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.
You're so inspiring! Thank you for sharing your story. I think it makes so much sense to up-skill the team such that the company can run without it's leader for some time. I'm sure it must be a benefit to all.
Hi Lauren!Thanks for taking the time to share your incredible journey and experience with the community! Any advice for other women in the professional prime looking to started a family in the next few years but absolutely petrified to do so due to the enormous professional responsibility they may have (ie: managing teams, being a founder, etc.)?Thanks in advance!
Hi WhitneyI feel like the biggest lie I've been told is that you can just "lean in" and somehow care for a newborn and manage an aggressive career. That is just wildly unrealistic.Having a baby is as much work if not more than going to school full time. You wouldn't just think "oh, let me take on a full course load" while working a crazy job. You'd adjust your life to do both. So I don't understand why we treat having children--which are arguably the things we will care about most in our lives--like they will magically fit into an already full schedule.Moreover, just like you love your career and want to be the best at it, you'll want to do that for your children as well. So for me, I don't want to put my 6 week old daughter in day care 10 hours a day, feed her formula, and hope that I see her a few moments when she's not sleeping. I understand that is a privilege to make that decision. But I've designed my life to get there. Does it mean I'm spending 6 months not leaning in? Yes. But it also means I'm learning how to be much more effective with my time so "leaning in" doesn't mean working 80 hours per week.Advice I'd have for others?First, get your career to a place where you feel confident that you know how to excel. After being a founder, I know how to create the work I want. I know how to get a shit hot job that I love. It took me a decade to get there. So I have no fear that when I'm ready to go full tilt again, I can. But right now, I'm not going full tilt. I'm planning at least 6 months, if not up to 2 years when my child starts school, to not work full tilt. Since my daughter was born, I've transitioned to working from home. I have a nanny 8:30 AM - 5:30 PM weekdays. I'm still breastfeeding my daughter for almost every feeding. I'm getting good amounts of work in--I love to work. And actually wanted to work much sooner than I originally thought--by 6 weeks, I was dying to work. But I don't want the pressure to go into an office all day every day. So plan to get your job to a place where you can manage a work-from-home and gradual return to work schedule. The more senior you are, the more you can design the work-life you want. So go hard in your career early to get more flexibility when you're ready for kids. Have it be a goal. And if you have the luxury of planning your children, you can then at least have your career somewhat in a place where you're not expected to be in the office all day every day.Second, get your shit together. As much as my husband is a feminist who wants me to work, the vast majority of childcare and home care falls on me. This won't change overnight in our marriage (though I've tried)--it is a systematic barrier for working women across cultures. The work at home increases exponentially when you have kids--I had no idea how much it would take. So while we need to continue to raise equality minded sons, and create workplaces that support working mothers, in the short term, it falls on women to balance the needs of our home while pursuing our careers. How do we do this? Automation, planning, organization, and HELP. Try to design your life where nearly everything you do to fits into one of three categories: 1) adding unique value to your work 2) taking care of yourself and doing things you enjoy or 3) spending quality time with your family. If it doesn't fall into one of these categories, outsource it, stop doing it, or figure out a way to optimize it.Just like you can foresee designing a career that lets you take 6 months or more to be with your child, work to get your home life dialed in before having your baby. For me, that means not having to do cleaning, cooking, laundry, shopping, or be the sole childcare provider.For some reason, in the US, we really turn up our noses at domestic help. But your time is valuable. At work you wouldn't spend 5 hours making copies or cleaning toilets. So why would you spend your precious off hours at home folding towels or cleaning toilets? Outsource it!I've automated my meal planning and shopping with apps like Plan to Eat. I have a housekeeper. I'm fortunate to also have a cook--which is easily affordable in Africa. Though in the U.S., there are a lot of ways to outsource your cooking and meal planning. Does all of that cost money? Yes. But it means you're able to invest your unique value in things that will truly pay off--your unique value at work, your unique value to your family, and not burning out--rather than saving money because you think you should clean your own toilets.We still have a long way to go when it comes to creating systems that enable women to excel. And I'm happy Elpha exists to help us figure out how to do it.