Sarah Lacy made a name for herself as a reporter ferociously covering Silicon Valley and taking down the likes of Travis Kalanick. But she also gives damn good advice about work, family, and well, love.
“Everything you’ve been told about motherhood is probably a lie,” Lacy said. “However you feel in your gut you should do things is exactly how you should do things.”
Over the last year, providing working women (and whoever else wants it) with answers to these sorts of questions has become the Pando co-founder’s main gig. On Wednesday, Lacy launched her new VC-backed company, Chairman Mom, after several months in a private beta with around 300 users.
“Our mission is rebranding working motherhood as something that’s aspirational and badass,” Lacy said.
Chairman Mom is a subscription-based platform on which users give advice to other working moms about work and life. Members will pay $5 per month for access to a forum with two curated questions per day. It’s designed to be a supportive and useful community, free from the mommy drama and flame wars that plague many ad-supported mom social media groups. Something that, say, Laura Dern’s character Renata on Big Little Lies would have found really useful.
Hey Renata, u up?Lacy has applied the lessons she’s learned from covering Silicon Valley from the last twenty years to the construction of her new company. She is disenchanted with the cesspool of bro culture and high-stakes retribution that she has personally seen the Valley get mired in. But when I spoke with her about Chairman Mom, she was also overflowing with enthusiasm about the ability to thoughtfully build a company that really matters to her, alongside the passionate experts that populate Silicon Valley, too.
“Every morning, going and reading answers on the site, it’s like the best psych up to the day,” Lacy said. “Like, oh my god, the internet isn’t evil.”
It’s definitely not Facebook
When conceiving of Chairman Mom, Lacy baked the vision for the kind of community she wanted to create (and what she wanted to avoid) into the company’s business and design decisions.
Lacy found that she never joined any mom communities online because they were neither helpful, nor supportive. She attributes the combative nature of many mom communities (that are largely built on Facebook) to the fact that the platforms are ad-supported. Ad-based platforms are designed to keep users on-site as long as possible, which Lacy thinks encourages controversy and in-fighting.
“A lot of ad-based platforms turn into mommy wars,” Lacy said. “Conflict gets people to come back to the site. You need conflict, you need drama, you want people to feel like they can’t step away, they have to keep coming back. We just felt like there’s enough of that on the internet.”
Chairman Mom’s launch video emphasizes how its subscription model enables it to be different from, say, a certain embattled social media company in hot water for helping America become the divisive place it is today, and breaching its users trust.
“For a lot of women, social media’s been kind of an abusive relationship for them,” Lacy added. “And they’re sick of it. They want a place where they can come and only feel good about themselves. And you can’t do that on an ad-based model.”
Avoiding the pitfalls of ad-based platforms meant doing away with features like threading and DMs, which encourage fighting and bullying. Chairman Mom also provides what it calls “true anonymity.” When users elect to post anonymously, the company claims that not even Chairman Mom knows who is posting. The video emphasizes that it is truly a product for users, not one designed to harvest data.
Lacy also noted that Facebook communities can lose their usefulness because they are bulky or repetitive. Chairman Mom posts two submitted questions per day — one about work, and one about life. Having a human curate the questions, and decide what’s under discussion every day, alleviates repetition. Plus, for the moment at least, threads on Chairman Mom remain open, so that a new thread isn’t created every time a similar topic comes up, or an old topic gains new energy. The archives are currently “scannable” (because there aren’t that many yet), but Lacy says search and topic tagging functionalities are coming soon.
And, according to Lacy, what she’s built really is proving different from the other communities. And she’s blown away by the passion and smarts of her users.
“A lot of what we were trying to recreate here is what happens when you have 12 amazing women that you really respect and admire over to your house for dinner,” Lacy said. “That conversation does not mirror the conversations that happen on social media. But they really do mirror the conversations that happen on Chairman Mom.”
Not just for Moms
Chairman Mom is explicitly for working mothers — but it doesn’t exclude anyone who doesn’t fit the traditional description of a “mom.”
Lacy said she valued the contributions of the gender non-conforming users who are already part of the community, and welcomed anyone who would find Chairman Mom content useful, or who wants to contribute to the community. She noted that there are already users in the beta who aren’t moms — yet. Rather, they’re concerned about how becoming a mom might impact their career. So they’ve already turned to the Chairman Mom community with questions about egg freezing and more.
