In 2011, Karla Gallardo founded Cuyana and asked business-school student Shilpa Shah to be her co-founder. Their vision: to build a fashion company with a sustainable supply chain, selling handmade luxury goods to women and encouraging them to own "fewer, better things." Shah had two very young children at the time--and before long Gallardo, the company's CEO, would become a mom too. Today they've grown the San Francisco-based company profitably, despite taking funding of more than $30 million. Cuyana has more than 100 employees, 85 percent of whom are female. The duo opens up about the chaotic route to getting there during pregnancy, childbirth, newborns, therapy--and lots of breast-pumping. --As told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin

Shilpa Shah: I went back to business school at 32. I had a full career before that as a user-interface designer, and actually had worked at five different jobs, most recently director-level. So going back to school was a strange move. I wanted to do it because I'd seen so many good, creative ideas go into a boardroom and never come out again. I wanted to know what happened in there.

I also had a 2-year-old, which is very different from most people in the full-time program. Some people were getting married, or had spouses, but definitely didn't have children. Then I got pregnant again after the first semester of school.

I asked the school staff, "What do women do when they get pregnant in business school?" They kept it positive and said: "It's amazing, but our women always find a way to graduate on time." I delivered my second boy in August before my second year started, and went right into that year. People already thought I was crazy to start school with a kid. They thought I was crazier to have a second child while in school.

I had met Karla back when I was applying to school. She had finished school, went to Apple, and then started to work on Cuyana. Then in October of that year--at that point my second son was 2 months old--she said, "I want to do this with you." I couldn't pass it up. By December of that year, I had a 4-month-old, a 3½-year-old, and a startup. Oh, and I had a semester left in school. It was insane.

Karla Gallardo: The fact that she had kids didn't give me pause. I knew I wanted to be a mom someday--plus the idea was to build a company for women. We made a clear arrangement of how it would work while she was in business school, and for her to come on full time after.

Shah: Before I was finished with school, Karla was ready to fundraise. She had done a test collection and she already had metrics for a second collection. To raise money, to really start putting fuel against the idea, literally between school sessions I drove to VC pitches, pumping milk in the parking lot after pitching. That's what life was until I graduated. I had never worked harder in my life.

Gallardo: I have a vivid memory of Shilpa pumping in the car between fundraising pitches. My apartment in the Jackson Square neighborhood of San Francisco was our first office. She'd just go into my bedroom to pump--I didn't know at all what that was--and so her pump was in my apartment, and all sorts of bottles and things. They just stayed there. 

Shah: After the first two collections, Ecuador and Peru, we thought, "Let's do India!" because I had connections in India for the supply chain. My kids were little, and it would be a long trip, but I couldn't go without them. We also took my husband and mom. We were this ragtag crew trying to go to supplier meetings and still make it home to see an uncle for dinner. I remember pumping in a rickshaw. The kids' sleep schedules were way off. At one point in Delhi, Karla said: "Look: I love you and I love your family, but we can never do this again." And then I had to jump on a call for a business-school project. It was insane.

Gallardo: That was the first and last time we did that.

Shah: My husband was a medical resident, and is a surgeon, so I had always been the primary one who paid the bills, planned the travel, and took care of all the household logistics. But now I just started dropping balls. I learned precisely how long you can go without paying your bill before they cancel your cell phone. I simply didn't know how to handle it all.

When you have a kid, the marriage can be harder than the baby. Our first one was so easy because there weren't all these other complexities. But I had made a commitment: I was a co-founder; there were two of us and we had taken on money. That wasn't something I was going to walk away from. People don't normally talk about this, but my husband and I were in therapy. There were all these things, and we had to readjust our entire dynamic in that first year with an infant and without good help at home.

But when my second son was 1, I got the gift of a nanny. I had been in the business for a year--and honestly, having really good help changed everything. I remember this one day where my husband and I looked at each other and we had a therapy appointment and I was like, "Do we really need to go?" And he was like, "I'm good. Are you good?" And I'm like, "I'm good." Now, I am actually the woman at girls' night who's like, "Yeah, my husband actually does more than me." He manages all the little league, all the scheduling. It's amazing.

Karla had Matteo at the end of October 2016, right before our holiday season, which is the biggest time of the year for a retail business. There are things you can't time.

Gallardo: I planned for six weeks of being disconnected--and figured that would be more than enough, and for coming back slowly. I shared my plan with the rest of the team and I said, I do not expect anybody else to follow this. This is not an example for anybody. It's actually going to bring me peace as a person to be able to just check in.

But I checked in after two weeks. And I couldn't let it go. My head started to be at work again, and I'd schedule meetings and dial in to things that seemed important. I shouldn't have checked in. I thought what I was doing was right--I can't describe the responsibility I have of running this amazing brand and doing the best work we can. But being an inexperienced mother and not knowing that those first weeks don't come back, it's something I learned the hard way. If I could get back those first weeks, those first couple of months, I would do anything for that.

Shah: I've really viewed it as my role to guide her as much as possible--but a lot of learning as a mom is learning on your own. You've never done it before and your baby's never done it before. Make it up! There's no guidebook!

Gallardo: I used to work a lot all the time and then I used to take care of myself when I wasn't working. So I would be able to regain energies and then go back at it. I realize that there's no way that somebody with the mentality and the work ethic I have can continue to work in that way after having a child. There's just no way to make that work.

The first year is very, very hard. Not only because of the whole juggling thing, but also because as a woman your body is given away for so long, and getting that back while doing the breastfeeding. Just being a woman--it takes time to get that back. Matteo is 2½ now, and I feel I'm just getting that back.

Shah: I worked from home on Fridays, and I encouraged her to work at home on Mondays. It's nice to have that one day to be closer to where your kid is. And she's actually more effective, because she bangs out everything that needs to be done to start the week. Companies will adjust--our most important meetings start on Tuesdays. That's fine.

Gallardo: Some women say motherhood makes them more productive. I wouldn't say I'm more productive, I'd say my schedule is just overbooked! I do two things at once, say, a call while I'm having my nails done.

Shah: I don't think balance exists. And I don't think it should be our goal: I think it holds us back as women more than it helps us, as a concept, because it's impossible.

Working out, spending quality time with our husbands, spending quality time with our kids, leading a board meeting at work--is that all supposed to happen in one day? Or is balance achieved over one week? One month? What does it even mean? If we maximize for fulfillment, wouldn't we just create more value across the board? Balance is the wrong word.

Published on: May 10, 2019