How Motherhood Can Kickstart—And Complicate—Entrepreneurial Success

How Motherhood Can Kickstart—And Complicate—Entrepreneurial Success

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Ask Cara Delzer how she got into the breast pump business and she’ll say it happened the old fashioned way—she became a parent. In 2013, Delzer was working at eBay, on a steady career path and surrounded by a supportive team. But in the months after her son was born, priorities began to shift towards her professional goals. Watching an infant grow and change every day made her realize, more clearly than ever, that time was a precious resource.

“I had always wanted to be an entrepreneur,” Delzer says. “It kind of hit me: If I wanted to live that life, then I needed to do it now.” Fast forward to five years. Delzer, who has since had a second child, is the CEO and co-founder of Moxxly, a women’s health startup behind a line of sleekly designed hands-free pumping accessories geared toward making life easier for breastfeeding moms.

That working moms are a fixture of today’s professional landscape is, of course, far from a revelation. Pew Research Data from 2018 reveals that women are more likely to become moms than they were a decade ago, and the overwhelming share of today’s babies, 82 percent, are born to millennial mothers. Seven-in-ten moms with kids under the age of 18 were in the labor force as of 2015, according to the most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Entrepreneurialism and parenthood are no longer conceptually at odds with one another. (At least, not in theory; they’ve even been combined in that contested portmanteau, mompreneur.) So while dialogue about paid parental leave at a federal level may have stalled out in recent years, and the gender pay gap remains stubbornly extant, what has progressed—sometimes seemingly at hyperspeed—is the cultural conversation about what it means to be a woman actively pursuing motherhood and career ambitions at the same time.

In fact, in some women’s cases, they are inextricably linked. Delzer credits motherhood with giving her the verve, and the confidence, to switch work tracks and go all-in on building a company. “Nothing in the workplace is more terrifying than raising a human,” she explains. She laughed after saying that before doubling down on her seriousness. “It put my entrepreneurial ideas into perspective,” she says. “Like, what’s the worse that can happen?”

Delzer is far from alone. For Kate Holmes Thompson, a Seattle-based career coach, having a baby pushed her to make a professional trajectory change that had long been percolating in the back of her mind. When her first son was born in 2014, she had just wrapped up a contract role; she returned to work when her baby was around nine months old. Thompson and her husband both staggered their office schedules so that their son never spent more than eight hours a day in his nanny share. But, like a lot of parents, they were both exhausted all the time, and unsatisfied with the arrangement, which ultimately led Thompson to seriously contemplate a life change.

“The impetus was thinking: What do my husband and I want from our lifestyle and quality of life, and being involved in our kid’s life, and how do I make that happen?” Thompson says. She realized that working for herself would give her the ability to start part-time and ramp up in the years to come. After the birth of her second son, she started a training and accreditation program, which she acknowledges was only possible because she had a supportive partner.

But as her business began to grow, she encountered another problem: finding flexible and quality part-time childcare. Then Thompson discovered The Inc., a nonprofit coworking studio that also offers flexible options for people with kids. Babies can hang out with parents in one coworking room, while another space is exclusively for adults whose children are in the “play school,” which is open to kids toddler-age through pre-K. Thompson found that the camaraderie with other parents was essential to getting her platform off the ground.

“I was coming to a place where people saw me as a parent who was working on something—who saw me on my hard days when I couldn’t believe I was even doing this,” she remembers. “It’s not that they gave me supportive business advice,” she says. “It was just the community aspect of this is hard work, but keep going. And, some days, that was all I needed.”

Today Thompson’s coaching business is thriving. She is also a board member at The Inc. and leads early parent support groups. “I can be with my kids, out in the garden, and do homey stuff. I can’t put a price on that. This time is really fleeting, and that’s what I remind myself: It’s not going to last forever, for better or worse.” Still, she sometimes experiences tension in expectations around her availability. “If you’re not in the space of managing childcare and managing full-time work, you don’t always get it,” Thompson says. “It’s like: This is when I have childcare, so this is when I can commit to you.”

It’s a tension that Ariel Kaye, the founder and CEO of the textiles and homeware essentials company Parachute, can relate to. Kaye, whose daughter will be four months old at her first Mother’s Day this year, says that now that she is a parent, guilt—either for not being at work or not being at home—is a constant companion.

“I think about Parachute as my first baby, and there was never a moment when I thought I was going to step away or separate,” Kaye says. She got married in May of 2018. Closed a round of funding six weeks after that. And then found out she was pregnant. “I then had to tell our new investors, who had just put 30 million dollars into the business,” she remembers. According to Kaye, they have been highly supportive, as has the Parachute team. “But there was definitely a silence in the room, like, a lingering silence. And then like: ‘Congratulations!’” Her biggest fear was that, now that she was on the path to becoming a parent, people would infer that her business would move to the backseat. “I didn’t want people to think: This is the moment where Ariel is going to check out. I wanted to make sure people understood that I was still 100 percent in.”

A little more than a year later, Parachute has continued to grow online and in the real world, launching several brick-and-mortar shops, including one in Manhattan’s trendy SoHo neighborhood. Kaye says that figuring out how to prioritize both “babies” in her life has been tough. But she believes that being a new mom has given her new tools in the office. She feels more efficient, and focused, toggling between these different roles.

One piece of advice in the weeks after her daughter was born has become a kind of professional mantra. “Someone told me that everything is just for now,” Kaye explains. “Like: My baby is not sleeping, for now. My baby is really fussy, for now. There’s this idea that everything is changing, and it’s just a moment in time. I’m actually thinking about that in my business. Today, we may be having this challenge, but it’s a challenge for now. It’s not necessarily going to be this career-defining moment that we can’t overcome.”

Delzer, of Moxxly, echoed the idea that sometimes work philosophies apply to home and vice versa. “I know so many fierce, fabulous founders who have become moms over the course of their startup, and I think we’re all stronger for it. Our bullshit radar is off the charts. Our time management is tighter than ever.” She also associates having kids with an ever-present reminder of the fact that entrepreneurs have to make a clear choice of how to spend their time, and why and when it needs to count.

“I think we need more examples of women who are out there, making it work,” Delzer went on, “to make that archetype of entrepreneur more normal.”