Earlier this year, I participated in a panel discussion organized by AIGA DC titled Founding Mothers: A Conversation with Female Founders, which asked the question – Is starting and running a business really all that different for women?
RoundPeg is, in many ways, typical of a Founding Mother enterprise, so it provides an ideal vantage point to take a deeper look at what that means in business terms. In America, we tend to keep motherhood and business leadership as separate entities; in an attempt to figure out why and to question my own accomplishments, mistakes, and challenges through the prism of motherhood as it relates to business, I sat down for a Q&A with Jane Darroch Riley. Jane is a fellow working mother, who worked for several large corporations in the US, the UK, and Asia before finding her niche as a freelance writer in Europe. She asked thoughtful questions about my role as the Founding Mother of RoundPeg.
What are your thoughts on being called a Founding Mother?
Polina: My experience as a mother deeply influenced the choices I made while building my business. I launched it when already a mother of two and pregnant with my youngest daughter. I obviously don’t undermine the achievements of non-mothers, but for me, motherhood is an integral part of my motivation to succeed. I was looking for flexibility, minimal commute, no office politics, and some semblance of control over my life. I knew so little about finances or the money side of business. In fact, it did not occur to me to worry all that much about it! But it’s probably true that motherhood was the element that pushed me toward it, so that title very much represents my own journey.
What do you see as the main difference for businesses founded by and led by women?
Polina: Women-owned businesses have grown by 114% compared to overall national growth of 44% for all businesses according to a report released by American Express. But interestingly, only 4.1% of women-owned businesses break the one- million-dollar-earnings ceiling. I wonder about that. Many of these new startups are begun by women who cannot get a job otherwise. Just look at the data. During 2007 through 2012, many women of color became entrepreneurs out of necessity, as they could not get a job during the recession or recovery period, rather neatly illustrating the cliché that necessity is the mother of invention.
“By 2019, over half of small businesses will be run by female entrepreneurs, according to a study by The National Federation of Small Businesses.”
Studies by the Kauffman Foundation in 2011 reported that venture-backed companies led by a woman create 12% more revenue, yet the truth seems to be that most female startups in 2018 have a very hard time finding backing. Why do you think that is still the case?
Polina: I would be curious to know how many of the women are also mothers who are dividing their attention between growing a business and a growing family. Many of the amazing women I meet are CEOs of social enterprises. Many have started their businesses at their kitchen table, as a way to correct an injustice and to do good. They think deeply about workplace culture as their companies grow. They demand a supply chain based on environmental practices that never pollute. For us, it’s not just a matter of doing the right thing; it’s an integral part of being role models for our kids, which I assume is not a stance that is of obvious investment appeal.
The book, The Magic of Tiny Business, is a clear illustration of how female founders from the very inception of their business set different goals. Sharon Rowe, the author, clearly states that she put her kids first, family vacations second, and making money to support these goals is her motivation. Plus, she wanted to earn this income while doing something good for the planet. That is pretty much a mirror of my own guiding principles. As I talk about my work life at the dinner table, it is often my girls who remind me what matters and what the right path is, regardless of financial pressures or gains.
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever gotten?
Polina: I’ve been in business for 15 years and been given a lot of advice along the way, much of it unsolicited, so I tend to be very careful who I listen to now. My advice to avoid a lot of missteps and stress is to find a trusted peer group no matter how small. I gravitate toward good accountants, lawyers, peers, and friends. I’m also lucky to be married to a wonderful man who is a serial entrepreneur. We have a routine of Saturday hikes at a nearby trail. We walk in the woods and discuss business. This consistent weekly dose of encouragement, advice, and role-playing has helped me the most. We all need a sounding board and he is mine.
What would you say to your future self?
Polina: HURRY UP! Time is limited and easy to waste unless you are intentional about your actions. Don’t tarry and don’t worry so much. Go for it. Do it fast, learn fast, fail fast, test it early, and move on. I’m a huge believer in a “Lean StartUp” model. For me, as a trained designer, it is radical to allow a project out in the world that I don’t feel to be perfect in every way. Designers are by nature perfectionists; we belabor kerning. So it took years for me to embrace the idea “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of good” when it comes to business.
Polina: We’ve just started a new service called Creative Services Management Support that arose from my passion for mentoring and developing junior staff, combined with years of experience of running a creative department and the ability to spot that diamond in the rough. It’s a flexible service, tailored to each organization’s need. It ranges from hiring and/or firing the right staff, mentoring, putting new practices in place to maximize communication among creative staff, or identifying improvements to the workflow with other departments. I see a huge need for this service as unfortunately there are lots of poorly managed creative departments within larger organizations. What makes creative people so interesting is their insatiable curiosity. When properly harnessed, that creative force can lead to amazing results.
Final word on being a Founding Mother?
Polina: Mother is a loaded word for many reasons, but for those of us who are mothers, we need to recognize that. We also must show that being a mother is an asset, not a liability, in the workplace and that we are deeply committed to sharing our experiences, to proving the advantages of family-centric workplaces, to mentoring and supporting those at the start of their journeys, and to being proud of who we are and what we have achieved. I want my three daughters to know that mothers are vastly capable in every arena, not just the home.