While women have often been called on to lean in when it comes to their leadership, M.M. LaFleur founder and chief executive officer Sarah LaFleur believes the onus can’t all be on them.
“I am a huge fan of men leaning out,” she said during a discussion on the “Power of Pursuit” moderated by WWD executive editor Tara Donaldson during a recent Women in Power event highlighting the inaugural WWD and FN 50 Most Powerful Women. It’s both about companies un-gendering the playing field and making space for more than just those who have traditionally had the seats at the table.
Before M.M. LaFleur, as one of two women working in private equity among hundreds of other investment professionals, LaFleur said she considered herself capable, smart and that she could make something of her career. However, recognizing that if she wanted to succeed, she was, “almost going to have to play a totally different game from being who she was” made her pause, she said.
“That was a huge impetus for me leaving and ultimately wanting to start my own company, where women didn’t have to behave more like the men,” LaFleur said. After working as a management consultant and becoming dismayed by the lack of women’s workwear, LaFleur joined forces with Miyako Nakamura and Narie Foster to launch M.M. LaFleur in 2013.
Through hiring, pay equity and personal interests, the executive understands the power of pursuit.
In discussing some of the struggles and successes she has experienced as a female-founder, LaFleur noted that roughly 2 percent of venture capital funding goes to female-founded businesses, despite there being a significantly larger portion of female business owners. While seed round or Series A round funding has increased slightly, there is still disparity in the later-stage rounds “where venture capital or institutional firms are writing big checks in the hundreds of millions of dollars, sometimes even in the billions of dollars,” she said.
While the conversation of trying to support more women in entrepreneurship — something that didn’t exist when she started out 10 years ago — is “definitely happening, the proof is in the actual funding. And that needle hasn’t unfortunately moved as much as we would like to see,” LaFleur said.
Acknowledging her privilege, being an Ivy League graduate and former Bain Capital employee, both of which led to “a lot of built-in networks,” LaFleur said she still found fundraising “excruciatingly painful.”
Recalling how a female professional at a major investment bank once mentioned new female hires were coached to speak in a lower voice to come across as more authoritative, La Fleur said, “I just thought, ‘What a shame that feel they have to lower their voices to capture the attention in the room.’”
The microaggressions women have been facing in the workplace since well before microaggressions were a common part of the lexicon, can be so extensive that many women aren’t even always aware they are experiencing them.
Having been advised once not to touch her hair in meetings, she said, “There are these small signals that we are sending women that somehow they have to adjust themselves to be more like men…one thing at my company that I have really tried to protect is [that] you can be who you want, bring your full self to work. We talk a lot about being able to hold onto your identity while also pursuing professional success.”
As for whether women can get to a place where they are not continuing to be judged on traditional male terms, LaFleur said that will definitely take time.
“The start-up sector is really interesting. When you have female leaders and minority leaders at the helm, it sets a whole new example of what leadership could look like,” she said. “Hopefully, for the people, who work there, it helps them understand and inspires them [to see] that leadership comes in many different forms.”
Asked about efforts at M.M. LaFleur to “un-gender” the playing field, LaFleur said the company has full pay transparency, for one. Three years in the making, that was meant “to show employees that we are really putting our money where our mouth is. After all, we are a company that believes the world is a better place, when women succeed,” she said.
In the process of bringing their pay to parity, LaFleur admitted learning that male “leader stage” employees were making more money at a company that was supposed to be about empowering women “was embarrassing.” As such, she decided each level would be connected to a specific salary number, based on a standard or advanced tier. All employees know exactly what everyone else is making and that reflects the company’s commitment to gender parity, LaFleur said. Also, it is very clear what every employee needs to do to be promoted at the company, she added.
At home, LaFleur believes in domestic partners being true partners, and that’s one reason M.M. LaFleur offers — and encourages — equal parental leave among all employees.
Having become a mother of three children in a span of six weeks last summer — after a surrogate delivered twins and LaFleur had a child herself following fertility struggles, which she is intentionally open about — she debated over taking time off and ultimately decided on a 12-week maternity leave. Her husband negotiated and “fought for” four months of paternity leave, even though most men at his employer usually only take a week or two, she said. Having fathers involved with child care from Day One doesn’t perpetuate the cycle of mothers being the primary caretakers, LaFleur said.
A self-described “collaborative leader,” La Fleur said “one of her greatest joys” is getting to know more about her employees on a personal level, not just a professional one.
“I hope that people, who work at M.M. LaFleur and my kids, can see that there is no such thing as a ‘CEO type,’ she said. “If you are someone who believes strongly in a mission, and you want to work very hard for it, and you have other skills and talents to bring to the table, then you, too, can be CEO.”