Startup Pregnant: Women In Leadership, Family and Work with Sarah Peck
On Startup Pregnant, a company about women in leadership as well as life in New York City and raising a young family. Sarah shares her insights on avoiding overwhelm and finding breathing space.
Today, I’m thrilled that our guest is Sarah K Peck. Sarah is an author, startup advisor and yoga teacher based in New York City. She’s the founder and executive director of Startup Pregnant, a media company documenting the stories of women’s leadership across family and work. She is the instigator behind More Women’s Voices, a website that promotes women speakers and entrepreneurs, a RYT-200 yoga teacher and a 20-time All-American swimmer. Her essay, The Art of Asking, was a viral hit and is used across tech companies to train teams in clear communications. Sarah is currently writing a memoir of working in a tech startup world while pregnant with her first kid.
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Welcome to the show, Sarah.
Thanks so much for having me. It’s really great to be here.
What does New York City mean to you in three words?
New York City, it’s opportunity, it’s type A and it’s the intake of breath and it’s not a good exhale. It’s the Apana Vayu in yoga, which is the breath movement that goes through you when you inhale energy and then you exhale grounding. I feel all of New York is constantly inhaling more, “We’re going to just do more. We’re going to be on Broadway. I’m going to be the best.” It is quite the rad. I feel the only way to really navigating New York City is to constantly be leaving and checking back in with yourself and saying, “What? Is this really what I want? Am I burned out to some extreme degree? Do I need to go to Bali? Do I need to go to a desert island and take a break?” It is also exciting and full of opportunity and big and bustle. Some of the world’s most innovative and crazy people live here.
That’s true. That’s been my experience when I’ve visited New York City; so much fantastic opportunity for conversation and connection, but also lots of stimuli and multi-sensory overload if I’m not careful. Tell us about your techniques for staying well and avoiding overwhelm and minimising burnout without having to leave the city?
When I first moved to New York City, I just left a job in architecture and I was starting up my own business with full gusto. I moved to Brooklyn as a writer. One of the things that has been the most brilliant in terms of balance for me is working from home. Commuting and getting on the subway is, I think, just such a brutal experience. I love trains. I adore public transportation. I would dislike driving even more, but it is a really intense experience to spend 45 minutes on the subway in New York. People forget that Brooklyn, as its own entity, is the size of Chicago. Next to that, you have Manhattan. Next to that, you have The Bronx. Next to that, you have Queens and Staten Island. New York City is just so huge and everyone thinks that we’re just going to squeeze it all in. Everything is an hour to two hours away from you. If you are in San Francisco and you live down at San Jose, and you’re driving to Oakland, and then to Petaluma on a daily basis, it’s just so far. I think it can be really frustrating because you want to see a friend and all your friends live an hour away. It’s cultivating that neighbourhood quality, I think the dream state of New York City would be to somehow get..maybe your parents…but all your friends living close to you in the same neighbourhood. That’s the dream of New York.
This is exactly the same thing in London that I joke I need my passport to go and visit certain friends because they live right the other side of town and it will take me two hours on public transport. It wouldn’t take me much less of a journey if I got in the car either. It’s just far. That also means that there are lots of interesting things to explore no matter how well you think you’ve gotten under the skin of your city. You mentioned you’re a writer. As we know, you’re writing this book at the moment. Tell us about your relationship between your creativity and the urban environment. How does New York City inspire the work that you do?
New York City is the ultimate in terms of people-watching. My kid is one-year-old. If he’s crying on the inside having a stressful day or he’s frustrated, he gets very frustrated. Things start getting very frustrating. I put him in the stroller and we go outside and he just looks and looks and looks and you could see how excited he is to just see all these new things. For him, it’s the first time he’s seen these things. He’s new to life. We’ll go outside and just seeing our neighbours and seeing people and seeing both new people and new ideas and new things, but also the same people who are walking around the blocks in the same way that you are, going to the same parks that you are, it’s just such a beautiful experience. For me it’s an introverted, independent lifestyle and take time by myself. Then also to be close enough to people that I’m never alone.
