Life at Work

Baby, and Business, on Board

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 8, 2006

Jen Sterling left her job as a graphic designer at the World Bank more than 13 years ago. She was a few years out of school and knew pretty quickly that she did not like working for someone else. She spent her years at the organization making a list of things she would not do if she ever had a staff.

As soon as she had a plan in place, she left to start her own design firm. The situation was terrific: She was in charge, she hired as needed and had complete control over her business.

But one major problem with all that leeway and so-called freedom: What would happen to her business if she decided to have child? Who would run the company while she was out? Would her clients deal with her absence or turn to a competitor? How would she pay herself while she wasn't working?

And then after a baby was born, how would she keep her schedule of dinner meetings and early-morning events that kept her pipeline full of clients and potential clients? "How much would this baby affect the success of my company and those employees dependent on me for their living?" she wondered.

A growing number of women are starting their own businesses, in part because they feel they have more control over their schedule and their future if they work for themselves. They believe they will be able to stay at home with sick kids, run out in the middle of the day to meet with teachers and have more say over what happens in their life.

The number of women-owned firms with employees expanded by about 28 percent between 1997 and 2004, three times the growth rate of all firms with employees, according to the Center for Women's Business Research.

"The advantage you have is you can do your work at hours other than 8 to 5. You can set your hours to a great extent," said Penny Pompei, president of the National Women's Business Center in the District. "You can work around children's schedules as they grow up."

But it's not that easy, she said. "A significant amount of energy is required. It's a day that doesn't end till midnight. If you have the energy to do that and the desire, great. But if you expect to put in a four-hour day and expect to earn what you were at a corporate job, that's not going to happen."

Sterling, now the mom of 2-year-old Rachel, knew it wouldn't be easy.

As she and her husband, Rob Harris, also a part-owner in a small business, began to discuss when to start a family, Sterling started to panic. "As the conversations started, I thought, my God, how am I going to do this?" she said. "I had been working 16-, 17-, 18-hour days. . . . I didn't have enough people below me to do my tasks."

And then, as Sterling was sweating over the decision, a designer friend approached her and suggested they merge. They signed the deal with one other small business, and a few months later, Hinge, based in Reston, was born.

She knew the merger would afford her a little more flexibility than if she were entirely on her own.

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