For many in the past two years, just about every part of life has been grueling. Stress levels have spiked, job security has been all over the map, families are stretched. The entrepreneurs, who have managed to keep their heads above water during the depths of the pandemic only to now face the dual crisis of the Great Resignation and supply-chain woes, are tired.
But there's opportunity in the chaos. That's the main takeaway from Inc.'s International Women's Day panel discussion featuring female founders. I moderated the panel, which included Trinity Mouzon Wofford, the co-founder of Golde, a wellness brand based in Chatham, New York; Melissa Ben-Ishay, founder and CEO of New York City-based cupcake company Baked By Melissa; and Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit dedicated to closing the gender gap in tech.
While the pandemic has indeed delivered unprecedented trials, the founders say, it also has offered moments of clarity. And the downtime--which, yes, some people had--helped them recalibrate how they think about entrepreneurship, leadership, and even motherhood.
"When everything is flipped on its head, it gives us the opportunity as entrepreneurs to take that step back and say, 'OK, what is actually working for me? What is working for my team? How do we move forward?' " says Mouzon Wofford. For example, she noted that Golde's remote workers had difficulty taking time off. So last summer, she says the entire company, even the customer service team, took the week off.
Ben-Ishay expresses a similar view. While her cupcake company offered employees paid maternity leave, as well as flexibility on returning to the workplace, Covid-19 forced her to rethink her own behavior. "I try and find the silver linings," she says. "My work schedule actually has changed, as a result of Covid. So now I am back in the office at least three days a week, but when I do work from home, I stop working as close to when my children come home from school as I can, so I can give them my undivided attention." She says she wasn't necessarily conscious about this need for mental, physical, and emotional availability prior to the pandemic. That's something, she adds, won't change once the pandemic slides into history. "I try and lead by example with my team," adds Ben-Ishay.
What's more, it's key to let people see that what you do is hard, says Mouzon Wofford. "There's always this responsibility on us to show what's possible, but then also to reveal our vulnerabilities publicly to say, 'Yes, I've done this, but don't think I did it without all the struggle.' I think it's also worth just acknowledging that all of that is a lot for any human being to do."
Saujani agrees. "We have to radically change how we... as entrepreneurs present ourselves and show ourselves. We have to show the mess behind the scenes," says Saujani. What aspiring women entrepreneurs need from founders at this moment, she says, is an outward rejection of the "Girlboss" mentality, a feminist spin on hustle culture. "Everyone told us that if we just leaned in hard enough, we could Girlboss our way to the top. And we realized that when we got there that we were exhausted and done, and that we were never going to get to equality until we fought for equality at home."
That's where business owners and employers can help, says Saujani. She recently stepped back from Girls Who Code to found the Marshall Plan for Moms, an initiative promoting pro-family policies like paid family leave, affordable child care, and pay-equity policies. Those ideas are also the centerpiece of her forthcoming book, Pay Up. "We have an opportunity to fix the foundation of our workplaces... and make them work for women," she says.
While modeling good behaviors is vital, she thinks it's an employer's responsibility to hit the reset button on the workplace. Don't praise a hard-driving mentality; praise results. You can also foster an equalized view of benefits. For instance, provide paid leave for both women and men who have to care for a newborn or an infirm family member, and encourage everyone--including men--to take advantage of it. Saujani also suggests progressive employers can even help subsidize employees' childcare costs, which clock in at an average of $15,888 annually for basic-quality infant care, according to the Center for American Progress.
For employers who can't afford to pay for part of workers' childcare, she says, they can help a lot by simply offering predictability and flexibility for hourly workers. "When you take care of people's families... you will get people's loyalty," she says.
Whether it's modeling behavior like Ben-Ishay, being empathetic with stakeholders like Mouzon Wofford, or even adopting Saujani's post-Girlboss ethos, the opportunities to make change are there. Let's just hope you're not too exhausted to reach for them.