How maternity leave as a sole founder made my company stronger – Lauren NkurangaFeatured
Before my daughter was born this past December, I had anticipated my maternity leave story to be something like, “and I took a 3 month off, came back with more energy than ever, and now we have hockey stick growth.” Of course, that’s not how it happened. And still, my maternity leave as a sole founder has turned out to be the best thing for my company, and me, so far. I had always known I wanted to start a company. I also always knew I wanted a family. So in 2014, when I mustered the courage to quit my job at Nike to start a distribution company in Africa, it wasn’t only about the timing for my career. At age 27, it felt like it was now or never. That this would be the last time, for a long time, that I would be dependent-less, mortgage-less, and otherwise feel comfortable taking the massive personal and financial risk to become a founder. Four years later, the bet was paying off. While an eternity in Silicon Valley, in pre-frontier terms, we were doing well: we had raised $1.5M in seed stage financing, the company had grown to 70 employees, and we were the largest fresh food distributor in Rwanda. Watching the company grow from deliveries out the back of my 20-year-old RAV4 to shipping containers sent around the world was beyond rewarding. But I was burned out. I tried to communicate to my board and investors that I needed help shouldering the burden of growth. But the pressure only continued. More than that, I saw that the skill set to grow the company from nothing to something was a totally different than the skill set needed to scale. I had the former, but I wasn’t the right person for the latter. After several pivots, we now had a specific industry: food service distribution. There were people in the world with decades of experience running companies like ours. It was time to hire one of them. I was also now 31, married, and, as predicted, ready for a family. There isn’t an easy way to tell your board and investors that you think you should no longer be CEO. That it has nothing to do with my belief in the company—as the company grew, it only strengthened my conviction in our ability to become the first scaled food service distribution company among East, West, and Central Africa. We just needed someone better than me at food service distribution operations to realize that potential. Fortunately, I had been working for the last two years on making myself redundant so I would have the breathing room to take a proper maternity leave. What I hadn’t anticipated was that it was only my pregnancy that really enabled the leadership changes that the company needed. To prepare for my maternity leave, I first built a basket of support for the company. I had up-skilled my management team to where I was able to spend only a few hours in the office per day, with the rest spent either on focused work or out hustling. We had a diversified base of suppliers and service providers. We had strong systems and processes. And the government was a big ally—a critical piece of success in a country where the government plays a critical role in economic development. Second, we started a COO search. But for me, this wasn’t actually a COO search; I was looking for the person to some day take over. It took a year and a half to find the right candidate: Mark was previously the CEO of the largest private food service distributor in South Africa and looking for his next challenge. It was only when I announced my pregnancy that everything shifted, rather immediately. The board went from exerting pressure for growth on me to spreading that responsibility among themselves and an interim CEO. Moreover, where Mark had not previously seen a role for himself at the company so long as I was CEO, we now had created the space for him to do a “trial run” at the helm. And it worked: when my daughter was three weeks old, I got a call from one of my board members. He wanted to talk about Mark’s long-term role with the company. Mark had been doing great. What did I think? When I suggested he become CEO, the board member said, “that’s what we were thinking, too.” As a sole founder, I had no real blueprint as to what a maternity leave looked like. I also had only ever seen one positive leadership transition while working for corporates. Today, Mark is taking on the breadth of operations and sales. I lead fundraising and the long-term growth plans for the company. I ended up starting a gradual return to work from about four weeks after my daughter was born. I officially transitioned to Chairman when she was two months old. We’re now six months in, and I couldn’t imagine it working better. Being a new mom has been an immense challenge—with curveballs I would have never anticipated. It has been wonderful to have the time and space to not only return to work at a pace that works for me and my daughter, but to recover from the PTSD of the early start up years. And it’s been a boon to the business. Mark is able to bring in opportunities at an accelerated pace. He’s able to stage our growth with a clear operational capacity to deliver. And our investors see that this next level of growth for the company is closer than ever. Leadership transition during maternity leave is only one path. I’ve now seen others who jump right back into their CEO roles, albeit with a few less hours sleep. I think the big opportunity here is that founders who anticipate maternity leave are forced to create stronger companies. They can then use that time to reassess their own role, in ways that can produce great outcomes for their companies’ bottom lines. During my first trimester, before anyone knew I was pregnant, I was terrified of being a sole female founder on maternity leave. Now, I see it as an asset to female-founded companies—one I hope more women take.Lauren Nkuranga is driven to realize the massive opportunity in Africa for business and innovation. She worked for Nike Inc from 2011 to 2014, including 2 years in Rwanda with the Nike project Girl Effect. In 2014, Lauren left Nike to start GET IT, a food service distribution company and exporter. From 2014 to 2019, Lauren grew GET IT as CEO to become the largest fresh food distributor in Rwanda. Today, she serves as Founder & Chairman, leading GET IT to transform food procurement and distribution in East, West, and Central Africa by connecting frontier-market farmers, producers, and manufactures to formal markets. The Rwanda Development Board named Lauren Women Entrepreneur of the Year in 2019. Lauren has a background in PR & communications, working with clients including Intel and His Holiness the Dali Lama. Previous to communications, Lauren worked as an advisor on impact investing, as well as working as user interface and design consultant. Lauren has a B.A. with distinction in Political Science and Anthropology from Yale University.