Baby, and Business, on Board
Women Who Own Small Firms Have a Lot Riding on Pregnancy

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.

Three months after the merger, Sterling was pregnant. When she announced to the partners that she would be on maternity leave in eight months, there was a "big thud of chins hitting the table," she said. The partners knew Sterling and her husband wanted a family down the road. "But I don't think anyone knew it would happen that fast. I don't think we knew it would happen that fast." There was a lot of stress and tension about planning for her leave, Sterling said, since the partnership was so new. They had to decide how they would split her tasks among the nine employees.

Sterling worked with a small-business coach during the last four months of her pregnancy, who helped her make sure the things she did every day and didn't think twice about were handled properly by people who had never thought about those tasks before.

Sterling went to each client to explain exactly what the plan was and who would take care of them while she was away. She hired a "traffic manager" to keep track of vendors, staff and clients.

Sterling took three months of maternity leave and admits she would open her computer late at night to check on the company's progress and data. Although 60 percent of her tasks were assigned, there were definite problems that arose because she wasn't there. One night, she discovered that no one had made calls to collect money from clients. Because of that, there wasn't enough money for payroll. "It was something I would have done," she said.

Lessons she learned and would like to tell other "mompreneurs": Sterling said she would put a lot more money away for herself before the leave. She would stockpile diapers before and spread out the expense. She would also "work triple-time on the sales pipeline to fill up further out so there is work constantly."

Life at her own business after having a child has been good, she said, and it has provided that flexibility that working for someone else might not. But, she said, "there were definitely larger scary factors because I felt like the business depended on a lot of what I was doing."

It's not everyone's fantasy, but she does have the freedom to take a day off, come in late or rearrange her schedule without a boss questioning her loyalty to the firm or wondering why she wasn't at her desk.

Sterling's main concern is just how to juggle a very full schedule. She's learning that a 9 to 5 schedule does not exist for her. She may do grocery shopping at 10 p.m. Tuesday and meet with a client on a Saturday. "My calendar has become a jigsaw puzzle where every piece has to fit and there are no more boundaries of where they 'should' go."

Sterling has a friend who recently said she was afraid to tell her employer about a pregnancy because that employer might take her promotion away or pull her off her career track. "Working at a company where you are unsure about your future is hard," Sterling said. "I think it was easier because I was a business owner."

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