April 5, 2018

My Point of View On Being a Startup Junkie...and a Mom

There is a certain brand of crazy shared among those who flock to startup and hypergrowth companies. Who in their right mind would sign up to truly go “all in” with minimal chance of success? To dominate their thoughts and energies to a mission that is far bigger than themselves? To potentially isolate themselves from friends and family members who might offer surface level support, but often suffer the consequences of caring about someone so driven and committed to their goal?  

My Backstory

I grew up with a father who was a serial entrepreneur, and his workstyle was all I knew of what a career might look like. While it was clear that work was a pretty big focus in his life, he was an engaged dad who was home every night for dinner and never missed a school play or big game. This was balanced with the good fortune of having a mom who stayed at home and managed all of our lives. In my sheltered little world, this structure served as an incredible model for me: you can pursue growing a business AND have a wonderful family life. I didn’t take into account what it would be like to attempt to achieve that with one person playing both roles.

Aside from my high school job scooping ice cream, I’ve only worked in startups and hypergrowth companies.  In my first internship, the company went public about three weeks into my time there, and I was completely smitten. Upon graduation, I joined a consulting firm that was in the process of releasing a bestseller, which aided the company is growing from 100 to 900 people over the course of the next several years.  Young, ambitious, and eager to learn, I took every opportunity to raise my hand and say, “I’ll help!” It paid off. Between getting a masters at night and building perspective and experience in my field every day, I inexplicably felt ready to find my first opportunity to play a leadership role in people strategy a few years later.  I joined an incredible company on the brink of huge greatness, and I connected with a group of twenty-somethings who took the company public a short time later. I think back to that time and am in awe of the energy - and sheer audacity - that all of that took. But we did it together, so everything seemed possible.

I was also in a different place in my life. During the first decade of my career, I had no children.  I did get married, but my husband was as busy building his career, and we bonded over that. By the time I joined my third growth company, I was in the groove with a focused passion for building,  and I was used to getting minimal sleep. That was a good thing, because a month after we launched the company, I found out I was pregnant.

Life Changes Often Require Different Prioritization

I somehow managed to have two children before that company was acquired. I had the great fortune to lay myself off as part of that deal, and take a little time to stay at home with my daughters. While I pride myself on being hands-on as a parent, I quickly realized I wasn’t very good with a singular focus. I quickly filled whatever extra time I had with launching an after-school program, volunteer work, and starting a hand-painted kids furniture business so I could exercise another part of my brain. This seemed to put a Band-Aid on the situation for a while, but it didn’t last. The desire to be part of a team committed to growing something from nothing became too much of a pull. After another stint at trying to keep the balance by consulting with startups, I jumped in again with both feet.

Since having children, I realize I was attempting to become a fused version of both my parents. I had a passion for working with others to achieve that which does not yet exist and tried to balance that with being a hands-on, visible and engaged mom to two daughters.  Like my father, I am home every night for dinner, so I attempt to shut down one part of my life and focus in on the other. Like my mother, I attempt to fill my home with home-cooked meals, memorable holidays, love and laughter. And for the past five years, I’ve been on my own doing it. It’s exhausting. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

Each of us prioritizes the things that are most important in our own lives, and do our best to achieve them. My two big focuses are ensuring I spend as much quality time with my kids as I can before they are both off to college in the next few years, and continuing to pursue the work I love with teams that are equally passionate. Of course, this lifestyle choice doesn’t leave a lot of extra time for hobbies or thriving social life, but I’m ok with that for this period.  It’s not optimal, but it’s the choice I willingly made to focus on the two things I care about most.

Here’s the thing that very few people talk about though. Startups and growth companies can be an incredible place to build an exceptional career experience. If you are willing to take on some risk, and you have an insatiable quest for learning, it’s one of the best possible environments to grow and develop your career. If you thrive on embracing a well-rounded, relatively stable work life, it may not be the best of fits for you. Workplaces are changing, regardless of their size, and are beginning to embrace the notions of things like the flexibility to attract and retain top talent. Regardless of gender or parental status, people today feel like they can (and should) give their very best at work and have an enriching life outside of the office. Companies are beginning to support that dynamic, and certainly, our increasingly networked world goes a long way in supporting our ability to do that. However, working mothers are still at a disadvantage.

