How do you balance being an investor at a VC fund and having a young family? If you join any company in your late twenties and you want kids one day, this question inevitably surfaces.
Four of AirTree’s six partners had babies in the last two years. Many partners at VC funds across Australia and New Zealand have young kids. To attract and retain the best talent in our growing industry, we need to make it accessible and attractive to people from all backgrounds, including those who want to have a family life that is as important as their work life.
To help bring more transparency to how VCs manage the arrival of a new family member, I’ve gathered the experiences and advice from both women and men across the VC industry.
One of AirTree’s values is “There’s More To Life”, reflecting our belief that our lives outside of work are as important as our careers, and that we prioritise being there for those closest to us. Creating a positive experience for new parents at AirTree is core to living our values.
The first thing to call out is that there is no right way to do this — everyone I spoke to crafted their first year differently. Plan what you think will work for your unique situation and leave some flexibility to change on the fly if you need to.
How did you plan for your baby’s arrival with your work?
Luckily, this was a well-trodden path at AirTree by the time my daughter was born. However, if you’re one of the first in your workplace, there are a few things I would consider:
Does your fund have a parental leave policy?
AirTree offers four months paid parental leave for the primary carer, the option to return to work for four day week (but get paid for five days) for the first six months, and continues to pay super and vests carry for 12 months after the child’s birth. You can do paid work while on leave if agreed with the company.
How much time will you take?
It’s hard to know how much time to take when having your first child, and it also depends on your circumstances.
AirTree was adamant I didn’t need to tell them before I went away, but I wanted to have a plan and for the team to have a vague idea of when to expect me back. I took my best guess how how long I’d want to take (6-8 months) and told them the upper end of that range (8 months), assuming it would be easier to take less than more. In the end, I was ready to come back by six months. I came back full-time then and my partner took two months paternity leave before we enrolled our daughter in daycare at eight months.
How will you hand over portfolio companies?
I work with eight portfolio companies at AirTree and wanted to make sure those founders were well supported in my absence. I chose to hand over each of my portfolio companies to someone else on the investment team for the first three months and then take those responsibilities back. This meant attending some board meetings and founder calls while on leave, but after the first three months, I was desperate for intellectual stimulation, and I welcomed the opportunity to do some work while my daughter was sleeping or with her grandparents.
What will you do with deals in the pipeline?
I stopped taking on new deals about two months before I went on leave to ensure no founder was handed over halfway through the investment process. I also identified my “hotlist” of startups that might raise while I was out and handed those over to the team to make sure they stayed in touch.
Others planned in similar ways:
John Henderson - AirTree: I let my Partners know six months ahead of time that I was planning on taking four months of parental leave. I knew they’d feel the impact and that they would have to cover for me and take on extra work. But they didn't bat an eyelid and fully supported me. In hindsight, I think it brought us closer together.
Georgie Turner - Tidal Ventures: We were a small team at the time, so it was a good opportunity to bring in some fresh talent to support while I was off. It was pretty intense in the lead-up to the birth, trying to get everything handed over and re-assigned so I didn’t become a bottleneck.
Elicia McDonald - AirTree: I felt like I was in uncharted territory as I didn’t know any other women VC investors who had taken parental leave – fortunately there are many more examples now. I wrote a document about how I wanted to stay involved during my leave, when I’d like to return and what I’d hand over before I left. I knew I didn’t have to stick to that plan perfectly, but it did help me plan and prepare for my time off.
Justin Lipman - EVP: Most VC funds are, in Australia, small businesses. EVP is no different. Well in advance we had open, internal communication around leave and availability. The team at EVP was highly supportive and worked hard to cover most aspects during my time off. Importantly, they stuck to weekly schedules and a more structured cadence to allow me to organise home life more effectively. This meant that I was almost entirely checked out for a period of time. We had active plans to manage ongoing origination, diligence and decision-making. There was a clear process for what needed attention versus what could be delayed. Many processes could be conducted async. I checked emails most days, but had very limited responsibility or meeting commitments.
VC is fast-paced, did you feel like you were missing out while you were out?
It took me a while to wind down from the pace of working life and get comfortable with not feeling like I was achieving anything each day. Having said that, I didn’t feel completely out of the loop. We share our investment papers with the whole team on email, so I could see which new investments we made and our thesis behind them. A couple of times, when I started to get bored or lonely at home, I called one of the AirTree partners to catch up on what was happening at work.
John: Yes. Absolutely. Taking time off from a job you love and the entrepreneurs you serve is really, really hard. But also totally worth it – you never get this time with your baby again.There were a few things that helped keep me in the loop. I read (but mostly didn't respond to) our key Slack channels related to developments within portfolio companies and investments we are making. And I had calls or coffees with my Partners from time to time. They are friends and colleagues.
Georgie: I only took four months off, and even though a lot happened while I was out, I realised it was nothing compared to how much had happened to me in that short space of time!
Elicia: I had FOMO for sure, but I stayed across essential things like investment papers, so I wasn’t completely out of the loop and it made my transition back much easier. I really appreciated that my colleagues at AirTree shared key updates while I was on leave, invited me to social events and sent me a gift for my birthday. These are little things, but they really matter.
Justin: This was a major personal challenge and an objective truth with having kids or taking time out for any reason. Things keep moving - and quick! Most VC's enter the industry borne out of personal interest or passion for the work. So the issue is exacerbated because the impetus to dive back into the day-to-day is strong –out of desire, not out of commitment. I would say that while FOMO was certainly "real", the venture game is a fundamentally long-dated activity. Where you're partnering with founders for a decade-long journey, zooming out with a longitudinal view does provide a comforting perspective. While I was on leave, I was able to dial in for the handful of Investment Committee meetings that took place.
Did you do any work while on leave?
The most consistent advice I received before going on leave was to have a complete blackout for the first three months. I followed that advice and would recommend it – the first three months were physically challenging for me, and babies change so quickly that even if it’s easy one week it could be very hard the next. I remember desperately wanting to dial into our Strategy Day in month two but I couldn’t because I was so sleep-deprived.
I was lucky that my daughter started to sleep pretty well at three months, so I only fed 1-2 times a night and started to feel like a human again. At this point I took on portfolio company responsibilities again and did the equivalent of 1-2 days a week with the support of grandparents. Not everyone is lucky enough to have support nearby, and I know others who have hired a nanny (also a privilege!) for a couple of mornings a week to allow them to ease back in.
John: Bits and pieces. I advise others not to, but I'm not very good at following my own advice. Most of the work I did was with portfolio founders on whose boards I serve.
Georgie: I saw a deal I wanted to lead four months after my baby was born, and I did the DD while she napped and negotiated the term sheet whilst walking around my neighbourhood with her in the pram. She probably learned too much, too early, and is now a very astute toddler-negotiator!
Elicia: I kept my board roles during both parental leaves. I wanted the founders I worked with to have continuity, and I really enjoyed keeping this part of my role while I was on leave. I remember doing calls with my founders while I walked around the block with my oldest daughter sleeping in the baby carrier. Two of the first people to find out I was in labour earlier than expected with my second child were Anastasia from Regrow and Nasir from Abyss because I had to let them know I’d miss their board meetings scheduled later that day!
Justin: Personally, the most challenging aspect related to Board positions with our portfolio companies. At the end of the day, there is no leave policy for Board members and as a manager of public money, there is a level of oversight and engagement that is difficult to dial back. The founders I work with were unbelievably thoughtful and accommodating, but for any fast-growing startup, there are many activities or decisions that simply need to be dealt with.
How was coming back to work?
I chose to dive straight back in full-time because I felt ready. It was strange in the first few weeks because it’s rare to work in VC and have no deals in the pipeline, so I eased into work by taking back on manager responsibilities in addition to portfolio management and filling my calendar with catch up coffees with all the people I hadn’t seen in 6-12 months.
John: Easy! And a bit sad. Looking after a baby is WAY harder than any job I've ever done. But so special. I miss my 9-to-5 Rose time.
Georgie: Life as a working mother is so much more challenging than most people realise. Every minute spent away from my child feels like a sacrifice. I’ve never been so productive/effective/exhausted. The attitude of the Partners at Tidal has made all the difference for me. They fully supported me to flex my workload according to my own comfort levels in that first year and I gradually ramped back up to full time.
Elicia: I really enjoyed getting back to work both times. I loved that my old world at work could coexist with my new world of being a parent. When I returned from my first parental leave in Jan 2019 the biggest challenge for me was adjusting to leaving the office early for daycare pickup, being offline for my daughter’s dinner/bath/bed routine and then logging back on once she was asleep. I had to get used to a new, more flexible, way of working.
Justin: I was very excited to return to the office feeling a renewed purpose and with potentially a healthier balance of priorities. My wife, Gabi, is a high school maths teacher and returned to work at the 6 month mark (after I returned to EVP). Leaving her alone with our son Oli was very difficult. I found it challenging to manage an unstructured and intense work environment with commitments on the home front. And there's simply a level of sleeplessness that is an ever-present undercurrent. But in hindsight, the tough moments of a crying baby in a video call, or underperforming in a work meeting due to exhaustion, seem far worse in the moment, but fade to distant memories over time.
What would you do differently?
At one point during leave, I took on too much responsibility at work and started to get stressed, not managing to enjoy either work or looking after my daughter. Reflecting on it, I wouldn’t recommend getting yourself into a situation where you have to do work with deadlines if you don’t have support lined up.
If a portfolio company is fundraising and needs intense support for a period of time, I’d recommend you hand that over to someone while on leave. I also don’t recommend keeping people management responsibilities while you’re out, you’ll end up becoming a blocker to the team moving forward.
After a couple of weeks of overcommitting, I pulled back to make sure I genuinely enjoyed my last few weeks of leave.
John: I would take longer. I ended up taking 4 months while my wife took 8. If we truly want equality in the workplace, I think equal time off for parental leave between the mother and the father is critical.
Georgie: Maybe I would do it differently for another child, but I just did what felt right for my baby and for me. When I felt ready for more work, and she seemed ready for more external care, I would change my availability accordingly. I’m a big fan of the gradual ramp-back method.
Elicia: One thing that caused me a fair bit of anxiety the second time around is that my daughter outright rejected the bottle. This meant I couldn’t be separated from her for more than a few hours at a time throughout my entire parental leave, including when I was juggling work commitments. Right up until the last weeks before she started daycare and I was due to return to work full time, she was still rejecting it. If I had my time again I’d definitely introduce at least one bottle a week in the early weeks and then keep that up. It would’ve made my transition back to work much less daunting if I didn’t have to worry about her not taking a bottle.
Justin: Improving communication with EVP's key external stakeholders. I didn't do a good job of proactively notifying of times where I'd be basically uncontactable.