It’s a really good point and really important to be mindful of it and recognise how much it matters to your well-being and your happiness.
Walking is a tremendous thing that inspires me. We’ve got a huge park near where I live. I joke that I live in the best neighbourhood in Manhattan. I don’t want to tell anyone where it is because I don’t want them to go up. We live next to this really, really big park, not Central Park. It’s got forest parts of it. It’s got some water views. It’s got a big old soccer field and some baseball fields. We go out and we just walk and walk and walk and walk. Even the neighbourhoods are really fun to walk through because there’s some elevation change, there’s a few small hills and it just gets you thinking. You look out over a couple of city blocks and you stare at the lead-paned windows of these old factory buildings. From one house to another, you see them. It’s not all the way voyeuristic, but you get to see into other people’s lives and we’re just, “They’re making dinner,” and then yank the curtain shuts. It’s great because you could just see all this different people and these lives happening. To me, that’s such a spark of imagination, just being able to look and see and watch and imagine. One of the really cool things about a city is right now, there are probably at least four people within twenty yards of me, but I just don’t know, because they’re in the walls next to me, in the room next to me, above me, below me. There are all this people and we’re all here, we’re all making decisions, and we’re all living our days.
How do you cope in those moments where you feel claustrophobic, you feel you’re surrounded by too many people, and there’s too much noise? What things do you do that help you just come back to being centred and feeling calm?
Yoga practice is really important to me. I try to go to the studio at least twice a week. If I’m lucky, I’ll go three times a week, but usually it’s twice a week. I try to walk three miles a day. I’m always out walking. That’s just something that really calms me down. If I’m having a super stressful day, a bath is a great way to let go of the noise and the stuff around you. Journaling is something I really, really love doing. All of these are quieter and more introspective.
Recently, my partner and I, we’ve been spending time just playing music. Not getting home from work and then having more conversation, more noise, more decision-making, more stuff to do, and more projects, but enjoying being in a room and listening to some music and letting the exhale takeover. I started and I told you about the inhale, Apana Vayu, the breath that we all take in. We start the day and a lot of times unknowingly, we hold our breath during the day. We’re tensed, we’re stressed, we hold our breath, and you’ll notice when someone’s relaxing, because they’ll exhale, “It’s so good to see you,” and sighs. They’ll get off a phone call or they get off a busy business meeting or an appointment and they sigh. That’s the same thing that happens for me in a bath or I’m plopped down on a couch. I’m like, “That was hard.” One puzzle clue to find out what helps relax you is to listen to when that exhale happens.
How do you feel about boredom? To give you some context to that, that’s something that I’m really an advocate of. To embrace the quiet moments in between no matter how busy your city life might be and how hectic your schedule is today. That we all have these tiny moments in between and often, we’re terrified of being alone with our thoughts. We’re afraid of being bored so we grab for the phone in our pocket, this portable entertainment device and get a little endorphin hit, because we have an email or there’s a new post or a new like. I really encourage people who come in Urban Curiosity Workshops to embrace these quieter moments in their day. The question is, how do you feel about boredom?
We live in a world that’s so noisy and city is the definition of noisy. Although, I love cities because I think the noise is just reality. It’s actually showing you what’s happening. If you live out in a country, there’s other ways of hiding what’s going on and it’s nice to have it up front and centre. This relates to your question. Let’s say you’re standing out on a football field. You’re in the middle of the big lawn and over at the edge of the lawn is a small hill, maybe 30 or 40 metres, but you can’t see over the top of it. You go over there. You walk over there and you’re like, “I’ve got to crawl up this hill. For some reason, I’ve got to get my clothes dirty and I’ve got to crawl up it and I’ve got to get muddy. That sounds like a terrible idea. I’ll just stay here. The lawn is gorgeous. I can set up a chair. I can check my phone. I can look up at the sun. I’m getting a tan. I’m having a good time.”
