Net-a-Porter Founder Weighs In on the “Having it All” Debate

Her outlook isn't nearly as cheery as the one Sheryl Sandberg has been touting during the publicity blitz for her new book

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Update Appended: April 30, 2013

Natalie Massenet, the founder of luxe online retailer Net-a-Porter, has chimed in on the recent debate about women Having It All. And her outlook is more complicated than the one Sheryl Sandberg has been touting during the publicity blitz for her new book, Lean In.

The 47-year-old Massenet launched her company while pregnant with her first child in 2000, several years before most posh labels embraced e-commerce; when it was sold to jeweler Richemont in 2010, Net-a-Porter was valued at $533 million. Now a mother of two, and widely considered one of fashion’s most powerful bosses, it’s hard to argue with Massenet’s path, but even she has her doubts. “When I started writing the business plan I was also pregnant. And I think fueled by hormones and delusions that if I could build a baby why not a business?” Massenet said at  The Vogue Festival 2013 in London this weekend. “I made a dreadful mistake or opportunity I’m not sure, of doing both of them at the same time, and it was enormously hard.” So “traumatized” was Massenet by the experience of birthing a baby and business in the same year, that she waited six years to have her second child.

While Net-a-Porter has not disputed the accuracy of the quotes, it claims that they have been taken out of context. In Vogue UK’s own write-up of the speech, which notably does not include any of the quotes in question, the website notes that “There was no indication from Massenet that the combination of motherhood and work has been anything other than a positive experience.” “I loved this little girl so much and couldn’t wait to be with her every hour I wasn’t in the office,” she is quoted as saying. “Similarly, the business captivated me beyond my imagination. Having the two simultaneously somehow balanced me.”

To be fair, Sandberg has never characterized a working mother’s quest for balance as simple. But to hear a female CEO talk about the difficulties in such stark terms is about as rare as Massenet herself: women account for just 1.7% of CEOs in the fashion retail industry, according to a 2012 study by Catalyst research, less than half of the 3.8% average for all Fortune 500 companies.

The original version of this article has been revised to include Net-a-Porter’s contention that Natalie Massenet’s reported negative comments about the tradeoff between career and family were taken out of context.

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