When I started this blog, I committed to not shy away from the difficult conversations and this one has been brewing for a while. Last week Fortune published an article highlighting 11 CEOs that told their stories about what it was like to have a baby while running a company and that has become my forcing mechanism for tackling the topic in today’s blog. I am referring to when female founders are raising capital and are asked, “Do you plan on having children?”
A DEEPLY PERSONAL QUESTION
Before I dive in, I must admit that this is personal for me. When I was 29, I was living in Kansas City, married and pregnant. Arthur Andersen had just been broken apart and our specialty consulting practice was “acqui-hired” by another firm. At 12 weeks, I sat down with my boss and gave him the news. At 13 weeks, I called and left him a voicemail. I had lost the baby. I needed a couple of days off to have surgery. I would be back on Monday. The loss is something I still struggle with today.
For many reasons, my husband and I divorced and I found myself in extreme financial trouble. I took one job after the other another, climbing the corporate ladder, moving all over the country and eventually pulled myself out of debt. In 2006, I was living in San Francisco, in my mid-30s and the biological clock was ticking. I was dating quite a lot – mostly people that I had met online or through sailing. I became convinced (and still am) that I would never marry again. But, there was still a deep desire to have a child. Eventually, I decided that I did not want to raise a child without a strong support system around me and so I determined that I would wait. My thoughts were I could always adopt later in life.
When I moved back to the Midwest to work at Gavilon, it was going to be my opportunity to reconsider. But, the job took over. I was working 12-14 hours a day, 6-7 days a week, most weeks. Time passed and my life was filled with work drama, international business trips, and multiple acquisitions to grow the company and eventually sell. At the time, it all seemed so important.
And it was important. We built a successful company and earned a respectable return for our investors (including our employee-investors) during the global financial crisis. The hard work allowed me to be somewhat financially independent after the exit. But, the time for me to have children of my own or to even adopt, had come and gone. I settled on being the best aunt I could be to my three nephews. It is definitely not the same as having children. But, I have come to accept that I will never be a mom, and have focused on my role as “the fun aunt” instead.
I share my story because it sets the stage for how personal this decision is. I know of six female entrepreneurs in Chicago that are pregnant right now and two more that are desperately trying. Each of them have a personal story. Each of them struggled with when and how to tell their investors/boards. And, I know having been asked similar questions through my journey just how difficult of a question it can be.
WHAT DOES THE “CHILDREN QUESTION” REALLY MEAN?
For me, when I hear of the question being asked during fundraising, I hear a judgment being placed on a mother. What I hear is an assumption about traditional roles of a household. What I hear is a belief that a company ran by a mother has a higher likelihood of failure. What I hear, is a false choice.
The question feeds on women’s greatest fears – that we will fail at both. And, that if our business fails, the world will not see it as part of the high failure rate from startups, but instead will focus on the fact that a woman (or mother) failed because she focused on her own family over her business. Nearly every female leader that I know feels this way, whether they publicly express it or not. They feel they must prove that a woman – that a mother – can succeed. It is an added pressure in addition to the startup challenges that they face daily.
And, you simply have no way of knowing what is going on with someone. They may have just endured a loss. They may have been trying for years. They may have just been told it is not possible.
So, why would a VC ask the question? Perhaps some of the VCs that have asked the question recently want to help explain? Because if you think it is only inexperienced angel investors – you are wrong. And, if you think it is only male VCs asking the question – you are also wrong.
HOW SHOULD YOU RESPOND?
For entrepreneurs, here are my top five suggestions:
- Assume positive intent. I sometimes ask questions to try to better understand entrepreneurs on a human-to-human level. I often ask about passions outside of work. Sometimes this leads to interesting places and often leads to discussions about family. I am simply trying to see what makes a person tick for insight into values and motivations.
- Prepare for the question. Have several planned responses ready and practice them. Why two or three? Because in the moment you have to choose your best response. If the meetings have otherwise gone well, you may respond one way (i.e., “I haven’t decided yet, is this a standard question you ask?”). If the VC is being a jerk the entire meeting, you may respond in an entirely different way.
- Meet the question head on. You can ask them why they are asking. You can ask them if they are married, have children or plan on having children. Sometimes the most effective strategy is to turn the tables. It also affords you an opportunity to find common ground.
- Own it. If you already have kids, you can relate how you currently manage the load. If you have a support system, talk about that. If you are pregnant and showing, describe a well thought out plan for managing the time off. Who will cover, how will key decisions get made. If you are an early-stage startup with a small team or a sole founder recognize that time away is a reality, then demonstrate that you have a plan to operate the business through the leave.
- Do not be afraid to walk away. I recommend finishing the meeting and giving yourself time to reflect. If you get to the next stage of diligence, speak to multiple portfolio company CEOs to ask about their interactions in good times and bad. And, before you agree to take their money – have the talk – ask why they felt that was an important question. How did it help inform their decision to invest. Clear the air and set the expectation for how you will handle difficult conversations in the future.
WAIT, WHAT ABOUT THE VCS?
For investors, here are my top five suggestions:
- Reconsider your options. Consider how offensive the question might be perceived and stop asking it. I have to think if you really knew how entrepreneurs heard the question, you would stop.
- Equal questions. If you really think the “Children Question” is relevant during fundraising, then ask both the male and the female entrepreneurs. Aside from the obvious short-term time off, there should not be a difference.
- Explain yourself. Help people understand why you think it is important. Don’t just throw the bomb out there and then wait for a reaction. Instead, give context first, how have you found the answer to the question helpful in the past.
- If you make a mistake, own it. I have talked to VCs that are terrified of saying the wrong thing. In my opinion, much like the #metoo movement, we run the risk of going backwards here. We need to be sensitive but not become robots either.
- Discuss it in your fund. Talk about the issue – ask your partners and female led portfolio companies what they think. Ask every member of your team if they have ever asked an entrepreneur this question. Don’t bury it, discuss it and learn from it.
It is 2019 and I look forward to a day when there are no more blogs on this topic. Things are changing. They are changing because there are more role models both locally and nationally. They are changing because even though women still feel vulnerable, they are less vulnerable every day. They are changing because ignorance and bias is no longer being tolerated. They are changing because the tech community, men and women, are demanding it.