A few weeks ago I quit my job as a managing director with a venture firm to launch my own company and become a full-time entrepreneur. This was the scariest and most exciting career move I'd ever made and before I jumped off the proverbial cliff, I reached out to the few people I knew and liked in the venture world to get their thoughts. All of them expressed encouragement, excitement, and support for my proposed career change and many suggested that they thought I'd make a better entrepreneur than a venture capitalist. (This I took as a tremendous complement.)
Once I was ready to go public with the actual business I was starting, I went to have lunch with one of the people who had earlier expressed support for my career change. Below is a short transcript of our conversation:
He says (leaning over the table): "So, I am so excited to hear about your new venture! I always thought you'd make a great entrepreneur. I can't wait to hear what you're starting."
I say: "I'm launching a new online community and resource for professional moms, called Work It, Mom!"
He says (leaning back in his chair, the look of excitement gone from his face: "Oh..."
I say (pretending to not have noticed his reaction): "There are 30+ million working moms in the U.S. alone and no great online destination for them to connect and network with each other."
He says: "Oh.... Hmm.... Right... Interesting."
(Disclosure: From my five years in venture capital, "interesting" is a nice way to describe a bad business idea without sounding mean or being direct.)
I say: "What, you don't like it?"
He says: "Well, no, it's not that, it's just that I never thought you'd do some mommy thing."
And there we have it. Had I told him that I was launching a social network for say, venture capitalists or biking enthusiasts, I am sure we would have then gone into an extensive discussion of the size of the market, difficulty of adoption, drivers of spreading the word, key metrics to track, companies and sites to partner with, and so on. In other words, we would have talked business. But as soon as he heard the word "mom," he was ready to dismiss my company as nothing more than a personal hobby.
I spent five years in venture capital, three of them as a mom. Thanks to my amazing husband and helpful nanny, I managed to continue working full time. My being a mom was never an issue that came up at work -- save for a few board meetings we had to move so I could get home by 6 (and then get on the phone again at 8pm, my second shift.) I never hid or de-emphasized the fact that I was a mom -- in fact, I'd show off photos of my daughter to anyone who wanted to see them -- but I didn't make it a big deal, either. I got my work done, I did it well, and if it meant that I had to do it at midnight, I was fine with it. I never questioned whether my colleagues or business associates or fellow board members were taking me any less seriously because I was a mom.
But my perspective has changed since launching Work It, Mom! First, I had a series of conversations, similar to the one I described above, with other guys from the venture capital world. (This isn't to say that all the men I knew in venture reacted this way -- some are investing in my company because they believe in me and the market potential.) Then I went out to recruit bloggers to write for Work It, Mom! I reached out to two women (both were moms) who are fairly prominent bloggers and speakers on career and business topics. Both came back saying that they'd love to blog about career and business for us, but they have to decline because they feel being associated with a mommy site will hurt their careers. "I don't want to be termed a mommy blogger" one of them said to me.
Mom stigma does exist in the business world. My experience with it has been short and limited, but as I've started to confront it, I've realized that it is real. If you want more evidence, read this article by Eileen Goodman -- according to research she cites, moms are seen as less competent in the workplace and are paid less.
This makes my blood boil. And if you're in the business world, it should make yours boil as well, regardless of whether you're a man or a woman, a parent or not. We're in a competitive global economy and we need employees and entrepreneurs who are bright, inventive, and hard-working. We cannot risk alienating, losing, or discouraging millions of them. But if we allow the mom stigma to persist, we will do just that.