What we don’t know is that just really a very short distance, 30 metres, 40 metres max, you’re crawling the mud for maybe five minutes, is on the other side, is this huge ocean. You have your own private yacht. You have a private island. You have a beach. The sun always shines. This is a metaphor and I’m pushing it, but I think boredom is a time when we get to pause and let stuff filter to the surface. It can be terrifying to look at. We get these little feelings and these nudges and these worries and these insecurities and they’re very scary at first glance. We would look over and think that it wasn’t just 40 metres of mud, but it’s actually Everest and there’s a rock and we’re going to die is what our brain tells us about these moments of subtle awareness that comes from a space of boredom.
If you sit with it for just a short time and you lean into it instead of leaning away from it. Instead of running as far as you can to the other side of the soccer field and putting up a big tent and making a big to do out of it. If you lean into it and you say, “Crawling in the mud never actually hurt anyone. I may be slightly uncomfortable for a minute, but I might actually be totally fine. Let’s examine what this is.” There’s such potential for divine bliss, just pure beauty. For example, I beat myself up a lot for saying yes to too many things and trying to do too many things and then I never get things done. Then I always feel guilty, I’m like, “I didn’t finish that project,” and the voice goes, “You suck at life. You don’t finish anything. You’re terrible at stuff.” You know me. You know my work. That’s ridiculous but it’s true, it’s in there. I’ll get my notebook out, I have all these ideas, and I’m going to do all these things. If I take a moment to pause, I look at the list, I let the insecurity come up, I let the voice come up, and I let myself have just a moment there, there’s another question that comes later. It’s softer, it’s quieter, and it says something, “What if you didn’t do any of these things. What if you didn’t have to do anything else? What if you just hung out for a minute? What if all those things you put on your to-do list, you just let them go, slide off you, let it go and drain down like the water drains out at the bath? What if you just did one thing? What if you just wrote your book?” After that, when I get that question, when I get that space to breathe through something, that’s when the divine bliss comes and I’m like, “I love writing my book. I love writing my book. I didn’t say yes to all bunch of projects, so now I actually have time to write my book.” It’s really quite joyful but we don’t let ourselves get there.
That’s such a shame for many of us that these opportunities for connection with others or connections with our ourselves, these fantastic insights that our intuition and our inner wisdom wants to tell us, get used in all of the noise and the demands of others and the received wisdom around how we should be living in this world and what success means. One of the things that I’m interested to hear you talk about is how you’ve cultivated a sense of community in your neighbourhood. I know that in the last year, you moved from Brooklyn over to Manhattan. I’m just interested how you went about that and also how that was impacted by the fact that you had a young child at the time. You’re a first time mum. Did that make any difference to some of the connections that you made in your city neighbourhood?
Yeah. I moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan. We lived in Brooklyn for three years and loved, loved it. Brooklyn is just a beautiful city, and lots of friends over there, although they were still 30, 45 minutes apart for the most case. The same week I got pregnant, my husband got a new job. He got a job outside New York City. He’s north of Manhattan. He works near Yonkers and Hastings. From Brooklyn, which is bottom right if you’re looking at a map, you have to go all the way to Brooklyn, all the way through Manhattan outside of the city, through The Bronx up into Westchester. For him, he was commuting two hours a day each way on three different trains. I had just gotten pregnant and six or eight weeks later, I started getting really sick from the pregnancy. I had a really challenging pregnancy. I won’t go so far as to say I hated being pregnant, but I definitely did not like it. He got up at 5:00 in the morning and left and got to work about 7:00, 7:30 and left work around 4:30 and got home around 6:30 or 7:00. We have an hour together.
During pregnancy, I had such extreme nausea that I not only had a morning sickness, I sometimes have middle of the day sickness. If I didn’t get in bed by 8:00, by 8:15 I’d start vomiting again because my body would just shut down. There’s nothing better to get me into bed. You’re like, “I should probably not watch another television show.” That’s not a good motivator to get yourself into bed sometimes. Staring down the barrel of every night, I would vomit exactly at 8:15. You bet your buck. I was in bed at 7:50 PM I got into bed, I crawl in there, sometimes I’d answer a few more emails and then I would start to feel it. I’d start to feel the sickness growing and I was like, “I better just go to sleep because I’d much rather be sleeping than vomiting.”
