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These Women Are Reinventing The Workplace For Mothers

Lindsey Stanberry

The first quarter of 2019 has been impressive for women-founded companies. Glossier (founded by Emily Weiss) and Rent The Runway (founded by Jennifer Fleiss and Jennifer Hyman) both announced their unicorn status (VC-speak for companies with over a $1-billion-dollar valuation). And there has been a flurry of good news about impressive funding rounds for Ellevest ($33 million), Landit ($13 million), Billie ($25 million), ThirdLove ($55 million), and Fairygodboss ($10 million) — just to name a few.

While women-founded businesses still struggle to get a fair piece of the venture-capital pie (after all, in this same quarter yet another scooter company raised $30 million — as if we need more electric scooters), that's slowly changing and momentum is building in an exciting way. It's thrilling to see more women-led business, in part because many of these female entrepreneurs (who are frequently also mothers) are working hard to make sure they're building a new type of business that's not only disrupting industries, but also rewriting the corporate rulebook on how to treat employees.

As part of our Equal Pay Day coverage, we spoke to six female founders, who run businesses of various sizes, to see how their own experiences as working mothers has influenced the policies they put into place for their employees. As more women move into leadership roles and start their own companies, they have a chance to build corporate culture from the ground up, creating HR policies that more inclusive for everyone — and that can have a huge impact on how working mothers thrive and perhaps even one day help us close the wage gap.

Georgene Huang

Co-founder and CEO of Fairygodboss, a social networking platform for women

What was your own maternity leave like? What was it like when you returned to work? At what point did you think you should start your own business?

In 2015, I was suddenly fired from my executive role at a major company as part of an unexpected management shakeup. At the time, I was two months pregnant with my second child, and I hadn’t yet told anyone. I was in this position of looking for a new job and feeling quite pressured to hide my pregnancy. While interviewing, I wanted to ask certain questions — Is work-life balance enabled here? Are women paid and promoted fairly? What’s the maternity leave policy? — but feared being judged as less-than-fully-committed to my career if I asked. I wanted to hear directly from other women about their experiences and how they overcame similar challenges. So, I turned to the internet for answers and was surprised by the lack of information I found, given how crucial this information is to women’s careers. That’s really what inspired the idea for Fairygodboss.

My maternity leave certainly wasn’t normal. I was essentially taking on the challenge of trying to create and build a company with a newborn on my hands. That said, being your own boss means you get to determine your own work schedule to a certain extent. Compared to my maternity leave while working at a bigger, established corporation, I’d say it may have netted out to being a less stressful maternity leave overall. There’s a certain amount of flexibility that comes from being an entrepreneur that is harder to achieve in managerial, corporate jobs, quite frankly. Another reason it may have been easier is that it was my second-time around being a mom.

I’d say that none of my maternity leaves have been “normal.” During my first child, I was an expat working in London and sought a promotion while on maternity leave (and got it!). It meant going back to work voluntarily earlier than I had planned, but my family and I made it work. Having done the corporate executive thing while I had children, I can also see that there are benefits to that. For example, work is not as personal, it’s easier to compartmentalize and separate your work and home lives, and you can have great elements of control depending on your seniority.

What formal policies are you putting in place to build a better workplace for working mothers? What informal policies? What are the unexpected challenges of making your company more working-parent friendly?

Even though we are a startup, we made sure that we would always be able to offer our employees what they need when they're trying to start or grow their families. We offer paid parental leave for anyone either having a child, using a surrogate, or adopting. We also offer a flexible work environment. Employees can choose their own hours and have the ability to work from home. Sometimes a sitter will cancel or a child, family member, or pet will get sick, so having these policies in place allow people to address care-taking no matter what comes up. We also know from our research that these benefits lead to higher employee job satisfaction.

What would you hope more traditional workplaces could learn from the policies you've put into place?

Parental leave benefits have definitely improved in recent years and are continuing to evolve. In the past couple years, it seems like a large number of companies have updated their parental policies, and we track them in our parental leave database where users can compare policies across companies and industries, including paternity leave.

