After Michelle Zatlyn had her first child in 2013, many of her peers encouraged her to talk publicly about her experience being a  mother and a co-founder at a high-growth tech firm. She chose not to.

"I didn't want people to label me as a woman," said Zatlyn, one of the three co-founders of CloudFlare, a San Francisco-based web performance and security firm valued at more than $1 billion. "I was a founder, I was Michelle, and I happened to be a woman. But I wanted to be known as an entrepreneur."

Three years and a second child later, Zatlyn has changed her view. The 37-year-old, who serves as the head of CloudFlare's user experience, now sees it as her responsibility to share her story and talk about the ways she balances motherhood and entrepreneurship. She says it's her way of taking part in the tech diversity movement and encouraging more women to join and stay in the industry.

"I want to motivate the next generation of women to say, 'If she can do it, so can I,'" she says. "There are trade-offs and it's not always easy, but you can do both."

Women hold just 33.5 percent of the jobs at private tech companies and startups, according to an analysis by 500 Miles, a startup that uses big data to help college graduates find high-growth employers. And Harvard Business School research has found that 56 percent of women in tech leave the industry after a few years, a far higher attrition rate than for men. Among the reasons are intense workweeks that do not allow for being a parent, as well as unclear advanced career paths for women.

Handling high expectations

Since launching in 2009, Zatlyn and her co-founders have grown CloudFlare into one of San Francisco's most promising startups. CloudFlare reportedly became profitable in 2014The company now counts more than 4 million customers in over 150 countries and is adding more than 10,000 new customers every day, according to a CloudFlare spokeswoman. 

Speaking up about her life as both a mother and entrepreneur has become more important for Zatlyn as the company has grown past 300 employees, 16 percent of whom are women. In an effort to hire more women, a company spokeswoman says, CloudFlare prioritizes hosting and attending women in tech events. The company also recently began a program dedicated to helping men and women with at least five years of experience return to work after they have taken time away from their careers. 

Zatlyn and the rest of the company's leadership urge their employees to maintain a balance between work and whatever their interests are outside of the office, which includes parenthood.

"I want them to feel that they can work at CloudFlare and do great work and they can also have a family at home," says Zatlyn, whose company offers women three months of maternity leave. Men receive three weeks of paternity leave. "That's healthy and important."

Balancing a career in tech and entrepreneurship with having children is difficult for any parent, but it is an especially daunting challenge for women due to the expectations placed on mothers, says Tina Lee, founder and CEO of MotherCoders, a nonprofit that helps mothers acquire the skills necessary to get jobs in tech. 

"It's still very much a male model that presumes that someone is at home taking care of everything else and all they have to do is worry about the business," Lee says. 

Those societal pressures make it challenging to be a high-level executive or entrepreneur--especially in Silicon Valley, where it's expected that a person in one of those positions will be constantly on and working. 

"You have to go really, really hard 24/7 to make it work, and if you cannot make that commitment, investors are not going to bet on you," Lee says. "That ends up sidelining a lot of people who can't meet that bar."

The formula for balance

For Zatlyn, there are a few key tactics that have made it possible for her to find success in both of her roles. For starters, she doesn't waste a lot of time commuting. In the early days of CloudFlare, she and her husband lived "in a less desirable neighborhood" because it was just one block away from her office. Today her commute is a short 25-minute walk, allowing her to spend time with her family in the morning before work.

Zatlyn says she has been fortunate to find help from her husband and her family, who help her with her children as well as encourage her with her career. "They rock the CloudFlare T-shirt, and they're always so proud of me," she says.

Zatlyn has also begun practicing what she calls "ruthless prioritization." While she often used to attend numerous after-hours networking events, now she is more guarded about that time.

"I still do a lot of that, it's important and that's a big part of my job, but I don't do as much as I did before I had kids," she says. "If I'm going to sign up for something, I commit to it. After the fact, I say 'Was that a good use of my time?'"

Before agreeing to attend an event, she adds, she considers whether another CloudFlare employee can go in her stead. And if she decides to go herself, the next day she'll come in to work at a later hour to keep a balance.

Zatlyn says she makes it a point to "be present" to get the most out of her professional and personal time. For example, when she's with her kids, she doesn't check her phone, and when she's at the office, she focuses on work.

My children "rarely see me on my phone. I'm there, and we're playing," she says. "It's like when I choose to go to a conference ... if I'm speaking or I'm representing CloudFlare, I'm also not on my phone. If I'm doing work at a conference, I shouldn't have gone."

Finally, as CloudFlare has grown, Zatlyn has forced herself to pass on responsibility to her employees to free up more of her time.

With effective delegation, "When you get home at the end of the day, you can spend time with your family or other things that you want to be doing," she says. "If you need to double check every single thing that [your employees are] doing, then you're going to be working all night long."

Published on: Aug 11, 2016