As a partner at OpenView Ventures, Devon McDonald has a unique view in the VC world. On one hand, she sits on the VC firm’s investment committee, helping decide which expansion-stage, B2B software companies to invest in. On the other, she leads OpenView Labs, the Boston firm’s operational consulting arm that helps portfolio companies scale and grow their customer base.
After joining the firm in 2009 and serving as its director of business growth for five years, McDonald was promoted to partner earlier this year — right when she was in the middle of her second maternity leave. As demonstrated by surveys and the stories told by other working mothers, McDonald could have faced pressure to come back sooner and prove her commitment to the job under other circumstances; but with Openview, she tells me, that was far from the case.
Instead, OpenView’s expectation remained the same as before her promotion: that she took advantage of her three-month leave if she wanted to and that she only pick up the phone and answer emails if she felt like it. In other words, it was very relaxed.
“You have to be the example and show that family comes first.”
McDonald says when she first came back in April, OpenView’s founder, Scott Maxwell, approached her and told her, “You need to set an example; you’re one of the first women here who has had a baby.” Thinking to herself, McDonald says, she was at first taken aback at what Maxwell was starting to say, but as he continued, she realized the point he was making.
“You have to be the example and show that family comes first,” McDonald recalls him saying, “so that future women who have babies here don’t feel the pressure that they can completely kill themselves, particularly when they’re adjusting to this major life change.”
To McDonald, Maxwell’s attitude demonstrated a few things about OpenView’s work environment. For one, she says, it showed that the firm sees long-term potential in her and that it wanted her to continue to grow there. It also showed a recognition that she has a life outside of work, so in order to let her keep growing, it needed to let her find a happy balance between both aspects of her life.
The attitude also serves as a counter to the results of a 2011 survey by the Working Mother Research Institute, which found that working mothers overwhelmingly felt their work commitment was questioned and that they couldn’t get away from the job when they needed to.
“Not only do they respect that balance, they want me to be that example to help other women in the firm when they go through life changes to know that OpenView will accept that and wants you to grow,” McDonald says. “I think you ultimately get people who are just diehard fans and will do anything to make this firm and what we’re trying to achieve more successful.”
Outside of work, though, McDonald said she wasn’t as lucky in terms of receiving the utmost support as a working mother. And it wasn’t that anyone was saying anything outwardly offensive, it was more about the assumptions people held about mothers in general.
“It didn’t matter if it was a conversation with a family member, a friend or someone at the convenience store, they would be like, ‘Oh, you’re pregnant, you work — are you going back to work?'” McDonald recalls, adding that it seemed like she was supposed to answer “no.” “Would they ever ask that to my husband if they found out if he was an expecting dad? Absolutely not.”
When she was having her first child, she says these kind of questions led her to doubt herself.
“You do get to a point if you start hearing that question enough that you’re like, ‘maybe I should take some time off, or should I just not go back?'” McDonald says. “It becomes like a mind game.”
Even if it was easier to handle the questions during her second pregnancy, McDonald says whenever she felt like she was feeling the pressures of society, whether it had to do with her being a working mother or something else, she would turn to a passage in “Lean In,” the oft-cited book written by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
“This is something I’m a part of that’s happening at a broader level — women in the working environment.”
The passage, she says, discusses the scrutiny working mothers can face while working in the same environment as men by making a metaphor about a marathon:
“The male marathoners are routinely cheered on: ‘Lookin’ Strong! On your way!'” Sandberg writes. “But the female runners hear a different message. ‘You know you don’t have to do this!’ the crowd shouts. Or ‘Good start — but you probably won’t want to finish!”
“It helped me get things back into perspective,” McDonald says, “that I can still do this, other women have faced this as well and this is something I’m a part of that’s happening at a broader level — women in the working environment.”
If there’s a bigger takeaway from McDonald’s experience as a mother, it’s this:
“You don’t know what’s going to happen post-delivery, you don’t know how you’re going to feel,” she says, “so it’s really hard to ask people what their plans are until the women or family is actually in that moment and understands what they’re capable of and what they want.”