Growing an early-stage startup can be almost as challenging as raising a child: two tasks that require undivided attention and – in some cases – blood, sweat, and tears for a successful outcome.
The points of intersection between entrepreneurship and parenting suggest that they are a lot more compatible than one would think. For instance, having irregular hours, a constant sense of unpredictability, and working in high-stress environments. Undertaking the two at the same time can seem like an overwhelming endeavor.
Yet, there are numerous cases of entrepreneurial fathers and mothers that have found success despite the misconceptions. Some even argue that parenthood has made them better entrepreneurs by teaching them valuable lessons about time management and the importance of having a work-life balance.
Leading by example and showing that it is possible to combine these two worlds – not without its challenges, of course – are Emma Sánchez Andrade Smith (Jefa), Carlos Anaya (Parkimovil), and Nur Malek Pascha (Envíopack).
Emma Sánchez Andrade Smith, pregnancy is not a PR crisis
Emma Sánchez Andrade Smith is the founder and CEO of Jefa, a challenger bank specifically designed for women in Latin America. Between March and April 2021, she raised a Seed round of funding for Jefa during the final stages of her pregnancy.
For many working women, pregnancy can be seen as a step backward in their careers. There’s a common conception that the startup world looks down on pregnant founders. That much was true in the cautionary – and humorous – anecdotes Emma heard when she spoke with other female founders who had been pregnant: founders wearing loose-fitting clothes to hide their pregnancy when meeting with investors during pre-COVID-19 meetings, and some even wearing bold statement necklaces to draw attention away from their baggy clothing.
“That’s the way you had to play the game because if someone saw that you were pregnant, they would assume you weren’t serious about the business,” she explained.
These stories echoed in the back of Emma’s head when she became pregnant with her first child and Jefa was only a few months old. She thought that motherhood and founderhood were incompatible and avoided telling people in the startup community.
However, a conversation with Claire Diaz-Ortiz, at that time Partner at Magma Partners leading the Brava initiative, convinced her otherwise.
“She suggested we change this narrative that women need to hide this beautiful, exciting part of life and instead make it something to celebrate. We know it can make women founders more resilient, tougher, and stronger. A woman who is pregnant is going to be a better founder given how much thick skin she has to develop through the pregnancy and new motherhood,” recalled Emma.
At that point, Emma decided to start telling her investors. She would find a way to casually bring up the fact that she was pregnant during meetings.
“One time I stood up at the beginning of a call and someone saw my nine-month pregnant belly and I was like ‘Oh yeah, I’m nine months pregnant’,” said Emma.
She also noticed that if she phrased her announcement in a positive way, she could set the tone, and investors – most of which were men – would celebrate it. It even became a point of connection with a lot of investors.
“I got so many tips on what crib to buy, on white noise machines, how to do baby-led weaning once the baby starts to eat solids. And it was mostly men who had a lot of advice about what their wives learned from breastfeeding,” said Emma.
Her pregnancy not only turned into an opportunity to change the narrative about pregnant founders but also served as a way to connect deeply with the investors she was meeting.
As founder and the first on the team to have a baby at Jefa, Emma considers that her example will set a precedent for future mothers and fathers at the company.
It’s easy for entrepreneurs to get lost in the hustle mentality of startup culture, where there is no time or energy for teams to implement HR policies or best practices.
In the US, a company with less than 50 employees is not required to have paternity leave, meaning that someone could potentially lose their job if they have to leave to care for a newborn.
Emma explains that startups can be more prone to the ills of work culture like harassment, discrimination, lack of family support, and so forth.
“I’ve been really excited at Jefa to create a playbook for how to create supportive policies and practices for our team that are also business smart and sustainable,” commented Emma.
Jefa’s Head of Operations, Kylie Naughton, has been instrumental in developing these policies and practices. Together with Emma, they created a detailed and thorough plan for what her maternity leave would look like, intended to be tweaked for future parents at Jefa.
Part of the plan included assigning Malavika Chugh, Jefa’s CFO, as interim CEO during her leave. Emma gradually passed the baton over to Malavika, looping her into all her conversations and processes and even unplugging for ‘trial leaves’ months in advance. Emma also created a ‘help’ channel, where the team could ask each other questions they would have otherwise asked her which also had touchpoints with two senior advisors and board members.
Building Jefa while pregnant taught Emma to trust in her team. Before her pregnancy, she explains that she had leaned on herself and her vision for what Jefa would become. But the minute she found out she was pregnant, she realized that she would have to rely on her team more than ever.
“I think because of that, Jefa has been so rich and diverse in the way we’ve done things. Because it hasn’t just been my ideas or my voice steering us, it’s been everyone’s. […] It’s so easy as a founder to cling to your vision and your aspirations for the company and I find myself with a closed fist around those kinds of ideas. But then because of the pregnancy, I’ve had to open up my fist and let other people hold some ideas in their hands and direct Jefa. Malavika has been instrumental to that: she has stepped in as interim CEO and brought forth an unparalleled enthusiasm and vision for Jefa’s future.”
