I’m probably going to get myself in a bit of trouble here – I had a thought a couple weeks ago about a female founder that I buried away.
Normally I’m quite willing to throw my ideas out in the open as I think we learn and grow when we’re open about our ideas – the crazy ones, the politically incorrect ones – all of them.
For those of you that know me I’m sure I’ve offended or bothered all of you at least once.
If you know me well enough you probably realise my intent isn’t to hurt, but to provoke new thought and get an honest response. I like to iterate my way from crazy to sane but that path can be misinterpreted.
OK, so enough up front fluffery- you’re probably thinking “What the hell could Paige be thinking about a female founder that he wasn’t willing to just throw out there”. Honestly there’s probably a ton of things but here’s the one that’s been bothering me:
“A pregnant founder / CEO is going to fail her company”
As an angel investor, a free-wheeling free- agent in the world of entrepreneurship, I’ll normally say anything that comes into my head. But now, as the cofounder of BetterWorks I thought “maybe I should let this idea slide away – no need to piss off the world of female execs out there”. But the reality is that women in the workplace is an incredibly important topic. We’re missing out on a ton of talent out there and we need to take this seriously.
The Situation: I was contemplating an investment in this awesome crowd-sourced funding company in LA called Profounder. I love the vision: helping local brick & mortar businesses get funding from their community. The founding team, Jessica Jackley & Dana Mauriello, are incredible ladies with exactly the spirit and attitude I’m looking for in founders. We’ve talked extensively, had lunch together and I saw first hand the amazing talent & drive these two bring to the table. And then, a week later I find out Jessica is pregnant…and this dirty little thought pops in my head. I’m thinking how in the hell is this founder going to lead a team, build a company and change the world for these businesses carrying a kid around for the next few months and then caring for the kids after. I can’t say I personally know anything about it but birthing & raising kids seems like the toughest job around. And now I have a founder who has to be a CEO and a mother.
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The Decision: Ultimately I decided to invest, namely because I gave a commitment to invest and decided that pregnancy shouldn’t impact my decision. But what concerns me more is that I’m normally very equal-opportunity. In fact I really like working with female entrepreneurs and wish we had more of them. I have quite a few female entrepreneurs in my portfolio companies but the reality here is that I almost didn’t invest and I’m sure a ton of us decide not to invest, support, promote or work with women because of this whole “marriage / pregnancy” hurdle that most women will face in their career. I normally tell people I don’t care about your sex, race, religion, sexual preference – these things just don’t mean a bag of dogshit to me.
Yet, I almost didn’t invest so it must mean something and I’m definitely not as equal opportunity as I thought. And even though I ultimately decided to support Jessica and Dana, there are a ton of Jessica’s out there that won’t get the same treatment. And this brings me to my big question: Should I go out of my way to support female entrepreneurs? Should I give female executives, founders and others women an advantage in funding, hiring & promoting?
I talked to Jessica this weekend at Summit at Sea and told her my thoughts. I was a bit ashamed – walking up and telling an entrepreneur you’re backing that you have doubts, particularly something like this, is never an easy chat. But it is something we should do; I really love being direct and we do owe it to each other. Surprisingly Jessica wasn’t upset and I asked her if it was cool for me to write about this.
She gave me a warm yes and so here are two key points rolling around in my head right now:
- I have doubts once I think of you getting married, having kids and being distracted from work. Right or wrong this is something I’m thinking
- We need more women in the workplace. Look around at founders, boards and execs and you’ll all realise women are grossly under represented in the workplace
recognising this doubt I’m now asking myself if I should give preference to women. What do you think?
And before you answer, take the time to watch Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk. I watched this last night as I was thinking about this topic and she brings up some great points. But the issue I have here is that Sheryl’s talk is directed at women – telling women what they should do. What I want to know is how should we as men deal with this?
Here’s what Jessica Jackley had to say in response:
First, thanks to Paige for the honesty, humility, and desire to start a dialogue on this important issue. In addition to him airing general concerns about the dirty little thought (“A pregnant founder / CEO is going to fail her company”) that popped up in his head, I’m glad he asked the specific question he did – specifically: “…how in the hell is this founder* going to lead a team, build a company and change the world for these businesses carrying a kid around for the next few months and then caring for the kids after?”
* “this founder” would be me
I don’t blame Paige for doing his job as an investor by bringing up his concerns about my company or my plans for its future. I agree with sentiments expressed by others who have commented on this post, however, and think the it’s very unfortunate how often this line of questioning is focused on women alone. I’ve never heard someone ask the same of a Founder/CEO/Dad, worrying about a slightly different dirty little thought: “An expectant father / CEO will fail his company.” The idea that mothers are the de facto “foundation parents” to a new baby (or two) perpetuates the stereotypes and structures that make it more difficult for anyone, male or female, to balance work and family in the first place.
