The False Choice Between Babies And Startups

paulgraham

By Zuhairah Scott Washington (Contributing Writer, Forbes Woman)

Two years ago, I left a successful career as the youngest regional vice president at a private equity firm with $20B in AUM, to pursue my dream of becoming an entrepreneur. At the time, I didn’t have a “killer idea” so I joined a startup as a way to cut my teeth in the industry. In the ensuing months, I met with everyone and read everything that I could get my hands on about how to be successful as a startup tech entrepreneur.

During this process I came across a blog post by Paul Graham, prominent investor and co-founder of Y Combinator, which gave advice to “would be” entrepreneurs like myself. The ingredients for success? 1) A great idea, 2) great people, and 3) a product that customers actually want. When I got to the bottom of the post I found the following footnote that read:

[2] One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. [emphasis added] But you’re not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon…Whereas when you’re starting a company, you can discriminate on any basis you want about who you start it with.

While its common knowledge among career savvy women that we often have to prove that we are “in it to win it,” so to speak, I was surprised to see this advice given so matter-of-factly without noting any further mitigating factors a “reluctant” founder might consider when contemplating starting a company with a woman who was, or desired to become, a mother. Especially since Graham himself did successfully start a startup (Y Combinator) with a woman who was of child bearing age and who subsequently became a mother, albeit a few years later.

More recently, this issue resurfaced in a blog post by Paige Craig, an investor in ProFounder, a crowd funding company started by serial entrepreneur Jessica Jackley, who humorously announced her coming out of “stealth mode” with her pregnancy via Twitter. Before committing his capital to ProFounder, Craig quite candidly admitted that he almost didn’t invest because he has “doubts” when he thinks of women “getting married, having kids and being distracted from work.”

I applaud Craig for his candor and for starting the conversation, however, underlying the “marriage/pregnancy hurdle” lies the crippling assumption that a) women should by default be more responsible than men for child rearing; and b) women are more likely than their male counterparts to be “distracted” by parenthood and as a result abandon or “fail” their companies.

While this may be true for some women, this has not been the experience of numerous women CEO’s who jumped at the opportunity to share their stories in response to the post.

Nor is this concern substantiated by the research which shows that successful “men and women entrepreneurs founded their first companies when they had similar numbers of children living at home: one.” In fact, research suggests that twice as many men as women entrepreneurs feel financial pressure to keep a steady job. However, we never hear about married men not getting funding because they are more likely to buckle under societal pressure to resume their “traditional” role as breadwinners once becoming fathers.

So what should investors screen for when backing entrepreneurs? Paul Graham notes determination as the most important characteristic to look for in startup founders. Personally, I come from a long lineage of determined women who have consistently challenged what others deemed possible.

My mother didn’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not she would work once she had kids. As a single mother of two, she worked full-time and attended night school to get her MBA. I inherited her steely determination to succeed and I highly doubt that that part of my DNA will miraculously change once I become a mother.

Consequently, I have always desired to be more, and to achieve more, than what was “expected” of me. My mom likes to tell the story about the time that I, at a very young age, proclaimed that I was going to go to an Ivy League school and become wealthy one day – this was a lofty goal for a gregarious, working class, little black girl born in Newark, NJ, without access to elite private schools or mentors.

To further my ambition, my mother “hacked” the system by using her co-workers’ address in a more affluent neighborhood to ensure that I received the best public education possible. Several years later I graduated with not one, but two Ivy League degrees and was well on my way to creating significant wealth for my family and myself.

My current aspirations? To become a successful entrepreneur, wife and mother. Do I think it will be easy? No. Do I know that it is possible? Absolutely! That’s because I know something about women many men don’t – that we are much, much stronger and resilient than you (or sometimes even we) think.

This post was originally published at Forbes Women.

About the guest blogger: Zuhairah Scott Washington is an entrepreneur and seasoned business professional. Zuahairah is the Founder & CEO of Kahnoodle, a startup focused on helping busy couples build better relationships, and a Principal at Be Media, LLC, both of which allow her to pursue her passion for leveraging technology to build innovative and useful products that improve well-being. She graduated magna cum laude from UCLA and has a JD/MBA from Harvard. Follow her on Twitter at @Zuhairah.

  • James Mitchell

    I am starting a company that does lead generation for plaintiffs’ law firm. After 4.5 years of 90 hour weeks on my part, we are ready to launch.

    In looking at startups, you first need to decide if you are Ben ‘n Jerries or an Amazon.com company. See:

    http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000056.html

    We are a Ben ‘n Jerries type of company.

    My partner/CTO is brilliant, top 1 percent of MIT. And he has kids. The kids have been a huge problem. I am constantly saying, “Can’t your wife do that?” I would never start an Amazon.com company with anyone, male or female, that had kids. (I am obviously talking about kids that have not grown and left the house.) If he was not so brilliant, I would have found someone else. The kids are a constant issue.

    John Doerr, perhaps the successful VC in history, says his ideal enterpreneurial profile is white, male, 30 or under, single, no social, geek.

    In terms of women joining a startup, I don’t even bother to ask. Women are simply more risk adverse. It’s not a productive use of my time. If a woman approaches me, great, I will consider her.

    You cannot have it all, particularly if you are doing a startup. Give me a co-founder with no spouse, no kids, no outside interests, and I will be very happy.

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