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How to Juggle a Baby and Your Startup as a Female Founder

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How to Juggle a Baby and Your Startup as a Female Founder

GiveForward's President/Founder Desiree Vargas Wrigley.

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As much as we'd like to act like we live in an equal and fair society, we still have a ways to go. Sure, we're not as backwards as Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, but even still in 2012 women are subjected to loads of extra scrutiny and questions that men aren't -- especially if they're going to have a baby. I've done a lot of interviews with the folks over at the the very noble and charity-minded GiveForward, but someone Inc. Well has yet to hear from is Founder/President Desiree Vargas Wrigley.

Six months ago, Wrigley had her first son, Griffin. As the baby was coming and in the time after, she found herself having to clarify her dedication to her own company, which is not something all entrepreneurs necessarily have to do -- particularly men. To further explore this topic, I gave Desiree a call, and she had no shortage of advice.

Since I will never be able to know this, what is it like for women to have a baby while running a startup?

Desiree Vargas Wrigley: If you're a founder or co-founder, you really consider your company your first child, even if you don't like to admit it sometimes. Mentally it takes priority over your husband or your dog or your personal finance. It takes priority over everything. And so the idea sometimes of having this new life come into your life that needs so much attention is a little bit scary, I think, for women, and also exciting. So, the decision in the first place to have a child, I think, is hard for women founders to make. But then, once you've made the decision to do it you have this whole other level of complexity that young men that start companies don't have.

Especially if you have investors and figure out how you can time this pregnancy so that it isn't going to really adversely affect your business. I didn't tell people that I was planning on having a baby, but I strategically planned my son as much as I could.

Very romantic.

Desiree Vargas Wrigley: [Laughs.] I know, right? When we started pitching to investors, we knew our round was going to close pretty quickly. As soon as we got half of our rounds, my husband and I started trying. And the reason that I did that was because I knew that I could do this. I knew I could handle the stress of pregnancy and a new child with a growing business, but I didn't know if my investors knew that about me. I thought the earlier I could prove that, the more likely I would be able to keep my position as CEO. I know it sounds terrible but that's one of my biggest fears, is that my choice to have children is going to make investors question my commitment to the company and perhaps think that someone else as CEO would be a better choice.

I don't think that's terrible as much as it is just realistic, in a sad way. I understand why that is, but I'd like to hear from your point of view that a man would be able to handle something like it better? Because that's basically what you're talking about, right?

Desiree Vargas Wrigley: Right. I think most VCs and angels have had children, and I think most of them have seen what their lives have gone through in the process of having children. I think often it comes from a place of personal experience. Also, I know historically in the workplace women sometimes say they're gonna go back to work and then change their mind after the baby comes or vice versa. It kinda depends on the woman and the situation. But, I think when it's a woman founder there's no question that she's coming back to her business. It's almost unfair to compare us to the woman that you worked with in the marketing department at whatever company. I think because there aren't a lot of women founders, men don't have experience with women having children and then coming back and being just as effective as they were before.

Have you ever heard of any female founders deciding not to come back after having a baby? I haven't.

Desiree Vargas Wrigley: No, I haven't. And that's the thing. We're probably batting, like, 100 or whatever. A thousand? Whatever that means. I don't know baseball terms. You know what I mean.

I don't either. Let's just say it's 100 percent?

Desiree Vargas Wrigley: Yeah. Look at Talia [Mashiach] from Eved. She has five children and she's still running her company. Most of the women I know are doing their businesses just as well as they were before. I think it's about a mindset about what your time commitments are and it requires a bit more compartmentalizing than women typically are used to.

Men are so good at turning business off when they're at home with their family. Not all of them, but a lot of them are good at giving their family a set amount of time, turning work off and then turning work back on. Women, I think, because we are more emotional, we kind of let those parts of our lives intertwine more than men. It can be a little bit distracting, of course, to know that your child is out at the park on the swing for the first time and you're not there.

Isn't it even harder to compartmentalize if you're a founder?