When the time came for Emma to step back to prepare for the birth of her baby she was confident that ‘the ship would smoothly sail’ without her.
“We even did the unthinkable: closing an investment round and signing a regional deal with Visa without the founder even in the meetings. I was in awe of the team. It didn’t surprise me how much they excelled either though — our culture has been built to be decentralized and with a flat architecture from day one. Everyone has autonomy and leadership and ownership over their work, so I’ve never really been a proper ‘boss’,” explained Emma.
Once the baby arrived, Emma started to discover the ways in which founderhood can enrich motherhood.
“I think having a child and having a company are really similar in the sense that they’re both risky, both a roller coaster, both incredibly challenging and require a significant amount of dedication and heart. And the fact that having a child has been harder so far is a really great thing for my journey as a founder,” reflected Emma.
Since the beginning of Jefa, she has been a firm believer in four-day workweeks. Her days consist of three to four hours of deep work and a couple of hours of strategy work where she turns off her devices and goes on walks to think.
“It’s so compatible with motherhood because I find I’m mostly walking trying to get the baby to sleep these days anyways,” said Emma through WhatsApp voice notes as her baby slept. “In some ways, becoming a mother actually helps you ‘slim down the fat’ because you just have less time to spend so you really have to focus on what’s important. It teaches us to work smarter and more efficiently.”
As a mother and founder of a startup that focuses on improving the lives of women, Emma has been thinking about the ways in which Jefa can empower new mothers through solutions that focus on their financial health.
“Given the amount of money women are spending – not only on labor itself but also on postpartum recovery, the entire nine months going through pregnancy, and motherhood in general too – there’s just absolutely so much we can do,” said Emma.
Among their clients are parents who struggle to pay the lump sum that is required at the beginning of their children’s school year. With Jefa, Emma wants to find a way to help parents pay tuition installments so that their children can go to school.
Additionally, part of Emma’s vision for the company is to eventually be able to empower children and teach them financial literacy through parent-children accounts. In terms of customer acquisition, people tend to stick with their first accounts for 5 to 10 years. Therefore, these types of accounts will help Jefa attain loyal customers while helping children build their own livelihoods and become financially independent.
Carlos Anaya, the power of delegation
Carlos Anaya is the CEO and Managing Director of Parkimovil, a Mexican online and mobile parking platform. He is also the father of Regina, Mateo, and Carlota – his three children, born during different stages of Parkimovil’s story.
Before kids interrupting their working parents’ Zoom calls became the norm, Parkimovil’s team was already very familiar with Carlos’ kids. Whether it was through visits to the office or even meetings with lead investors, everyone knew who Regina, Mateo, and Carlota were. He made sure to involve his young children in his work as much as possible, to the point where they think the word for the color orange is a compound word: ‘Parkimovil orange’.
In the same way that his team has seen his children grow, raising kids in Mexico isn’t just a nuclear family affair. Typically, parents will form a support network with extended family members like aunts, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers to help raise their children.
That being said, women can legally take a total of 90 days off before and after giving birth, while men can take 5 working days off after their child is born.
“In my case, it was a matter of wanting to accompany my wife during the first days when you’re still adjusting to sleepless nights as well as to be present for the many firsts, like the baby’s first bath. For 7 days I didn’t go to the office and then gradually I made my way back,” said Carlos.
He explains that at Parkimovil, they approach private matters such as paternity leave in a humane way, getting to know the individual circumstances of their employees through conversation.
Parkimovil was built on the premise of improving people’s lives. Therefore, it would be incongruous with the company’s values and mission to make parents’ lives more complicated. If an employee needs to take time off because he is about to have a child, they will adapt their operations based on the employee’s specific needs.
“It’s important for us to remember that first and foremost – even before being part of Parkimovil, which takes up 70 to 80% of our time – we are fathers, brothers, sons, and cousins,” said Carlos.
Like many tech startups, they operate on a flexible work schedule. As a result, it’s common for his team to take calls while in the car or, for those who are parents, with children screaming in the background.
For Carlos, getting married and starting a family while running Parkimovil has made him readjust his work-life balance. He no longer fulfills the stereotype of the bachelor entrepreneur that leaves the office at three in the morning.
“At first I would say it guiltily, but now I think I work fewer hours than I used to [in the early days of Parkimovil],” said Carlos. He continued, “But I can also say that I’m a lot more productive with those hours.”
Having children made him realize that the value of his work doesn’t lie in the number of hours he dedicates to Parkimovil, it lies in the capacity the company has to transcend and make an impact.
Another valuable lesson Carlos takes away from becoming a parent is learning how to delegate. As much as he wanted to be a part of every aspect of Parkimovil, he knew that it would be physically impossible to also raise a family. As Carlos’ family expanded, so did Parkimovil’s team with top talent.
“It made me realize that I have an amazing team and that when I entrust them with different tasks, they do them much better than I would ever be able to do. That trust has created a flow in the company and has allowed the team to take on more responsibility,” said Carlos.
