Apr. 11, 2019
As a #ByWomenForWomen company, we love celebrating brands that are led by fellow female founders. Our new series, Founder Friday, is a chance to get to know some of these standout women, including our very own Heidi Zak!
Carly Leahy and Afton Vechery were born leaders, but it wasn’t until 2017, when they began on the process of founding their own company, that they discovered just how deep their passions ran. To build their business from the ground up, Carly and Afton leaned on their rich network of other empowering female entrepreneurs. Modern Fertility exists to pay forward that inspiration, providing women everywhere with the tools they need when planning for a family. We spoke with Carly and Afton to learn more about their move into the entrepreneurial world, why it’s so important to lift up other women along the way, and what success looks like to them.
Why did you start your company?
To make fertility a proactive instead of reactive. We spend our lives preventing pregnancy (and have all the tools in the world for that) but when it comes to planning ahead to have kids one day, it’s still a big mystery. With so many ways to plan other parts of our lives––finances, careers, fitness––it was crazy to me that fertility was still “wait and see.” We’re waiting longer in life to have kids and we need more personalized information and support.
We created Modern Fertility to put the power of fertility knowledge directly into the hands of women early, long before problems bubble up. We think every woman deserves access to this important information about her body, so she can be her own best personal health advocate and plan ahead.
On Monday we shared our new inaugural report for Infertility Awareness Week, The Modern State of Fertility. We partnered with Glamour to survey hundreds of women about what they know about fertility and where they need more support to get a comprehensive view of the space today.
Tell us about yourselves.
CL: I’ve always been a writer and an observer and I was fortunate to have parents who made me feel like I could do anything. I played sports and did theater in grade school through high school and captained my college field hockey team. I didn’t know it then but I was building the foundation for building a company––learning how to be a leader, push through tough times and (maybe most importantly) how to lose with grace.
As an English major in college, people often asked me if I wanted to become a professor. I remember telling my dad that I wanted to find a “creative application of business.” I was sure that had to exist 🙂 And it did! You hear a lot about how automation is eclipsing jobs and skills, but I think creativity, empathy, and writing are only becoming more important in an increasingly tech-driven world. I saw that at my time at Google and Uber and building Modern Fertility. More than ever, people want their products and services to feel human and personal, and feelings and intuition are the antithesis of automation.
AV: I’ve always been obsessed with making science more accessible. My first foray into this was when I did a science fair project in high school in rural Maryland after noticing my school’s shift to bottled water, and wondering about local water contamination. What started as a science fair project expanded into a small business that found contaminated wells every week. This experience solidified my belief that you could identify a problem through science, but needed business to share the solution with the masses. When you know something should exist, you just have to go and make it happen.
I started a few more companies in college then joined a healthcare private equity firm out of school. While I found investing very interesting, I missed the operational side of business so I moved to SF to join an autism focused digital health company as employee number one. I did a brief counseling experience building the go-to-market for Willow pump and then joined 23andMe to run their consumer tools products. While I was at 23andMe I tried to learn more about my own fertility which led to starting Modern Fertility!
What are some of the ways entrepreneurs today can help raise and inspire the next generation of women entrepreneurs?
Pay it forward. I think one of the best things you can do in the professional world is to be the kind of person that people want to work with: be reliable, be kind and have a growth mindset about where you need to improve. People will genuinely want to help you if you do right by them. You need to be unafraid to ask for those favors then pay them forward whenever another woman taps you for help.
Why is it important for entrepreneurs to put time into helping the next generation of women founders?
CL: When we started Modern Fertility, we called in every favor from every talented person we’ve worked with and we are all about paying it forward. The old cliché “it takes a village” feels especially relevant to women in entrepreneurship. At least in Silicon Valley, so much of company building can feel dependent on network, asking for favors, and relying on the advice of others. This dynamic becomes concerning when most of the “network” is made up of men, who are then only helping each other get ahead. As women, we are in a position of power to create our own network – and then help other women join in, too.
What’s something most people might not assume about you at first glance?
AV: That I spent >5 years doing hard lab science! From water testing in high school to cell culture and neuroscience research, I’ve spent a lot of time on the bench.
What quality do you love most about yourself?
CL: My EQ. I have good intuition when it comes to people (I think it comes from being the middle child of three girls).
When and where are you happiest?
CL: When I’m on a sunny hike and there’s a sandwich waiting for me at the end 🙂
If you could give your younger self advice, what would you tell her?
CL: No one knows what they’re doing. That’s the secret to life and to work––they’re all making it up as they go, so trust your gut and do the best you can.
What’s the top song on your playlist right now?
AV: Havana by Camila Cabello! We played it when we were in Y Combinator working day and night on the company and it’s still stuck in my head 🙂
What is your motto?
CL: You can be a leader and still be kind. (It’s true! You can!)
Why is it important to understand both the challenges and benefits of being a founder?
AV: It is a pretty crazy decision to start a company. It is not something that I would recommend to a friend, but if they told me they were doing it, I would do everything I could to help them. Founders spend most – if not all – of their waking hours thinking about their company, so starting something that you truly believe in is crucial to getting you through the hard times. Ultimately, I feel so grateful for the opportunity to be able to build something that I believe should exist in the world.
Do you think founders should take time to reflect on the pros, even if they’re constantly putting out fires?
Yes. We are admittedly bad at stopping and smelling the roses (we’ve got so much to do and we’re a liiiittle type A). But we talk about how grateful we are all the time. We are doing something special and we are at a time in our lives where we can put everything into it. We are very lucky.
What did success mean to you when you first started your company?
Getting off the ground, proving that we were uniquely positioned to solve a fundamental problem in women’s health.
How has your definition of success changed since then?
Now we have an incredible team and success means that every person is happy and thriving while working towards the same goal of making fertility more proactive an accessible for women.
What does your morning routine look like?
CL: I’m a big believer in a morning sweat before work––it makes me feel strong like I’ve already accomplished something for the day. A run, bike ride, or pilates class will all do the trick. Afton and I joke that if I haven’t done something active in the AM, the day is going to be… interesting 🙂
What motivates you to keep going in the toughest of times?
Our incredible team and the women we support every day. Day after day we are inspired by how smart, self-motivated, thoughtful Modern women are about their health and their future. It’s a privilege to be talking to them and serving them every day.