It's not all that unique to be a 26-year-old founder in Silicon Valley. What was far more surprising to people in 2017 when I joined the S17 Y Combinator cohort is that I already had a family of my own. My first child was born before Lambda School's inception, and my dual roles as father and founder have shaped my career since day one. Many people in Silicon Valley believe that being successful at parenthood or in your career means choosing one or the other. But what they don’t understand is that being a father has actually made me a better entrepreneur and leader, and founding Lambda School has made me a better father. This isn’t a zero-sum game.
The first half of 2020 has been a roller coaster for all of us. With a hasty move back home to Utah early on in the pandemic, a shift to full-time remote work, and the exciting news that we're expecting a third child this fall, being a father has seemed even more intrinsic to my career than it ever has before. This Father's Day, I’d like to share with the parents of Lambda a few of the ways being a father has shaped my approach to work and a few pieces of advice for making parenthood and your career or studies work in tandem.
Having kids is the ultimate grounding force. Some months ago I misplaced my AirPods for a bit, and found them laying next to my son with little baby-sized bite marks all over them. In moments like that, you just have to laugh and embrace the chaos. You can have the most stressful day at the office – the most high-stakes day you’ve had in years – and when you come home to your kids, they won’t care. And this is a good thing – it gives you perspective on the high days as well as the low ones. That doesn’t mean that boundaries aren’t important though. Having dedicated work/study hours and family time (as best you can) is the best way I’ve found to set expectations for coworkers, classmates, and kids, especially as I’ve transitioned permanently to working from home.
I’ve had several people ask me over the years if I felt like having a family detracted from my work at Lambda School. I can’t emphasize enough that the exact opposite is true. Some of the hardest leadership tasks call for perspective, creativity, empathy and flexibility – skills that are tested by fatherhood from the beginning and each day after.
Beyond a way to escape the stresses of work, being a father constantly reminds you that family does, and should, come first. These days, it’s common for companies to have policies around flexible work schedules, work from home, and parental leave. But unfortunately, those policies are rarely encouraged, supported, or modeled by leadership.
Being open about my own family in the office and on social media is important to me precisely for this reason. When you’re asked to choose between your family and your livelihood, you’re forced to put those two experiences at odds with each other rather than treat them as natural complements. From day one at Lambda School, we’ve been family-first. It’s part of the reason we have so many talented team members who are parents (Lambda School’s leadership team has an average of three children each), and it’s why we’re especially equipped to support our students who are balancing work and parenthood as well.
As the leader of an education company and the father of two (soon to be three) children, I can’t help but be reminded that family conversations around higher education look a lot different today than they did just a year ago. Many universities are moving online for the foreseeable future, tuition rates are still higher than they’ve ever been, and $1.6 trillion in student loan debt sits like a fog over an unpredictable economy. Young people and their parents are dealing with far more uncertainty when it comes to their educational path.
For many in our parents’ generation, going to college meant things would usually work out career-wise on the other side. Or, at the very least, they were less likely to be saddled with thousands of dollars of student debt. But that’s not the case anymore, especially in the time of COVID-19. The conversation looks different for every family, but my hope is that parents can have candid discussions with their children this summer about education options, costs, outcomes, and value. I’m still years away from talking to my kids about their higher education choices, but it doesn’t mean I’m not already thinking about it.
When talking to your children about their education options, consider the array of choices and how necessary a college degree is for their career goals; talk through in-state university options and whether a community college or online program could be a better fit financially given current circumstances. Is a private university still worth the cost (and potential six-figure debt) if you remove the physical experience from the equation? There is a path for everyone, and each comes with its own risk. At least for the time being, it might make sense to weigh that risk a bit more carefully.
Being a working parent (read: having two full-time jobs) is incredibly common in the U.S., and I know everyone experiences it differently. To our parents of Lambda: you’re doing wonderfully. Keep embracing the chaos, cherishing the little moments, and know that your hard work will pay off. To all of you balancing your own version of chicken nugget dinners, tea parties, and hours of Zoom calls – Happy Father’s Day.