Taking parental leave as a founder: what we learned at Ada and how to set you and your team up for success.
Why am I writing this?
I wrote in 2021 about the challenges of considering starting a family alongside being a founder of your own business. As the co-founder of a Venture Capital fund called Ada Ventures, then only 18 months old, the topic of taking parental leave as a founder was (and is) deeply personal to me.
Pip with me at the Ada Ventures office
Writing and publishing that piece opened up a wide range of empathetic conversations. Those conversations were helpful in shaping my plan for having children alongside keeping the business running successfully. Pip is now 14 months old and Ada Ventures continues to thrive.
As investors, I believe it is incumbent upon us to show leadership on this topic and create space to discuss having children with founders in our portfolio companies. It is also important to ensure that founders that are trying to conceive, concerned about fertility or having children are financially and emotionally supported on their journeys.
The purpose of this article is to share specific learnings from my journey and the conversations that followed over the last year with founders who are considering having children, and for businesses who are looking to set their employees up for successful parental leave.
Most of the tips below cost nothing and are simply about culture and communication. However, some are not possible for all businesses. For example if their employees are unable to work flexibly or remotely. I’ve included all for completeness. Given the war for talent, there’s huge strategic logic in implementing as many of these as possible in order to attract and retain the best people.
For the founder(s) of the business, here are three important topics to consider, with contextual examples from our team.
Invest in benefits
- Get health insurance for your staff. Ensure that your benefits package includes a fertility benefit such as Fertifa or Peppy covering egg freezing or support going through IVF or adoption. Ensure there is dedicated support for employees who want to freeze their eggs and support for those who experience challenges conceiving.
- Have a parental leave policy. I’m amazed and disappointed at the number of firms that still don’t offer anything beyond statutory parental leave. Ensure that your parental leave policy is equal for male and female employees to avoid penalising women. Ensure that it considers same sex couples, LGBTQ+ employees, solo parents and adoption.
- As leaders, you must talk about your parental leave policy. Make sure someone in the company (or you) is tasked with letting people know how to access it and that it can be accessed in a confidential way. Include it in the job offer discussions, as an appendix to the contract, the onboarding pack, make sure people know where to access it without having to ask.
- If your business can afford it, buy a mental health support benefit, such as Spill.* (Ada is an investor in Spill). It’s a big transition — trying to get pregnant, getting pregnant, having a child, navigating any pre- and post birth complications, transitioning back to work, all of these things could have mental health impacts. Having a service that people can turn to anonymously will help them and you.
- If your business can afford it, give all employees having children some childcare credits to use in the first year of the baby’s life. Matt, Xun and the team did this for me at Ada and my husband Paddy and I were able to use these credits to get a night nanny in the two weeks after the birth. We got these through Bubble’s B2B offering (which Ada is also an investor in — we eat our own cooking!) This helped my physical and mental recovery from the birth enormously.
Create a culture that genuinely supports parents and future parents — and crucially, doesn’t make parenting a “women’s issue”.
- Don’t make having children a taboo topic. Create space for people in the team to talk about their plans to have children. If you are able to communicate about this really important part of their lives in an open and supportive way on their terms, they will feel supported by you and the business. When Matt and I first started working together when I was 25, he started saying that he wanted to make sure that we built a venture firm which was completely supportive of partners and employees having children. He normalised the conversation about kids so I felt I could speak to him about it freely and without stigma. This was invaluable.
- Check-in with your colleagues. Ask your colleagues regularly how they are and what they need in order to set themselves up for success with their families and at work.
- Connect your colleagues who are keen to have kids to others that have had kids in their position to share practical tips on what worked well. This is in your interests as well as theirs.
- Consider how to support colleagues whilst they are pregnant or trying to conceive and those with young children. For example, hosting events without alcohol, ensuring they are not having to do a lot of evening events or long haul travel.
- Consider specific financial and emotional support for LGBTQ+ parents and solo parents. Their needs will be different and will likely have a more expensive and in some cases more challenging journey to parenthood.
- Consider bereavement leave and benefits for those that suffer bereavement and or miscarriage.
Encourage flexible working
- Encourage flexible working — how flexible are you as a firm? Being able to work from home for some hours or days can be invaluable when you are in the late stages of pregnancy. It is also essential for pick ups and drop offs, particularly for solo parents. Consider the events you schedule and avoid starting them between 8–9.30 or 5–7pm as these are the times when parents will be picking up and dropping off children at school and nursery. Don’t underestimate the positive impact building a flexible working culture will have on employees general wellbeing and therefore performance. Check out Ada’s portfolio company Flexa if you want examples of best in class companies for flexible working.
For the future parent
For the future parent, whether the founder or a part of your team, here are important topics to consider, with contextual examples from my experience before and after birth:
Before you start trying to conceive (TTC):
- Consider that trying to conceive can be a stressful and exhausting process in and of itself and if you feel comfortable, share that you are trying to conceive with your team or trusted colleague so they can support you. Particularly if you are going through IVF. The same applies to egg freezing which can be a very physically tiring and emotionally difficult process.
- If you are successful in getting pregnant, consider that you might be sick or very tired in the first trimester of pregnancy and how that might impact your energy at work.
