Equitech Tuesday #157: Whole Humans, Part 2

From: Maddy Stokes – COO, UpSurge Baltimore
To: Baltimore Tech Community

Talk about a whole human experience…As someone who never dreamed of being pregnant or having kids, being a professional, pregnant woman has been a social and biological experiment to say the least. In some ways, I’ve always fought against biology, proud of both the feminine and masculine forces within me and privileged to be entitled to the freedom to do anything I want to do. But this process, a deeply biological one, has thrown me into the passenger seat and I’ve been floored day after day by what my body is doing. It’s humbling and it’s grounding. 

I have been surprised by how lonely pregnancy can be, especially in the early days, when no one knows. I had an especially rough first trimester – both emotionally and physically. My first trimester coincided with the day and night work of leading the development of one of four critical component projects for the EDA Tech Hubs bid, whose work in Baltimore is already underway despite the EDA’s recent announcement.

Entering my second trimester, I was shocked by how little of a path or process there is for pregnancy at work – an invisible experience. In a startup, which we still consider ourselves at UpSurge to be, my first task was to weigh my personal and family needs with those of an organization at a critical inflection point determined to serve an ecosystem of entrepreneurs. I knew I was going to need time to focus and be present when the baby arrived, but taking three months seemed like a long time in the context of startup sprinting. I feel privileged that my role at UpSurge as COO and head of people operations gave me the opportunity to write our parental leave policy, our policies around pregnancy at work, and PTO. (As an aside, does your employee handbook have any mention of pregnancy? No? Maybe worth taking a look at that.)

It was the professional women around me who helped me gain perspective – how short of a period of time 3 months is and how important it is to be present as a first time parent. The stories I received from the older generation of operators and entrepreneurs who talked about going back to work two weeks after labor hurt my heart. They reflect a work culture that wasn’t designed for women and caregivers. And in startup culture, it’s particularly sensitive. It’s already hard enough being a female entrepreneur or executive, let alone one who is planning on having kids. The tradeoffs are so harsh for female entrepreneurs (and their partners) in a country without healthcare or paid family leave.

I found myself becoming more and more passionate about childcare. I spent time with friends like Laura Weeldreyer (Maryland Family Network) and founders like Tammira Lucas (The Cube Coworking) and Dana Levin-Robinson (Upfront, TSEQ ‘2022) talking about how we can empower more women and parents in the tech and startup ecosystem to build an unstoppable force for childcare in the state.

For me, pregnancy has highlighted what has to shift for us to become an Equitech city. Notably, I got pregnant soon after the murder of my friend Pava LaPere. I could not have entered this intense new life experience during a more emotional and complex time. I’m convinced a spark of that brilliant person took root in me and feel I’m ushering forward just a bit of her magic. Pava and I bonded over our revolutionary mindsets, unsatisfied with the status quo and guided by our experiences and those we observed of women being underestimated and undervalued at every turn. I know she’s cheering us on (maybe even barking at us to hurry up) to build a startup and tech ecosystem that makes it possible for us all to be whole humans. 

I’m so thankful for the people, mostly women, who have asked me how I’m doing (not just physically!), listened to my individual concerns and hopes, and helped me navigate an interim operating plan as an organizational leader going on maternity leave. Deep appreciation goes out to

Smitha Gopal (EcoMap Tech), Lindsay Ryan (University System of Maryland), Sam Novak (Loam), Gretchen LeGrand (Code in the Schools, Deutsch Foundation), Jessica Cummings (OwnerFile), Blair Slaughter (Delve Consulting), Dawn Myers (Ritualist), Bailey Surtees (Kubanda Cryotherapy), Laurie Felker Jones (Techstars, ModernTender), Claire Broido Johnson (Sunrock), Dana Ledyard (CodePath), Kristen Ernst (Whiting Turner), Kate Monahan (Deloitte), and Rian Hargrave (Onyx Development).

Every day I feel a huge amount of gratitude for my life partner, Rafael Casas (SpringWear), the other half of this experiment and yet another founder thinking about how to balance a new baby with a startup; for my partner-in-Equitech, Kory, the biggest advocate for child rearing and a cheerleader for me; as well as the whole UpSurge team that has made it unequivocally clear that I have no excuses not to take the time I need to nurture this new life come August. 

Next Tuesday, come celebrate another edition of Equitech Tuesday: Whole Humans with me as I head towards maternity leave. Joining us is Backyard Basecamp, a Social Innovation Lab alum that provides culturally relevant environmental education, centering the voices and stories of Black and Brown people outdoors. 

See you soon,

Maddy Stokes

Chief Operating Officer

UpSurge Baltimore