possibly more important than when you share your news is how you communicate it.
Julia Collins, founder and CEO of Planet FWD shared, “I actually worked with my coach to create scripts and even a plan for sequencing my pregnancy announcement. Taking the time to think through how to share the message and how it would impact others made me feel more confident about the next steps.”
#3: Re-invent the traditional work day to optimize productivity – You’re the founder, so create a work schedule that optimizes for your team’s productivity.
Shadiah Sigala, co-founder and CEO of Kinside, advised, “Let go of any preconceived notions of ‘how work works’ that you learned from your previous jobs.” This could mean flexibility about working from home, scheduling meetings during school hours or finding a workspace with childcare on-site.
Choices are a key element of this break from workplace traditions.
Romer shared, “Rather than have my own experience serve as the blueprint for all Guild employees, I emphasized that I would lead by offering choices and space for each employee to do what is best for them when they have children.”
#4: Raise the bar for how you spend your time, and let go of perfection. Figure out the handful of things that matter, and only say yes to things that support these goals. It’s okay to say no to most things by default. Setting clear work and personal boundaries can make you more efficient, and it can also help you be a more productive and effective manager.
Hume said, “Dedicate your time at work to focusing 100% on work. Similarly, when you’re with your kids, turn off your phone, keep your laptop closed and be present with them. I make those boundaries extremely clear.”
Aside from how you spend your time, there is an idolization of perfectionism in parenting, which more than likely isn’t possible if you are also charging ahead at work.
“I wish I’d spent less time worrying about what I felt like I should be doing and more time letting my instincts and children determine how and where I spent my time, both at work and at home,” shared Rodz.
#5: Hire differently, so your team can operationally move forward if you step away. Being a pregnant female founder means you might set up operational processes and hire for specific roles earlier than you would otherwise.
For example, having a strong COO or Chief of Staff can allow you to just weigh in on the most critical decisions during maternity leave, versus continuing to be involved with all the day-to-day tasks.
There may even be creative ways to hire differently and give yourself the leverage that you need.
“When one of our [Little Spoon] customers reached out interested in working with us, a lightbulb went off,” said Michelle Muller, co-founder and CXO of LittleSpoon. “Today, we have a team of 10 parents and caregivers who work part-time remotely across the US and support our customers.”
#6: Ask for what you need. When Shadiah Sigala, co-founder and CEO of Kinside, went through Y Combinator (YC) four months postpartum, she was surprised they didn’t have a nursing room. Sigala asked for a space to pump, and YC was highly responsive to reserving a space and even installing a fridge for milk storage.
“Mother founders might be surprised to find that organizations are eager to be progressive and accommodating. But we have to ASK for what we need.”
#7: Build a tribe of people to support you, and find a trusted partner at home. Your tribe is the people you can call through the ups and downs, ask for advice, and help keep yourself sane. It could include founders, operators, investors, or friends outside the startup world.
Hume advised, “Surround yourself with people who believe in you and don’t see building a company and starting a family as conflicts. That goes for your family, friends, board members, investors and teammates.”
With more women choosing to build businesses and families simultaneously, there are more and more role models to turn to for inspiration and support.
“At the time [when I had children], I didn’t have a friend or mentor who was a mom running a company of Guild’s scale,” said Romer. “I’m now lucky to have many CEO moms on speed dial, but I’ve also tried to pay it forward by offering to serve as a resource to early-stage founders who are entering motherhood.”
In addition to community, also set yourself up with day-to-day support to care for your family. That could mean hiring a night nurse, relying on your partner to split the night feeds or moving close to family members.
“I live 5 minutes away from my parents and they are incredibly involved in helping my partner and I raise our boys,” said Collins. “Having them nearby is the biggest life hack that I could imagine.”
Muller emphasized this same point, “Having a good support system at home is critical. Whether that means a hands-on spouse or partner, a nanny or relatives nearby that are able to help out, it’s nearly impossible to found a business without support of some kind.”
#8: Build a cap table that can support you through it. When you share your pregnancy news with your investors, will they jump out of their chairs with tears of happiness in their eyes? Or will the look on their faces scream panic?
Choose people on your cap table, men or women, who will support you as a whole person rather than just thinking of you as a number in a spreadsheet.
Sigala raised her Series A from four female investors who were also mothers. “I conduct myself exactly as I am, and ask for specifically what I need. I demand respect for my time and constraints as a mother. Investors respond to leadership and honesty.”
Romer also emphasized this: “It’s critical for founders and leaders to surround themselves with a team, board and investors who share similar values. Investors can lead by example, taking their own parental leave and encouraging founders to design the plan that works best for them, their families and their companies – in that order.”
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