Esther Crawford says she’s a bit of an anomaly in San Francisco. The 34-year-old startup CEO has two kids, ages 8 and 12. None of her close friends have kids, and the women in her broader community who do, have babies. She says being a mom as well as the founder of an early-stage startup can feel isolating.
Which is why she jumped at the invite last year from Sarah Lacy, the CEO of the media site Pando. Lacy, who is a single mother of two kids ages 5 and 6, was holding an intimate, off-the-record dinner at her home with a group of successful working women. The idea was to exchange career and parenting insights. Crawford had known Lacy five years, and said that she had a propensity for “bringing together badass women, so it was an obvious yes.”
The resulting dinner for 14 (which Lacy called the 3% Group, after the “horrifying” stat that just 3% of venture capital funding was raised by female CEOs) was a hit. “I was surprised at the candor and willingness of women to share stories,” says Crawford, of what it is like to be a founder or a venture investor in tech and struggle to be taken seriously–especially if they were mothers.
Lacy says she was surprised by the success, too. She encouraged the women to self-promote and be as honest as possible. The intergenerational group, which ranged in age from 20s to 60s, were supportive and encouraging, and eager to connect again. It was empowering, Lacy says. Adds Crawford, “Men have been doing this since the dawn of the [tech] industry,” making deals behind closed doors. By creating this safe space, says Crawford, women can do the same. “We have the ability to impact the system,” she notes.
After holding a dozen or so dinners, Lacy decided to extend the community beyond Silicon Valley. Chairman Mom, a social platform for working parents (of all genders) started beta testing in February with around 400 members, and is launching to the public today.
“I was told becoming a mother was a massive disability, that maybe I wouldn’t care about my career,” Lacy says. Instead, she’s learned that since becoming a parent, she’s “better at everything.” This lesson would inform her latest book, The Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug, as well as push her to start the 3% Group dinners.
But the path to Chairman Mom’s platform was paved with other serendipitous occurrences.
After decades of covering the Silicon Valley tech scene and its bro culture, Lacy says that she has grown tired of journalism and was looking for her next move. Add to that fatigue the $400 million in threatened lawsuits Pando faced (which Lacy attributes to a reaction to stories she refuses to water down before publishing, but a lot of which were dismissed, she says).
She still plans to run Pando with business partner Paul Carr, but when Silicon Valley Bank agreed to sponsor the 3% Group dinners, it gave Lacy the encouragement she needed to see if she could develop the platform with a small seed round of funding. A couple of angel investors soon jumped on board, and Lacy was able to hire the engineers needed to start building out Chairman Mom as an antidote to Facebook where conversations can devolve into arguments and shaming.
“Social media has failed women,” says Lacy. The way she sees it, groups and comment threads are designed to keep people engaged on the site in order to maximize ad dollars. Chairman Mom is a subscription-based site (for $5 per month) and doesn’t have any advertising.
Lacy also points out that the lead developer on the project, a female engineer named Shea Ryan, is so social media-averse that she doesn’t have a presence online. Ryan specifically built in a privacy feature that allows members to go anonymous so that even Chairman Mom doesn’t know who they are when they turn their identity off.
They’re not collecting data, Lacy underscores, nor are they verifying members through Facebook or other existing social platforms like some new apps do. This is particularly pointed during a time when Facebook is embroiled in the Cambridge Analytica controversy, and those who are sharing their sensitive personal stories need to feel secure enough to do so without fear.
Crawford, who was one of Chairman Mom’s first beta testers, took heart in the fact that she could get answers to questions she had about older children, like how soon they can take the bus on their own to school. The parenting forums she’d been on previously were geared toward pregnancy, infants, and toddlers, she says, or had the potential to devolve into a mommy war.
Chairman Mom aims to protect against those sorts of threads that turn ugly. In fact, there are no comment threads, only questions and answers. And Lacy says that currently, she and Chairman Mom’s community manager vet questions and answers (there are only two per day) before being published to protect against trolling. Users can also flag abusive answers, and three flags gets one automatically pulled until it can be reviewed. As the site grows, more people will be tasked with vetting. Crawford said that her experience so far has been positive. “The quality of content is high, and conversation is friendly and informative and supportive.”
Membership-based parenting listservs and forums are certainly nothing new, but many are either neighborhood-based (like Brooklyn’s Park Slope Parents), or take ads and require posters to give up at least some personal data. Lacy says she doesn’t know of any direct competitors at this point, but wouldn’t be surprised if there are dozens in development as we speak. With 40% of households headed by a breadwinner mom, says Lacy, Chairman Mom is aimed at a massive unserved market.
To date, Chairman Mom’s raised $1.4 million from 13 investors. Lacy says she’s encouraged by the engagement of the beta testers and multi-generational reach of the group.
But she’s also realistic about the how the social platform can scale. Chairman Mom, she says, will never be like those startups that raised massive growth round after massive growth round and puts off an exit for 15 years because they couldn’t figure out how to be profitable. Lacy believes that Chairman Mom will serve an even larger purpose in tech where chasing masculinity and chasing valuation often went hand in hand. “We are breaking that cycle,” she says.