When Susan Slater-Cotter was going through a divorce, she realized that her days of being a stay-at-home mom were coming to an end. A former teacher, Slater-Cotter wasn’t willing to give up being there for her three daughters after school. Instead, she contemplated the options that would allow her the flexibility she needed and decided to reenter the working world by pursuing her interest in health and wellness.
Although she had no idea what it would lead to, Slater-Cotter, who lives in Seattle, began by teaching fitness classes. She loved the work, and her classes were consistently full, which her friends pointed out was because people loved the energy and enthusiasm she brought. Not long after she started, those friends encouraged her to consider going out on her own. At first, she didn’t think starting a business was even a possibility. But ultimately, like a growing number of parents seeking to tweak their careers to better fit the desire for autonomy and their personal and career goals, she decided that even though it felt scary, it was the best choice.
“I started mentioning it to friends, and everything began to fall into place,” Slater-Cotter says. Her connections were invaluable: She was offered a retail space as well as some angel investments, and, soon after, Strength Studio opened its doors. On most days, Slater-Cotter can be found in her Portage Bay studio intermittently cracking jokes while working her clients into shape with her relentless encouragement. “It hasn’t been easy, but I love it, and it’s helping me meet my goals both professionally and personally, which makes it all worthwhile,” she says.
Sasha Muir became an entrepreneur and a parent at the same time. In 2005, Muir had just secured seed money for her first venture, Butter London, a well-known cosmetics company, when she found out she was pregnant. The Seattle mom had her second child in 2008 as Butter London was taking off. Muir and Butter London’s two other key employees all had newborns during this initial period, which Muir remembers fondly as a hectic but productive time. The formation of her second company, Knickerbocker Glory, which she sold last year, coincided with the birth of her third child. And now that Muir has sold her majority stake in Butter London, the mom of three elementary-school-age kids is focused on her newest brand, Bevee, a luxury handbag and accessory line for busy, modern women.
“My days are completely crazy, but I love it. My business is almost like a fourth child, and like a child, it always needs more from me,” Muir says. “But, I’m able to carve out my own schedule and I’m able to be there for my family, so it works out great.”
Change of plans
Whether getting back into the working world after some time away or making a change at one of the many forks in the road that parents encounter, more of us are deciding to take the leap into self-employment and entrepreneurship. In fact, the seemingly at-odds roles of parenting and owning a business can actually work quite well together, letting parents focus on their priorities in whatever way works best for your family. It is hard to tally parent-owned businesses. But the number of women-owned businesses has grown 54 percent in the past 15 years, and solo-entrepreneur businesses are also on the rise. According to entrepreneur and columnist Vivek Wadhwa, author of the 2014 book Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology, “Twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over [age] 50 as under [age] 25. . . . The vast majority — 75 percent — have more than six years of industry experience, and half have more than 10 years when they create their startup.”
Robin and Clay Martin have managed to create a surprisingly flexible life as the parents of three young children and the owners of Hello Robin, a bakery on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Robin, who has a background in education, decided to stay at home while her kids were young. Once her third was in preschool, however, she filled those newfound hours by baking, something she had loved to do as a child with her grandmother. After perfecting her recipes in her home and hoarding butter in her basement refrigerator (Clay says he once counted 96 sticks), Robin started to consider baking as a business. Friends who had benefited from her excess of sweet treats encouraged Robin to go for it and, after a period of time supplying cookies for the ice cream sandwiches offered at Elemental Pizza in Seattle’s University Village, Robin found the perfect space for her bakery just blocks from her home and from the school her children attend.
Clay, who previously co-owned a record label, and Robin opened the charming and family-friendly Hello Robin in December, and she says that it’s worked out better than she could have imagined. Robin and Clay walk their kids to school, work at the bakery during the day, and then pick the kids up to do after-school activities, homework, and to have family time. While Robin was initially a bit nervous, she took faith in their solid business plan and trusted that it would all work out. The greatest fear was that they would regret not having tried.
Deciding whether to take time away from a career to stay at home with children can be challenging. Circumstances shift. Kids grow. It can be hard to foresee, long-range, what you might want or need.
Some parents decide to stay home with children, and then their plans change. Before Audra Mulkern quit her job at Microsoft to stay at home with her first baby, she and her husband took steps to ensure they would be able to make ends meet with one salary. Mulkern didn’t plan to work while her children were young, but when private school became the best choice for her daughter, she used the skills she had developed in the corporate world to launch an event-planning business. This allowed Mulkern to earn some income while still being largely in control of her schedule. Past work experience plus an interest in farms (due in part to her family’s life in Duvall) led her to her newest endeavor, The Female Farmer Project, which chronicles and champions the role of women in agriculture around the world through in-depth stories and photography, with Mulkern speaking and exhibiting at events such as the International Food Blogger Conference and TEDxManhattan. To fund The Female Farmer Project, Mulkern has continued to produce events and take some freelance writing assignments.
