The women behind The Wing, Outdoor Voices, Birchbox, and other startups share stories of taking meetings from the hospital and rethinking parental leave.
As generations of small business founders can attest, having a baby while running a company is nothing new.
But in the world of big business, leaders who just happen to give birth while occupying the corner office has remained—not unheard of—but certainly relatively rare. The reasons we’ve seen so few female CEOs become new moms while holding the most visible jobs in corporate America aren’t complicated. First, just a handful women become chief executive of a major corporation: This year’s Fortune 500 included 33 female CEOs—a shockingly low number that nevertheless constituted a record high. Factor in the reality that the average Fortune 500 chief executive is 58, and it’s no surprise that we haven’t exactly seen a C-suite baby boom.
But as the tech industry—and specifically, VC-backed startups—have transformed the face of the economy, that’s changing. Yes, male founders still outnumber their female counterparts, but the gap is narrower than what we’ve seen more established industries. And consider this: More than half of the 10 female-founded companies to achieve unicorn status (i.e. valuations of at least $1 billion) this year have founders younger than 40.
Is the story of what it’s like for a founder to fundraise while visibly pregnant, step back from work earlier than she planned due to complications, or give birth in the midst of a pivotal moment for her company relevant to the story of what she’s achieved as business person? That depends on who you ask. And whether female leaders decide to share such tales is a deeply personal decision.
Fortune reached out to a number of female founders and CEOs who’ve had babies while running their companies to see if they had experiences they wanted to talk about. Eleven of them did. You can read their stories—in their own words—below.
From Birchbox’s Katia Beauchamp, who had a complicated pregnancy and negotiated deals from the hospital for months on end, to WEX’s Melissa Smith, the public company CEO who set the precedent for how to reveal a pregnancy to shareholders, these women are shaping the realities of early motherhood and leadership for the next generation.
Noura Sakkijha, co-founder and CEO, Mejuri
When we fundraised our Series A, some investors asked me if I was planning to have kids. Some of my internal insecurity stems from the fact that some people thought that way—that my personal family planning affected their belief in my business.
By the time we got to our Series B earlier this year, I was six months pregnant with twins. I wanted to close the deal before the kids came to focus on them, but I had to deliver them a month early—I was in the hospital for two weeks with preeclampsia. It was toward the end of our due diligence process, and the doctors couldn’t control my blood pressure. It was 15 days of not knowing what would happen. It really reframed my priorities. It made me realize that things are fragile and you need to take this time and give yourself permission to experience this important part of life.
Being at a Series B means you’ve built the business to the point where it can and should operate without you on a day-to-day basis. I wouldn’t have been able to close a deal while dealing with a health crisis in my pregnancy if it were a seed round. My partner in the business is my husband, and he shielded some of the stress from my plate. But it also meant he had to be away taking care of our business instead of being by my side during some of the tough parts of my last few weeks of pregnancy.
Having women as our VCs was a game-changer. They completely understand the toll it takes on your body. As much as a man can say, “My wife went through it,” it’s not the same.
I would’ve loved to stay with the babies a little longer. But I have a company to run and I’m just as passionate about it.
Lauren Kassan, co-founder and COO, The Wing
When I was pregnant with my son, Quincy, in 2016, it was a completely different stage of the company than where we are now—during my co-founder Audrey Gelman’s pregnancy. During my pregnancy, The Wing was definitely showing signs of success and growth, but we still had a lot to prove. It was also the beginnings of the #MeToo movement, and I think a lot of folks were definitely much more conscious and careful of what they were saying.
We started our Series B round when I was just over three months pregnant. I showed early in my pregnancy and initially thought about trying to hide my bump, largely because I had heard so many horror stories from women founders about comments from insensitive male investors, questions about their ability to be impactful business people with a child involved, and people saying they should’ve waited to have children. I soon realized that given who we are, and what we are trying to achieve, there was no way I could try to conceal my pregnancy in good faith, but I did have to address the elephant in the room to get it out of the way—with investors and with men in operations, contracting, real estate, and food and beverage.
During Audrey’s pregnancy, she’s spent a lot of time on building our executive team; when we were fundraising during my pregnancy, we didn’t have our CFO Diedra Nelson, who led the charge on our 2018 Series C round. Given there are more folks to delegate to as she plans for maternity leave than I had, a lot of her day-to-day is focused on bigger-picture strategic planning, where as I was extremely operational, taking daily meetings with real estate developers and contractors or meeting with groups of potential investors.
I realized that being a mother would actually make me a better leader. Most of our executive team have young children or are expecting. Becoming a mother has given me a deeper understanding of the needs of a big segment of our member base.
