Having it all: what I’ve learned about being a CEO and pregnant

Michelle You, the founder and CEO of carbon removal startup, Supercritical, describes her experience of being a pregnant leader and shares her advice 

Pregnant CEO

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was a venture partner at a VC firm, working three days a week. I really gave myself the space to focus on having a baby – both my husband and I took eight months off. Now that I am running a business with a five-year-old, I know I can do it: I can be a mother and run a company. It’s given me confidence. But it’s very, very different. When I was an employee, I felt like I could take parental leave more freely.

This baby was IVF so I was planning for it, but when I got pregnant I still felt dread and panic about telling my board and co-founder. Having spoken to a lot of women – not just founders or CEOs – I’ve learned that they often feel worried about letting people down. That emotional experience makes me so angry. I’m the CEO and founder of this business. I raise money for the company. Why do I feel scared to tell my board? Because there’s a choice that women feel they have to make between their career and being a parent. And it’s a choice men don’t have to make.

I’m the CEO of this business. Why do I feel scared to tell my board I’m pregnant?

I’ve been a huge proponent of equal parental leave since running my first company, Songkick. There’s no silver bullet for inequality or the gender pay gap, but parental leave is one of the strongest levers we have. I think that once expectations of parents are equal between both parents – and for biological parents and non-biological parents – then you won’t get this difference in the reactions to men and women taking time off. 

Right now in the UK, men can take their partner’s leave, but it’s not easy. It’s not the default. In the Nordic countries, they have a ‘use it or lose it’ amount of time. If the father doesn’t take it, the couple doesn’t get it, which has incentivised fathers to take more time off. Speaking to my friends who work for Nordic companies, there is a different norm around dads taking time off and I think that does a lot to build empathy in the workplace, but also helps women to feel less pressure to do it all themselves. 

When it came to letting people know, I procrastinated a lot. I thought I needed the perfect plan, to have all the answers. Then I realised that I’m never going to have that, I just need to tell them. I should have had more confidence in the people I chose to help lead and fund the business. My board is great. When I raised investment from them, I chose them because I knew they’d be collaborative and great partners to me. I also have a really great executive team, my co-founder and COO are true partners in building the business and making sure we’re running in the right direction. Now I’ve told them, I feel completely fine and very relieved that I’ve got them by my side. All the fear and paranoia was self-imposed or socially imposed.

There aren’t that many female CEOs, let alone ones who have babies, so it’s really hard to get guidance and feel less alone. 

Back at the start of my pregnancy, I wish I could have put myself first a bit more and prioritised what I wanted and needed, rather than thinking about what other people would think. I have been trying to come to terms with feeling more confident about what I want. My advice to others in this situation is to try not to worry about what people think. You can make it work whatever your choices are. Allow yourself to rest and take breaks and try not to feel insecure about it. 

I know I can do it: I can be a mother and run a company

Practically speaking: work out what responsibilities you have as a CEO that are unique to you versus ones that can be delegated to others, and then work out how you fill that gap.

How you deal with replacing yourself while you’re on maternity leave is very specific to each company. It depends on the leadership team and what function the CEO plays. Right now, I run the sales and marketing team and, because of our size and our stage, I’m still very responsible for closing deals and managing customer relationships. That’s probably the biggest gap that I’m working to backfill. I’m not going to hire my replacement. I’ve heard of people bringing in interim CEOs and interim execs for the gap, but because it’s such a relationship-driven role, I’m going to delegate some of my deals to team members who are already in place.

I definitely wrestle with how much to talk about my personal experience. At my first company I didn’t have any role models of female founders who had babies, and it was such a mysterious, scary, intimidating experience that I thought ‘I’m not ready. I can’t do this.’ So I hope the pure fact that I am a pregnant CEO who is going to have a baby, take time off and come back is setting an example. So few people talk about it and that makes it scary and intimidating when it shouldn’t be. Most people have children and it shouldn’t be such a big deal. 

Michelle You is a member of the Raconteur 50, a list of the UK’s outstanding CEOs. Meet the rest of the list here.