I was working on a startup at the time. I was commuting on the train. We had a really stressful year of both the highest highs of working in a startup and some of the lowest lows. We had to lay people off when we didn’t make enough money. We had to decide how to restructure the team. We had to make some pivots and changes. We got a new office and for a month we didn’t have an office. We are all working out of a co-working space and all the while, I was pregnant and my husband was two hours away. It was a pretty easy decision to move. We moved an hour and a half north of where we used to live and we’re now about 30 to 40 minutes from my husband’s work. After I had my baby, he’s a year old, a year ago, I took three months of maternity leave and then I went back to work with a startup for a couple of months, and then we agreed to part ways because they were growing in new directions. They had a particular set of challenges that they needed to start figuring out that wasn’t my area to help them figure out with. It felt like I was really trying to force something if I stayed.
I also had this huge, huge calling and need to start a new project. I talked with them about it, “I really want to write a book. It’s time. I’ve got a subject for a book. Ironically, I want to write a book about being pregnant while working on a startup,” and they laughed. They’re like, “Is it good or bad?” I was like, “It’s both.” We’re good friends. Mattan and Chris, they’re the co-founders [of One Month – https://onemonth.com]. I just sent them a copy. I sent Mattan a copy of the outline. He was like, “So this is what’s going on into. Are you cool? Are you all right?” He’s such an open book. I could write anything. I hope he knows that it comes from a place of total love. I share the worst bits in part because I think it makes us more human. There’s no perfect. He and I have been through some rough stuff together, so I get a chance to write this book and talk about the reality of it. I hope everyone just has the most respect for Mattan and Chris and what we went through. That’s my new project now. I’m living up north, I’m working from home and I got my new project, Startup Pregnant.
Tell our listeners about it.
Startup Pregnant is one of the big moments of awakening that I had while I was pregnant working in a startup was that we have this drive to hustle at all times. We always have to be on. We have to hustle. The startup mentality, if you think of startup, what it means, it’s usually a young tech pro, white, who is eating ramen noodles and living out of a garage, this is the fable at least, and working 20 hours a day, and never getting any sleep. That metaphor is just so broken. The irony is that the ultimate life creative force is making a new human. We’ve so much wisdom to learn from this beautiful art of making a human. It’s not, “Pregnancy is beautiful and everything will be great.” No, I just told you how hard pregnancy was.
Pregnancy is this massive shake up but it trained me. It changed me. You know how consulting companies will pay for their management crew to go do an accelerated MBA programme. They’re like, “We want you to do some leadership training.” I feel pregnancy was that. Pregnancy is an accelerated leadership programme and so is early parenting. You have to learn how to meet the demands of lots of different people, deal with constantly changing circumstances, deal with identity shifts, deal with communication, explain something that’s happening that other people don’t understand, get buy in from them about it, project manage everything. Breastfeeding is the ultimate project management thing. If you are managing six different pumping sessions a day and keeping a human alive and feeding them out of your own body and feeding yourself while still getting work done, you don’t need a certification from the Project Management Institute. You’ve got it. You are so trained.
All of this experience made me realise that we are not talking about pregnancy and motherhood as this amazing opportunity and hero’s journey that it is. We’re not putting people in the room. I’m a mom and I have so much profound respect and insight for these CEOs and how difficult what they’re going through is. Being a CEO can be lonely, can be isolating. You don’t know who to talk to about this transformation and change. Most of your employees don’t know the extent of what you’re going through and they can’t empathise, because they’re in a different position and perspective. That’s amazingly similar to what it’s like to be a husband and a wife, or in a partnership, or to have your identity shift when you were maybe the first person in your family to have a child and now you’re becoming a parent for the first time.