Melissa Smith, CEO, WEX
I became CEO of WEX in January 2014, and I became pregnant at the same time. But I was not pregnant when they selected me or when I accepted the job. I had assumed this had happened a lot; it wasn’t something I spent time thinking about from a precedent standpoint until I told the board of directors three months in.
As a public company, we engaged outside counsel to do research. Marissa Mayer had announced her pregnancy before me, but she was known to be pregnant when she took the top job at Yahoo. We could not find a single instance of somebody who had become pregnant while being a public company CEO.
We had to figure out how to disclose; we went with an interview in the Wall Street Journal to be sure the information was shared broadly. I now have 2-year-old twins as well who were born through a surrogate; we didn’t feel the same need for disclosure we felt the first time around after it became clear the market didn’t consider it to be material non-public information.
I had fear around how my pregnancy would be perceived—as a weakness—but people were entirely focused on the results and performance of the company. When I was pregnant, we were around $800 million in revenue; we were at $1.5 billion in revenue last year. During my pregnancy, we negotiated a transaction to complete the $532.5 million acquisition of Evolution1—I flew out for that closing while I was quite far along.
During my first pregnancy, we didn’t have a parental leave policy; I took short-term disability and my predecessor who had only recently retired as CEO came back to work with the executive team to manage while I was on leave. We introduced a parental leave program afterward, and it reinforced the importance of letting parents take time off.
Katia Beauchamp, co-founder and CEO, Birchbox
When I was pregnant with my twins in 2014, I was fundraising a big round of capital. Three years later, I went into labor early with my third child, while I was about to close a big debt deal. After he was born, I was immediately on calls while nursing the baby as I tried to finalize that deal.
But my most recent pregnancy in 2018 was complicated, and I was sent to the hospital for 100 days of bedrest before giving birth. It was so surreal—I didn’t believe it. I had a 1-year-old and two 4-year-olds, and I was devastated for my husband to navigate all of that without me. I was terrified to tell work; we had just brought on Viking Global Investors and I’d just teed up a big deal with Walgreens. I was worried everyone was going to think I couldn’t get it done and couldn’t manage all these things.
I had all my meetings from the hospital—my staff came to me, I was on video with the board of directors or with our partners at Walgreens to finalize that deal. I started off being nervous to be that vulnerable, but I got comfortable with it.
The day the Walgreens deal was closing, I went into labor unexpectedly. I was on the operating table, and the last thing I remember saying to my husband is, “Tell Viking I signed and it’s done.” I didn’t want them to think I hadn’t gotten it done before I had my baby.
As a founder or CEO, you’re doing deals—so inevitably you’re going to be pregnant and birthing children at some point. What I went through was a more extreme version of what every woman goes through: telling your boss you’re pregnant and having to prove you’re still effective.
Julia Collins, co-founder, Zume Pizza and Planet Forward
The experience of being a black, female entrepreneur has given me a lot of grit and resilience. As a person living at the intersection of multiple underrepresented identities, I have learned over my lifetime to thrive in the face of adversity—I already had the experience of having the chips stacked against me—and this toughness made the process of fundraising as a pregnant, black woman a bit more achievable.
I chose to be open about my pregnancy while we were fundraising our Series B and not do anything to hide it; I wanted people to understand who I was, and who I was included being a pregnant person. I was a new mother with an infant at home during the close of our Series C round.
I’ve always had a process of internal calibration: work I need to do mentally and emotionally to prepare myself for the fundraising process, which gives me the energy, confidence, and resilience to see it through. Whatever I did before my pregnancy—exercise, meditation, coaching, practice-pitching—I chose to double down on during my pregnancy. It helped me to be confident and excited about the process instead of second-guessing myself or worrying my pregnant belly might put me at a disadvantage.
I was in my late 30s and I had gained experience and confidence over time. This made the journey easier and more joyful than it would have been earlier in my career. Being open about my pregnancy created space for folks on the other side of the table to open up about their values and for us to find alignment in our values.
Alexa von Tobel, founder, LearnVest, and managing partner, Inspired Capital
Back in 2015, LearnVest was in a period of rapid growth. I was on the cover of Forbes, and no one knew I was seven weeks pregnant with my first child. By the time I was five months pregnant, we’d started acquisition talks with Northwestern Mutual. The deal closed on March 25, 2015, and I went into labor on March 29, 2015, a week early. It was probably one of the most unrepeatable weeks of my whole life.
