Kombucha entrepreneur talks about the obstacles having a baby after building a successful company
Becoming a mother for the second time — or really the third time (I consider the company I co-founded my first ‘baby’) has been an incredible challenge. While I feel so fortunate and excited to bring another life into this world, I’m also keenly aware that my company is at a critical juncture and needs my leadership to navigate our next stage in growth.
I co-founded Health-Ade Kombucha in 2012. Along with my founding partners [pictured above], Justin Trout (my husband) and Vanessa Dew (my closest friend), we turned $600 in start-up capital into one of the top-selling kombucha brands in the US. Kombucha, that bubbly, fermented drink that comes is a variety of flavors, is going mainstream and our distribution and retail partners look to Health-Ade and other top brands to make sure this evolution is a successful one.
This is just one reason the upcoming birth of my second child has been loaded with complexity. When I had my first child Hendriks, in 2015, I was the multi-tasking co-founder of a start up with a team of 20. Today, I’m the CEO of a multi-million dollar business that employs over 200 people (half of whom I am proud to say, are women). The demands of my role as CEO — the stress, the long hours, the endless responsibility — made getting pregnant this time around, very difficult.
Side note to every woman out there before you continue reading: I recognize I am so fortunate to be able to carry my own children and I know that becoming pregnant is a struggle for many women who want and deserve to be mothers. I send you my positivity and support, and take none of my blessings for granted.
A year of conflict
Without doubt, there has been real conflict this year between my personal needs as a woman, wife and mother and my career fulfillment as a CEO. I do believe women can balance a home life and be in the c-suite, but it’s been hard for me emotionally and physically to find success at both the past 12 months. The good news: baby boy #2 is coming in July 2019, and the company is thriving.
As a CEO, I admit my own path of repeat-motherhood was and may be a short-term burden on Health-Ade. Over the past 12 months, there were simply too many personal dynamics that kept me from doing my best work. There was the six months I spent struggling to become pregnant — OB-GYN visits, doctor’s warnings to reduce stress, and the month-to-month emotional rollercoaster of hope followed by disappointment. Then there was the heart-wrenching miscarriage I had to endure in silence during a series of incredibly important business meetings at our kombucha brewery. There are so many changes happening within me during that miscarriage, the worst of which was the guilt that my stress level was so great that a child could not thrive inside me. But I pushed myself through at work. I danced around my embarrassment of needing to pardon myself every half hour to go to the restroom and cry the “stereotypical” hormonal tears. I know there are women out there who can relate. Even after you do get pregnant (yay!), there is the sickness, the “pregnancy brain,” and the feeling that you’re more a tank than a human. All of this undoubtedly took me off my A-game as CEO, no matter how hard I tried.
“I had a miscarriage at work… and personally danced around my embarrassment of needing to pardon myself every half hour to go to the restroom and cry the ‘stereotypical’ hormonal tears…”
These recent experiences made it unsurprising for me to find out that less than 5% of Fortune 500 company CEOs are females. This gap might be the result of women fearing they cannot be both a good parent and a successful, high-level executive at the same time. I’d like to help change that narrative.
I think more women than we realize want to run companies, and I wish women would explore how they might “raise” more than one great thing in their lifetime if they truly want to, rather than reluctantly settle.
It’s not only healthy for an individual to accomplish their dreams; but women with this particular dream bring diversity and different thinking into the executive suite, a move from which all businesses may benefit. Simply put, women at the top bring fresh strategic direction and problem solving, fostering better solutions for the company — and the world.
One important step in normalizing the gender numbers in the c-suite is demanding that companies put their money where their mouth is. If they stand for diversity at the top, then they need to make room for executives who are also mothers. But to really succeed at this, we need to change the perception of motherhood as a challenge or burden in the workplace. And the businesses, executives and employees who feel this way aren’t entirely wrong, at least in the short-term.
My experience has been that the long-term benefit of having this diversity at the top greatly outweighs its burden on the business, and I’m reliving and redefining that experience this summer. If a company takes care of a woman during this tough 12–18 month period, watch out world! She comes back having realized her maternal role and more ready than ever to make waves. Plus, she’s possibly a better leader, delegator, and communicator now that she’s taken on motherhood. This was my experience, watching myself come back and really bring it at work after having my first son, Hendriks. It would have taken me years to get that good at being a CEO, and I have motherhood to thank for those fast lessons.
To effect positive change for motherhood in the c-suite, it’s important companies first shift their focus toward the long-term benefit of having a mother in the top job. Once they agree this has merit, a more fruitful conversation can follow about how to integrate this thinking company-wide and develop the right benefits and programs for all the women in their companies.
“One thing I am certain of:
There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ for maternity leave benefits.”
When people ask me as CEO, how I’m handling my latest maternity leave, I feel deeply conflicted. Health-Ade offers three months paid maternity leave and I feel like I should take it all, especially as an example to other women inside and outside the company. At the same time, I don’t want to abandon Health-Ade at such an important time. Then there is gray area that needs to be explored — where I can give myself fully to my growing family and be available to my company and my duties as CEO.
“After months weighing all the pro’s and con’s, I made the choice that was right… for me.”
I will take a full month off after the birth of my second son, and wade slowly back into work the second and third months. Babies are up early and I’ll be up too, so I’ll ask Health-Ade for help with a night nurse and child-care support, and for the flexibility to work remotely so I can properly introduce my new son to his older brother. In return, I’ll be the best damn CEO I have it in me to be, probably working longer and harder than I ever would have, if the conversation was never had.
I also want to emphasize this was the right option for myself at this particular time, and that it should not dictate what any of my female teammates at Health-Ade decide to do for themselves. These women don’t need to choose my path, nor will they be judged if they take a full three months off and never check email. I hope having this conversation with myself, my family and the company I helped build will allow more women to confidently pursue careers at the c-suite level without feeling they must sacrifice their right to motherhood.
So, what IS the ideal maternity leave package?
I don’t have the definitive answer for what the optimal maternity package is. But I realize now it isn’t just one package, but instead a conversation with each woman that allows for flexibility from the business in exchange for her long-term commitment. I’m very impressed by companies like:
- Nike, which is revisiting how they handle female sports talent who become mothers,
- and restaurant chains like sweetgreen, which now offers five months’ leave.
But I do not believe either of these improvements fully solve the issues for women at the top. Taking even 6 months off only makes it more conflicting to a female CEO who might want to be a mom. How can she possibly entertain a half a year away from arguably the biggest job of her life, one she has worked so hard to hold? A well-intentioned benefit meant to encourage mothers in the workplace could end up shutting her down from exploring her greater professional potential. Executives in the c-suite need a different type of package, where the company truly shows it values ‘her’ in this position by offering customized support so she can give her best to everyone at home and the office.
A note from the author
I wrote this article through my lens and my personal experience, as a doting wife and mother and an ambitious entrepreneur. I’m lucky to have an incredibly supportive family and a successful business, and the conversation I hope to start here — for every woman in the workplace — is about companies helping women who chose to become mothers (whether these women are executives or not, whether they have their own children or adopt) with relevant maternity programs that truly meet each woman’s individual needs and career goals. Questions or comments, positive or negative, please email me at press(at)health-ade(dot)com or reach out to me on LinkedIn.
~Daina Trout, CEO of Health-Ade Kombucha