One macro-trend we’ve been seeing is that it’s not enough to just offer maternity leave, and companies are trending toward offering a standard paid leave policy that benefits every employee, whether they’re a biological mother, father, or an adopting parent. I think this has to do with a few things: Firstly, more men are wanting to leave work after welcoming a baby in order to support their partner and bond with their child. Secondly, we’re seeing more and more people need time to care for an elderly parent or relative. These paid leave benefits absolutely help all employees, but I think they especially support women in the workforce since most caregiving responsibilities still generally fall to women.

Why is this such an important issue for you?

When I was looking for a job while I was pregnant, I couldn’t ask important questions without feeling like I would face bias, assumptions, and judgment. Women shouldn’t have to choose between building a family and a fulfilling career. By creating more transparency about benefits and also how mothers are treated in the workplace, I hope fewer women have to make that choice, but instead can have and succeed in both.

Lauren Kassan

Co-founder and COO of The Wing, a co-working space and social club designed for and by women

You were pregnant in the very early days of The Wing. Did you worry about being a new mom and growing a new business?

When I was pregnant with my son, Quincy, we were very much in the early stages of The Wing but growing quickly. I think every new parent has a ton of concerns and questions , including how to balance being a parent, managing self-care, and having a full-time job. I spent a lot of time worrying about how I was going to balance it all — especially because the company was doing so well. Both things were so important to me, but being a mother was most important and from the beginning it was my guiding principle in terms of decision-making between work and parenting.

What was your own maternity leave like?

The first few months were tough, because I was figuring out how to spend time with my newborn and also be there for my company. I felt an extreme amount of pressure to be successful in both roles, as mother and co-founder. I’d be lying if I said it was easy, and I know that so many hardworking, ambitious women struggle with this and don’t talk about it enough. That’s one of the reasons why we do parenting programming at The Little Wing that focuses on the mental health of the parents. The traditional approach to child care has historically been providing care for the child, but it should be a holistic approach that includes ensuring the mother is being supported as they navigate the difficult world of parenting. Ultimately, I learned, and am still learning, through both the good days and bad that nothing is more important than being a mom, and part of that is making sure I take time for myself and my work which is my passion.

What formal policies are you putting in place to build a better workplace for working mothers? What informal policies?

I am fortunate to be in a position to help build and shape an environment where our employees know their children come first, so if you need to take a day to care for your sick child or come in late or leave early there’s always that flexibility. We’re also creating culture where mothers can bring their children to the office or work from home as necessary. They also have access to The Little Wing and the services we provide there from babysitting to classes. We’re about to open our new HQ, which will have mothers' rooms as well that are designed just like the ones at The Wing. Working for a company built by women allows a unique experience as a working mother, but we want to help shift the expectations and stigmas around working parents through our work at The Wing both behind-the-scenes and in the spaces.

What are the unexpected challenges of making your company more working-parent friendly? You have a lot of young women on staff who aren't yet mothers — do you ever get push back from them that they would prefer you invest in other benefits (like catered lunch, for instance!)?

When I was pregnant, friends and family frequently asked me what kind of childcare options I was going to use: How was I going to take care of a baby while also scaling a company? Did I already sign up my unborn baby for daycare!? That was the first time it hit me how important of a consideration and long of a process finding quality child-care options and returning to work was for parents. On top of that, it was complicated, expensive, and wholly under-supported by many employers and the government. This is when we realized we needed to provide child-care options for our members and employees. We started developing our first child-care space, The Little Wing, and taking steps to make sure our own internal policies are something to be proud of.

Yes, we have a lot of young women on staff but the majority of our senior staffers are mothers. Also, we don’t look at it as a tradeoff, and we shouldn’t be pigeon-holed into approaching supporting families or working mothers as that. Continuing to put in place good policies and strengthen them over time will help recruit and retain young women, who may want those benefits down the line or benefit from the general sense of employee happiness that results in taking care of your staff.