Desiree Vargas Wrigley: At first I think it was, but I have to admit, and I'm fine with you printing this: I really struggled with postpartum, and I think it was partially because I'm such a type-A person. I think a lot of founding women are. You're so used to, when there's a problem, you create the solution or you find the solution and the you implement it and then it works or it doesn't work and then you keep trying, right? When you have a baby, every single day is different, and that little crying voice is a constant reminder of a little failure every day. I know that's not the right way to look at it, but it definitely is one of those things that for some women -- and I have other founding women that have told me that they have the exact same situation happen.

Guilt?

Desiree Vargas Wrigley: Yeah. You're so in control of your work life, usually, even though startups are chaotic. The idea of having this person come into your life that is so out of your control that sometimes it's a hard adjustment. For me, honestly, having GiveForward to go back to was really a relief for me. I know other women have felt the same.

I remember I was five weeks out from having Finn and there was some kind of crisis at the office. I left home, I left my baby with my husband, came into the office and solved this problem. It was like the best I felt about myself in five weeks. [Laughs.] We're so tied to our businesses that maybe it shouldn't be so much.

I think there are a lot of women who don't realize, at first, how hard it can be to balance and then over time it gets so much easier because you do learn to compartmentalize. You realize that your time at work, your hours might be slightly different, but when you're different you're wholly there. When you go home, you're wholly with your children. When they go to bed, you can get back on the computer and do the work you need to do. You just kind of change the structure of the way you do things.

Is there a most difficult and least difficult of having a baby and a startup? Or does it only get harder?

Desiree Vargas Wrigley: [Laughs.] Well, no. I think it depends on your mindset for it. Because this was my first baby, I didn't know how much work it was going to be in the first six weeks. I didn't realize how tired I would be. And I'm tired from running a startup for the last three years and not getting paid and waiting tables and all the stuff that comes with bootstrapping. But this is a totally different level of exhaustion, so I guess I wasn't prepared for that. One of the things I did during my pregnancy -- it was really important for me to know that I wasn't disappearing. It was important for me to know that people knew that.

I think the best way to stay sharp and motivated is to just keep on doing the things that you were doing before as long as you can when you're pregnant. Pregnancy brain does really exist. You just have to get better about writing things down. Women aren't usually very good at multitasking, and you lose that ability a little bit. So, you have to rely a little bit more on calendars and to-do lists and things like that. You learn to create a structure for your life that maybe wasn't there before. And you use it after the baby comes.

So in a way, having a baby makes you better at running your business then?

Desiree Vargas Wrigley: Yeah, actually, I think it does. I have more sympathy and empathy for the people who are working with me when some kind of family situation comes up. I think that makes me a better leader. But then, also, because I am more focused in the time I have at the office, I get more done. I'm not just sitting, waiting for things to come into my inbox. I'm better at time-blocking so I know I have this many projects and this many reports and this many things I have to get done. And then I fill in the gaps with email time. I wasn't so great about that before. So, yeah, I think I'm actually more effective. You just have to make sure that before you go, you have the right people in place to manage stuff when you're gone.

One other thing I wanted to say about this was the whole fundraising component. When I was pregnant, I was moderating a panel with one of our investors. It was about women in technology, and the hard question came up of, "Do you avoid investing in younger child-bearing-age women because of the potential they'll need to take time off to start a family?" It's just one of those moments when someone is questioning your commitment to your company because you decided to do this very important life thing. So I remember thinking how unfair this process is. I understand it because, yes, it is a big time commitment.

But at the same time, men go through really terrible things. Going through a divorce? I would argue that's just as exhausting and emotionally trying. It takes people away psychologically and time-wise just as much as having a baby. But we never bring that up when evaluating people's performance. Or alcoholism. All those different things that happen in people's lives. You never look at the different things going on in families and judge men's abilities to perform. But this everyday activity happens, a woman has a baby, and people question whether or not she's going to be able to continue at her company?

David Wolinsky is a freelance writer and a lifelong Chicagoan. In addition to currently serving as an interviewer-writer for Adult Swim, he's also a columnist for EGM. He was the Chicago city editor for The Onion A.V. Club where he provided in-depth daily coverage of this city's bustling arts/entertainment scene for half a decade. When not playing video games for work he's thinking of dashing out to Chicago Diner, Pizano's, or Yummy Yummy. His first career aspirations were to be a game-show host.

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