Amy Nelson is a contributor for Women@Forbes and shared the following article on Aug. 21, 2018. Update since publication: Musk’s response to this shared article via Twitter: “For the record, my voice cracked once during the NY Times article. That’s it. There were no tears.”
Last week, Tesla founder Elon Musk opened up to The New York Times in an emotional interview about his work, his exhaustion, and his sacrifice. In other words, he gave a rare, candid look into the life of an entrepreneur. I’ve read many responses to Musk’s words, including a plea from entrepreneur Arianna Huffington that he sleep more and be more efficient with his time. We don’t know if Musk considered the consequences of his candor when he spoke on the record, but Tesla’s stock fell nine percent the day after the Timespublished the interview.
The Atlantic asked, “What if a female CEO acted like Elon Musk?” It’s a good question, and highlights the double standards that men and women face. The thing is, we don’t know the answer for a myriad of reasons. In a world where there are more Fortune 500 CEOs named John than there are female CEOs, there are only 24 female CEOs in the Fortune 500 for their 2018 list.
Given these numbers, it is not surprising that Stitch Fix CEO Katrina Lake was the only female founder to take a company public in 2017. The sample size is so small. But even if we were able to talk to more women running more companies, I doubt we would have an answer because women are faced with a double standard and cannot show up like men in corporate America. There needs to be an honest dialogue about this dissonance.
I know a bit about the toughness and grace that female founders have to portray on a daily basis. I founded The Riveter in 2017 after a decade-long career as a corporate litigator. We are a network of community and workspaces built by women, for everyone. In less than 18 months, we’ve grown from idea to a physical and digital platform with a community of thousands.
And, yes, I am tired. Like Musk and every other entrepreneur I’ve ever met – I’ve pulled all-nighters, fallen short on taking care of myself physically and missed out on time with my family. In addition, I’ve also dealt with these trials and pressures while pregnant and nursing. I remember one pitch where my milk let down during questions on my revenue model. I crossed my arms and hoped for the best in covering a quickly expanding wet spot on my shirt. I missed so much time with my youngest daughter that my milk supply crashed and I switched to formula feeding months before I’d planned to or I did with my older daughters. But I chose this path and, in any event, if I complained, who would listen and how would those complaints move my business forward? Whenever I’m down, I think about something Jeff Bezos said to his team in the early years of his startup: “You can work long, hard, or smart, but at Amazon.com you can’t choose two out of three.” I agree and live by this adage.
I read Musk’s interview with a bit of wonder, though. I don’t believe I could cry in an interview or any public setting. In a world where women have few opportunities to lead and where I find myself in the fortunate position to do so, my perception is that I must show up every day as strong (but not too strong), calm (but with enough assertiveness), and kind (but demanding of excellence).
Female founders must constantly consider how they are perceived in both business and life, which creates a tension that doesn’t allow us to be fully vulnerable or transparent. Just last week, I went to a founders’ dinner in Los Angeles; It was me and eleven men. It’s normal for me to be one of a few – if not the only – women in the room during these types of gatherings. I’m invited to many “female founder”-exclusive events, but more often than not I am the only woman present if the event is not targeted to women-only.
The next evening, I went to a dinner featuring a conversation between a male angel investor and an executive of one of the new scooter companies valued at $1 billion in under a year. (When was the last time a female-founded company soared to a billion dollar valuation? A recent Fortune list revealed that only four of the world’s 80 companies with $1 billion valuation had female founders.) I listened to the gentlemen talk for nearly an hour about the admirable growth and significant challenges ahead without one mention of a woman or one use of the female pronoun. I wanted to ask a question, but I was nervous. Could I ask about women without sounding angry? I took a risk and raised my hand: “Are there any women on your executive team or on your board?” I knew the answer was no and so did the executive, but he didn’t say that. He talked about how he hires women onto his team. I wondered what it said about our views on gender and entrepreneurship that he couldn’t simply say: “No, and it’s something we should work to change.”
Launching a business is hard, particularly when you have a vision to change the world like Tesla. I applaud Musk for his authenticity and I believe it is important for founders to share with one another and the world what starting a company is like. Nonetheless, I don’t think I could cry in an interview. I’ll save my tears for the late-night conversations with my friends across the country who are on the same journey, growing their own companies. And Musk, I hear you. This is really wonderful and really hard. You’ve got a few more years of running a company under your belt, but trust me: I feel your pain. (I just can’t show it.)
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