The stereotypical image of startup life is a handful of scruffy twenty-somethings working 24/7 in a garage. No one has kids, needless to say, because no one has a life outside of work. However, in reality, while giving birth to a baby and a business at the same time can be daunting, it’s entirely doable. And a new generation of company founders is intent on making work-baby balance a priority, crafting flexible policies that will meet their own needs, and the needs of their employees. They increasingly see that anyone — even the founder herself or himself — can take time off to care for a new child, and that offering paid parental leave to their employees is the way to attract and retain the best talent.
The stereotypical image of startup life is a handful of scruffy twenty-somethings working 24/7 in a garage. No one has kids, needless to say, because no one has a life outside of work. That image of workaholic, childless founders is often reinforced by founders who recount stories of their firms’ exhausting, around-the-clock early days. I worry that the pervasiveness of that image – of startup life as a zero-balance zone, where kids aren’t allowed — could be keeping some talented would-be founders from striking out on their own, starting new companies, and growing the economy.
In fact, when I speak with entrepreneurs, the message I hear is that having a baby and a business at the same time is daunting, but entirely doable. Moreover, I’ve seen how these founders are committed to creating company cultures where everyone – not just the boss – can enjoy family-friendly benefits like flex time and paid leave. They believe it’s part of building employee-centric, sustainable policies that support their firms’ long-term fiscal health.
For example, when Caitlin Zaino, Founder of Porter & Sail, a hospitality company, was expecting her first child, she was desperate find an example of another female founder who’d juggled childbirth and running a startup.
Caitlin’s first employee, her head of production was also expecting, and many of her other employees were female, in their 30s, and thinking about having kids. She thought if she could figure this out for herself, she could chart a new course that would make their lives easier, too.
Caitlin found the role model she was looking for in Birchbox co-founder Katia Beauchamp, who shared the advice, “Everyone wants to think that they are the most important person in an organization but the team still thrives, if you’ve done your job well, all should move forward.” So when the time came, Caitlin took time off, wanting to show that it was more than OK for anyone — even the founder — to take time away for a new baby.
The firm is now in its second year, with a team of 13, and zero attrition by new parents. Caitlin continues to lead by example and offer flexible policies that provide support, which in has in turn rewarded Porter & Sail with a dedicated employee base that continues to help the organization reach 30% quarterly growth.
The message she learned from Katia continues to ring true. As Katia told her, “The way to get there is to treat people the way you’d want to be treated. The way you set up a startup is indicative of the startup’s future success.”
Family-friendly policies are all about building a culture of trust for Vic Drabicky, father of two and founder of January Digital, a 45-person Dallas- and NYC-based advertising agency. “If I am trusting people to spend millions of dollars of our clients’ money, I damn well better be able to trust them to use their time appropriately.”
The startup formalized its policies around parental leave when employee number four announced she was pregnant. Her experienced helped inform and define the organization’s policy, which Vic continues to tweak as the team grows. “I like to think of these policies as bumpers, not as hard black-and-white rules.”
Vic told me that he’s also learned a great deal from his own fatherhood experiences. “The first few weeks [are] really tough, but months 2-3 are super taxing — so I encourage new fathers to use the leave however they want.” January Digital offers fully paid parental leave for moms (three months leave plus one month of reduced work days) and dads (three weeks leave). In addition, the firm provides unlimited vacation days and permits work from home days when needed.
Vic is aware of the complexities of pregnancy. “I encourage attending appointments for IVF or testing — it is certainly more important than us selling ads on internet.” He says he’s seen nothing but positive returns from making such commitments to employees’ new-parent experiences.
Bryan Bennett also emphasized the benefits of family-friendly policies to his talent strategy. He’s the founder of Washington, DC-based Cortex, a SAAS startup offering technical solutions which, though monitoring and analysis, save office buildings energy and money. Within three months, he’d both launched the company and become a father. Now a father to two energetic boys, Bryan feels his own parenthood was a massive advantage for his organization, because “from the start we had built-in norms, processes, and tools” that emphasized both professional and personal development. “I never stepped back and said, ‘How do we do this?’ Rather, I showed by example and that created a distinct competitive advantage” in the war for talent.
Today, two-thirds of the 12-person Cortex have kids, all under the age of six. To keep his employees happy and engaged at work, Bryan focuses on emphasizing outcomes over process, minimizing meetings, and focusing on using everyone’s time as efficiently and strategically as possible.
“Finding great talent is both critical and quite difficult,” he told me. “We look for employees that have enough experience that they can be really great at what they do. We strive for people with excellent judgment and the ability to handle autonomy well.” That investment in team has resulted in rapid and steady growth, with Series A funding in process and projections pointing toward 41 employees by 2019.
There can be different issues to think about when startups achieve a certain amount of scale. ThirdLove is a California-based bra and underwear company founded by former Googler Heidi Zak. “A startup is a startup regardless of the dynamics of it, even with a mother at the helm,” Heidi told me. Heidi has been pregnant twice over the past five years while launching the company, which now has more than 130 employees. The first employee to take leave was also her first hire, VP of Design & Creative, Ra’el Cohen. At that time, the organization’s policy wasn’t formalized, and Ra’el simply took the time she wanted to take. She also made some changes after her return to work, such as working fewer late nights at the office (though both she and Heidi do return to their computers later at night, when their children’s bedtime routines are behind them). Heidi’s priority now is crafting an official policy which includes eight weeks fully paid and four weeks unpaid leave that people are encouraged to take. “The expectation is that they will take the leave. We want to set them up for success.”
Heidi also tries to make sure that when new parents return to the ThirdLove offices, there is a sense of celebration and support waiting for them. Heidi takes great pride in cultivating a thoughtful, welcoming environment focused on family culture. “We talk about kids, we show pictures—no one is asked to check their parenting at the door.” And they host events that are family friendly, like their recent pumpkin carving party, where parents had their children come to the office to join.
Starting a company with a diaper bag in one hand and your pitch deck in the other is tricky. Both new entities require a great deal of flexibility. But in some ways, the startup life can be even more amenable to raising young children than can life at a large corporation, with its more rigid rules and long-established culture. The founders I’ve talked to all emphasized that it’s not just the chance to launch new products, but pioneer new kinds of companies, that has propelled them to launch their firms and try to lead in a forward-looking, principled way.
The more we applaud that, the more people will realize they don’t have to choose between starting a company and having a baby.
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