What would you hope more traditional workplaces could learn from the policies you've put into place?

When you prioritize something, especially through the lens of your own experiences, you can make things work. That’s why it’s so imperative to give women, especially mothers, a seat at the table. We’ve come a long way in the sense that more parents are returning to work after having a child, but there’s still so much we need to do considering that some people spend more on child care than rent, and we know that access to these options can ease financial and even mental and emotional strain for families. We also know that job opportunities that offer access to child care benefits have a leg-up when competing against those that offer none. The Little Wing is by no means a replacement to full-time care, but a good option for members who are trying to get back to work, take some meetings, or a moment for their own professional and personal development, while also balancing parenthood. The Little Wing is aiming to be both a reliable option and an example to other companies that this is a smart business decision.

Why is this such an important issue for you?

Being a mother informs so much of my approach as a leader and how I make business decisions. It’s important to have a parent's perspective at the table of every business, and we’re lucky to have so many working moms on staff at The Wing — soon to be joined by Audrey Gelman, my co-founder, in the fall! It’s important that we understand many of the decisions we make set an example for the next generation of leaders and that we’re establishing a new normal and expectations surrounding the treatment of mothers and working parents. In our spaces, when we first announced The Little Wing, the outpouring of emotional emails and members coming up to us to express how important and helpful this will be to them has been incredible.

Sima Sistani

Cofounder of Houseparty, a social networking service that enables group video chatting through mobile and desktop apps

What was your own maternity leave like? (How much time did you take off, etc.) What was it like when you returned to work? At what point did you think you should start your own business?

Starting my own business wasn’t an easy decision. I had a good, stable job, and I knew I wanted more kids. Ultimately, I decided I should be able to have a family and launch something I’m passionate about. Houseparty’s mission, bringing empathy to online connection, is something I wanted to make a reality so I took the leap.

I came back to work a few weeks after my second child was born to help Houseparty deal with rapid growth shortly after we did our Series C fundraising round. But I wanted to make sure employees knew I made this decision because Houseparty is also my baby. To encourage others to take leave and make sure I didn’t set precedent, I communicated a robust paid leave policy that helps people take care of their personal needs.

What formal policies are you putting in place to build a better workplace for working mothers? What informal policies? What are the unexpected challenges of making your company more working-parent friendly?

Houseparty offers our 42 employees between 12 and 18 weeks of paid family leave, along with leaves of absence for bereavement and other necessities. As we grow, we’re planning to offer up to 24 paid weeks of paid family leave. Additionally, we offer flexible time off for people looking to pursue passions outside of work. Collectively, this set a precedent from leadership that putting yourself and family first is okay, even during critical launches and scaling efforts.

What would you hope more traditional workplaces could learn from the policies you've put into place?

I think all workplaces can do a better job of implementing paid leave policies. I’d like for the Leaders for Leave movement to show that work is work and people have lives outside of it. The time and flexibility we allow at Houseparty lets people weave their personal passions and obligations into their work life. That should be an opportunity all working Americans are afforded.

Why is this such an important issue for you?

Paid leave will lead to more diverse workplaces and better businesses. There is nothing Silicon Valley needs more than that right now.

Carissa Tozzi

Co-founder of Wolf + Friends, a modern lifestyle brand and social-connecting app for moms raising children with special needs

What was your own maternity leave like? What was it like when you returned to work? At what point did you think you should start your own business?

My maternity leave was a bit of a blur — being a new mom is a whole new world with a whole new set of skills that need to be learned. Because sleep is such an integral part of a baby’s development, I focused on how to get my baby to sleep through the night before I headed back to work less than three months after having my son.

My challenge was to balance getting my life back to normal (hahaha) before I went back to my job and enjoying the time at home with my newborn (as much as you can when you are sleep deprived!). And yes, I love my sleep and I need my sleep.