You can have profound moments of incredible loss, miscarriages, abortions, foetuses that aren’t viable, wanting to be pregnant but being infertile, having a partner that’s infertile, having two partners that want different things. All of these conversations that are challenging and difficult in the barest part of our human soul is very similar to cofounders, wanting to go in different directions, having different belief systems, not having enough money, having to let people go. The emotions at the bottom of it, the way we show up in the world are so similar. That’s why I named it Startup Pregnant because I wanted to smash these words up next to each other and be like, “Let’s all get in the same room. Let’s have a better conversation about all of these beautiful and challenging and brutal things that we go through in life together.”
That’s really, really inspiring and I think a really relevant and important conversation to start with the world.
I hope so. There are so many women I see right now that are also surfing the same wave and the voices are starting to materialise. Sarah Lacy is writing a book called A Uterus Is a Feature, Not a Bug, which just makes me so happy. Kate Northrup is starting this community of entrepreneurial women and entrepreneurial mothers and talking about doing less as a strategy and how to really pull back and hone in on what you’re doing and get more out of it. More satisfying and better, not just more for more sake. I’m so inspired by these women who are tapping into this feminine sensibility. There are also a lot of men who are tapping into this feminine sensibility. Feminine isn’t girly. It isn’t for women only. Every single person has masculine and feminine traits inside of them. The masculine side of me is the go-getter, the drive. New York City is very masculine in some ways. It’s the project management. It’s the organisation. It’s answering emails. It’s anything that feels associated with testosterone and adrenaline. It’s when you punch the bag really hard at your boxing class.
A feminine quality is the more fluid, softer, creative. It’s when you get lost in a daydream. It’s when you’re journaling. It’s when you want to sink into a big pile of fluffy pillows. The feminine shows up when maybe you have a harder time making a decision. If you’re at a restaurant and you’re like, “I don’t know. What do you want to eat? I don’t know. I can’t decide.” That’s part of the feminine. It’s a little bit of a caricature that I’m giving. This idea that we can tap into the wisdom of the feminine and the wisdom that is embedded within, it comes out so strongly in things like mothering, is something that we can all learn from and that we can all get better at. I am just fascinated by the question, “What is a world of work look like when we embrace feminine energy as an asset and a creative force?”
I look forward to hearing more about the answer to that question when you share your book to the world and this conversation grows and reaches more people. One final question that I have for you today, Sarah, is one I ask all my guests. What are you most curious about at the moment? You’ve answered that in one sense but maybe coming back to the context of New York City and your neighbourhood, is there something in particular that you’re really, really, curious about right now?
My kid is endlessly curious. It strikes so much curiosity in me just watching somebody explore the world for the first time. We went to the zoo. The Bronx Zoo is amazing. We went over to the Bronx Zoo and he had never seen these animals before. Watching his eyes widen; he’s scared, one is pretty young to go to the zoo but he’s just like, “What is happening? What are all these animals?” That is something that I’m always curious about, “What’s happening in his brain? How is he learning? Who’s he growing up to be?”
I think another thing on a more metalevel is, I’m curious to see how my relationship with New York City grows because I’ve never been a person to say, “I can’t wait to live in New York City. I really want to live there.” I came here open-minded. I have enjoyed some parts of it and really not enjoyed other parts of it. It’s hit or miss for me. I say, “I like New York City and I don’t like New York City sometimes.” Recently, I’ve fallen more in love with it or at least I’m starting to maybe get a crush on New York City a little bit. I’m curious to see what happens. I’m curious to see if I become a raving fan of New York, if there’s a part of me over the next three, four, or five years that becomes this advocate for New York City, and I’d start telling everyone that it’s the best place in the world.
I look forward to seeing what unfolds, Sarah. Sarah, where can people find you?
I’m all over the internet at Sarah K Peck. The Startup Pregnant work is at StartupPregnant.com. We have an Instagram that’s really fun for me right now @StartupPregnant, Twitter. We’re also on Medium. We’re publishing a medium blog for Startup Pregnant as well.
Sarah, thank you so much for being on The Urban Curiosity podcast today.
Thanks so much for having me. This is great. Great questions.