In a recent post on Instagram, Michelle Kennedy - tech entrepreneur, CEO and now an expectant mother for the second time - wrote of the career-pregnancy-motherhood-melee. “The truth is, this has been a very rough three-plus months,” she said. “I’ve been more sick than I ever thought possible and it’s impacted every area of my life, from the bub to work. Spending time lying on the tiles of your office bathroom trying to engage your brain in building a company, trying to excite your team about the quarter ahead whilst trying to swallow down some dry crackers, then at home trying to build Lego and interrupting it to run and kneel at the porcelain bowl has been, well, overwhelming, and exhausting and humbling... and I say that as someone who is building a company for mothers... I can’t imagine what that is like for women in other sectors. You’re at your most vulnerable, unable to share your news, desperate to keep this little life safe, and yet determined to keep everything going, home, work, life.” It is this ability to cut to the core of being a mother that has made the businesswoman the go-to in female tech influencers...
In February 2017, she created Peanut – a social networking app that connected like-minded mothers and helped them create a conversation and community. One of the first among her group of friends to become a mother (her son Finlay is aged five) she realised what an isolating experience having a child can be. “I don’t think feeling lonely is a particularly acceptable admission at the grand old age of 30,” says Michelle, who trained as a lawyer. “I certainly didn’t feel comfortable about it, it felt like a dirty secret that I couldn’t verbalise – I mean, I had friends!” A former deputy CEO at Badoo, a dating-focused social network, and a trusted advisor and member of the board at Bumble, a female-focused dating app created by Tinder co-founder Whitney Wolfe Herd, suddenly her work and home life could not have been more different. “I loved what I was doing before Peanut,” she says. “I was running a really successful dating business and had fantastic people around me. But I wasn’t using the product I was working on (I wasn’t dating in my personal life!) and yet I had all of these life changes surrounding motherhood, and no products to help me in that. The ultimate catalyst came at a moment when I was dropping Fin at nursery, running to the office, and had all of these questions about schools I wanted to discuss with the other women at the school gates… it just seemed to me this issue of needing community in the palm of my hand wasn’t going away, and if I didn’t get in front of that, how could I keep complaining about it?” In its first four months, Peanut was selected to feature in Apple’s prestigious Worldwide Developers Conference Keynote. And since its launch, more than half a million women have signed up (Peanut’s algorithm makes introductions based on shared interests, location, mutual friends, and the age/gender of your children), 10 million messages were sent and there were 100 million profile views (as of November 2018). “The most satisfaction comes always from the feedback we get from women who have used Peanut and their life has changed as a result,” says Michelle. “From women who have found their network, or even their best friend, to women who want to have a better experience of motherhood, and have, thanks to Peanut. Those are the moments that motivate the whole team.” There are now plans to launch a ‘group’ feature so mothers can form their own communities, and also to support women who are undertaking or considering fertility treatment. So what does it take to succeed as a mother in the tech world? What has been her biggest lesson? Does she suffer from mom-guilt and how does she deal with it? We couldn’t wait to find out. Photography: Helene Sandberg
What trait do you have that is key to succeeding in business?
Perseverance. I just don’t believe the answer is really no. I mean, there has to be a way. Maybe it’s not the original way you wanted to solve the problem, but there has to be a way… or if people tell me no, maybe I’m not explaining myself well, and I need to have another go. I think that determined attitude is important.
Why did you decide to build your business around mothers?
I suppose I just saw the need. I am a mother. It was in my life, I was part of this new world. I was living it, and understanding it so intimately, it felt somewhat intuitive.
Why do so few women pursue a career in technology?
If you subscribe to the mantra “I can only be what I can see”, it’s no wonder that women find it difficult to make a career in technology – there are so few women to view as role models, as inspiration, as their network. BUT, things are changing, developments are coming, we are more aware than ever before about the need for gender parity. We’ve got an incredibly long way to go, but, in order to keep that pipeline of talent, in order not to dissuade women from breaking in, we have to keep talking about it. We have to keep supporting initiatives that support women, which encourage women. That’s our duty. Our responsibility.
What have you learnt?
Oh I’ve learnt so much. I learn everyday. I’m fortunate enough to work with a team of people who are smarter than me and teach me every day. From product, to data, I’m learning. I’m also learning about my own management style. I’m learning how to solicit opinion from the right people, I’m learning how to interpret feedback from our users, I’m learning how to try and manage my family/work life more effectively.
What have been some of your biggest breakthroughs?
The biggest was being featured at WWDC by Apple. Not just because, well, it’s one of the biggest stages in the world, but more importantly because someone like Apple not just knew who we were, but recognised the work we were doing and wanted to support it. That was huge for us. And, actually, for motherhood. Apple recognised that motherhood deserved a new platform, and that Peanut was part of that solution. All that, and we were only four months old. That, for us, was huge.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking to start their own business?
Be prepared to work harder, sacrifice more than you ever thought possible, oh, and everything takes 30 per cent longer than you plan for it to!
How do you balance work and raising Finlay?
The juggle is indeed real, and it’s tough. No one is perfect. I am still trying to get it right. I had it very, very wrong a few months ago, and I let my health, and my priorities suffer as a result. But I’m back on track now. I now accept that I can’t go to every event, I can’t take every meeting and I have to be more selfish with my time. That means if I need to be at home and put Fin to bed, I’m leaving at 5pm without beating myself up about it. If I am asked to do a call at a time that I know I need to be with Fin, I say no. That’s taken some time, but I am confident now. If I don’t say what I mean, and set expectations accordingly, how can I expect others to do the same!
How do you handle feelings of mother's guilt?
URGH. Never goes. It’s forever with you. The moment you have a child. The key is recognising we all feel it, and we’re all in it together. The key is making sure we keep telling each other, and ourselves, that we’re doing a good job. Because the very fact we feel guilty, means we are.
