In late January, Amy Nelson, the founder of the Riveter co-working network, posted an ultrasound on Twitter. “That’s my baby girl,” she wrote. “She arrives in June … #proudmama.”
Though baby announcements aren’t uncommon on social media, for startup world, this tweet was surprising. Female startup founders have historically shied away from going public with their pregnancies. Investors – the lifeblood of startup funding – have frequently hesitated to bet on companies whose founder might soon be juggling a newborn.
Nelson, however, is not keeping her pregnancy on the down-low. In 2017, she walked away from a high-powered litigation career, frustrated with widespread bias against mothers. Instead, she started the Riveter in Seattle as a place to re-engineer the future of work.
“It’s really important to tell the story,” said Nelson, whose company has raised a hefty $20m in just two years and will spread to six more cities by the end of the year. “We have to say, ‘Look, this is doable’.”
Nelson is emblematic of a shifting mindset among female founders. They’re increasingly talking about the children they’re birthing alongside the companies they’re growing, in the hopes of blowing up the conventional wisdom that says having a newborn and building a startup are mutually exclusive.
Pregnancy discrimination persists in many industries, including police departments, public transport agencies, warehouses or hospitals.
In the startup world, female entrepreneurs have been hindered by a narrow conventional narrative about what the journey looks like, which goes like this, says founder Emily Best: “You have an idea, you build the business, you get the VC [venture capital money], and now you’re on the way to becoming a unicorn [a billion-dollar company].
“But that mythology only exists for a very few people, and usually only 19-year-old, Stanford-dropout white dudes”, continued Best, the founder of Seed&Spark, a crowdfunding and streaming platform for independent film-makers, and a mother who has given birth twice since her company was founded.
Last year, Best penned a 3,000-word Medium post about the very different journey her company took, including fundraising while she was pregnant and meeting a series of funders who seemed to lose interest after meeting her – and her bump – in person.
The post clearly struck a nerve. “My phone blew up for days,” Best said. “People are grateful to see any story that deviates from the norm, because most stories aren’t the unicorn story.”
It’s not clear whether the actual number of early-stage founder pregnancies is going up – or whether they’re simply more visible. No one tracks such statistics.
But, thanks to social media, women are finding each other more easily, in contrast to the isolation many would-be founders of previous generations experienced. “It makes [founding a company] feel possible for me because I know so many other women are doing it,” Best said.
Broader trends, too, are part of motivating pregnant women founders to step out of the shadows. Women in the world of tech and startups are increasingly speaking up about discrimination, pay gaps, sexual harassment and a lack of representation in the boardroom. In an unprecedented moment in Silicon Valley last year, Google staff around the world staged a series of walkouts to protest about claims of sexual harassment, gender inequality and systemic racism.
“We’re seeing women say, ‘To heck with it,’” said Sarah Peck, founder of Startup Pregnant, a year-old media company based in New York. Peck gave birth to her second child in October. “[Women are saying,] ‘Nothing is changing fast enough, so I might as well do this on my own terms’.”
Still, hurdles remain. The vast majority of venture investors remain male, and many of those have traditional family arrangements. “Their image of a mother is someone who stays at home and is the CEO of a household,” said Sarah Lacy, who founded the Pando online tech publication in 2011. Last year, Lacy launched a second startup, Chairman Mom, a social platform for working mothers.
VCs use pattern recognition to identify up-and-comers, which often dings founders who are mothers, because VCs look at them and picture their wives. Lacy said several of her friends went into pitch meetings and had VCs say to them, “I can’t fund you because you’re pregnant.”
The last few years have seen a small growth in the number of female investors, which is helping to move the needle slightly. An ongoing conversation about gender bias in Silicon Valley has prompted some firms to take on female partners. Other women have simply struck out on their own or joined networks of women-focused funds. With more women on the other side of the table – as well as younger men who sometimes participate in parenting more fully – some female founders feel more supported.
Last fall, Emily Morris’s Atlanta-based hydropower startup Emergy brought on a new institutional investor right before she told the board she was going to have a baby that winter.
“The main point of contact who negotiated the deal with us [on the investor side] was also pregnant,” Morris said. She was on maternity leave by the time the board met, and the man who went in her place also had just had a baby. “They all were happy for me,” Morris said.
Despite that small measure of progress, female founders still get less than 3% of the venture pie. Experts say the increased openness on family matters won’t change the overall equation until more investors expand their idea of what a founder looks like.
“We still have a long way to go to acceptance,” said Kate Brodock, CEO of Women 2.0, a media and events company.
Part of that means creating a new picture of which qualities are necessary for success – including doing away with the idea that they must be single-mindedly working around the clock.
“There’s definitely a movement to say that, to make a successful startup happen, you don’t have to be working a hundred hours a night,” Brodock said.
Danna Greenberg, a professor of organizational behavior at Babson College said research indicates working parents can sometimes be more productive than people without children. Men and women have to develop skills like patience and understanding when becoming parents, and learn to prioritize and delegate.
“They can actually become better managers,” Greenberg said.
Female founders hope that by telling their stories they’ll set new narratives. No one is saying it’s easy, of course. Many women-led startups fail, as do many male-led ones. (Though at least one VC firm said that their women-led companies have outperformed their male-led ones.)
Either way, entrepreneurs are natural innovators and problem solvers, female founders argue, and they draw on those skills to integrate their competing priorities.
Melody McCloskey, the founder of San Francisco-based StyleSeat, said the prospect of maternity leave actually motivated her to strengthen her company at the strategic level. She accelerated plans to fine-tune operations and hire more senior staff so the company wouldn’t slow down when she took time off.
“When I was single, I had a lot more time to dedicate to my business,” said McCloskey, who papered Instagram last year with pictures of her growing belly and new baby girl. StyleSeat has raised $40m, and currently operates in 16,000 cities and towns – about 80% of the US.
“You don’t become less ambitious when you become a mom,” McCloskey said. “If anything, I’m hungrier than ever to make this company a success.”