At that time in my career, I didn’t even entertain the thought of not going back to work, an extended maternity was never even an option. When you have a baby and a high profile job you go back to work as if nothing changed.

After my son was born, my life refocused on all things baby and child. I immersed myself in the world of toys, décor, and fashion for kids. As I became more aware of the world of child development, I realized that there wasn’t a modern shopping and lifestyle destination for families that was inclusive. I was still working a 9-to-5 job, but I spent any downtime I had working on this concept. When my son was four-and-a-half, I decided I had to capitalize on this blank space I had stumbled upon and make a go of this business. That was three years ago. I traded in my career and nanny to be a stay-at-home mom and simultaneously an entrepreneur. After spending some time analyzing the competitive landscape I began working on a clear vision and set of objectives for my business.

What formal policies are you putting in place to build a better workplace for working mothers? What informal policies? What are the unexpected challenges of making your company more working-parent friendly?

Our company is small! It’s me and my co-founder Gena Mann, who is also a former media executive and now stay-at-home mom, raising four children, two who are on the autism spectrum. When you have a child, there are constant commitments — from sick days, to school conferences, to school vacations, to after-school activities — there are so many ways in which a child’s life is designed to have a parent at home to be there for all of these things when they are in pre-and primary school. It is impossible to be a working parent and not have flexibility. As a business owner and someone who oversees several contract employees, I would never expect anyone with a child to miss out on any special occasions or take the time off to be with their child when they needed to. I would also not hire anyone that I didn’t feel was a self-starter and responsible enough to work from their home or remotely or at the time of day that works for them, when situations like these arise.

What would you hope more traditional workplaces could learn from the policies you've put into place?

All jobs and the responsibilities associated with them are different. There's no a one-size-fits-all when it comes to flexibility. Employers need to be honest about their expectations, and employees need to think about what kind of commitment they can give to a job. If an employee or prospective employee can not commit to the requirements that job has, then that job may not be right for them at that time and there may be a role or a company that is better suited for them.

Why is this such an important issue for you?

At the end of the day, everyone wants to feel respected. Work is a part of someone’s life, but it is not their entire life — no matter what level you are at within a company. If people feel like their lives outside of work are valuable, they will be happier — and better employees —achieving a healthy work/life balance.

Kari Clark

Founder and CEO of Uplift, a turnkey platform for companies to advance working moms at scale by turning motherhood into a career advantage

What was your own maternity leave like? What was it like when you returned to work? At what point did you think you should start your own business?

I had two kids, now three and five, when I was at Google. Their policy included a month off before your due date and four months after, plus you accrued vacation. I saved my vacation to allow me to go back four days a week for the first six weeks, which was key to my sanity. I took every Wednesday off, so I only had to ‘make it’ through two days. I kept my daughter in daycare in the morning of my days off to get some much-needed me time, and then spent lovely afternoons with her.

Having a newborn is really really hard. I was lucky and made some of my closest friends during this time. We would sit in the park (or in beer garden happy hours) and trade war stories and tips.

I found that both my daughter and I were happiest when we were out, so we were adventurous. We went to MOMA and even made it to a bunch of Restaurant Week lunches. I even breastfed in Jean Georges! Pretty early on, I also got a babysitter to come two mornings a week, which allowed me to sleep or go to the gym. A three-hour break made me such a better mom.

Returning to work was honestly a disaster. The night before my first day, Chloe had the worst night of sleep of her life, waking every hour. I was a zombie. The second day back, my daughter’s daycare left a kid at the park and closed for two weeks.

I also realized that I didn’t love the job I was returning to. Having kids is a magnifying glass on your life. If you have issues, they become worse. If I was going to leave my kid for 10 hours a day, I needed to love my work.

So, I made a significant career switch a month after I returned from leave, moving from marketing to hardware product management, having no hardware experience. Studies show that life changes, like having a kid, are a great time to adopt new habits since your life is already changing. Having kids completely jumpstarted my career. I became more productive, leaned into work that challenged me, and stopped caring about the bullshit.

