Steph Hind hid her pregnancy while seeking investment for the startup she runs with her partner.
A group of investors began addressing her cofounder after she revealed they were having a baby.
"Alex is perceived as able to manage being a parent and a founder, while I'm expected to choose one over the other."
It shouldn't be remarkable that I'm both a mother and founder. I hear that from people in the startup community all the time.
But my experience of feeling like I have to hide who I am while seeking investment shows we may talk the talk but don't walk the walk.
Just 2.3% of venture capital funding went to female-led companies in 2020, according to the Harvard Business Review.
Of those deals, the average investment was less than half of that given to male-founded ventures. It's clear that women are in no way integrated into the VC ecosystem, and that startup culture has a problem with mothers.
So, why do women-led ventures carry such onerous connotations, and how do we move past this to put more mothers in the boardroom permanently?
I'm exceptionally lucky to be backed by a team of family-orientated, future-looking investors, but it hasn't always been plain sailing.
As the only woman in the room, I've previously been treated like a PA in my own investor meetings and dismissed as "too busy" with my daughter to guarantee a return on an investment.
My partner Alex and I have loved building our company. We share the founder title, we share the workload, we share our daughter, yet Alex is perceived as being able to manage being both a parent and a founder, while, as a mother, I'm expected to choose one over the other.
In January 2021, early on in our bid to seek VC investment, we disclosed my pregnancy to some new investors over Zoom to mixed reactions.
I remember one potential investor then only directed questions to Alex after stating I'd "have my hands full" with the baby, with others dismissing my future role with the company - the general sentiment being I'd be out of the picture soon.
VCs may publicly encourage women-founded companies but these ones had baulked at learning a female founder was about to be a mother. We took our business elsewhere, successfully over-raising our round.
While VCs hold female founder hours to get more women through the door, no space exists for women to compare experiences of being both mothers and founders post-investment.
Ultimately, they need to completely overhaul how they define female-focused support.
At times, I hid my pregnancy when meeting with new investors over video. In part this was to compare their reactions, but also to seem like a more typical founder - a safer bet to investors.
I even went as far to agree with another potential investor when they said I'd be back in the office "a few weeks" after giving birth, knowing full well I'd still be healing, and (with any luck by then) breastfeeding.
At that moment, my impending motherhood felt like something to be ashamed of. It's an outmoded attitude to be perpetuating. It ostracizes mothers in an environment that doesn't acknowledge this huge part of their lives.
As working online or interacting over video become a bigger and bigger part of our lives, I struggle to see how startup culture can continue this toxic relationship with parenthood. Agile working makes running a company and parenting easier, whether that means working when the baby is asleep or managing people around morning sickness.
Heka has 21 investors who are parents. With flexible working common in startups today, it's time VCs caught up with the companies they are investing in to recognize these changes and normalize parenthood.
To foster real change, the startup community needs more women angel investors. Crucially, the kind of support VCs and accelerators provide needs to be flexible and sustainable enough to take women-led companies to completion and keep women in the boardroom.
An injection of cash isn't enough in the current climate, parents who are founders need to feel that parenthood is in some way factored into their business plans, not something they have to hide the way I did.
From personal experience, we currently lack the resources and information needed for women to see themselves as both successful founders and mothers. Our chairman, Michael Whitfield, has been hugely supportive of Alex and myself, and introduced me to the only other founder I know who is also a mother, giving us both the opportunity to compare experiences and breathe a sigh of relief.
There is so much more the VC ecosystem could be doing - simply asking the right questions about family life and work-life balance and speaking openly and honestly about parenthood post-investment would go a long way.
Championing founder mother voices such as Bumble's Whitney Wolfe is also important, and creating the spaces for women founders to come together to compare experiences opens up the discussion in making motherhood work for them.
Ultimately, the sign of any good founder is the ability to create an amazing team. Parenthood has nothing to do with that.
One day, female investors will have frank conversations with female founders about their needs as parents. For now, it's time the VC ecosystem wakes up to the shifts in attitude happening in many of the innovative companies they invest in.
Steph Hind is cofounder of employee benefits startup Heka.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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