It’s a BLEND, not a Balance
I am often asked, “How do you balance it all?” Whether as a panel question or one female business woman to another, this is both a real and sometimes timid question. Even if they are not the one to ask it directly, most women who haven’t yet lived through being a working mom, have this question in the back of their minds. My first reaction is to wanting to ask it right back, as on this topic the idea that I suddenly became an expert still feels strange — after all, I was just putting one foot in front of the next, trying to drink from the never-ending fire hose of amazing life opportunities — both work and family. What I have had, in working with thousands of female entrepreneurs is perspective on how this question can shape their careers.
First note, on the “balance” question it’s always women who ask the question — men don’t ever ask — ever. We have come a long way in sharing parental obligations and revising gender norms, but the question that women carry long before even having children doesn’t impact men in the same way. Sure men may take into account practical financial implications of building a family, but the anticipation of career trade-offs and reality of emotional drain, time nursing, hormonal changes, and uncertain medical implications for you in the process is uniquely female. With these thoughts at the back of their mind, many women, from the outset approach their career ambitions more timidly, even for those determined not to utter the “balance” question. The weight of this question is a key differentiator with female entrepreneurs and I believe a key reason why the gap in female venture funding is still so wide. The perpetual quest for “balance” leads to: 1. Less risk taking and more apprehensive planning 2. Smaller goals. These two things are at odds with entrepreneurship.
First, the female tendency to plan can cause them to overthink and plan life too far out, which is counter to the open minded, adventure-seeking, confident nature of entrepreneurship. I’ve seen time and again how this planning tendency leads to the second problem, as it can cap the bounds of female entrepreneurs’ ambitions — making them less inclined to put forth the billion dollar vision that the venture capital model is tailored for. Women typically look for manageable careers that they can envision balancing with having children and managing their household.
So what do we do about it? First off, it makes sense that women, who are uniquely responsible for pregnancy, recovery, and nursing would consider the time impact that will enter their lives. Awareness and acknowledgement of this gap helps the “balance” question be more open, which in time leads to dialogues that can truly help women through this phase in their lives. But, to truly correct the still wide gap in male and female venture funded companies, we need to re-frame this dialogue. To the women: first off — you GET to be a Mom– you GET to go though all of the crazy but amazing aspects of childbirth, nursing, and coddling AND be a kick ass boss as well. That is a unique privilege that only women can ever have — WOW. That also means that you have a unique vantage point, able to connect with not only women who control 80% of purchase decisions, but moms who control half of that. The passion and understanding that brings will drive you to help other women not only through the advice you can lend, but also through the products you build. As a serial entrepreneur, I tend to lean into this angle frequently as a ripe opportunity — there is a problem to be solved that I have unique perspective, and passion for — an entrepreneurs dream! The two companies I built each addressed problems that I, as a woman, faced at different life stages.
When Jenn Hyman and I Co-Founded Rent the Runway, we were spurred on by our own situations as business school students with heavy work-loads who also wanted to look great, investing in our personal brands amidst a surge of social media that made every moment indelible and at a moment in time when we had many events. When I became pregnant with my first child a few years in, I saw the benefits of Rent the Runway in a whole new way — I was more time-strapped than ever, needed new sizes of clothing and styles that I wouldn’t want to repeat post pregnancy, and had new appreciation for the confidence and feeling of self that fashion bestows. Styling an outfit at 36 weeks pregnant — no problem, going through new sizes weekly, a cinch, and inching back towards pre baby weight didn’t require buying a new wardrobe each size. Time savings became more important than ever. Rent the Runway became a gift to myself — a way to still connect with the fun, fashionable ME amidst obscured identity of becoming a mom. It was also just practical as I didn’t have the time to shop, try things on at stores, and deal with returns if ecommerce items didn’t fit me. Rent the Runway let fashion be fun, verses a stressful time suck. We launched maternity and photo reviews of customers to showcase how in all shapes, sizes and life moments Rent the Runway could help. As Jenn and I got older and further into our careers, we had fewer black tie events, but wanted fashion forward items on a daily basis for a wider range of occasions — work meetings, baby showers, luncheons, parent interviews for nursery school, ski trips. We launched our subscription business to ensure that we were evolving right alongside our customers.