I always wanted to start my own company. When my second was two, I decided to make the jump, founding Uplift, a platform that helps companies advance working moms at scale. I started by interviewing over 100 moms at the top of their field on what made them successful at life and work. Then I built our program off those conversations. I wanted to help other moms not need to reinvent the wheel and use motherhood as a way to propel their career forward, not take a step back.

What formal policies are you putting in place to build a better workplace for working mothers? What informal policies? What are the unexpected challenges of making your company more working-parent friendly?

My company has employees across four time zones. Being remote builds in inherent flexibility. You can work whenever you want, as long as you get your work done. Studies show people do better work when they have autonomy and flexibility.

As a team, we also go through the Uplift program ourselves. Each week we do an activity to help us achieve more work-life balance, from identifying stress triggers to communicating our boundaries. Then we talk about our results as a team.

I also try to be very transparent about when I am spending time with my kids during the workday to normalize this flexibility. I will share pictures of school parties or show my co-working buddies in video chats when they are home sick from school.

What would you hope more traditional workplaces could learn from the policies you've put into place?

Being a working mom is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. So many companies are focusing on just extending maternity leave or on-ramps back to work. In reality, moms need more support, not only when they return to work, but after they’ve adjusted to being back and the struggles of trying to ‘do it all’ fully set in. Coaching can help moms get off the hamster wheel and define the type of working mom they want to be. Simple tools — like the ones we’ve created in our app — are essential to help them set boundaries, reduce their housework demands, and be more resilient.

Why is this such an important issue for you?

There are more men named John who are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies than women. We won’t make a significant dent in these numbers without helping moms because the most significant leak in the funnel is when women have kids — 28% lean out of the workforce.

I also have seen hundreds of women become better at their job after kids, even though 60% of moms experience bias in the workforce. I want to help rewrite the script for working moms.

Sara Mauskop

CEO and cofounder of Winnie, a free app for parents to help them find child care and activities to do with their kids

What was the first maternity leave like?What was it like when you returned to work? At what point did you think you should start your own business? How did you handle taking maternity leave from Winnie? Did it make you nervous to have a new baby and a new company?

I’ve taken maternity leave twice, at Postmates and at Winnie. One of the biggest stressors during my first maternity leave was finding child care. This had a huge impact on my decision to start Winnie and make this problem easier for parents. I was certainly nervous to start a company after having a brand new baby, but I also felt really compelled by our mission. I also thought it was an opportunity to design a work culture from the ground up and build a company that was exceptionally supportive of parents.

What formal policies are you putting in place to build a better workplace for working mothers? What informal policies? What are the unexpected challenges of making your company more working-parent friendly?

Formal policies at Winnie include 12 weeks of paid parental leave (for women and men), a lactation room in our headquarters, flexible work arrangements and work-from-home options once you return, and true to our mission, we help all employees find daycare and preschool with our child care membership Winnie Premium.

Informally, we have a really family-friendly culture that supports parents (and all employees) in their day-to-day lives. We don’t work late, we don’t work on weekends, and we don’t have a drinking culture that’s so prevalent in tech companies and can be off-putting and uncomfortable, especially for women.

As far as unexpected challenges of offering this kind of working-parent friendly culture, we’ve found the opposite — it has been a huge asset for us. We can recruit and retain top talent, we have happier, more productive employees, and we focus on outcomes.

What would you hope more traditional workplaces could learn from the policies you've put into place?

I think traditional workplaces could learn a lot from Winnie. Supporting parents is a tremendous asset. You will have more productive, more loyal employees if you allow them to balance their work life and their home life in a reasonable way.

Why is this such an important issue for you?

One thing we’ve found through our work at Winnie is that for the vast majority of moms, their decision as to whether or not to remain in the workforce is not dictated by personal choice alone. It is critically influenced by child care considerations like cost and availability, as well as the support and flexibility that their workplace offers. We are working every day to make it possible for women to make the choices they desire for themselves and their families.

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