Sleepless in Silicon Alley: What It’s Like Being a Mom & Startup CEO

Frida Polli, PhD, MBA


Jun. 10 2015, Published 3:30 a.m. ET

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As I contemplate the third cold I’ve had in two months, and the lack of sleep I’ve suffered recently, I think back to another time in my life: October 2005 when my daughter was born. Prior to then, I considered myself graced with a great immune system and the ability to operate with little sleep. Having a child was a reality check. I was sick almost every other weekend, bed-ridden with a massive cold. And there is no sleep deprivation quite like waking up during the night weeks or months on end. It is just not the same as operating on a solid 5-6 hours sleep. It was a tough year.

Fast-forward to now, when I am again sick with much greater frequency and waking up during the night far more often than I would like. It does remind me of year one of parenting. To cite Ben Horowitz: “As a startup CEO, I slept like a baby. I woke up every 2 hours and cried.” Being a parent and startup CEO are both endeavors that compromise your health and sleep.

As a founder CEO, like with parenting, there is no such thing as “calling in sick.” If you don’t show up, no one is going to do the work for you.  No one will pick up your child from daycare, and no one will go to that critical investor or client meeting. You cannot send someone else. The immense responsibility you take on as a parent and as a company founder is unlike any other. In both instances, you create something that previously did not exist, and ultimately that means only you (and perhaps your co-founder or co-parent) are responsible.

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Those of you childless and/or startup-less might wonder “God, that sounds awful! Why would anyone do that to themselves?” The answer is that, though the sacrifices can be brutal at times, the joy and pride that comes from having a child or a startup is unlike any other. While I don’t put them on the same level – my daughter always comes first, just ask my team – I do put them on a different level than other life activities. There is something amazing about watching a person or team/concept grow that is indescribably fulfilling and inspiring. Creating something is incredibly compelling.

A frequent comment I get is, “It’s so great seeing someone balancing a career and being a mom.” Balancing might be an overstatement: how about tightrope walking? I get these comments whenever I talk about having a child, bring my daughter to an event, or in any way reference parenthood. Prior to that, people probably assume I don’t have a child, thanks to stereotypes and lists focused on high achievement at young age. Few people assume a tech startup CEO would have a child. I mean, Silicon Valley on HBO doesn’t have a parent protagonist.

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Being a mom makes having a startup harder and easier. Harder because, as the stereotype goes, I don’t (and don’t aspire to) work 20 hours a day, live on a plane, and/or stay in the office till 3 am, etc… I’m sure I might be doing this if I were 25, but in my defense, reams of research exist showing that burnout is a crippling problem, especially for women. (See here and here.) Easier because entrepreneurship is about making decisions and managing many different things efficiently. Nothing teaches you about fast decision-making and multi-tasking like parenting does. Having a child also grounds you in reality. If our startup fails, life will go on. There are other, more important things in life.

What seems to be orthogonal about entrepreneurship to motherhood is drive and risk-taking. Parenting requires that one be nurturing and kind and patient. Entrepreneurs are often brash, sometimes obnoxious, and highly impatient. Those two prototypes seem to be at odds. While I would say that this is true, I would also say that humans are extremely complex. I don’t need to be a mom at work or an entrepreneur at home. I am, like most people, multifaceted and have parts of my personality that can come out in certain contexts and not others. I would not be fulfilled if I didn’t have a place to get the competitive and driven part of my personality out of my system. And I don’t think I want to apply that to parenting: then I’d be the (Caucasian) tiger mom pushing my child to achieve, not for her own good, but to fulfill my own (unmet) needs. The good thing about my day job is that it lets me get my ambition and drive out of my system in a context-appropriate way. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I weren’t telling people what to do and how to prioritize everything. And by the time I get home, I have no desire to do that because I’m spent. Let the nurturing side come out…

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So, to conclude, my only bone to pick is with Forbes. Forbes, you have created and popularized the 20 under 20, 30 under 30, etc. lists. That’s wonderful, and I think that it’s important that we celebrate young people for their accomplishments. But my bone is…. where is the mom list? I have been 20 and 30. It was a lot easier getting stuff done in my unfettered 20s and 30s than it is now. Once you have a child, having a balanced career/personal life is harder, not easier. So why are there no lists celebrating that? It propagates that stereotype, again, that you can either be successful or a good parent. Isn’t it time to challenge that stereotype? I even have a catchy name for the list: The Forbes Lean-In List!

This post is reposted from the original post on Forbes. Check out Frida’s other Forbes blog posts at

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