My next startup, Jetblack, enabled personal shopping over text message. The ability to offload a rolling to do list onto text was deeply tied to the pain points I feel as a working mom (with three kids by this point!) — trying to manage a career, household, and keep some semblance of self. I needed a new form of personal assistant, someone who could take my daily stream of to-do thoughts off of my plate, enabling me to focus on the moment — whether a meeting or kid play date verses ordering paper towels, snacks, or birthday gifts. Shopping had become overwhelming and a chore and I wanted a bot assistant who could place my orders, store my preferences (who remembers what size shoe their child is?!), ping me when it was time to order holiday supplies, and answer specific product questions without my paging through hundreds of reviews. Jetblack stored user preferences like brands of essential items for fast reorder and kids shoe and diaper sizes to allow you to most efficiently complete your tasks. Each day I see entrepreneurs pioneering the way women consume products and live their lives, offering better solutions fueled by their unique passion and planning gene. The nagging “balance” question can be a blessing in disguise.
The second tactic: life is not a “balance, it is a BLEND.” Balance implies a choice — to balance is to take two different things and weigh them against one another. An image of a scale or directly opposing choices comes to mind. That is not motherhood today. By leveraging your role as a mother, your kids get to be a part of your everyday and the authentic self you bring to the office. Your kids can come into the office in many instances. At Rent the Runway I was the first to have a baby, but knew many more were right behind me. I showed up a month post-partum to the office with the stroller — the baby was embraced amidst RTR bibs declaring here member #1,782 and I felt as if we had achieved victory together working through this moment of motherhood as a company. My daughter became a staple at photo shoots where she brought fun, light-heartedness to the set, normalized having kids around the office, and began to understand what I did while I was at work. Having her there gradually made her feel like she was a part of my work and thus, my going to work each day wasn’t a choice, or balance, but a blend. I was able to naturally share the product needs of pregnant women (a key phase that many of our customers would go through) by being open about them with my colleagues and that helped them innovate into this space.
Amidst daily struggles to shake off children clinging to my ankles when I left home each morning, I figured out a trick to blending kids and work. One day, I was about to head out on a business trip. My eldest, who was 5 at the time, began crying, begging me to stay. I explained what I was doing — I was getting on a plane to speak to hundreds of young women who wanted to start companies like Rent the Runway. “What will you talk to them about?” she asked. Suddenly, a conversation… she was interested and involved as a part of what I was doing. I had underestimated her — I could have a real conversation with her in a calm way about what I was doing and in that instant she felt connected to my work. The tears stopped and later that day she asked me how the talk went. Yes, there were still tears the next time, but I used the tactic again and again and even brought her to various speaking events as she got older. Even in the early years when she was quite distracting, I was glad that the audience could see this was a piece of my life and career. As she got older it clicked and she began to understand what I did which, as an entrepreneur, felt a bit like introducing siblings or connecting her to the full me.
If nothing else Covid 2020 has forced this blend upon us –both Moms and Dads. It’s an opportunity for Dads to see and appreciate the millions of household organization tasks that Moms typically pick up (and maybe take on a few of them). It’s a time when it’s inevitable that a zoom call will be interrupted by at least one of my kids per day, letting the other parties connect with the full me. A time when the rest of my family knows far more about what I do between 9–6 than ever before, when I can more easily coordinate popping in on their school pick-ups or activities in between video calls. My hope in this new normal is that the multitasking inherent in parenthood is embraced and celebrated, that it become a point of connectivity among us and leads us to all boldly embrace the blend without fear of dreaming bigger and going after it.
So what do I respond to them — to the women who ask about balance? More than anything, I urge them not to overthink it. It is our nature, and often our super power to plan, but, parenthood is one of the few things that really can’t be planned or controlled. You don’t know when it will happen, how you will feel, how it might change you. So what can you do but go after each day, doing your best and bringing your all to every situation that confronts you, making choices to minimize the chances of regret. Finding the positives and creative problem solving will make you a better entrepreneur, having children will make you better at time and stress management, and offer you the perspective that even in the lowest moments of the entrepreneur roller coaster, there are bigger things in life.