These 2 super successful cofounders say everyone needs a work wife

“You could never put together a heist with women. Like Ocean’s Eleven with women wouldn’t work because two would keep breaking off to talk sh-t about the other nine.” John Mulaney famously made this joke pre-Ocean’s 8 getting the green light. Though he is a brilliant comedian, he underestimates the power of female friendships in the workplace (we’ll just count a heist as a workplace this one time.)

In a social setting, his assessment may be right but in this tricky era when two women come together in business as both business partners and friends, they can truly be unstoppable. If you have a great work wife, you don’t even need the six other women to pull off the jewelry heist.

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The concept of the work wife has actually been around for years but it was reserved for career men who basically needed a wife, but one that did all their office duties. However, over the years as more women entered the workforce both the term and the role began to take on a new meaning.

Having a work wife has not only become a necessity but has actually been the driving force behind some of the most successful companies to emerge in the last decade. That relationship, which is so core to a successful business, is what Erica Cerulo and Claire Mazur, the founders of fashion e-commerce business Of a Kind, took a deep dive on in their new book appropriately titled Work Wife: The Power of Female Friendship to Drive Successful Businesses (Ballantine Books.)

There is no one more fitting to write this book as Cerulo and Mazur met in college and after working in respective jobs till they were 26, they decided to take that big risk and start their own company in 2010 (which was later acquired by Bed, Bath & Beyond.) In the book, out today, they wrote:

“In making the transition from friends to business partners all those years ago, we knew we were signing up for a much more complex relationship than when we met as undergrads at the University of Chicago. We went from seeing each other weekly to spending more time together than we did sleeping. Finances became a constant topic of conversation, and not just in the context of whether one of us was feeling too broke for a dinner date. We spent our nights, weekends, and soon 9-to-5s each making decisions that would affect the other. Our careers and our futures became intertwined.”

The book not only explores Cerulo and Mazur’s multi-layered relationship but also the work-wife stories of other successful female duos (and some trios) including the women behind Lizzie Fortunato, Food52, the Go Fug Yourself blog, Radical Monarchs, and Plum Alley Investments.  But these stories aren’t just about sweet meet-cutes but rather that there is actually a substantial formula that uses the qualities that underlie a strong female friendship and enables women to build super successful businesses.

Cerulo told Ladders, “We realized five years into the business our producest accomplishment professionally has been the partnership that we have built and nurtured and the special place it holds. It is a business and  a professional partnership but it is also a friendship and that is so core to it.”

But why, specifically, do female friendships translate so well to this work wife/business partnership format? Mazur said, “When you think about it the qualities that are endemic to female friendships like vulnerability, emotional transparency, collaboration, etc., they are qualities that are really beneficial to the workplace. If you bring into business relationships that already have these qualities then you’re making it so much easier to live up to them. Women have a real sense of accountability with one another. I think in my relationship with Erica that has improved the quality of the work.”

On finding your work wife

But how does one spot the right work wife in a sea of women? “Look for similar work ethics and each other’s standards. Work and product and all of that. Also a willingness to be really vulnerable with each other. Well, I endorse starting a business with a friend I don’t know if I have any other friends other than Erica I would start a business with,” Mazur said. “We had the right friendship that ticked all the right boxes when it came to our passions and career ambition and the business we were starting. It’s really important to look at what’s going to be important in your working partnership and understanding how those qualities will mesh in that space.”

On being viewed by your employees

The book uses many quotes from fictional work wives including Leslie Knope (Parks & Recreation), Christina Yang (Grey’s Anatomy) and Ilana Wexler (Broad City) to accentuate points but one quote featured from a real person is from actor, producer, and writer Mindy Kaling. She said in an interview in 2013, “I love women who are bosses and who don’t constantly worry about what their employees think of them. I love women who don’t ask, ‘Is that OK?’ ”

Women put extra pressure on themselves when it comes to being judged by their employees and work wife partners, are no exception. No one wants to be labeled as the mean one. Except, luckily, a work wife provides the gut check you didn’t have before.

Cerulo told Ladders, “You have to realize you aren’t competing with one another and to actively remind yourself of that, you are in this together, you are collaborating. It is about the ‘we’ and raising the tide. The flip side in worrying about what employees think is that we can bounce things off each other. That request we made of that employee was totally sane. You get to gut check things which is a huge boost.”

On balancing the relationship

Though many of these work wife relationships started as friendships, when you start a company it can become all business all the time. So how do you make sure the friendship is still preserved?

“We’re always thinking about it [the company.] This is our baby. It’s actually harder to turn it off and talk about friend stuff. But we’ve gotten better about that over the years. We both had a lot of personal stuff happen last year. I had a baby, Erica was long distance with her husband for a little bit because of his job, there was family medical stuff and I think with having things that can’t be ignored, it reminded us of that,” Mazur said. “We got better at scheduling friend dates. Setting aside time. There’s a difference between scheduling a day at the spa together and scheduling a manicure before a meeting. One is clear that you are gonna be friends, the other is ‘Let’s prep for this meeting while we get our nails done.’ ”

She added, “And we also have regular weekday check-ins with each other. Obviously, we sat next to each other and talked to each other all day, but unless we have that structure where we flow through an agenda and tick off the same boxes every week certain things just fall through the cracks.”

On men being work wives

Though it is called a work wife, men can definitely fill this role too. “There are takeaways for both men and women from the book. Friendships should be privileged in the workplace. But there aren’t built in structures for friend partnerships. We encourage people to create real relationships and work truly as partners,” said Mazur.

Cerulo added, “Men can carry out the same philosophies in their friendships and work relationships that we lay out in the book. I think it’s just about the same values women have often privileged in their relationships and I think more and more men are because of the way blessedly men are now being socialized and raised. A willingness to be open and emotional and transparent and compassionate and to bring those things into their day to day personal interactions.”

Featured photo credit: Kat Harris The Refined Woman for Freda Salvador

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