It’s been nearly two years since I gave this blog any attention. I’ve been running full speed as cofounder and CEO of my digital health startup, EmbraceHer Health. I’ve raised seed money after bootstrapping for over a year, started generating revenues through sheer sweat and sales hustle, and hired an awesome team of women to help me get it done.
I’ve faced many of the same challenges most entrepreneurs face and it’s been a lonely and hard road. It’s hard to admit this to non-entrepreneurs who can’t quite relate to the 24/7-ness of it all. I’m a mom of twins – the work is not double, especially when they are babies – it’s exponentially harder than having one child. My husband is a tech CEO who makes the best possible startup partner, but despite all the Lean In advice to split household duties 50/50 I am still CEO of our household (which means hiring and managing all the amazing people who make it possible for us to work in our respective startups). We devote much of our waking hours to running our companies while still remaining devoted to each other and our children. It’s something that most women entrepreneurs rarely discuss or complain about because let’s face it, we have enough female bias to deal with without being labeled complainers about our home life.
There is a working mothers’ dilemma that many dads do not face, namely who is going to run the caring for the children when someone else is helping to care for them (e.g. daycare, nanny, au pair, babysitter network, grandparents, etcetera)? It sounds nice in theory to ‘divvy up the home work 50/50’, but we didn’t even attempt that because practically speaking, your nanny or childcare person just cannot answer to two bosses (just like have co-CEO’s is generally not a good idea). There needs to be the one ‘Person Clearly In Charge’ and that default setting is assigned to moms.
In our household the running of the house and minding of the children is my second full-time job (e.g., CEO of Our Home). To do this job well means outsourcing housework and childcare to trustworthy experts, but first and foremost it means being able to (1) Hire exceptional people and be able to manage them well, and (2) Let go of control and trust others with your children and your home. If you cannot imagine saying yes! to #2, you will not be able to scale yourself successfully. Believe me when I say it truly takes a village to raise a child, a family, and grow a business. You cannot and should not do it all alone.
Note that I have one of the most loving, involved husbands in the co-parenting journey, which makes the added household responsibility somewhat workable for me. He’s home before tuck-in time, super attentive on weekends, and (lucky for me) isn’t addicted to distraction on social media or his iPhone. He prefers old school communications like (gasp!) picking up the phone to talk to people. So when he’s with our children, he is 100% fully present. As studies have shown, quality of presence with your children is much more important and impactful than quantity of time spent. Working mothers, take note! One more reason to feel less guilty for working while someone else cares for your kids. While I don’t agree with 100% of the advice Sheryl Sandberg shares in Lean In, I do agree that whom you choose to partner with in life will impact your success at home, at work, and in life. This fact cannot be overlooked any longer: the man (or woman) you choose will affect your professional success. Make sure you choose someone who will support your decisions when it comes to having children (if, how many, and when?), maternity choices (how long to leave work, will you return to work, full-time or part-time or stay-at-home?), paternity choices (will dad help? if so how long and how much?), and working while raising children (who “minds the children” or the childcare for the children?)….etcetera.
Then there’s Mommy Guilt. I have not met a working mother who hasn’t felt pangs of mommy guilt. Beginning with the first day back at work from maternity leave to the sometimes heart-wrenching ‘drop off’ at daycare we are constantly reminded that our choices come with tradeoffs. It’s not the same for working dads. First of all, there is no such phrase as a ‘working dad’. There is no battle of ‘stay at home dads’ vs. ‘working dads’. The default setting of traditional parenting is mom stays home and dad earns the income. Or both parents work but mom is still in charge of the caretaking in addition to her job. I know dozens of women who wish this were different. Many of my friends would opt to work part-time if there were more flex-time options for women with children. Sadly, there are few. Especially in tech startups where everyone is expected to work more than 45 hour weeks (mine are typically 60 hour weeks) and not leave the office for a 2:30pm school pickup. So what are we women to do if we want to ‘lean in’, make an impact at work, create something fabulous with our time outside of children, flex the creative parts of ourselves that have nothing to do with caregiving, give something back to the world, or create something for ourselves?
I’m speaking at the Girls in Tech conference on this very topic. How can you create a life that doesn’t entail choosing one path or the other? How can we bring our whole selves to the world so we are not forced into a ‘default setting’ because society and employers expect us to play by their rules? How do we create meaningful partnerships, marriages, friendships, support groups, mentor networks and collaborative workplaces that enable women like us to work, play, mother, love, create, care, and bring our true gifts to the world?
One of the reasons I started a company after working at nearly a dozen companies (mostly startups) is because I wanted to set my own terms for how my work and family life could support and enhance each other. I also wanted to create a culture that was proactively supportive of women of all ages and career aspirations. I am tired of working for men who don’t quite get what it’s like to be a woman in tech, who can’t empathize with the extra BS we have to deal with that we silently ignore or shrug off as the ‘default setting’ for behavior in the workplace. You won’t believe the number of times I’ve said exactly the same thing as a male colleague only to have it repeated in a different (and often louder) way to greater accolades from other men.
Then there are the interruptions. Has this ever happened to you? First of all, breathe. Count to 3. Repeat after me: “Stop interrupting me. I just said that. No explanation needed.” Repeat again, in case he didn’t hear you.
I am no longer the only female in my company (it was a lonely two years!). My cofounder is an amazing doctor, but he is not my full-time co-pilot and while he has often been called a ‘midwife in obstetric scrubs’, he is also not a woman in tech. So I’ve hired an amazing director of engineering and product who has been yearning to work with a female CEO. My Chief of Staff is a fellow mom at my children’s school who happens to be a pediatric nurse. I have a team of amazing interns who are all our target audience, which is great for customer empathy (we build health products for women). We offer flex-time schedules, remote work along with co-working a few days a week. Our ease of communication, collaboration and ability to get shit done is unlike anything I’ve experienced in any of my ten other startups (all led by male CEOs with predominantly male teams). Let me just brag here – it is AWESOME. #GirlBrag By the way, I’m hiring awesome people. Please spread the word.
I’m using my startup as a real-life experiment for what a women-centric workplace and female-oriented company culture can achieve and inspire. As my good friend Tony Hsieh has written, building a great company culture is essential to creating a great company, period, “There are companies that focus on work-life separation or work-life balance and at Zappos we really focus on work-life integration and at the end of the day it’s just life.” I believe this with all my heart, because achieving work-life balance is the Great Myth that keeps us dissatisfied. There is no such thing as balance or “having it all”. Everything comes with tough tradeoffs and work-life integration will look different for everyone. But if you think you can split your work from the rest of your life you will eventually be disappointed with either your work or your life. If you want to separate your work from your life in the first place, you probably aren’t loving your work so much. So make sure you’re doing something you love, something that you truly believe is worth doing with your entire being. Because it will probably take up a large part of your life, emotionally and mentally — consciously or not.
I’ll be back with more thoughts to share on my journey through startups and tech while being a woman and then a mother, and my experience of motherhood while being a woman in tech. I have some work-life lessons I’ve been yearning to share with other women, especially millennials and younger GenXers who are reading books like Lean In, are blessed with more family planning options like egg freezing, and are still being told by everyone that they can ‘have it all’.
The path I chose definitely hasn’t been easy. Oftentimes it’s been quite lonely. Sometimes I’m amazed I’ve made it this far. But now that there are more of us talking about this, here is our chance to band together and collaborate in making the world, starting with our work, the way we want it to be: female friendly.