Mulkern’s career has changed as the needs of her family have changed. Success does not need to be measured only by bonus checks and titles, she says. “Women are seeking nontraditional paths to redefine their own success. [For instance,] women are finding deep satisfaction in the entrepreneurial and intellectual challenge[s] of farming.”
Risks and rewards
Of course, many business ideas never get off the ground, so in reality, entrepreneurship is not as easy as simply choosing a path and having aspirations. Starting a business comes with risks, not the least of which are financial. You’ll need to be realistic about the time you intend to spend working, your startup costs, and the income you need to bring in. You’ll need to be sure there is a market for your product or service. And, you’ll need to be very clear about how you will measure your success so you can reach your goals.
For Dr. Kris Sasaki, who owns Vida Integrated Health (with Seattle and Everett locations), entrepreneurship was a well-thought-out endeavor that came with carefully weighed risks. After getting his doctor of chiropractic degree, Sasaki lived in Peru for eight years, where he opened six clinics. When he and his wife wanted to start a family, they moved back to the U.S. and landed in Seattle with the intention of purchasing an existing chiropractic practice and turning it into a complete wellness center. Sasaki says it likely would have been much easier for him and less risky financially if he had had a business partner, but he had very clear goals related to both career and family. He gave himself five years to establish Vida, so that when his children start school this fall, he’ll be able to adjust his schedule and be available for their after-school sports schedules and other activities. As the sole owner of his business, Sasaki can shift his work hours to make sure he has time for both business and family.
For Lisa Brandli of Bellevue, the quest for flexibility and freedom drove her to leave her corporate marketing job and launch her own business. She started Brandli PR seven years before she became a mom, but her business enabled a family lifestyle once her son was born. Brandli knew how to manage and maintain both her client load and her income. The big adjustment was how to handle the needs of her infant son. Many days, Brandli would sit at the computer typing with her son strapped to her chest.
While she didn’t get a paid maternity leave and has to cover the cost of her benefits as a “solopreneur,” Brandli says she wouldn’t trade the time she gets to spend with her son for anything. “It’s those hours before and after school, and those drives to and from school that have allowed us to bond and to form the close relationship that we have,” she says. Yes, she ends up working in the evenings sometimes, but it’s a trade-off that has worked. In fact, it has worked so well that Brandli is now launching a second business with a partner, a college consulting practice that specializes in helping students navigate the admissions process.
Dreams, hard work
Some parents find that having children provides the creative spark for an entrepreneurial idea.
Seattle foodie and mom of four Sharelle Klaus was looking for her next business idea when she began thinking about how much she had missed being able to pair food with wine while she was pregnant. She set out to create a line of less-sweet sodas in interesting flavors such as vanilla bean and lavender that would enhance the dining experience, and in 2005 Dry Soda was born. Klaus’ success in attracting investors is a large part of the company’s success. She was able to use her connections from her previous roles, which proved invaluable when she started looking for funding for Dry’s growth.
“At the end of the day, so much of your success with a startup is about your connections. I am lucky to have such a great community of people,” Klaus says. She also credits trusting her intuition: Many who heard her idea warned her about going into the beverage industry. As an experienced business owner, Klaus believed wholeheartedly that there was room for her idea, and she turned out to be right. Dry is now sold in 4,500 stores and is the fastest-growing soda brand in the country.
Whether you start a consulting business based on your past work experience, create a product that solves a problem you’ve encountered as a parent, become a franchise owner or pursue some other idea, owning a business has become a tempting choice for many parents. And, thanks in part to the rise of social media, which makes getting exposure easier than ever, plus the ease with which you can publish a website, a growing number of parents are finding it relatively simple to get started. The lifestyle of being your own boss is increasingly appealing to parents who want more control regarding when and where they work.
That’s not to say that you’ll work less, though. According to Scott A. Shane, author of The Illusions of Entrepreneurship, the typical American who works for himself or herself works 4.4 more hours per week than the typical person who is employed by someone else. So, as you fantasize about calling your own shots, be realistic about the kinds of demands your business might place on you.
Parenting is full of upheaval, and the needs of children seem to change on a regular basis. Whether you envision a little supplemental income from selling a handmade good or freelancing your talent, birthing a global brand, or something in between, life as an entrepreneur could enable you to mold your days around what’s most important to you. For parents, that often means the freedom to put family at the top of the list.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Readers, we’ve heard from you: The juggle of family and work is one of the biggest challenges you face as parents. In an ongoing series we’re calling Making It Work, we’re going beyond tired-out debates about having it all to explore the issues you face, from on-ramping and off-ramping to the search for easy meals. Here, online at parentmap.com/makingitwork and over Facebook with #MakeItWorkMondays and #MakingItWork, we’ll focus on stories and solutions. Send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.