Entrepreneurs know that when they choose to start a business they are embarking on a journey that is full of uncertainty. Most of the time, they are treading uncharted waters.
“If I were someone who needed to have everything planned out to perfection, I wouldn’t be an entrepreneur. I’d choose another career path,” said Carlos.
He explains that entrepreneurs are used to facing the unexpected – whether it’s new legislation or an opportunity that derails the original business proposal – they learn to adapt. The same could be said about parenthood which is also full of surprises, rewards, and challenges of a different kind but similar in dynamic.
Carlos reflects on what parenthood has taught him about entrepreneurship and concludes,
“I was once told that corporations arrange for their executives to take up gardening or cooking classes because these two activities, agriculture and cooking, teach you that if you don’t respect the times and the processes, you won’t get a good end result. […] I think that parenthood, in the most profound sense, is exactly the same.”
He knows that his kids have their own unique personalities and paces at which they will grow and learn to walk, talk or become independent human beings.
Even though he can find many similarities between entrepreneurship and parenthood, he knows that he cannot equate raising a child to growing a business.
“There’s a saying that your company is like your child, well yes, but you’re never going to sell your child, whereas it’s most likely that you will, your business.”
Nur Malek, finding the right balance
Nur Malek Pascha is co-founder and CEO of Envíopack, a unified logistics platform for retailers that makes online selling simple– the first tech-enabled 3PL in the region. Nur’s pregnancy coincided with a critical moment for Envíopack as it started to grow aggressively during the pandemic.
“An entrepreneur friend who had recently become a dad had said to me ‘You’re going to notice that you’ll become much more assertive because all of a sudden, the opportunity cost of what you’re doing is extremely high’,” said Nur on the first lesson she drew from maternity.
Time essentially was divided into two: time spent with her daughter and time that could have been spent with her daughter.
Even though Nur has never lacked reason or motivation to create new companies or embark on new projects, having a child has brought more clarity to her mission. Now, her company’s success also represents a better future for her daughter.
“And, the other way around, I think the most important lesson I can impart to her is the type of role model I want her to have as a mother. I think that having a mother that works and doesn’t have a very conventional job can be good for her,” reflected Nur.
Like entrepreneurs, mothers have to learn to navigate through uncertainty. Nur hopes to teach her daughter how to deal with the variability that each day can bring.
At the time of her pregnancy, there were many milestones that were at stake for Envíopack. The company had launched in Chile, was in the process of launching in Mexico, and there was also the possibility of raising a round of funding. In these circumstances, Nur decided not to take maternity leave.
“In the same way that women that are used to running are told they can continue to run during pregnancy because their bodies are used to it, in a way, the same thing happens with intense adrenaline-fueled work,” explained Nur. “It wasn’t that I wouldn’t be able to take the time off, but more so that I didn’t want to completely disconnect from work.”
But, she wasn’t alone in this journey. Her co-founders were extremely understanding and supportive during her pregnancy and would encourage her to slow down her pace when she needed it.
During the weekends, she would take birth classes and find time to enjoy the process and everything that preparing for a baby implies with her family.
“In that sense, I think it was a nice balance. I can’t say it was a 50:50 balance, but it was the balance I was able to achieve at the moment,” reflected Nur.
The alignment of the birth of her child with the work-from-home modality in times of COVID-19, has made it easier to find a balance between work and spending time with her newborn baby.
Nur considers that each person has to find a model that works for them, and pigeonholing herself in a preset model of what pregnancy is ‘supposed’ to look like would not have worked.
“I can’t measure myself with the same stick as the 25-year-old entrepreneur that lives 25 hours in the office, as I did at that age. I also cannot measure myself against an employed woman or even a 35-year-old male entrepreneur that maybe has a wife that can take care of their child,” explained Nur.
According to Nur, juggling entrepreneurship and motherhood isn’t easy and there is no certainty about the universally best way to approach it.
Becoming a mother and founder has changed the way Nur chooses to use her free time. For instance, if her baby sleeps until 7 a.m. then she will wake up a bit earlier and use that time to get work done.
Even though Envíopack has found success through bootstrapping, Nur never felt that motherhood would conflict with their efforts to seek investment.
“If taking my child to school is considered a problem by someone, then that person isn’t the right fit to work with us – whether it’s an investor, a supplier, or a team member,” stated Nur.
She also recognizes that the pandemic has favored her in that she wasn’t as exposed to in-person meetings.
For now, Nur is the first team member to go through pregnancy at the company. While Envíopack doesn’t have a formal policy on maternity and paternity leaves, they encourage team members that recently became fathers to take at least two to three weeks of paid time off.
As their team continues to grow, they plan to formalize the steps they take to provide flexibility and support to employees that are thinking of growing their own family.
“I think it’s a stage in life that requires a lot of support. From the family, but also professionally. To separate the two doesn’t make sense. I was able to do it because I had that support […] my family, my partners, my team in general. I worked but I had so much help. I wasn’t alone. So, I would want the same support for the rest of my team,” said Nur.