A practical guide to successfully starting a business and building a family at the same time
Countless articles have been written about motherhood and the tremendous toll it takes on women. We all know the mental strain, the leaning in, not having everything, the pay gap, the equity gap, and the glass ceiling. They’re grim terms that are ingrained in women early in their careers, and quite frankly, we’re all tired of hearing about them.
How do we go about practical entrepreneurship and motherhood instead? How do we change the (very outdated) archetype of what a Founder should look like? And how do we convey a new generation of founder role models?
I sat down with Deena Shakir, partner at Lux Capital and 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 half a dozen founders in her portfolio with young children, Shakir has developed a belief that becoming a mother, while incredibly challenging (especially without societal and infrastructural support for childcare), can lead to unparalleled levels of productivity and efficiency.
Earlier this month, Shakir met with Dr. Jasmin Hume, Founder and CEO of Shiru, while stepping out of a Lux founding event for a few minutes to pump breast milk for her baby.
dr Like so many other women founders, Hume turns conventional wisdom on its head and shows that you can successfully build a company as well as building a family. It doesn’t have to be either this or that or, to put it bluntly, mutually exclusive.
“If more pregnant female founders shared their experiences, then future generations of female founders would feel like they wouldn’t have to make impossible choices about whether to follow their dreams of starting a business or starting a family. But you might feel inspired to do both,” Hume said. “This is literally and figuratively the most productive time of my life – I would 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 collectively have raised over $700 million in funding. These six female founders share their stories of what has and hasn’t worked in building a business and raising a family.
#1: Turn the working mom narrative from a negative to a positive. There is a tendency to only see the negative sides of being a working mother when there can be many benefits to your children, your marriage and your career.
Carolyn Rodz, founder of Hello Alice, said, “Share your work with your kids in a way they can understand. The more they understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, the more supportive they’ll be when you ask for silence while you’re on the phone or traveling to a work meeting.”
Growing up with a working mom throwing herself into her career and building a startup can be a powerful role model for kids. There’s a saying that it ain’t what you say; it is 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 to when is 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 later in their pregnancy and have a plan.
“I found out I was pregnant with twins when Guild was only five years old. I made the decision to be as transparent as possible with my team, recognizing that there were many realities ahead of me, known and unknown,” said Rachel Romer, CEO and co-founder of Guild Education.
If you keep this news to yourself early on, don’t fool anyone. Ask yourself: Would a male founder tell a potential investor that his wife is having a baby in 6 months? Would he tell them that he has an illness that might cause him to take vacations?
But perhaps more important than sharing 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 schedule for sequencing my pregnancy announcement. I’ve taken the time to reflect on how I would be sharing the message and how it would affect others, and I feel more confident about the next steps.”
#3: Reinvent the traditional work day to optimize productivity – You are the founder, so create a work schedule optimized for your team’s productivity.
Shadiah Sigala, Kinside co-founder and CEO, advised, “Let go of any preconceived ideas about how work works that you’ve learned from your previous jobs.” This can include flexibility in working from home, scheduling meetings during school days or the search for a job with childcare on site.
Choices are a key element of this break with workplace traditions.
Romer shared, “Rather than using my own experience as a blueprint for all Guild employees, I emphasized that I would be a leader by providing choices and space for each employee to do what is best for them, when he has children.”
#4: Raise the bar on how you spend your time and let go of perfection. Find out the few things that matter and only say yes to things that support those goals. It’s okay to say no to most things by default. Setting clear professional and personal boundaries can make you more efficient and also help you be a more productive and effective manager.
Hume said, “Devote your time at work to being 100% focused on work. When you are with your kids, turn off your phone, keep your laptop closed and be with them. I make those boundaries very clear.”
Aside from how you spend your time, there’s an idolization of perfectionism in parenting, which most likely isn’t possible if you’re also getting ahead at work.
“I wish I’d spent less time worrying about how I feel should to do and have more time to let my instincts and my kids dictate how and where I spend my time, both at work and at home,” Rodz shared.
#5: Hire differently so your team can move forward operationally when you step down. Being a pregnant founder means you may have operational processes in place and hiring for specific roles sooner than usual.
For example, if you have a strong COO or chief of staff, maternity leave allows you to weigh only the most important decisions instead of continuing to deal with all the mundane tasks.
There may even be creative ways to hire differently and give yourself the leverage you need.
“If one of our [Little Spoon] A light bulb went on from customers interested in working with us,” said Michelle Muller, LittleSpoon co-founder and CXO. “Today we have a team of 10 parents and carers working remotely part-time in the US to support our clients.”
#6: Ask for what you need. When Kinside co-founder and CEO Shadiah Sigala went through the Y Combinator (YC) four months after giving birth, she was surprised they didn’t have a breastfeeding room. Sigala asked for a pumping spot and YC responded very quickly to reserve a spot and even install a refrigerator for milk storage.
“Founding mothers may be surprised to learn that organizations strive to be progressive and accommodating. But we must ask for what we need.”
#7: Build a supportive tribe and find a trusted partner back home. Your tribe are the people you can call on through ups and downs for advice and help you stay sane. These can be founders, operators, investors or friends outside of the startup world.
Hume advised, “Surround yourself with people who believe in you and don’t see starting a business and starting a family as a conflict. That goes for your family, friends, board members, investors and teammates.”
As more women choose to build businesses and families at the same time, there are more role models to turn to for inspiration and support.
“At that time [when I had children]”I didn’t have a friend or mentor who was a mom running a business Guild’s size,” Romer said. “I’m fortunate now to have many CEO moms on speed dial, but I’ve also tried to pass it on by offering to serve as a resource for early-stage founders entering motherhood.”
In addition to the community, provide yourself with the daily support to take care of your family. That could mean hiring a night nurse, relying on your partner to split up the night meals, or moving close to family members.
“I live 5 minutes from my parents and they are incredibly dedicated to helping my partner and I raise our boys,” said Collins. “Having her around is the biggest life hack I can think of.”
Muller emphasized the same point: “Having a good support system at home is crucial. Whether it’s an energetic spouse or partner, a nanny or relatives close by who can help, it’s almost impossible to start a business without some sort of support.”
#8: Create a cap table that can help you with this. When you share your pregnancy news with your investors, will they jump out of their chairs with tears of joy in their eyes? Or will the expressions on their faces scream panic?
On your cap chart, choose people, men or women, who support you as a whole person, rather than just looking at you as a number on a chart.
Sigala raised her Series A by four female investors who were also mothers. “I behave exactly as I am and specifically ask for 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 is crucial for founders and executives to surround themselves with a team, board of directors and investors who share similar values. Investors can lead by example, take their own maternity leave, and encourage founders to design the plan that works best for them, their families, and their business—in that order.”