When I was pregnant with my second child, I had a memorable conversation with Scott Maxwell, the founder of OpenView, the venture capital firm I’ve worked for since 2009. In particular, three words from our conversation stood out: “Set an example.”
As the first female leader at OpenView to have children, Scott recognized the unique position I was in to influence how other women at the firm might one day balance being moms and working professionals. That responsibility was empowering and intimidating — particularly as a woman in the male-dominated venture capital industry. What exactly did Scott mean by example? Should I work harder? Work fewer hours? Take a longer (or shorter) maternity leave? Not return to work at all?
Thankfully, Scott quickly assuaged these concerns. His goal wasn’t to put me on a pedestal and parade me around as a model of work-life balance. Instead, he encouraged me to set an example by dictating the experience that made the most sense for me, my family and my career. The duration of my maternity leave was up to me and, when I was ready to return, the firm would welcome me back at a pace that worked for me as I adjusted to this new, very major change in my life.
It wasn’t lip service, either. While out on maternity leave, I was given the freedom to dictate how often or how little I checked-in. And near the end of my time away, I received a call from OpenView’s leadership team to inform me that I was being promoted as the firm’s first female partner.
Now, it’s important to point out that my experience hasn’t been stress-free. I still grapple with balancing at-home and at-work responsibilities. And there are certainly times I feel guilty about not being able to tuck my kids into bed every night. Truthfully, that tug-of-war may never fully dissipate. As Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi has pointed out, working moms — or working parents, more generally — can’t “have it all.”
That said, I firmly believe that by asking me to “set an example,” OpenView also set an example for its portfolio companies and, more broadly, the VC and tech industries.
All too often, businesses implement “progressive” HR policies and procedures that create a false sense of inclusivity for working moms. They encourage women to take time off and to strive for work-life balance, but their actions don’t support that message. As a result, many women feel pressured to either work too much or not at all.
If we really want to erase the gender gap, this culture has to change — and it has to start at the top. VCs, CEOs and executive teams must genuinely demonstrate the change they want to see. If they preach flexibility and inclusivity, then they need to live it, too. The more this cultural concept becomes commonplace, the more it will trickle down throughout the workforce. And when that happens, we’ll spend less time worrying about where women fit into organizational leadership roles and more time focusing on how we can empower women to build and grow their careers.