It can be hard to avoid the biases others have about my age and gender, but I don’t let it stop me.
6 min read
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As an entrepreneur, a mother and a member of the oft-discussed millennial generation, I feel I’m being positively pummeled with expectations, joys, demands, judgments and revelations. With too little time and more goals than I can count, I often feel overwhelmed. Yet, despite the dizzying whir of business and life, I feel absolutely certain about a few things.
Owning my age
According to recent research by the Kauffman Foundation, the average age of an American entrepreneur is 40 years old. For high-growth industries, the average age skews significantly older.
I’m 30 years old, and I co-founded Pink Lily alongside my husband, Chris, four years ago at age 26. Since then, we’ve grown the business to $50 million in revenue and have set a revenue goal of $100 million for the year 2020. From one perspective, this makes me a tremendous success story, on the very early end of the typical entrepreneurial arc. From another perspective, I am a young leader who some may believe is getting in over her head.
It’s true that leading and managing a fast-growing team of dozens of employees would be a challenge for any business owner. But our cultural perceptions about age, relative to status and success, sometimes weigh heavily on me. Flickered expressions, cutting remarks, ill-timed jokes, whispered conversations — these perceptions and judgments are not easy to call out, but always easy to sense.
Unfortunately, our society is only just coming to terms with the damaging effects of workplace ageism as it affects older people battling to obtain equal opportunities and young people entering the workforce. The conversation has not yet evolved to include the struggles of young entrepreneurs, executives and leaders seeking respect despite their perceived youthfulness. And this means that it’s up to me to own my age, along with the opportunities and challenges afforded by it. Before I gear up for a tough conversation with an older employee, walk into a high-stakes meeting, announce a revenue growth strategy or take any other decisive action befitting my role as co-founder and CEO, I take a minute to reset my thinking. Yes, I am 30 years old, but I am also much more than that. I am a natural leader. And I am fully capable of steering a company and its workforce into the future.
Even as the mother of two young children, I’m not afraid to say that I love work. In this country — especially in the South — these words don’t exactly roll off the tongue. Sure, work may be necessary. It may be a chore and a duty. But, if it takes you from the responsibilities and joys of home and family, how could a woman possibly love it? How could she possibly want more of it? Why would she seek to grow and rise if she doesn’t absolutely have to do so?
In ways direct and indirect, I encounter this attitude on a regular basis. The often-implied subtext is that mothers who are ambitious and passionate about their full-time careers are somehow less invested in their family’s well-being. It may be 2018, but this sentiment is a seemingly unshakable vestige of decades past. We see glimpses of this thinking in the questions we ask of successful, business-minded women who also happen to be mothers. One of the most common is “How do you manage it all?”
This question is meant to determine how in the world these powerful women are managing to juggle their work, marriage, home and family responsibilities simultaneously. Trouble is, we rarely ask our male leaders and fathers the same question. How different would this conversation be if we stopped quietly judging our ambitious young women and successful female business leaders, but instead started asking them what they love about work? What gets you excited about work each day? Which of your professional accomplishments most shifted the trajectory of your career? Why do you do what you do? Perhaps before we can reach the point where we embrace our ambitious working mothers, we need to better understand their points of view.
Flipping the switch
When my husband and I are home, we’re home. Because we work incredibly hard during the work week, our weeknights and weekends with our children, families and friends are sacrosanct. This means that we both do everything in our power to resist the ever-present temptation of our myriad devices. There are always emails and texts begging to be checked, but while we’re at home we endeavor to resist the siren song. I like to think of the light switches in my house as not just switching on our light fixtures, but also switching us over from work time to personal time. We walk into our home, flip the switch and suddenly everything is different. It may sound silly, but it helps us to have a physical anchor that reminds us we’re no longer under the pressure of work. At home, we’re softer, lighter and more present. We’re less consumed with metrics and deliverables, and more consumed with the mechanics of Lego skyscrapers. Our eyes are focused on each other, not backlit screens.
The respect we have for the sanctity of home and family stems from when we first started our business, some years ago. We ran the entire business from our living room and had zero separation between these two competing aspects of our lives. It took a toll on our well-being, as individuals and as a family, and we learned our lesson. Today, the preservation of our home as a protected space — free from the endless notifications of our professional lives — keeps us sane. I’m relieved to know that home will continue to be our safe haven as we grow into the future, both as a business and as a family.