“We have this idea that we designed this for professional working moms,” Lacy said. “But if you share a lot of those problem sets and challenges, the more the merrier. We want to be as inclusive as possible.”
Still, it is a community not just for, but also intentionally by, women.
The best bedfellows
When Sarah Lacy founded Pando in 2012, she said her goal was to quickly get as many high stakes players involved in the company as possible. (That was for the sake of Pando’s editorial voice, too: by taking money from everyone, she wouldn’t be aligned with anyone). That led to most of her investors being white men.
Now, with Chairman Mom, Lacy notes that only two of her 13 investors are white men. Recounting her fundraising experience, she said that it is a trope amongst entrepreneurs that women VC’s are harder to raise money from: they ask more questions and require more information and conversations.
“With both Pando and Chairman Mom, I feel like a lot of white men who have invested in me have given me a larger check quicker,” Lacy said. “I have a hunch that a lot of those female and minority investors who are more thoughtful, who ask you more questions, who want to see more data points. Once they’re on board, they probably make more thoughtful board members.”
Hey Ellen Pao, u up?Lacy’s approach to getting investors for Chairman Mom was borne out of two decades of watching the Valley become a bloated and scandal-ridden place where things like targeting family members for retribution — as Uber did to Lacy — became something that happened. Lacy realized that in building a company this time around, she needed investors who would be in for the long haul, and be copacetic and ethical partners, not just a source of cash.
“The valley’s just become a really different place,” Lacy said. These days, “anyone building a company has to think really deeply not only about ‘hey does this investor have a good name, or does this investor have a good track record, or is he going to be founder friendly.’ But like, what are this investor’s ethics and feelings and causes, and do they match mine? Because now more than ever, that’s where the rubber’s hitting the road with these companies.”
Lacy knew what she was looking for as the antidote: working moms who understood that work and home life can strengthen each other.
“It was a dramatic change of who feels this cause?” Lacy said. “Who is going to be ride or die with us on this? Who really thinks working moms are the most badass people in America, and it’s high time something was built for them?”
Motherhood is a source of power, not a drain
Sarah Lacy talked about motherhood and work to me in a way no one has before. That’s because she thinks that motherhood actually made her more effective and capable in the workplace, not less. Her experience directly contradicted the way motherhood is typically depicted: as a burden.
“I have every day found more and more power and strength in motherhood, and I think that’s impacted everything,” Lacy said. “After I had kids, I became more ambitious, and I became better at everything. None of it was true.”
Lacy reflected on how motherhood actually made her a better manager and entrepreneur. She sees a parallel in the skills you need for motherhood and management, such as the ability to motivate people based on their particular needs. The need for creative problem solving. And, the ability to grow and adapt that both being a mother, and running a business, requires.
“What’s amazing about having kids and starting a company is that both scale in complexity every day,” Lacy said. “You’re always getting better, but your company and your children are always getting harder.”
Lacy wants to help make this view of motherhood more mainstream, particularly in Silicon Valley. She said that she put off having kids for years because she was scared of hiring discrimination — which she encountered first hand. Lacy is a person who wants to shout from the rooftops that it’s not about “having it all,” it’s about how becoming a mother can positively impact so many other areas of your life, and change your point of view for the better.
“If I believed all the lies about motherhood, I would have thought, oh my god entrepreneurship is the one thing that will definitely be off the table,” Lacy said. “And yet, becoming a mother is what gave me the confidence and ambition to actually start my own company.”
Lacy’s energy about this cause is infectious, and if Chairman Mom has a chance of breaking through the social media noise, it’s not just because of what sounds like a smart design with the right priorities. Instead, it’s because it is infused with Lacy’s passion for righting an incorrect conception about career and motherhood, and her conviction about the power and confidence that comes from being a working parent.
When I told Lacy that it was great speaking with her as a young professional journalist, and someone navigating my own career and relationship choices, she immediately asked me about my life, my questions and my concerns. Though we were speaking on the phone, her tone of voice sounded like, if we’d been in a coffee shop, she would have turned to look me directly in the eye. As I tried to laugh off how personal things had suddenly gotten, she jumped in.
“It will make you better at everything,” Lacy reassured me about motherhood. “When you’re ready, don’t worry about your career. You’ll be better. Everything will be better.”