Working Career

GET OVER THE MYTH OF WORK-LIFE BALANCE

As chief operating officer and co-founder of mLab, a cloud-based hosting platform, Angela Kung Shulman is living the entrepreneur’s dream As the parent of two young girls, she is living a mother’s nightmare. She had always wanted to be a housewife and mother, but skill, luck, and timing meant she is also busy with her other baby, her start-up company.

“There is no other way to say it. Right now my work-life balance sucks,” Angela told me over coffee at Starbucks in Noe Valley, a San Francisco neighborhood filled with young kids and harried parents.

It’s true. It does. Angela rarely sees her daughters, who are five and two years old. She is too busy putting out fires and managing the rocket ship growth of mLab. Her main focus at work is product management, technical operations, and customer support. Her main focus at home is trying to see her daughters before they go to bed. Angela’s days are not her own and they certainly aren’t her family’s.

Angela was an applied math major in college and got a job as a business analyst at a start-up called Scient. It didn’t take long for her to see that the company wasn’t doing well financially and that if she wanted job stability, she needed to be working on the technical side of the business. She taught herself programming and became a software developer. When Scient, like so many high-flying startups, closed its doors, Angela quickly got a job at Oracle as a software engineer. She hated the big company life, so after two and a half years she jumped ship and went to another start-up, Merced Systems. That’s where she met her husband, Will.

At Merced, Angela switched from software engineering to product management. Turns out she had a knack for leading teams to get the best product to market. While she loved the job, she decided she needed more business training and went to Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business to “flesh out” her resume.

“Then I decided to try something completely new and went into investment banking, but that wasn’t the career for me, so I quit,” Angela explained. “I was pregnant and what I really wanted was to stay home with my daughter. I launched a small web development company, but Will had the idea for mLab. We’d worked together before and knew we were a good team, so it made sense for me to help him”

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Help him she did. In 2010 they built their first product, had their first daughter, and landed their first customer. In 2011, they raised $3 million in venture funding and then a year later raised an additional $5 million. By 2015, the company had grown to twenty employees, and their family had grown to four.

If you’re exhausted listening to her story, imagine how Angela feels. “I just want to spend my days at a slower pace, actively involved in my daughters’ lives. Instead, I am always working. I just hope it’s worth it,” she said.

As the COO of her own company, Angela should well be able to set her own agenda. But she can’t. Or rather, she feels she can’t. When I asked her why, she told me, “We are striving for the entrepreneurial dream of the big IPO. That means we have to be all hands on deck. But we haven’t built our company to scale with our growth and are desperate to hire the right team Until we do that, I can’t just abandon ship.”

Here’s the truth: At any given time, true work-life balance is impossible. In the current system of how we work, how we structure child care, how we mythologize the role and duty of mother, no woman can “do it all.” The demands of one will always overshadow the demands of the other.

Angela may be an unintended entrepreneur, but her work-life challenges are not unusual. Combine small children, a job, and a working culture that requires 24/7 engagement and it’s a recipe for work-life chaos. How do you get work-life balance then?

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