My 5-year old asked me one morning, “Mommy, can we stay home and watch movies today?” I explained to him that we couldn’t because he needed to go to school and Mommy and Daddy work really hard so we can do fun things like pizza night. He thought for a minute and said, “Ok, I’ll stay and watch movies and you can go to work.”
Being a working mom is undeniably one of the most challenging things women take on, but can also be one of the most rewarding, and in the case of that conversation with my son, produce some comical moments. When I left my position at a global communications firm earlier this year, I got a lot of questions about what I wanted to do next. When I told people I wanted to explore working for a startup, the most common answer was raised eyebrows and a look of concern.
“A startup? Really? Isn’t that risky?” well-meaning friends would ask. And I understood what they meant. Working for a startup is historically known for a couple of things: being risky, being all-consuming and working with a lot of young guys - none of which scream “moms welcome here”. But I had always wanted to pursue startup work and knew there was no time like the present so with lots of questions, some nerves and my son’s “good luck” drawing tucked in my bag, I walked into my first round of interviews at KUNGFU.AI.
I can skip to the end here because, of course, I did end up excitedly accepting an offer to join the KUNGFU.AI team and knew that it was a choice that was going to fulfill me personally but also allow me to be a present, engaged and happy mom. Here’s what stood out to me during the interview process and how it is working out for me a few months into the role.
Talking about my kids is welcomed, even encouraged. I intentionally brought them up in the first conversation and have continued to do so often. In the New York Times’ guide “How to be Mostly OK (and Occasionally Fantastic) at the Whole Working Mom Thing”, Lauren Smith Brody encourages frequently mentioning your kids to show both the joy and challenge in working motherhood. Others have done this previously in my career and it made the transition into being a working mom smoother and more supportive, so I intend to pay that forward. At work I’m often asked about how the kids are doing, encouraged to post photos of them to the Slack channel and take off early on their birthdays.
We have a flexible schedule, without penalty. In some previous roles, flexible schedules would be offered, but once you began to actually ask people to flex, you were met with eye rolls, sighs and statements that made it clear that while this was technically okay, it wasn’t actually accepted, lowering your odds for big assignments, raises and promotions. In short, that good ‘ol motherhood penalty was applied. My experience here has been the complete opposite. For example, I was absolutely mortified when on my very first day my husband had to undergo an emergency root canal, which meant he couldn’t pick up the kids and I would have to take my very first conference call in this new job from the car with my kids in the backseat. While I was over-the-top apologetic, the response from two of our co-founders was a warm familiarity of the situation. I’ve never felt a penalty for having to take calls remotely, be at home with a sick kid or attend an appointment or school function.
The parental leave policy is being set by parents. As a startup, there are policies and benefits that aren’t yet in place but instead of being decided by leadership in a silo, all working parents were invited into the process to share their experiences with previous leaves, set goals for our leave policy and brainstorm ways to support parents of all kinds. We know we won’t get it totally right on the first try, but the team is committed to delivering the best we can for parents.
Inclusivity is imperative. While we aren’t where we want to be in terms of diversity on our team, we talk frequently about inclusivity of the people who are here and might eventually join us. And while inclusivity extends well beyond working moms, it’s still something I’ve highly appreciated and seen great benefit from. As an example, oftentimes parents (and usually moms) end up missing out on late afternoon or early evening team building activities because school pickup and bedtime routines beckon. But once I raised that point during an event planning session, the schedules of all parents have been considered when planning after-work activities. Once it was raised that that practice was not inclusive, it was immediately re-considered and adjusted accordingly.
There’s so much more to be said about working motherhood, its challenges, its rewards and its positive impact on employers. But my hope in sharing my perspective is that, while startup life can still be risky, hard and full of guys, KUNGFU.AI becomes a welcome, accepting and encouraging place for many working mothers. I’m proudly one of them.