I’ll never forget the time I worriedly held an armful of laptops, books, and other important looking items out in front of my big pregnant belly, hoping that a potential investor (a woman and mother, nonetheless) wouldn’t wonder if I’d just had a ridiculously large burrito for lunch or if I was, in fact, knocked up. Bump-covering was my plan – for her and to customers who visited the Socialcast office. I was 29, the senior-most woman at the company, and we were in the midst of attempting to secure an $8M round of funding while landing some of the world’s biggest brands as customers.
My hormonally-crazed brain was thinking, “who is going to give their money and their business to someone who was about to become preoccupied with concerns like pooping schedules and milk production instead of putting their money to work?”
There’s been a lot of talk recently about female entrepreneurs and executives being questioned about their abilities during their pregnancies. From Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! to the female founders of TinyPost and ETeamUps, successful women who happen to also be growing a miniature human 24 hours a day face increased scrutiny when being offered money from venture capitalists and corporate boards. Being pregnant is typically not something that we can hide for long, since there’s essentially a watermelon with appendages creating a gopher-mound out of our bellies. The question is – do you attempt to hide your pregnancy or disclose it as a reality and, dare I say it, potential business risk?
There are laws that protect pregnant women from discrimination inside the workplace. That set of rules is designed to protect women who are one piece of a puzzle – where there are dozens or hundreds of others that might be able to step in on the company’s dime to take her place for a period of time.
But when someone wants to give an entrepreneur money – as a business investment or to purchase your product and you’re instrumental to their success – there is absolutely nothing that governs the transaction when a key team member is pregnant. And there shouldn't be. The reality is that women (and their partners) can and should take time off to care for their newborns. I don’t recommend doing what I did – no real maternity leave, demoing the product from a hospital bed 36 hours after a C-section, and buying voice-to-text software to dictate emails while my newborn slept in my arms.
Having a baby presents a huge variable in an investment and purchasing equation, and it’s in investors’ and customers’ best interests to make sure that their needs are preserved regardless of the pregnant woman’s personal childcare decisions. Families deserve time to bond with their kids. At the same time, investors and customers deserve full disclosure if a key team member’s family decisions are going to materially impact the way a company is run or a product is serviced. So yes, startups are a different world when it comes to pregnancy and how it affects investment and buying decisions; the reality is that one team member actually CAN be crucial to the overall success or failure of a venture-backed small company. In that case, disclosure of a pregnancy is absolutely necessary.
In retrospect, my decision to hide my pregnancy was naïve, and I broke the news soon after. Everyone was congratulatory. At the same time, I made sure to blend my new role as a mother with my ongoing responsibilities at the startup – I did not just up and leave for a few months, which would have left the investors and customers hanging. Every startup mama has to make this decision on her own, however. And in the future, if I ever find myself in the watermelon-with-legs-growing-in-my-belly situation again, it will be immediately disclosed to business contacts so that they can make an informed decision about working with me. I’m confident in my abilities to blend motherhood and work – they should be too.