Written by Founder and CEO, Sara Potler LaHayne
During Women’s History Month I’m thinking a lot about what it means to be a woman in leadership. A woman entrepreneur. A woman who is breaking old systems down, encountering resistance while doing so, and building new ways of interacting, sharing and being.
For me, this month has required a grueling amount of travel to keep up with the momentum that my social-emotional wellness company Move This World has developed. Over the 12 years I’ve led Move This World there has always been significant travel involved, but now with a toddler at home, this travel takes on a whole new meaning.
Travel, growing business momentum, the recent closure of our Series A funding round and the significant content and product overhaul I am leading all demand tremendous creative energy and space. As I write new content for the hundreds of thousands of students who will engage with MTW videos over the course of the school year, I find myself leaning on the coping strategies women in my life have demonstrated.
These lessons have even more importance now that I am expecting my second daughter in August. Throughout this pregnancy, I’ve been reminded of the challenges women experience in a society that, largely, does not support women entrepreneurs. While fundraising, I encountered many men who openly questioned my ability to be a mother, an entrepreneur and a CEO, despite my 12-year track record leading this organization. I was talked down to, talked-over, and quieted as insignificant despite the value I was bringing to their investment firm. I presented at conferences where I deemed it necessary to buy new clothes to cover and hide my changing body.
While I encountered each challenge, I couldn’t help but allow the thought to cross my mind: Would this be easier if I were a man? Probably. Would they be facing these challenges? Certainly not all of them.
However, I forced myself to simply acknowledge the obstacle at hand and then push onward. By focusing on what was in my control and dedicating myself to the impact I can have on students, teachers, school leaders and even future female entrepreneurs across the country, I kept the course.
As I reflect on Women’s History Month, I also reflect on the many powerful women who have inspired, supported and challenged me on my personal journey as a mother, wife, female entrepreneur, and leader. They taught me a lot of lessons around:
Focus. My mom was always fully present with us, and the same goes for her time with her students. She never appeared to be focused on something else or distracted while we were talking over the kitchen table. From my mom, I’ve learned not to multitask. When I am in my office, I focus my energy on completing the most important priorities of the day. That way, when I return home I can be fully focused on the time spent with my daughter. I do not get pulled into projects that distract from my primary focuses: driving Move This World forward and making my daughter Sadelle feel loved. My mom’s most important lesson was to give full focus to your priorities to succeed in any of them.
Play. My mom showed us how to find joy within everything we did. Costume days at school, planning family beach Olympics or a Friday night musical sing along in our living room demonstrated her ability to turn every situation into an opportunity for play. Sadelle and I use play to move through our days and as opportunities for learning and meaningful connection. For my team, I make dedicated time to play with them through “Move This Day” –a daily ritual we engage in each afternoon that serves as time and space to connect and laugh. During the last Friday of each month, we dedicate two hours to experiencing Move This World’s professional development ourselves, another opportunity for us to play with intentionality.
Laughter. My Auntie Beth is always down for a big belly laugh, even when everything else seems turned upside down. She’s shown me the power of laughter in reframing challenges. I find hearty belly laughs every day, but they’re especially important with my husband, Mr. Move This World. He has watched me and Move This World hit rock bottom and shoot sky high throughout the last 12 years. Through every low point we count on each other to laugh through it before diving into another troubleshooting conversation.
Empowering others. My board chair, longtime mentor, and fellow female CEO has shown that I should only do the tasks that only I can do. There are many talents my growing team has, and they need an opportunity to be lifted up and developed. By coaching others to take on more responsibilities in their own development, I can focus on growing Move This World in the way that only I can.
Owning my time. This same mentor has empowered me to take the reins on my time and focus. To keep up with the creative demands of this work, I must give myself space to do so. She has empowered me to claim my time and refuse to allow it to be hijacked. Sometimes this means taking time out of the office and taking a step away from my team and their individual needs. I know that I am most creative and productive in the morning, so I intentionally spend that time out of the office to tackle high-priority and challenging projects. I won’t be derailed and can keep the organization driving forward.
Being fulfilled by my work, interests, and sense of self outside of motherhood. Another woman mentor of mine, the leading scientist in child-based play, learning, and development encouraged me to take back my sense of self in the months after giving birth to Sadelle. While I still have a long way to go on this front, loving my creative work and believing in its importance, taking dance class regularly, and finding quiet time for meditation helps to make me a stronger mother and a better leader.
Never showing Sadelle my CEO face. My board chair has four children and is happily married. Her children say they never saw or knew the stress she carried throughout her day and that it never stopped her from showing up fully for their needs. No matter what fires I’m navigating with Move This World or what city I’m traveling back from, I won’t let that change how I show up for my daughter. Our songs, dances, and adventures on the playground must remain untouched and sacred.
Accepting help. Another woman mentor has shown me the power of asking for help. This goes a step beyond being willing and open to receive help and requires me to identify gaps and seek guidance to fill them. I’ve been lucky to be a student of the women mentors and leaders around me, especially those who are mothers. Asking for help and trusting the resources, ideas, and experiences around me has made me a better mom, CEO, and wife.
My mother, aunt, female coaches, and mentors have shown me that it is possible to be the kind of mother I want to be as well as the kind of leader I need to be in order to fulfill my purpose. These two roles don’t need to be mutually exclusive. If these inspirational women had not shared their wisdom, I would not be where I am today: a dedicated mother leading a rapidly growing company and prioritizing the work that matters deeply to me.
These women are some of the most creative, strong, compassionate I know, and I’m grateful for their mentorship. Having Sadelle almost 20 months ago, and now with another baby girl on the way, it’s more important to me than ever to show the aspiring women around me that we are strong, that we are capable, and that being a mom does not mean we are less worthy of any opportunity. According to a 2016 study done by American Express, the number of women-owned businesses grew 45 percent between 2007 and 2016–that’s five times faster than the national average.
I hope my daughters, my female employees, and all women of the world will continue to band together, to support and elevate one another, and to continue to show our country and our world that if you discount us, you will miss a serious return on investment.
This article was originally published by EdWeek Market Brief on March 29th, 2019.