Would you ever give it all up to be a stay-at-home mum?
YES! If it was right for Fin and for my family, without hesitation. Right now, this is right for us, but you never know what may change, and I’m very open to being flexible around that. Fin is and will always be my priority.
How did your parents' raise you?
My parents were very strict. They are both hard working, working class people, so the work ethic was always strong in our house. My mum in particular has never ever thought about gender as a challenge to anything. In fact, she has always been of the opinion that being a woman is your keenest advantage, so from that perspective, I never felt there was anything I couldn’t do as a woman.
What’s your most vivid childhood memory?
Oh gosh, my dad will hate me saying this, but probably when I came second in some drama competition I had entered myself in. I got home and told him I was second, to which his response was a pretty adamant: “I don’t think anyone remembers who came second Michelle”. My dad is a Scotsman, and pretty to the point (he’s also a huge softy underneath it all), but I remember that feeling of being a bit crushed. While competition is important (hey, it’s life), I constantly am aware of letting Fin know that participation, enjoyment, fun, is as important as the end result.
How did you feel when you discovered you were pregnant - have you always wanted to be a mother?
Definitely, although I was not someone who considered herself to be a natural mother. There were absolutely times in my younger years when I didn’t think motherhood would be for me. Falling pregnant was this unbelievable epiphany. I can’t explain it other than that. Life wasn’t about me anymore. That selfish or self-first attitude you’ve had your whole life just immediately falls away. You eat differently, you sleep differently, you behave differently. Because the responsibility of this other little human, the dependency of that person on you, is so great, so strong… you will do anything to protect it!
What were those early days of motherhood like for you?
When Finlay arrived, I felt as if I had been naive. I hadn’t appreciated how different everything would become. He was incredible, beautiful, fragile. I couldn’t believe I’d had any part in something so perfect, all nine pounds of him. But I was scared, I felt like everything was changing and it was out of my control. I’d gone from working a million-miles-an-hour, around people constantly and all of a sudden I was at home all day on my own with this little dude. It was a difficult adjustment. My husband would go to work every day and ‘leave’ me at home, sounds ridiculous to phrase it like that, but that’s how it felt at the time. I wasn’t really sure who ‘Michelle the Mother’ was. The strongest feeling was that I’d really lost my identity. That was a difficult time. Admitting how I felt about the start of motherhood was not something I felt able to share at the time. I didn’t feel that it was socially acceptable to say: ‘It’s really tough, and it’s not exactly what I thought it would be’. I would share snippets with my friends, or my husband, but I didn’t really know how to articulate the feeling that I was lonely, and felt like I was faking it as a competent, together mother. Wherever I looked, I didn’t see anyone who seemed to be feeling the same way as me. I suppose the turning point for me was six months in, I started to get into my flow a little more, regain my confidence. I’ve heard people describe it as a fog lifting, and yes, it was. I returned to work and I felt a little more connected to the Michelle I understood.
When was the last time you felt lonely?
Gosh! Loneliness! You’ll think it’s a staple part of my character if I answer that! Look, early stages of motherhood were lonely (see above). I was lonely and that was a really difficult realisation. I don’t think feeling lonely is a particularly acceptable admission at the grand old age of 30. I certainly didn’t feel comfortable about it, it felt like a dirty secret that I couldn’t verbalise. I mean, I had friends! I even had one friend who had a child. She was wonderful to me and came to see me in hospital the day after Fin was born. But her baby was older than mine, and I felt often like I was burdening her. The last time I felt lonely though? Probably recently. Being an entrepreneur can be lonely! You have to make the decisions, set the agenda, set the vision, and take the burden, and that can be isolating, because you can’t always share that with your team, however much you’d like to. That’s just not your role. Finding other entrepreneurs is important (like finding mom friends!).
Have you ever had difficulty making friends?
YES! Making mum friends was terrifying, and difficult… Not all women are the same. There are so many different types of women, who all have different interests, values, points of view. Of course, not all mums are the same. That artificial coming together because ‘you’re a mum, I’m a mum, we need to hang out’ can be awkward and forced, and make you feel lonely all over again! To fake it, and pretend to be someone I wasn’t, just to be able to spend time with someone and not be on my own, well, that can be so tough. What I really, really needed was to find someone likeminded where I could be honest, and be myself, reclaim that part of my identity again. Through walking (a lot), going to classes, I met other mothers. But often it felt difficult to make sustained connections. You might chat for a while, but to move to the “should we see each other again” moment felt unknown territory. Often, I would see groups of mothers, and I felt like I was back at school, constantly assessing the situation to see if I might ‘fit in’.
What does Fin do that you hope you’ll never forget?
I get scared of forgetting any of the beautiful things he does. Currently my favourite thing is that he creates all of these weird, abstract works of art from boxes and paper, and I find them in various places around the house. Maybe he’ll be the next Damien Hirst, I don’t know, but after a hard day, there is nothing better than finding a ‘creation’ on my bed with a note from him explaining what it is.
What traits do you hope that he has inherited from you?
I hope he doesn’t take himself too seriously. I try not to. I think self-deprecating humour isn’t for everyone, but it’s how I survive my day, and it’s important to see light in every shade. I hope that he learns that.
When was the last time he made you laugh?
EVERY DAY! This morning when he asked me whether I’d like a trip to California, as if the trip was on him. So casual. So grown up.
What kind of mother do you strive to be?
Just someone he will always talk to. Open, non-judgemental. I tell him over-and-over-again, there is nothing so bad, you can’t tell me. Ever. I always need him to know that.
What do you want to teach him about achieving his dreams?
Nothing worth having comes easy, but if you work hard, and you want something, it can all be yours, and you can always be the one to change things. You never have to settle.