The Hard Times Have Made Us - Mother's Day 2021
Mother’s day invites reflection on the journey of becoming a mother. We live in a world where there are nearly as many Fortune 500 CEOs named John in America as there are female CEOs. Our own CEO became a first-time mother while simultaneously leading our team through the pandemic. We thought telling her story was a great way to shed light on the challenges so many women face and overcome each day.
Kellen Brink on Running JL and Becoming a Mom… During Covid.
Navigating a first-time pregnancy is an equally exciting and perplexing journey. From weekly test results and researching car seat Youtube comparisons (yes, you can get a car seat that’s also a stroller… but is it really the safer choice?), to vast dreams for the future enigma residing in what feels like a belly exposed to ten too many meatball parms. In addition to all the excitement, the stress of preparing financially and physically for this inevitable new life can be vastly overwhelming. But what if you’re expecting, working full time, and responsible for a family of employees who count on you to be making the right decisions for their future, all during a global crisis?
As the CEO of JL, I work with an incredible group of charismatic, quirky, loyal employees and customers. On a daily basis I work to reimagine the way we service our customers, build better product, and expand our offerings to keep JL in the forefront of technical sports apparel. To keep our team focused and building these priorities, a 12-14 hour day is standard practice. I work this much because I love what I do, I love our customers, and I believe putting in the extra time is important to ensure we go above and beyond their expectations. Yet, morning sickness had a way of changing what I once thought was just a matter of determination and perseverance.
Winter of 2020, pre-pandemic, was tough. And no matter how resolute one is, at 2-3 months pregnant, that little alien in your belly is determined to suck the life right out of you. For a control freak like me, it was difficult to realize there was not much I could do about it. Trying to continue long hours and keep a confident, non-exhausted face for my team was difficult, but I found myself thankful that I at least had it easier than other moms. Not commuting on a daily basis, the comfort of working in slippers, and managing my own schedule made those first trimester woes much easier for me than for women in different circumstances.
To add to the confounding nature of life as a pregnant CEO, there is no Google search that outlines best practices for female CEOs who are also new or soon-to-be mothers. With a small portion of leaders being female, and an even smaller portion being pregnant female leaders, my typical expectation that a simple Google search would come to my aid was shattered.
“But… what if you are the boss, Google?”
I spent nights searching for “pregnant as a CEO” and “handling pregnancy and payroll,” finding only results like: “How to tell your boss you’re pregnant.” But… what if you are the boss, Google? How do you balance morning sickness, cravings, exhaustion with HR, marketing, customer service, and sales? The answer? Go with your gut (literally and figuratively), work hard, do your best, rest when you need to, and set an example that you’d want others to follow. Thankfully our team is full of capable, smart, autonomous go-getters who stepped up and took on far more than I could have imagined. Relying on my team was paramount to my success.
As the second trimester commenced, our team started gearing up for spring. By the beginning of March 2020, everyone was working collaboratively. Custom production was running smoothly and getting better every day, and our team was coming up with solutions to make our customers happier. And then… we heard an inkling about the spread of a virus in China.
Early on, we didn’t know the toll COVID would take on our business. We considered supply chain issues, but most of our materials are from the USA or local, so we weren’t very concerned about the impact of the closures in China. But, by mid-March the global economy was unraveling at a rapid pace and quickly forcing our team to re-assess the coming year. What was once a season planned for supporting our US National Team athletes for the Olympics, an expansion of our product line and investments in our technology innovation group quickly became a scrambling of spread sheets, budget expectations, and accounts receivable balances.
Five Months pregnant, as a CEO, during the Covid-19 pandemic… what weighed on me now was not our personal situation, but the future of our employees… our JL family. They say you should try to avoid stressful situations when you’re pregnant, but I didn’t exactly have that option. Having to let go of people we love is one of the hardest things we will ever have to do. No CEO wants to realize that in order to keep the company alive, you must downsize the incredible and talented team you have nurtured. In a period of just two weeks, JL Racing (along with most other small businesses) went from a promising year of growth and opportunity to pure survival mode. As COVID spread, we transitioned our factory to an essential business, creating masks and medical gowns for workers across the country. I guess it’s true what they say, necessity is the mother of “re-invention.”
“…what weighed on me now was not our personal situation, but the future of our employees… our JL family”
While I know it can have adverse impact, I like to believe that the stress and hard work of pivoting our business actually caused the growing baby inside me to become a Winston Churchill-esque stalwart; a figure head for the fight of the global pandemic… always steadfast, punching his way into action, and constantly growing and learning. He was born August 20, 2020. We didn’t name him Winston.
During the first months of life, trying to run the company with a miniature human was hectic and nearly impossible. As a breast-feeding mom, I felt like a bit like a slave… I would sit on conference calls, pent up in quarantine, with a baby attached to me and trying to steer the JL ship. The exhaustion of not sleeping, diaper changing, and an endlessly hungry baby took a toll. Not to mention the impossibility of extra help, since the fear of an outsider during COVID was too much to handle for life with a newborn. Thankfully, news of a vaccine had begun to spread and I saw the light for both our business and for my life as a mom. All we needed to do was make it through the winter with our lean and mean team and keep safe, and we would be on the path to recovery and maybe even some more sleep.
Becoming a mom while running a company through the pandemic has been an experience that will endure in many ways. As a mother, I’ve recognized the importance of a community of close friends and family, and how important it is to go out of your way to keep connected. As CEO, I’ve embraced the ability to be nimble, bold, and creative in times of crisis. I know we have a long way to go to even out the ranks and provide better guidance to women in the workplace, but I hope my story provide some small level of relevancy for working moms out there. It’s not easy to “have it all,” but we do our best, prioritize what we need to, and rely on the amazing people around us to help us get through. I have realized my own limitations and I know that what I used to get done in a day before birth is not an apples to apples comparison to what I can do now. I am not a failure for STILL not putting up the shelf in the baby’s room for the last four months… other things are just more important. And that’s just fine.
In fact, through the experience of becoming a mother, I feel I’m a better leader now than ever before. I rely on my team heavily and put faith and autonomy in my staff, I have a better perspective on my own priorities and get less caught up in the weeds. I also have a fuller understanding of how important it is to care not just for our employees, but also their families… because what else is life about? I’ve found that while I feared becoming a mother might affect my ability to lead, it in fact has allowed me to be a better leader. Maybe more stories like mine can help our society find more Moms to outnumber those John’s, or at least result in more Google results...?
"I’ve found that while I feared becoming a mother would affect my ability to lead, it has in fact allowed me to be a better leader."
It’s Mother’s day, May 9, 2021. The aforementioned ‘stalwart’ baby is now eight months and thriving. Although we’re not there yet, regattas are coming back, teams are training and racing, and the US National Team will be competing at the Olympics in JL uniforms this summer.
At this time, a million American mothers have left the workforce, and most moms don’t have the luxury to work from home. Of those who could, many can’t find a way to be a full time teacher and entertainer to their children while also trying to work. Moms everywhere are struggling to find a way to balance work and family. I know that I’m lucky to have a child that still takes two naps a day and doesn’t need to be handheld through long school days. So I want to let all the moms out there that are reading this, whether or not you’ve been able to keep your job, that you are a rockstar.
Thank you to all the JL moms out there who have been prioritizing their kids over their own livelihoods, becoming teachers, and fighting through the stresses of the pandemic to make sure their families are safe and provided for. Also, a big thank you for your continued support for JL Racing, even as you have been fighting your own battles through Covid. Sometimes it can be difficult, especially with kids or a newborn on the way, but try to remember to be thankful for the hard times, for they have made us.