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A business class at George Washington University encourages students to take an entrepreneurial approach to balancing work with a personal life

By Vanessa M. Gezari
Sunday, April 12, 2009

Krissy Laubach is a perfectionist. By her own account, the 21-year-old George Washington University senior has been pushing herself for years -- to earn good grades, hold down jobs and internships and join the leadership ranks of her sorority.

So when Krissy was assigned to analyze her skill at balancing work and personal life as part of a unique women-focused business class this spring, she found ample material. "I pushed myself to the point of exhaustion but always managed to convince myself that I was not doing enough,'' she writes in a self-analytical case study. "Many times I would experience panic attacks, convinced that any free time in my schedule would ultimately lead to failure in my future."

In her relentless drive, Krissy has much in common with the 21 other young women enrolled in Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership, a course that highlights the different ways in which men and women confront business challenges. At its heart is an exploration of work-life balance, an issue that will become crucial for these students later, when child care and other demands drive some women out of the workforce and slow others' ascent. (The class is all female; men are welcome, but given the title, it's not surprising that none signed up.)

Kathy Korman Frey, a 37-year-old Harvard MBA who runs a strategic consulting firm in Washington, developed the work-life balance element of the course while teaching as an adjunct at GW and tried it out for the first time this academic year. Frey is an entrepreneur, and she's also a mother of two who's partial to high-heeled boots and Starbucks sugar-free hazelnut lattes, and who spends so much time on the phone with her students that she jokes they should join her friends-and-family calling plan.

A few years ago, Frey noticed that her female students were increasingly seeking advice about a subject the existing business curriculum didn't cover. They wanted to know how to make it all work: a successful business and a fulfilling personal life. One day, a student approached Frey in a GW stairwell.

"She had tears in her eyes as she explained all the different things going on in her life," Frey recalls. "She said: 'You're a mom; you have your own company. Could we talk sometime about how you do that?' . . . That's when I decided that something had to be done in the classroom to address these issues."

To fill the gap, Frey then created an online case study database called the Hot Mommas Project that allows ordinary women to tell their stories and share insights on balancing work and personal life. The cases studies are based on a model developed at Harvard Business School, but they're shorter and much more personal -- and all have female protagonists. Some tell stories of corporate success, while others simply highlight a challenge and offer a starting point for discussion. All are valuable, Frey says, because research shows that seeing a woman play a central role in a case study makes other women more confident about what they can accomplish.

Frey envisions the site as a searchable library of role models for aspiring female entrepreneurs, many of whom begin their careers working for others. For now, the cases are available free online, and several have been published in a Prentice-Hall textbook. Frey hopes to market the case studies to colleagues for use in classrooms.

This semester, for the first time, Frey is asking her students to write case studies about themselves for the Hot Mommas library. The students, who range from MBA candidates to women who have never taken a business class, are mostly too young to be juggling work and play dates. Yet they describe lives already packed with jobs, internships, classes and social engagements -- and a tendency to lose their balance. Their anxiety is palpable.

"I've had a lot of male interns who are way overcommitted, but they don't seem to feel the guilt if they have to cancel," Frey says. "Whereas women will tear their hair out over it."

In the early stages of the Hot Mommas Project, Frey surveyed 269 mostly professional women across the country and found that the respondents feel more successful when they are able to accomplish one key thing: managing the demands of career and home.

"A lot of women are being put in a position where their life has become an entrepreneurial experience," Frey says. "They may not have signed up to be entrepreneurs, but guess what? They are. Because if you want to do the proverbial all, you literally have to start thinking about your life as if it's a business model and start moving all the pieces around to make it work.''

The idea that women and men might benefit from different kinds of business instruction -- especially in the area of entrepreneurship -- has been knocking around university campuses for more than a decade. In the late 1990s, Myra Hart, a founding officer of Staples and senior faculty member at Harvard Business School, surveyed the school's alumni and discovered that women were not nearly as likely to describe themselves as "entrepreneurial" as were men. Statistics support her findings: While women-owned businesses are growing faster than others in the United States, twice as many small businesses are owned by men.

"I tried to get behind that and say, why?" Hart says. What she found, in part, was that existing business curricula didn't address the distinctive challenges facing female entrepreneurs. In 2002, Hart drafted a case study on Zipcar, a short-term car-rental company that was started by two women, one of whom was pregnant at the time. During class discussions, not a single student mentioned that pregnancy and upcoming maternity leave as a business challenge. Finally, Hart brought it up, asking if the students considered it a risk.

"One of the guys said, 'Yes, but I didn't think we could talk about it,' " she recalls. "The truth is that when this woman had her baby, she decided not to come back, and it created huge problems for the company. Was it in fact a risk? It was a real risk." If businesses acknowledge such challenges and devise strategies for dealing with them, problems might be averted, Hart likes to point out.

Frey was one of Hart's students. In business school, she surveyed classrooms filled with a growing number of women and wondered, What's going to happen when we have kids? It's a question the women's movement has struggled with since its inception: How do smart, ambitious women achieve professional goals when child care and household responsibilities begin to eat up time that would ordinarily be spent working?

