Returning from maternity leave, our CEO and founder, Veronica Stevenson, reflects on her experiences of running a company and getting pregnant.
It's 2019, and I'm sitting with a prospective investor. He asks, "Are you going to have a baby and ruin my investment?"
Fourteen months later, I was pregnant.
This is the story of:
- How we announced my pregnancy
- The polar ways in which investors reacted (published with permission)
- The surprising reasons people applied for the maternity cover position
- The impact of New Zealand's maternity leave culture
- Did having a baby ruin the company?
- Three lessons I learned along the way
Announcing my pregnancy
When I told my Chair, she squealed with delight, and the rest of the board were supportive and genuinely happy for me. They were also pragmatic.
We met and brainstormed the ideal candidate to replace me as CEO. Once we'd hired that person, we announced their appointment and my pregnancy to the shareholders. I would recommend this approach — it came from a position of strength and leadership and helped our shareholders to feel we had everything in hand.
While searching for our ideal candidate, an investor had noticed the position being promoted and expressed his views to me via email.
"As an investor, I am beyond bothered. You did not share this material fact with us before our recent funding of the company. I believe this to be extremely poor form and unethical."
I like this investor, and he'd been very personally supportive. So, I was taken aback and took a day to reflect and understand our position. Below are some of my key findings, not to be constituted as legal advice but helpful to others who find themselves in a similar situation.
- NBR surveyed member subscribers and found that 49% thought a company should only disclose a director's health issues once they become life-threatening. That means many people expect company directors not to disclose health issues with a much more severe and long term threat than pregnancy.
- As an employee, to be entitled to maternity leave, a pregnant employee must give their employer at least three months' written notice before the expected date of delivery. You are under no obligation to provide notice before this time. I gave more notice because I wanted the insight and help of my board. Although, I am curious why we require triple the amount of notice for a pregnant employee than an employee leaving their job?
- There is no provision in New Zealand law for a Director to take planned maternity leave from their responsibilities and legal liability. This is bonkers. It means anyone taking parental leave must either take a leave of absence and continue with all the risks associated with being a Director whilst having no oversight or resigning. Hello, gender representation on boards?!
Before I'd had the chance to formulate a reply to our unhappy investor, I received a follow-up email. It was a rare display of grace in making a 180 and transparency.
He had sought guidance from a friend who replied -
"I do not believe that these issues need to be discussed with investors or others. I think it is only in the United States that we think we have to get permission from our bosses and investors to do what humans do, which is to have children and develop loving relationships. I think we will all be better off once we move in the same direction of a country like New Zealand. I sincerely believe this."
In the wake of his friend's thoughts, he wrote to me and apologised. Ultimately, it strengthened our relationship. However, I'm aware that not everyone who receives comments like the original will be lucky enough to receive the follow-up. Many will endure the double burden of being discriminated against and being responsible for pointing out and reeducating the offending person.
I hope that instead, the following is the kind of response women will receive -
"I'm a small investor, father of two daughters, and I have seven grandchildren. I just wanted to support you in having a break from Humble Bee whilst you start your family life. As an investor, I think that family and motherhood trumps making money all day long, so good on you for making that decision, and don't let it carry any guilt. If you have any investors with a contrary opinion, I will happily stand by your side!"
New Zealand's culture and its impact
In New Zealand, there is a more advanced — not perfect — culture of supporting women when it comes to maternity leave. This culture existed before Prime Minister Ardern had a baby in office and did not declare her pregnancy during the election campaign. I believe the culture is stronger for it.
One of my friends went for and got the most challenging role of her life in her first trimester, and the company knew she'd give it everything for six months and trusted she'd be back to leap into the juicy opportunity that was waiting for her. Before her baby was even one year old, she'd already had a promotion.
"The thing that made me a great manager? Becoming a Mother" — Julia Chambers, Chair of the Humble Bee Bio Board.
Who applied and why
One applicant's motivation moved me to tears. A senior executive was willing to take a pay cut of -50% to show his daughters that it was possible to chase their dreams and that people would support them if they wanted a family.
However, the biggest takeaway from searching for my maternity leave cover was how moved and motivated people were by the company's mission.
Humble Bee Bio's mission is to build novel bio-materials that solve market and environmental problems.
People want to spend their energy working for a company with an impact-focused mission. They want to spend their lives on something with a positive legacy.
So did having a baby ruin the company?
The (literal) delivery deadline lit a fire under long-discussed plans around putting in place processes and capturing the knowledge that had for six years lived entirely in my head.
We hired several other people to replace me, and the company matured. The fresh blood from these hires gave different perspectives, and as people took ownership of their roles, the whole company moved faster, was less prone to bottlenecks, and carried less key person risk.
We'd been bootstrapping for a long time, and there was considerable inertia in that mentality. I think that had I not gotten pregnant, it is likely we would've continued. I don't think we would've hired additional staff. I would not have had the time to externalise the information I held in my head. The work of the past year was immense. I was already close to burnout, and I believe this would have ensured it. Instead, I am coming back as CEO full time, refreshed and enthusiastic for this next phase.
All up, having a human baby forced my first baby to grow up and added significant value in the process. What a win for shareholders.
Looking back, I'm so glad I didn't appease or reassure that prospective investor. Instead, I inquired whether he would be asking this if I was a man. Whilst he huffed, a man next to him whispered, 'I don't think you can say that kind of thing anymore.'
- If an investor believes that you having a baby will ruin their investment, do not try to convince them otherwise, or they might invest! You don't need this kind of person in your corner.
2. We made the call to hire a maternity cover with a view to them staying on after I came back. We wanted to limit the loss of institutional knowledge and figured we were hiring someone because we thought they were great. So why wouldn't we try and keep them? My maternity cover is now our CTO, and the team is stronger for it!
3. Forcing your business to run without you will make it stronger. However, the process of pulling yourself out of it will be arduous. There was a moment very late in my pregnancy where I lay on the sofa exhausted, swollen, my eyes closed. At the same time, my maternity cover and our operations manager sat at my kitchen table and asked me questions.
The female founders out there thinking of or about to start a family. I wrote this for you.