In the male-driven tech world, female entrepreneurs already face many more hurdles than their male counterparts. Finding out you’re pregnant on top of that might seem like the end of your budding startup.
A couple of years ago, I quit my 9-5 to create my own business in the beauty/tech space. Thinking that it wouldn’t be the best time to have a child, I started the process of freezing my eggs — only to discover I was already pregnant. Perhaps even more surprising — my cofounder was pregnant, too! So much for balancing the workload. But the benefit was we were able to support each other emotionally in a way no one else could — we both understood how strange it feels to be totally ecstatic while at the same time questioning everything you’d been working on up until that point: Could we do this? What extra challenges would we face as entrepreneurs and moms?
What we soon discovered was that having a baby and starting a company at the same time was actually the best thing that could have happened to us. That being said — we certainly learned a lot. If you’re facing this, these are the three questions you’ll inevitably need to ask — and how we responded to each issue.
1. How will my team react?
The hard reality is that a few of our male engineers immediately quit when they found out we were pregnant. Seriously. As depressing as that is, I was honestly expecting worse. But, surprisingly, it didn’t create the ‘abandon ship’ effect I thought it would. Valuable team members stayed. And we now had one very clear way to pick the right team members.
The people you hire, especially the first ten members of your startup, will have a major impact on how your culture develops. We decided then and there that two of the most important qualities we’d be looking for in new hires would be open-mindedness — they had to be okay with our situation — and passion. We needed people to truly care about what we were doing.
Even when you’re in the initial stages of creating your startup, you should already be thinking about company culture. What qualities will make up the perfect environment for your business to thrive? Then consider the qualities that could prevent your company from achieving its goals. Having a clear picture will help you hire the right people from the start.
2. Will being pregnant impact our ability to raise funding?
When we found out we were pregnant, our startup had just been accepted into the vigorous Y Combinator accelerator program. Some of our advisors warned us that being pregnant might actually scare off investors on demo day and convinced us to defer our entry to the program.
In 2017, female entrepreneurs only received 2.2 percent of all VC funding, demonstrating the strong underlying bias holding women back. At such a critical junction in the birth of our startup, we were concerned that being pregnant would add an extra layer to the bias we would already be facing.
What we found was that some people, like Odile Roujol (our advisor and former CEO of Lancome), were even more impressed with our drive and ambition to create a great company and be great moms. After all, why can’t we be both?
Making the right partnerships when it comes to investors can have an even bigger impact than hiring the right people. Investors will be there with you for the long haul. If you just chase after the money, you’ll be in for a lot of difficulties down the road. What you need are investors who really believe in you and your vision.
3. Will we actually have time to spend with our growing family?
They say when you’re an entrepreneur your business is your life. This doesn’t mean your family can’t be part of this life. My co-founder and I don’t distinguish between work and personal life; working in our own space we have the flexibility to combine both.
A startup is like a family, and that’s one of its competitive advantages. If you develop a strong professional and personal relationship with your team, you’ll be able to trust and rely on each other. But this isn’t just a one-way relationship; when you hire great people who are committed to helping you build your vision, you also need to give back by providing an environment that’s supportive and flexible.
I really admire companies that have been pioneers in pushing for actual work/life balance options. For example, Patagonia has provided on-site childcare since 1983. Parents work right next door to where their children are playing and learning, making it possible to check in on them and have lunch together every day. Netflix offers new moms and dads up to 1 year of paid leave.
It’s initiatives like these that are helping to change bias against mothers-to-be. Companies lose so much talent by not providing the flexibility that enables both mothers and fathers to continue their careers; offering that support is just good business sense.
Our final lesson…
When you’re an entrepreneur, your company is like your baby. Rather than harming your image as a CEO, being a great parent should be a further sign of your ability to develop, grow and nurture your business.
There are so many CEO/fathers, including Elon Musk, Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg. Their ability to lead a company is never questioned based on their parenthood, is it? Even if we believe that as a society we have evolved our thinking to include women as equal members of the workforce, this is still not the reality. Women still receive this kind of bias.
Ultimately, my co-founder and I learned that the best way to break down the “maternal wall” is by pushing through it — and proving that you can build a successful startup and be a mom.
Ming Zhao is the Founder & CEO of Proven, the world’s first skincare line to combine machine learning and data science to create customized products for consumers. She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and has over a decade of experience in business strategy, investing and business development. She’s on a mission to support and encourage more women to take on entrepreneurial roles.