June 8, 2022
People tend to talk about their startup or business as their baby. I was one of them, but what about starting a company and then having a baby (and during a global pandemic)?
The many challenges of becoming a mother while launching a business was one of the topics I discussed with author, speaker, and entrepreneur James Taylor on his “SuperCreativity” podcast a few weeks ago.
Motherhood and entrepreneurship are important to talk about, and not talked about enough. As more women become entrepreneurs in the deep tech field; there is a lot to learn from the variety of experiences we have all had. I share mine below, and I’d love to hear yours.
I co-founded BMNT and the Common Mission Project in the UK in January 2019, and had a promising three months when in March I learned I was pregnant. I went into this, my first pregnancy, thinking that I could continue working at the same pace I always had, because I had pulled long hours for a while and felt I could push through anything. I thought with new portable breast pumps, like the Evie, I could breastfeed on the go. I worked up until my son was born and his first six weeks I was on emails and calls, but then back to work full time, because I knew that the train had to slow down, but it couldn’t stop. I was pumping breastmilk in the janitor's closet in the office and at times late to meetings. An extremely early riser, my husband and I would be up at 4 am with our son. My husband was a tremendous help but also had a demanding job and we felt we were barely keeping things together.
When my son was 4 months old, COVID struck, and we went into lockdown. At BMNT, we pivoted our corporate strategy, customer engagement, products and services. We went from one customer in the early stages, to multiple customers with growing revenue. Looking back we realized COVID accelerated our momentum, but it meant I was working from home in perpetuity. I kept thinking that I had hit my burnout point, but would push through and keep going to the next burnout point, and then to the next one, and the next one. Not a surprise, but I found I could not get it all done. Whether it was laundry, supper, or time for myself to rest and recharge, certain things had to fall away.
I often hear that people love hiring mothers because they know how to multitask and prioritise. This is a dangerous myth. I have not gotten any better at prioritisation, I do not know how to multitask. I wistfully waited for that superpower to arrive, but it never did. This narrative of multitasking and the uber productive mother sets false expectations, and tremendous pressure, around what women can do in the workplace after having children. I felt there was an expectation that by virtue of having a child, I should then become almost superhuman in my ability to get things done and somehow superior to women who are also extremely effective but do not have children. When we put that additional pressure on women it is absolutely crushing. I actually don’t want to multitask or become a priortisiation czar, and I don’t necessarily want to be more productive. I want to be more meaningful. To be more meaningful, I need to do less small things, not the superhuman mother “more.”
In addition to my experience of starting a company and having a baby simultaneously, James and I also covered such topics during our SuperCreativity conversation as the creative process, innovation, and what inspires me as a startup founder. Listen to our full conversation here or look to the timestamps below for more from our conversation.
Regardless of how you orient innovation, be it defense-related, financial or technological, innovation is about people. At BMNT we look at how people react to various inputs such as skill sets, processes or policies, or how something changes their career pathways, and that guides us. As someone who is naturally curious about people, this is what drew me into my work with academia and military sociology. We manifest this curiosity through what Steve Blank developed out of Lean Startup, which is getting out of the building and doing customer discovery. A lot of business bottlenecks are because people don’t understand the problems or the issues, or the policies or the processes that matter to people who are doing all of the work.
All human beings are naturally innovative and creative, but how we manifest that is unique to each individual. Those who seem, on the surface, to not be creative or innovative, are still solving problems every day. This makes it all the more important for inclusion in innovation, and allowing people to have a voice to share what matters most to them. A lot of times those perspectives overlap. Once you start to get transparency and visibility around those problems or challenges at scale, then at a leadership level you can start to really prioritise your work, because you’re solving problems and addressing things that matter most to the people in the organization.
If you want to bring great young minds to the table, give them really interesting problems to solve. The more that I’ve gotten to know university students through the Common Mission Project and the “Hacking For” courses, the more I come to understand that current students want to contribute to society. They’re very ambitious, they’re highly motivated, and they are incredibly talented. Yes, they want to work at large innovative companies like Amazon and Google, and they want to earn some money, but more importantly, they want to work for something that has a sense of purpose. They want to work for something that contributes to the greater good, on something that matters.
Photo caption: Dr. Ali Hawks and her son.
The heart of innovating is about partnerships, finding opportunities and people to make good things happen quickly.