Despite the male-dominated narrative of the startup world, over 40% of businesses in the United States are run by women. For female business owners of a certain age, the issue of their personal lives is almost inevitable. Many report being asked by investors or interested parties about their plans to have children.
Unfortunately, these plans are often seen as being in tension with business growth. If women entrepreneurs decide to become pregnant, many of them experience fears about losing funding, perceptions of their managerial competence, and risks to their professional status.
Women who run their own businesses should set the rules for parental leave in their organizations. But this can be a daunting task because female founders are often the focal point of their organizations, making it difficult to take any time off.
There are also few resources available to support women entrepreneurs. The US is one of the only high-income nations that does not have a paid parental leave mandate (although a handful of states do).
We at Human Ventures recently partnered with BBG Ventures to host a masterclass on navigating parental leave with Arianna Taboada, author of Entrepreneur in waiting. As investors in dozens of female-led startups, we’ve seen over ten babies born to our founders after we’ve funded them, and we know how urgently more resources are needed on this topic.
We’ve summarized the key points from Taboada’s session below, which provide a basic guide for entrepreneurs and executives who want to prepare themselves and their teams for parental leave.
Discover your financing strategies
First, business owners need to plan how they will finance their vacation. There are several possible routes to consider:
Apply for coverage if your state offers it: These policies can be difficult to navigate, especially if you don’t have an employer helping you with the paperwork, so you may need to hire an expert. States with paid leave programs include California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Washington and the District of Columbia.
Buy short-term disability insurance: Yes, pregnancy is still considered a disability. Short-term disability policies cover recovery after childbirth and can be purchased in conjunction with other company insurances.
Build a backup: It’s a good idea to start thinking early about setting aside the funds you need to supplement state coverage or insurance. Look across your team to predict which programs employees might be able to use, and again how much you’ll need to reserve to make them complete.
Plan for an operational reorganization
Planning how work will be done during a founder’s leave is a huge undertaking because founders wear many hats, from people operations to customer service. Here’s how to break down the main responsibilities:
Reverse engineering workflow: Make a list of the work streams that will be most urgent during your allotted time off, so you can reconstruct where you will need support.
Conduct a bi-weekly time audit: Keep a close eye on your time for two weeks and list workflows on projects that can be taken off your plate through automation, delegation or stopping.
Set your limits: Your vacation may not look the same as for employees in large corporations, and there may be areas where you keep regular contact. Determine where you want to continue to engage and where you prefer to withdraw.
Improve communication with customers and investors
Although intimidating to many, sharing news of an upcoming vacation can ultimately help you build even greater trust with your customers and investors. Here’s how:
Address anticipated concerns: It is up to the individual to decide how much they would like to disclose. However, sharing your news early will allow you to anticipate many of the inevitable questions and give you enough time to think about your expectations and boundaries.
Use the opportunity to build trust: The more thought you put into your holiday and planning for what your business might experience in the months ahead, the more impressed your customers and investors will be. This can be an opportunity to shine as a leader.
Follow four key communication points: Schedule an initial announcement meeting (call/Zoom or in person) to share the news and a high-level overview of the plan. Around week 37, send a reminder about your break with the main points summarized in writing. Once your pass starts, enable an auto-responder with clear instructions or ask people to email you back after a certain date. Finally, send an announcement about your return to work after you return.
Transition to work
When you return to work after your vacation, you will be living in a different reality. Here’s how to think about resuming your duties while balancing your new responsibilities:
Honor your transition: Becoming a parent and returning to work likely won’t be easy. Give yourself the space to integrate your new ways of working and remember that things will get easier with time. Add all your new responsibilities to your calendar: dedicated time to pump or drop off daycare are now part of your daily routine.
Restore gradually: You don’t need to go right back to an 8-hour day. For a few weeks, you can go online for a few hours a day to check in with your team (Taboada recommends the 30-60-90 day check-in time frame to get back to work).
Review your role: You may not need to take back all the tasks you delegated during your vacation. Parental leave can be a forced function in updating operating manuals, training new employees and reorganizing the team –– and some of these changes may remain.
Every founder’s leave looks different, but the best scientific evidence suggests that six months of paid time off is optimal for women’s physical and mental health. Taboada points out that the recovery time two to six weeks after birth is the most important, so parents need to ensure they are at their healthiest. Maximizing flexibility and working in stages for 16 weeks is recommended, regardless of whether you have given birth or not.
Having a family does not mean sacrificing your business. Elements of parenting can even strengthen leadership skills. Taboada shared that changes in the perinatal brain can reveal “management and sales superpowers” after birth because there are many adaptations for listening and relating.
Heather Hartnett is CEO and general partner at Human Ventures.
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