Working Moms Battle Dual Bias

Woman with baby on lap

Entrepreneurial moms must often earn credits

While female founders may be forced to overcome stereotypes to win the respect and trust of investors, customers and sometimes even their own team, working moms often face tougher hurdles than their single counterparts. Men may be hesitant to ask for meetings on weekends or holidays because they perceive women who have families as “off” the clock. Investors may signal they are worried about lifestyle issues involving family. Worries that don’t happen where male executives are involved. I have faced this as the head of my investment firm Ulu Ventures, because my partner, Clint Korver, is also my husband. Sometimes male VCs have been hesitant to ask me for a call or meeting on Saturday because we’re a “family business”. While work/life balance is important, it’s also important to overcome stereotypes about how women work. As an investor, I do what needs to be done for our business and our entrepreneurs. A phrase I use often is, “I’d be happy to…” And I mean it?—?if an action increases our entrepreneurs’ or Ulu’s set of opportunities.

Assumptions Hard to Dispel

People assume so much about what working mothers will or won’t do and often don’t bother to ask. While working as the head of commercial law at Google several years ago, our team was called upon to work on a “make or break” the company deal. A trip was to be made over Easter Sunday and I wasn’t initially included in the travel plans. A white male mentor advised me to assume my authority to go and I did. Without prompting by my manager, I asked which flight I needed to book to arrive with the team.

The night before the trip, I’d been up until 2am making Easter baskets and discovered the other working mother on the strategic partnership team had done the same. It was critical to be with our colleagues to be a part of Google’s “A Team”. We also felt it was important to have the company acknowledge the sacrifice that is required of leaders of all genders to build a great company.

Do What It Takes to Build Your Business

Silicon Valley has the unconscious or learned belief that success requires constant availability and contact. Being there is important no doubt, but knowing what’s most important leads to greater overall success and personal fulfillment. Despite the challenges of hyper-growth and young children, my career advanced most quickly after I become a mother. It gave me a perspective that encouraged me to do what needed to be done and quickly so I could enjoy precious waking hours with my young children.

In order to help Google grow, I did almost every legal function before replacing myself with more experienced attorneys in those areas, re-engineered contracting processes to allow us to achieve historic revenue velocity, reviewed 5000 resumes and hired a badass team of about 150. Fifty percent of the team were women. Among my hires were the first General Counsels of DropBox, Twitter, Pinterest, Coursera, Creative Commons, the first LatinX Deputy General Counsel of Reddit, the first African American women to serve as VP Legal at YouTube, the CEO of Huffington Post, a billionaire Midas Touch VC (with a few more of us taking our shot now), two deputy CTOs of the USA, and the first woman ever to run the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Many of these amazing leaders were mothers and/or the children of immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

You Have to Earn Idiosyncratic Credits

Sometimes you don’t get the opportunity to prove your commitment. Before Google, I was a woman co-founder of an enterprise software startup. I had a child on Friday and returned to work Monday. Soon after I was asked to leave my startup; one of the directors I considered a mentor, said if I were having his grandchild, he’d prefer I’d stay home. Did it matter that staying home was never something I aspired to do?

At Google, initially, I couldn’t get VPN access to our network because the 25-year-old founders shared the belief that you needed to be onsite as much as possible to build cohesion and communication. If I needed to work late, and my husband was traveling for work, I carried my child to the office and put her to sleep on a couch. As I built my career, it wasn’t unusual for the IT support group to come to my house to fix my IT problems under such circumstances.

Cashing in Credits

Later, I used my idiosyncratic credits to create an informal leave policy for the mothers on the Google Legal team. I offered any new mom up to 6 months leave at her discretion although only 3 months were offered by the company with pay. This was difficult to implement because of our workload and I sometimes grumbled about not having all hands on deck. But we never lost a new mom during my tenure despite the meteoric growth of the company and the long hours. Later, the data from my team helped support the company’s official leave policy and was scaled company-wide. Some of the rock stars I describe in this article were women who benefited from this policy and Google benefited from their longevity and commitment to the company.

Adam Grant in his book Originals says leaders earn “idiosyncratic credit” by standing for something and earning respect and even affection. Perhaps it shouldn’t be necessary to earn credit by doing much more than your colleagues. But pioneers in a range of sectors have earned credit through their example. In sports, Serena Williams epitomizes the pioneer who uses her earned credit to help those who come behind her. She’s the best woman player of her generation and the 14th best player, man or woman, of all time. She’s a strong advocate for pay equality and for equal recognition as an athlete on the world stage. Only five months after a very difficult childbirth she returned to competition. She’s faced criticism but earned the respect and affection of fans and naysayers alike throughout her career by never giving up. I’m not saying it’s the only way to succeed, nor the least painful, but it’s the one I’ve seen work best for diverse leaders.

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Miriam Rivera
Miriam Rivera is co-founder and managing director of Ulu Ventures
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