But let’s step back a bit. This post isn’t just about a big-picture issue, it’s also about my personal journey and ProFounder. I haven’t responded until now, not because of a lack of interest or desire to participate in this dialogue but because, frankly, I’m busy running said company. I expect to be even busier with not just one but two babies (yes, to be clear, I’m expecting twins) arriving this fall. And as all entrepreneurs know, you live and die by your ability to prioritise. You must focus on the most important, mission-critical tasks each day and night, and then share, delegate, delay or skip the rest. So, while Paige’s post was intriguing and important, it wasn’t urgent – until it came to my attention that my team was somewhat bothered by it. When they saw one of our investors questioning my abilities as a leader, they were confused and frustrated. And so I am now replying on their behalf as well as mine.
Paige and I met before I was telling anyone besides my family and my staff that I was expecting. As is typical, I announced it officially right at the standard 12-wk mark. Nearly all of my 30+ investors responded immediately with enthusiasm and congratulations, and many of them also offered to help think through post-maternity work plans, which I greatly appreciate. Paige is our most recent investor, so he missed the big official announcement a few weeks ago (I told him as soon as I saw him).
From the start, ProFounder was created to make sure anyone could be empowered to pursue their dreams through entrepreneurship. Together with my investors, we agreed on strategies and goals, key milestones, etc. I promised them our team would work its hardest to meet these goals, and we’ve been doing so ever since. I never did, and never would, promise them that I wouldn’t fall in love, get married, have a family at some pt. Why would I? Who in their right mind would actually ask this of a person? And what would it even mean to keep a promise like that?
Parenthood will be a new experience. As with any new experience, with lots of variables and forces beyond my control, it’s hard to know what will happen in the future, or exactly how I will feel when I’m in it. But, I’m comfortable with this – I am an entrepreneur – and this doesn’t mean I can’t have a carefully considered plan, informed by the advice and wisdom of other leaders I respect. I enjoy my conversations with Paige and if we’d had more time to talk live before this blog post, I’d have simply responded in answer to the “how the hell [will she make it work]…” question. I would have said that I have an incredible cofounder and an amazing, talented team. They believe in my leadership, my ability to serve them and our vision – with or without kids. I would have talked about my strong support system, including a husband who is a true partner and my greatest champion. I would have mentioned that I am fortunate enough to be able to afford full-time help if/when we need it. And I would have told him that, like most professional women in my situation, I have been thinking about this season of my life for a very long time. (Disclaimer: I’m just talking about my circumstances. This isn’t a complete or prescriptive checklist for anyone else, or a statement about what all women should have or do if they’re in a similar situation.)
There’s another aspect of this conversation about a founder of a company to have the goal of achieving balance at all when in start-up mode, and I’d like to address that too. Do I work long hours? Weekends? Of course. Pull all-nighters when needed? Sure. But working until I fall asleep on my laptop and doing nothing else on a regular basis makes me less effective. Turns out that getting at least a little sleep, exercising regularly, having healthy relationships outside of work, spending time with my family, reading a book for fun now and then, etc. makes me a better Founder/CEO.
In fact, this isn’t just how I run my life, but it’s how my cofounder Dana and I run our company. We created ProFounder with the intention of shaping a healthier – and more efficacious – culture that gives everyone on our team the opportunity to be a full person, not just a cog in a machine. We not only encourage but celebrate each other’s victories in and beyond work. At our last team retreat, we reported our proudest moments personally and professionally; on the personal side of things, every single individual shared some detail about how the most important relationships in their lives had become better since they began working at ProFounder. This model is working. Business is thriving. We are flourishing. And we’re trying to give every entrepreneur we work with through the ProFounder platform the same options for their own endeavours, starting with the chance to include investors who care about them as human beings – who are invested not just in their business but in them as people.
When my titles expand from just Founder/CEO to Founder/CEO/mum, I may have a different kind of load to bear than that of other entrepreneurs, especially if we’re talking about ones who fit the old Silicon Valley stereotypes…[I’ll let you fill in the blank here with the obvious demographics/attitudes that come to mind]. I’ve tried forcing myself to fit more into this profile during other seasons of my life and would like to report that, shockingly, there’s really no correlation between eating take-out everyday or skipping that 30-min jog again and great entrepreneurial success. If anything, I’ve found the opposite to be true.
I have no desire to fit that old stereotype. I desire to live a life that is rich in relationships both in and outside of work. I desire to reap the many different rewards that are abundant in my job, working in this incredible start-up every day. I want to surround myself with a team, including investors, that challenges me and helps make me better. I want to live my life transparently, and if being a happy, successful Founder/CEO/mum serves as a helpful example to anyone who wants to use me as such, great.
Mostly, I want to get back to my team and work on our business. So, a quick closing thought: what I, and my team, believe – and this is ProFounder’s mission statement verbatim – is that all entrepreneurs should have access to the resources they need to succeed through the engagement of robust, supportive communities. ProFounder exists to champion all entrepreneurs, and we have a special place in our hearts for those who don’t care to pitch their companies to the same old “usual suspects” investors – and this is a great thing for the world! Through our platform and tools, we are changing the way start-up and small business funding can be done, by engaging and empowering communities to invest. We hope these communities might think differently about what makes a great company, or a great leader. I hope we can show more and more people a path that includes sharing their entrepreneurial journey (and, the financial and social upside they will create) with people who know their story, their context, maybe even their families, and believe in them all the more because of it.
Thanks again to Paige and all for the dialogue. Now, back to work!
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