My second pregnancy coincided with me joining the management team at Northwestern Mutual. And a few weeks before my third child was born, I launched a new venture fund, Inspired Capital. By the third time around, I knew what to expect. Launching a business for me is the most invigorating thing possible in my work life —and I’ve luckily had healthy pregnancies. I’m grateful that my body has allowed me to be full steam ahead while juggling work.
The most powerful thing to me, during our talks with Northwestern Mutual, was that my pregnancy wasn’t really a topic of conversation. But it kept everything in perspective: the work is never more important than bringing a human life into the world. Still, having gone through getting acquired and having a baby in the same week—everything after pales in comparison to that.
Jordana Kier and Alexandra Friedman, co-founders, LOLA
Kier: When Alex and I met in the summer of 2014, we were both seriously dating our partners but we didn’t have children. Since then, we’ve gone through four rounds of funding and we’ve had three children between the two of us.
Friedman: Everything was carefully timed. We raised $1.2 million before we launched; then we raised $10 million in 2016 in two different rounds. In 2017, I spent most of the year pregnant and we were not actively financing the business; when I got back in early 2018 we kicked off the fundraise for our Series B. After we closed, Jordana got pregnant. Now we’re not currently fundraising, and I just had my second child.
Kier: As co-founders and co-CEOs, we’re able to pass things back and forth. Before Alex went on her first maternity leave, I shadowed her direct reports to prepare to take over, operationally, her primary areas of the business at the time: day-to-day execution, revenue, operations, and more. When she came back from leave, we did something similar to get her back up to speed. We’ve found that to be a productive way to reintroduce someone back into the daily flow of work.
Kier: I began thinking about having a family right around the time Alex was scheduled to get back from maternity leave.
Friedman: You can only plan so much, and we’ve been lucky our alternating timelines have aligned.
Jessica Rovello, co-founder and CEO, Arkadium
Arkadium was in business for 13 years before we raised our Series A—when I was pregnant with my third child. I’d already been running the business for years with small children, but this was my first exposure to dealing with institutional capital while visibly pregnant. It’s hard to separate that from what I experienced just from being a female founder.
Out of 25 or 30 meetings, there was only one where I wasn’t the only woman in the room. And I was always the only pregnant one in the room. Baked into that is a natural feeling of otherness. I felt like an appendage to the business. My co-founder and husband would get asked specific questions about margins and our product suite. Mine would be like, “So what role do you play?”
When you’ve had years growing the business, being singularly in charge of its destiny—I never saw being pregnant, or taking maternity leave, or having an infant to take with me on company outings or to our office in Russia as a disadvantage. Having these meetings and raising capital was the first time it occurred to me that this could be perceived as a disadvantage.
It was a pretty difficult and distasteful experience. We ended up buying out our Series A investors last year, and I wouldn’t want to go through it again.
Lauren Haber Jonas, founder and CEO, Part & Parcel
When I was raising funding for Part & Parcel, I was 28, pregnant, and a solo founder. I’m also Mexican—I hit all the buckets. I was raising against a model that they hadn’t necessarily seen before in the Valley. I didn’t make it easy for myself.
I got negative feedback from investors about being a solo founder, especially considering I was pregnant. But I had conceptualized this business and I had such a personal experience with its mission. I didn’t know anyone else I wanted to bring on to do it with me. Investors (who we didn’t end up going with) asked how I would build the team and “cover for myself.” It was not fun having to defend the fact that just because I was pregnant I could still execute and run a business. It’s just one part of me.
Ty Haney, founder and CEO, Outdoor Voices
When I found out I was pregnant, I was a little bit uncertain about the right timing to share the news. We have more than 100 people at our headquarters in Austin, and I’m really involved in the day-to-day—I wanted to make sure it was communicated in a way that gave people confidence. I had a little apprehension about telling our board of directors, too; I’m a young female founder and a lot of our directors are older men.
People usually announce their pregnancies at three months, but I waited until five. I’m not sure what my plans for maternity leave will be yet, but I think it’s going to be hard for me to stay totally out of the office. I’m such an Energizer Bunny-type person; with the hormones during pregnancy I’ve had to exercise twice a day or it becomes a monstrous situation.
But my pregnancy has made me start thinking about what OV can do for parents on our team. We’re working on putting together a daycare for employees and evaluating our parental leave policy (right now, eligible employees get up to four months paid). For our apparel, I’m excited about not just maternity wear, but active products for parents and children, dads included.
It’s a really cool and interesting time. When I look at my peers—Whitney Wolfe Herd at Bumble and I are a week or two apart, Audrey Gelman from The Wing—there are a lot of us who decided, let’s go for it. Let’s have kids while we’re CEOs running these companies.