"We may wish it would be different, but guess what? We're still primary caregivers," Frey says. "You start out with this idea about what your life is going to be like, and all of a sudden you have three more jobs. That's the unanswered question: How do I do this?"

Being a successful entrepreneur, Frey figured, means controlling your own destiny. What if women could apply entrepreneurial skills to their personal lives, too?.

Merriam-Webster's 10th Collegiate Dictionary defines an entrepreneur as someone who "organizes, manages and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise," but the secondary definition of "enterprise" -- which comes from similar linguistic roots -- is somewhat more helpful: "readiness to engage in daring action: initiative.'' Hart, the Harvard Business School professor, defines entrepreneurship as "a behavior that sees opportunity and pursues it. Regardless of whether you have the resources at hand, you're going to go after it." For Frey, thinking entrepreneurially about life means actively taking pieces from various sectors of life -- career, home, motherhood -- and creating something new.

"As much as we may desperately not want it to be mixed, business and life [are] mixed," she says. "The more female entrepreneurs you talk to, the more you know it's true. We cannot all be, nor should we be, the guys in the blue suits. Let's get it out there that we're completely legitimate models for success. Then that girl won't be crying to me in the stairwell." When Frey had her first child in 2003, she was running her own consulting business. She struggled with what she describes as "two tapes running all the time" in her head, one playing the soundtrack of work, the other of motherhood.

She wrote a case study about herself, a businesswoman grappling with new anxieties and responsibilities, which won a prize from the U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship. Like the women in Frey's research survey, who said their primary source of support was their spouse or life partner, she credits her husband, who owns a marketing firm, with being flexible and appreciating her goals. But Frey is also "ruthless" about saving time, she says. She never goes to the grocery store (her family shops through an online grocery service), and she sets herself hourly deadlines throughout the day to accomplish various tasks. Most Friday afternoons, she stops working early to spend time with a girlfriend, see a movie or get a manicure.

"I do things for myself, just to keep the batteries charged," she says.

In Frey's class, each student comes up with a product idea and learns how to develop and sell it. They learn how to conduct market research and communicate in a forthright -- and even forceful -- way, taking credit for accomplishments instead of hiding them, as research shows that women often do.

They also read and discuss some of the first Hot Mommas case studies, which Frey collected about businesswomen she knows and admires, many from the Washington area. One case focuses on Susan Apgood of Bethesda, president of News Generation, one of the nation's largest radio PR firms. Apgood is almost maniacally organized: At the time of the study, her daily schedule began with feeding her infant son at 5 a.m. and ended with running errands before bed.

"I've gotten to a point where my time is much more valuable. Having the baby has changed things. I prioritized my time like I never did before," Apgood writes in the case study. "I used to make a list of 10 things and stay until I finished them all. Now I will get through eight and realize I can do two tomorrow . . . I don't view myself as less successful. On the contrary, I think, I should have always done things this way. My two leftover items were the last things of the day. I probably didn't really want to do them and didn't do as good a job. Now, I tackle them the next day when I am fresh. As a result, I'm doing a much better job."

The student case studies reveal greater distress than Apgood's, both about the past and the future. Alicia Buford, a senior business major whose case was selected for an award by a panel of judges from Hot Mommas in March, writes heartbreakingly about her inability to follow through on ambitious ideas.

"Between jobs, school work, extracurricular activities, and a long-term relationship, Alicia managed to go four years without figuring out who she really was," she writes. "She spent so much time worrying about what would make everyone else happy, her mother, her professors, her boyfriend, society, that she always put herself last on her priority list, if at all."

Krissy, the young woman who saw free time as a sign of impending failure, found that her panic attacks only worsened when she got to college, she writes in her case study. Instead of easing up on her schedule, she decided that she had too much free time. She started working more hours at her internships and, when her grades suffered, piled on credit hours to raise her GPA. In her junior year of college, overwhelmed and under pressure, she had a panic attack the night before two big exams, walked out of the library and took a train home to Baltimore, missing both tests.

"I knew things needed to change," she writes.

A senior political science major who hopes to go on to law school, Krissy began the semester working two internships and taking six classes, though she only needed two to graduate. (She's also active in her sorority, Delta Gamma, and in a student organization that raises money for global health initiatives.)

But when she started taking Frey's class, the focus on balance convinced her to scale back, and she dropped a class and gave up an internship.

"If you do become an entrepreneur, it's necessary to find that balance in order to not go insane," Krissy says. "It stresses me out sometimes having so much free time. But I'm a lot happier."

On a recent morning in class, Krissy, a delicate young woman in a blazer and pants, red ballet flats and dark purple nail polish, reflected on a homework assignment designed to build negotiating skills. It's harder to bargain with your boss than with family and friends, she says. Your friends have to like you the next day. Your boss doesn't.

Frey listened, nodding.

"This is why people struggle with work-life balance," Frey said, "because they know: 'I can go out to meetings every night, but you kind of still have to love me. But my boss -- my boss can fire me.' "

Vanessa M. Gezari is a freelance writer based in Washington who writes frequently for the Magazine. She can be reached at vgezari@gmail.com.

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