How You Can Help...You (Oh, and Others)

This is not an easy problem to solve, and I don’t have a perfect solution to propose.   I have experienced the challenges personally and have witnessed so many others try to balance the dynamic of building a stellar career and manage an outside life. Whether it’s by necessity or desire, much of the world has moved past my mother’s era of staying home and raising children while the husband goes off to work. Many women are still trying to find their place in both worlds, and ways to successfully balance each. Perhaps they may get off to a strong start early in their careers with a company that embraces the notion of diversity and offers real support to working mothers. We haven’t quite solved the equation, however, when those same amazing women boldly try to “have it all” and get pregnant and then try to return to the career and play catch up.

While so much of the public debate today surrounds topics such as gender diversity, harassment and pay inequities, women who choose to have children while working in these types of environments face a whole other set of challenges.  While many startups are led by seasoned leaders, often these firms are filled with youthful lifestyles that include late nights, drinking, and being pelted with Nerf gun bullets. In other words, not exactly breastfeeding friendly. Does that mean women who thrive in growth environments all of a sudden need to give it up?  I’d argue no.

In Hollywood, women who possess youth, beauty, and talent stand the best chance of success. As they age, they find themselves with more limited roles and struggle to thrive.  We’ve seen many of them (think Streep, Witherspoon, etc.) take it no more, and have become entrepreneurs in their rights to take on leadership roles in projects that will allow them to do the work they love.  In the startup community, women face a similar dynamic; fit into the youthful culture or risk no longer fitting in.

Those women who choose to stay often become the pioneers to aid in creating maternity leave policies, the addition of mother’s rooms, and often, isolation from no longer feeling part of the team. This is a dynamic that many a new father doesn’t struggle with. Though he has five children, we never read of Elon Musk’s balancing of pursuing his business dream with his children; we celebrate his commitment to his company. However, when Marissa Meyer got pregnant and had the opportunity to run Yahoo, or Sheryl Sandberg loses her husband, it’s what we chose to fixate on in the media.

Yes, workplaces are becoming decidedly more parent-friendly. Often it is by necessity; it’s hard to attract huge numbers of talented people if you don’t celebrate and support a wide variety of human needs.  However, just because perks might be offered, it doesn’t mean the behaviors required to support their success exist yet. Providing a fully paid maternity leave is amazing; but if the woman returns to the office to be made to feel like persona non-grata, the company hasn’t addressed the full scope of the challenge.

From a biological perspective, women aren’t going to stop having babies if we want to continue to populate the world. They also aren’t going to give up on their hopes and dreams to pursue the career of their dreams, just like their male counterparts.  Inclusiveness is getting a lot of airtime right now, and that needs to include the notion of working moms as well. We still live in a world where for many working moms to thrive, they have to pretend to be focused solely on their job to get ahead; and pretend like their children don’t exist.  I don’t accept this.

I’m grateful I work at a company where we are working hard to create an environment where everyone can thrive. And I’m confident if others companies don’t do the same, we will see women use those incredibly entrepreneurial skills they built in these companies and tackle the right solution together.  In the meantime, consider the things each of us can do - regardless of whether we are a working mother or not - to change the game:

  • Understand yourself and your objectives at the various points in your career. They change.You need to adapt.

  • Don't back down. Make - and take - opportunities for yourself as both a professional and a Mom (or Dad. Or a person with an outside life of any sort that is meaningful to you).

  • Don't give it up because it gets tough. It’s just a new challenge. Never give up what you love; find a new way to make it work for you.

  • Fight to make your workspace parent-friendly. Or plain inclusive to all. This isn’t just about parental needs. It’s about human needs.

Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator.