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Leaning Sideways: What About The Founders In The Middle?

Lean back? Maybe Sheryl Sandberg should be telling more women to "lean sideways" as the next decade is going to be one filled with amazing flourishing women-led businesses and some interesting family situations to go along with it.
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Sheryl Sandberg's recently released call to arms,
Lean In
, directs a pretty solid battle plan to achieve work/life balance. In reading it and watching it play out for Marissa Mayer, and other corporate women, it appears the women who can achieve this type of balance need some cornerstones, namely
  • Be employed by an established company, with benefits like childcare and healthcare
  • Married or engaged, preferably to someone ready to be a true 50/50 partner
  • Pregnant or already having had your kids, preferably with a committed spouse
  • At the beginning of your career and pre-family (read: young enough to still have decisions around who to marry and when to have kids) or later on in your career once you've had a family (read: you are married and have kids)

And while Lean In is a great read and philosophy trail for many groups of women, it is concerning a demographic of women that seem to be left out of the picture: entrepreneurial women who are building their companies and have not yet been able to create a work/life balance or even a family, for that matter.

Work/Life Balance for Female Founders
There are a few reasons for this. First, striking a work/life balance requires a lot of things -- from the desire to in fact have it, to the ability to prioritize, to knowing when and where to say "no" to one more assignment or being available 24/7. All of these things are near impossible if you are an entrepreneur -- male or female but it mostly boils down to having the time at all to think.

Second, this equation also requires something that is hidden in plain sight: a personal life. Third, and relatedly, when the term "life" is used in the work/life equation this often includes or implies the concepts of "health" (mental, physical) and "family" (spouse, children, extended family). This is where being a single female entrepreneur is challenging, and not just about eating right or going to the gym, its about taking the time and attention to also meet, date, vet and cultivate a spouse-worthy relationship. It takes time to get pregnant before the optimal age window closes and for many women founding and running startups who are roughly between the ages of 28 and 40 (which is me and many of my close friends), not only are we unable to lean into a "life," we are also getting left out of the whole work/life balance equation altogether.

Getting a Life Partner
Supposing time is made to date and vet life partners while running a start-up, the "life candidates" are : (1) either opting for women who are younger (for purposes of a longer fertility window, among other reasons men prefer younger women) or (2) they are looking for women who are not as ambitious as founder types typically are, leaving the spousal possibilities of the single female founders statistically lower as each year goes on, while women who are more likely to let their careers take a backseat to keeping a house and raising a family rise to the top.

The Odds
Assuming you've had success in your 20s as a female founder and you exit or decide to go inhouse at a brand, agency or venture capital firm now that you are in your 30s and are ready to marry, your pickings are slim in our own cohort because we are no longer "young" or are "too ambitious." So, the obvious options when looking for a mater are to: (1) go older and take on someone who is likely divorced and/or already has kids and may not want to have more or (2) younger and hope that we can hold the attention and affection of our spouse in the face of the fact that there will always be women younger, more fertile and less ambitious than we are. But even in these two paths to finding a partner, the real needs as a woman (to be protected, cared for, matched with a equal) is nearly lost as our "equals" are busy making up lost time and the younger men still finding personal growth and older men often set in their life arrangements.

How Does One "Lean" Sideways?
The fairly well-established truth is that startups are exhausting; the demands on one's time, mind and body make it near impossible to have a social life or energy for a social life. Add to that the challenges of getting funded or revenues (no matter what stage your company is in) and the challenges of some men not wanting a women who "disrupt" to be a lifetime partner. Bitterness can be felt by single founders getting preached at by corporate married women. There is resentment; untold told stories of sacrifice of founders reaching their thirties for spending their "prime years" building a company instead of having a family -- leaving limited time to either play makeup or missing the family boat altogether and while professional clocks can be beat, biological ones cannot.

So, here lay a group of beautiful professional women looking to have families and partners, changing the world while only being pursued by those younger or older and a huge gap where an "equal" should be. On the brightside, men are much more open to staying at home with the kids and most males in their 20s and 30s have memories of a working mom, but getting there is going to be a statistical battle for many female founders.

Lean back? Maybe Sheryl Sandberg should be telling more women to "lean sideways" as the next decade is going to be one filled with amazing flourishing women-led businesses and some interesting family situations to go along with it.