Women in Business Q&A: Justine Roberts, Founder and CEO, Mumsnet

05/28/2015 05:59 am ET | Updated May 28, 2016

Justine Roberts is Founder and CEO of Mumsnet an online community of parents sharing advice, support and product recommendations. Over the last 15 years it has grown into the UK's busiest and most influential network for parents with around seven million unique visitors a month.

Justine was awarded the IoIC's Business Communicator of the Year 2014. In February 2013, Justine was listed number 7 in BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour Power List of the 100 most powerful women in the UK today and was also included in the Guardian's 100 most powerful people in the media for 2013. Justine was voted Red Magazine's Red Hot Woman in 2010.

Mumsnet hosts around 200 local sites, a network of over 6000 bloggers, and regularly campaigns on issues including support for families with SEN, improvements in miscarriage care and freedom of speech on the Internet.

In 2011 Justine launched Gransnet, a website for the original baby boomer generation to discuss relationships, news, culture - and not least grandparenting.

Before Mumsnet, Justine wrote about football and cricket for the Daily Telegraph and the Times and before that, a long time ago, she was an economist and strategist for SG Warburg.

Justine read PPE at New College, Oxford and is a mother of four (and two dogs). Justine is a finalist of the Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Many years ago, I left a job in a bank when I was five months pregnant. I'd overheard something I wasn't meant to; my boss was talking about how he was going to cut my clients out of a lucrative deal because I'd be off soon and the chances were I wouldn't be back. I was stunned. I'd worked hard for years in an overwhelmingly male environment; I'd been as good, if not better than the boys and been promoted fast. That conversation proved that it was the wrong job for me and I left - proving my boss right after all, you might think. But I'm glad I did, because that overheard conversation was one of the reasons I started Mumsnet a couple of years later. My boss made me realise that I was being penalised as a mother, which was sexist, pure and simple. Too often women can only get on in senior roles by pretending their family doesn't exist - which is why guaranteeing a family-friendly workplace is so important to me.

How has your previous employment experience aided your work at Mumsnet?
My experience at the bank gave me a real understanding of the challenges faced by many mothers who are trying to juggle raising children with work. And after I left that bank, I briefly became a sports' journalist, which stood me in good stead too. Early on I wrote a big piece on a diary of a dotcom startup for The Times' Saturday magazine, which brought in a lot of new users to Mumsnet; I try to think of ideas that editors might like to spread the word about Mumsnet, and I've also written many articles using Mumsnet as a case study since.

What have the highlights and challenges of running Mumsnet?
The challenges were all about starting when the dotcom bubble burst and having no money and no revenue for 6 years. We were slightly ahead of time in that lots of potential advertisers didn't necessarily believe in the internet in early noughties and didn't want to expose themselves on social media as it would mean having to engage rather than broadcast.

The highlight of running Mumsnet is when Mumsnet users rise to the challenge and sort out each others problems, which they do almost every day one way or another. There are so many examples - one user was helped by the community through a scary night in a hospital bed with a very ill newborn, receiving responses to her post quicker than a midwife could get to her side. Another found enormous comfort from the number of Mumsnet users ready to 'hold her hand' after her son's death. And, when one user's child accidentally left a toy dog on Blackpool Pier, everyone rallied round to search for it, sourced a replacement when it couldn't be found, and sent postcards from the dog from abroad, explaining to the distraught child that he was having a brief holiday.

What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Try to choose something you're passionate about - it makes it easier to get up in the morning. Be prepared to work hard - there are not too many successful people I know who are work-shy - and don't worry too much about other people's opinions about you, particularly adolescent boys on Twitter. It's all just a lot of noise.

Once you've chosen an area that you're passionate about, do your research, know your competition and look for a USP. Then make sure you listen to your audience/customers and keep listening.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
I failed to raise any money for Mumsnet at the beginning of the journey, not least because of the dotcom bubble bursting, which was disheartening. But as it turned out, it was a blessing in disguise because the business model we had was unsustainable. If we'd had money, we would have just incurred too much overhead, as many other dotcoms did.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I work lots of hours but I also have flexibility - if there's an important thing at school I can organise things so I can be there. This minimises the guilt and guilt is never a good thing for a mum (self-employed or otherwise).

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
It's a sad reality that many women feel that they have to almost pretend they don't have a family to get on at work, and even sadder to think that they feel the need to 'babyproof' their careers. Four out of five of our users say they feel less employable after having children, and lots feel that far from 'having it all', they're simply 'doing it all' - and worse, doing it all badly. There's a huge opportunity here for smart employers to create a culture change - and a generation of really motivated and loyal female employees - by supporting them when they choose to start a family, and offering a flexible approach to work which means that parents don't feel guilty for caring for a sick child or taking on the school run.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire Miriam González Durántez for campaigning so passionately to inspire young women to raise their aspirations, and for navigating the line between being candid and being discreet with such aplomb.

What do you want Mumsnet to accomplish in the next year?
World domination. No, kidding. I'd like us to keep true to our purpose - namely to make parents' lives easier and to do that by improving everything we do a little bit.