Despite the male-dominated narrative in the startup world, over 40% of businesses in the United States are run by women. For female business owners of a certain age, the question of their personal lives is almost unavoidable. Many report being asked by investors or stakeholders about their plans to have children.
Unfortunately, those plans are often viewed as in tension with business growth. If female entrepreneurs do decide to become pregnant, many experience fears around losing funding, perceptions of their leadership competence, and risks to their professional status.
Women who run their own businesses get to make the rules about parental leave in their organizations. But this can be a daunting task, because female founders are often the linchpin in their organizations, making it challenging to take any time off at all.
There are also few resources available to support female entrepreneurs. The U.S. is one of the only high-income nations that does not have a paid parental leave mandate (though 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 The Expecting Entrepreneur. 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 on this subject are needed.
We’ve recapped key takeaways from Taboada’s session below, which provide a basic roadmap for entrepreneurs and leaders who want to prepare themselves and their teams for parental leave.
Figure out your funding strategies
First things first, business-owners need to plan how they’re going to fund their leave. There are a few possible paths 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 who is helping you with the paperwork, so you may need to engage an expert. States with paid leave programs include California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Washington, and the District of Columbia.
Purchase short-term disability insurance: Yes, pregnancy is still considered a disability. Short-term disability policies cover recovery after childbirth, and can be purchased alongside other company insurances.
Build a reserve: It’s a good idea to start thinking early about reserving funds you’ll need to supplement state or insurance coverage. Look across your team to forecast what programs employees may be able to tap into, and back into how much you’ll need to reserve to make them whole.
Plan for an operational re-org
Planning how work will get 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 key responsibilities:
Reverse-engineer workstreams: Make a list of the workstreams that will be most urgent during the particular time of your leave so you can reverse-engineer where you’ll need support.
Run a two-week time audit: Closely track your time for two weeks and sort workstreams into projects that can be off-boarded from your plate through automation, delegation, or pausing.
Set your boundaries: Your leave might not look the same as it does for employees at large corporations, and there may be areas where you maintain regular touchpoints. Determine where you’d like to continue engaging and where you prefer to step back.
Get ahead of client and investor communications
Though intimidating for many, sharing news of an upcoming leave can ultimately help you build even greater trust with your clients and investors. Here’s how:
Address anticipated concerns: It’s up to the individual to decide how much they’d like to disclose. However, sharing your news early will let you anticipate many of the inevitable questions and provide enough time to think through your expectations and boundaries.
Use the opportunity to build trust: The more you’ve thought through your leave and planned what your business might experience in the months ahead, the more impressed your clients and investors will be. This can be an opportunity to shine as a leader.
Follow four key communication points: Schedule an initial notification meeting (call/Zoom, or in-person) to share the news and a high-level plan overview. At around 37 weeks, send a reminder of your leave with key points recapped in writing. Once your leave begins, turn on an auto-responder with clear instructions, or request that people email you again after a certain date. Finally, send a notification of your return-to-work once you’re back.
Transition back to work
When you return to work after your leave, you’ll be living in a different reality. Here’s how to think about re-assuming your duties while balancing your new responsibilities:
Honor your transition: Becoming a parent and returning to work is likely not going to be easy. Give yourself the space to integrate your new ways of working, and remember that things will get easier over time. Add all of your new responsibilities to your calendar: time dedicated to pumping or daycare drop-off are now part of your day-to-day.
Re-onboard gradually: You don’t need to immediately return to an 8-hour day. For a few weeks, you might hop online for a couple of hours a day to check-in with your team (Taboada recommends the 30-60-90 day check-in framework for onboarding back to work).
Revisit your role: You may not need to take back all of the duties you delegated during your leave. Parental leave can be a forcing function in getting operating manuals updated, training new hires, and re-organizing the team –– and some of those changes might stick.
Every founder’s leave looks different, but the best scientific evidence suggests that six months of paid leave is optimal for women’s physical and mental health. Taboada emphasizes that the recovery time two to six weeks postpartum is the most critical, so parents should ensure they are at their healthiest. Maximizing flexibility and phased work for 16 weeks is recommended, whether you gave birth or not.
Having a family doesn’t mean sacrificing your business. Elements of parenthood might even strengthen leadership abilities. Taboada shared that changes in the perinatal brain can unearth “management and sales superpowers” after giving birth, because there is so much attunement to listening and relationships.
Heather Hartnett is the CEO and general partner at Human Ventures.