Before the birth:
Create or join a community
- Talk to others who have had children when they were in your position. These conversations are incredibly helpful to prepare yourself for the things you might need to consider. I was fortunate to have conversations with some truly brilliant women who have children as founders of VC funds. There is a Mum’s in VC whstapp group and several Mum’s in tech founder groups.
Find others who are thinking of having children or having children at a similar time to you.
- Read articles — these are some that I found useful:
- How to plan when you are both working parents
- What to expect when you’re expecting — the VC edition
- How maternity leave made me a better leader
- Planning for Parental Leave
Make a plan
- After you’ve learned from others who have had children, start making a parental leave plan. I suggest writing this early and doing it in collaboration with your colleagues. Share the draft plan with them, make it open, talk to them about their questions or concerns so you can mitigate them. For me, this plan included how we were going to make investment decisions whilst I was off, how to fill resource gaps and when, who would monitor my inbox, when I would stop travelling (7 months pregnant), how to tell our investors that I was taking maternity leave.
- My plan also factored in the FCA and how to ensure that we were staying compliant with our regulatory responsibilities and my board responsibilities whilst I was off. I ended up resigning from two board director positions of portfolio companies as I didn’t think I could provide sufficient oversight whilst I was having a baby. I have subsequently taken these back up but resigning felt right to me at the time.
- As a Venture Capitalist make sure you check your Limited Partnership Agreement to ensure you are not in breach of any restrictions if you take maternity and paternity leave. Unfortunately many of these legal documents are incredibly antiquated and in the original drafts I would have risked being removed from my position in the fund if I had taken more than six weeks of leave (!!!). I also had to seek approval to take parental leave which is quite frankly absurd.
- Consider what you might have to do if you are unwell during pregnancy. What would your plan be and how would you adapt your job if you are unable to work as normal.
- I had a traumatic birth with a third degree tear and therefore a lot of physical and mental recovery afterwards. I had planned to take around 6 months of parental leave, depending on the circumstances of the birth and how I was feeling. Despite the physical side, mentally I felt ready to start picking up some work after three months but I transitioned back over the following three months starting with three days a week, building up to four and then five over the following three months. This was what felt right to me but I encourage you to stay flexible in your plans as it’s such a big physical and mental shift that the amount of time people need varies hugely. Also remember that everyone is different — try not to judge others for their choices.
After the birth:
- Let people know well ahead of time you are not going to be on email and not going to be around for longer than you think. If you come back early it’s a nice bonus. I sent an email to our investors and portfolio companies around 2 months before I was going to be off, letting them know the rough timings and who would be taking the lead from Ada whilst I was off, giving myself some buffer in case plans changed.
I set a block in my calendar every work day between 5.30–7pm, so I can spend time with Pip before he goes to sleep. Most evenings, I log back on after that to catch up. Because I set this boundary before I came back, the team respects and expects it. As a leader of a business, that boundary setting sets a good example for other team members to be able to set their own boundaries too. (Caveat — I know some people work in international teams on different timezones so this will be much more difficult to stick to)
Give yourself grace and flexibility as you transition back in
- I came back relatively quickly which won’t be right for everyone but I made sure I wasn’t starting back 5 days a week, traveling constantly when I restarted at work. This was helpful for me and it meant that I had some flex if I just couldn’t manage it.
- Prepare for the chaos of nursery or daycare sickness — often when kids start at nursery or daycare they are sent home regularly as they pick up bugs from other kids. This can be disruptive if you are just going back to work at the same time so it’s worth considering having some space and flexibility built in if this happens.
- Becoming a parent has been a seismic change to mine and my husband’s life. Inevitably it has also affected how I felt about my job, my confidence, my time, my sense of mastery. The only way I’ve found works well for me to avoid becoming overwhelmed is to talk about it with the community. I have also benefited from working with a brilliant coach, Jo Howes, who has helped me work through some of these changes in a really productive way. I highly recommend getting a coach to help you manage the transition back to work.
I would love to continue the conversation and learn from others. What have I missed? What is not necessary? What other great resources exist? Feedback welcome at @checkwarner on twitter or in the comments below.
We will also be discussing this topic at this Parents in Tech event on Tuesday 21st Feb at Silicon Valley Bank. Please join us — children welcome!
Further reading and resources:
- Kindred Capital — 18 month parental leave programme
- Diversity VC — Parental leave guide
- Pregnancy is not a PR crisis!
- Being a parent and a VC
- Matilde Collin — having a baby was the best business decision
- Jax Vullings — Planning for Parental Leave
Thank you to Maria Brewer Palma, Sharon Chan, Diarra Smith, Matt Penneycard, Paddy Stobbs, Samantha Wong and the “New Mums in VC” whstapp group for input to this article.
P.S — in case it’s useful — here is my actual out of office message (with emails removed)..
Thanks for your email. I am having a baby and on maternity leave at the moment.
If you are a founder who is looking to raise money, or there’s a founder you’d like us to meet, please visit our website where you can upload your pitch deck. All investment opportunities are reviewed. If you have any problems, please email XXXXX@adaventures.com. If you’re an Ada Ventures Scout please email XXXXX@adaventures.com.
If you are emailing about anything operational, PR or marketing related, please email XXXXX@adaventures.com. If you are emailing about Ada Ventures Fund II, please email XXXXX@adaventures.com.
My inbox will be monitored whilst I’m away so your email will be picked up.