Entrepreneur Audrey Gelman is frequently asked to discuss her business journey, especially how she navigated fast growth and the pressures that come with significant investment capital. Gelman recounts when she was the first visibly pregnant CEO on the cover of a major business magazine. She says this experience stands out because women founders like her typically receive less than three percent of available venture capital funds. And she notes that percentage is considerably lower for women of color. Despite the press coverage and the company’s growth, she and her co-founder were encountering several challenges.
A core issue for her was living up to the expectations for women leaders to manage every part of their lives without complaint or issue. She says people saw her running a company and starting a family, a “girlboss” who did it all without taking a break, but they missed the parts that terrified and exhausted her.
She says her company’s mission was to build a community network for women to gather and connect. Through her leadership the company achieved growth, however she says the firm did not focus enough on diversity and inclusion. She counts this as a failure as the CEO, but also suggests failures of this kind should provoke thoughtfulness and growth, both personally and for a company’s direction.
For her company’s journey, Audrey Gelman notes they were off to a good start with a diverse employee base and customers. However, she sees gaps where they could have invested more in diverse hiring practices and diversity and inclusion training. She also understood her CEO role meant she needed to set expectations more strongly with the members and staff about how they treated each other, especially as it related to diversity. The company could have offered better career path and growth opportunities for employees, an oversight which caused some staff to leave the company prematurely. She says many fast-growing firms experience similar issues, where the need to focus on the business scaling overshadows the cultural aspects of new hires.
To improve on these failings and to move forward, Audrey Gelman and her team conducted listening tours of their spaces to understand desired changes from staff and community members. These discussions drove her to create a formal culture code for the company. And the leadership team was adjusted and expanded to include more women of color. Throughout this period, she offers a lesson to other CEOs to admit failures and then address them wholeheartedly and with transparency and keep moving forward.