Wisdom//

How to Have a Successful Startup Career While Raising Children

Heidi Zak, CEO of the lingerie startup ThirdLove, shares her secrets.

KateLeigh/Getty Images
KateLeigh/Getty Images

Juggling a demanding career while parenting young children is challenging for anyone.

Throw in the fast pace and long hours of a startup, and even the most organized person is likely to feel overwhelmed.

Before founding ThirdLove in 2012, I worked at Google and Aeropostale. Now, having founded and run a startup, I realize there are very clear differences between these two environments. And I think it’s especially important to understand those distinctions as a working parent.

If you came to me and said, “I want the least amount of stress, the best lifestyle, and the most maternity leave,” I would tell you to go work at a more established company.

That’s not to say parents can’t make it work at a startup — many do.

About 10 percent of our team are parents, myself included. But it’s important to consider some factors that can contribute to a rewarding, or stressful, experience.

Here’s what I tell all my friends who are parents and considering working at a startup:

Understand everything is a moment in time.

Needs are always evolving for both kids and companies.

The amount and type of care your child needs are different now than they were six months ago. In another six months, there will be a new set of challenges and experiences to navigate. So you have to be focused on making things work in each moment.

You can’t get too caught up thinking about the long-term because your life is changing so quickly.

Really, that’s also what it’s like working at a startup. You have to live in the short-term. There will be changes in what’s required of you, what the environment looks like, and your role. There isn’t the same sense of continuity and predictability that comes with working in a larger company.

If you can accept that and learn to handle situations moment-by-moment, you’ll have a much better experience. Because things will likely change soon anyway.

Assess the startup before you accept a role.

Not all startups are created equal.

Some are a better fit than others for parents. It’s important you take the time to assess whether or not the culture is empathetic and understanding toward working parents.

For example, I think the fact that Dave (my husband and co-founder) and I have young children contributes to a more flexible atmosphere. We understand what it’s like to stay up all night with a sick child and show up to work the next day. We know there are times when people have to leave early to pick up their kids from daycare.

Not all startups have cultures that are conducive for parents. There are definitely ventures where the social activities are centered around happy hours and late nights. And a lot of parents are essentially excluded from activities because they want to be home before their kids go to bed.

It’s a good idea to get a feel for the company before you accept the position.

Does anyone have pictures of kids on their desks? Do people talk about their children? Or is the leadership team made up of young singles without parenting experience?

Whatever the case, knowing what you’re walking into will help set your expectations.

Know if you can let go.

Working full-time at a startup and being a parent is hard. And to do so, you have to be okay with not being perfect.

I went back to work soon after having my daughter, Sloane, and I felt like I was constantly running around putting out fires.

When so much is happening, you’re going to make mistakes or forget about an event.

I know this from experience. Every year at my daughter’s nursery school, there’s one day when all the kids get to wear pajamas. I forgot about it last year, so Sloane went to school without her pajamas. I legitimately re-lived my mistake for an entire year. “You forgot to put me in my pajamas,” she reminded me. Over and over again.

But this year, she went to school in pajamas on pajama day.

Those kinds of mistakes are bound to happen. And at a startup, there’s no time to sit and analyze every mistake you made during a meeting or go back-and-forth on each marketing campaign option. If you tend to over-analyze everything and have a tough time moving on from mistakes, a startup may not be the place for you.

You have to know how to let things go.

Despite the ups and downs, people who choose to work at startups repeatedly do so because they enjoy being in a situation where their day-to-day contributions make a huge impact.

I can’t promise it will be easy to join a startup as a parent. But if you assess the company beforehand and learn to take things in stride, the experience can be incredibly rewarding.


Originally published on Medium.

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