BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE: FRONTIER - the resource for entrepreneurs  
By Jill Hamburg Coplan
MAY 31, 2000

From Here to Maternity

A pregnant entrepreneur, whose business depends on her, dreads the thought of closing shop when baby arrives


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I have an 18-year-old business producing fine jewelry pieces that my wealthy clients dream up. I've built a devoted high-society client base through word-of-mouth by catering to their every demand. I use top craftsmen to do the work and to render my own designs, which I sell at private showings and with a team of saleswomen. I love my work, do well, and keep costs low -- no office, no factory, no salaried employees. Now I'm pregnant with my first child and depressed by the thought that I won't be able to take a maternity leave without bringing it all to a halt.

New York, NY

You raise two big issues here, and we'll tackle them one week at a time. Starting your family has revealed something important about your work: It really amounts to a job rather than an actual business that can live on without you, whether you're postpartum or ill or ready to retire. Making that leap from a job to a business can sometimes be especially tough for women (not to mention new mothers). More advice on making the transition next week.

First, the immediate practicalities: How can you make time for baby and recovery and keep the business humming? In two words: Communicate and delegate.

"Communicate with everyone -- your salespeople, your craftspeople, your clients, your husband, your extended family. Let everyone know your situation and ask for their support," says Sally Anderson, the author of Women in Career and Life Transitions (JIST). Speak to your most valued clients one-on-one, or, at the very least, send personal letters. "Stress that while you'll have a lower profile, you'll oversee things from afar."

CHOOSE YOUR DEPUTY. If you don't bolster your resources and carve out 8 to 12 weeks to focus most of your energy on baby and recovery, "the consequences will hurt the business even more in resentment and lost productivity later on," says Marian Baker, a Chicago counselor and career coach. "If you try to go right back and play that Super Mom role, you'll come crashing down," agrees Marcia Rosen, New York therapist and author of The Woman's Business Therapist: Eliminate the Mindblocks and Roadblocks to Success (Chandler House Press).

Delegating may be the harder part. But remember: "It's standard procedure in any business if you have to take a leave of absence," says Hugh Daubek, marketing professor with the Entrepreneurship Center at Purdue University-Calumet. Promote a salesperson you trust to manage in your absence. (If they are part-timers, use two.) Increase her commission, pay a salary, or both. Promote teamwork by tying her commission to the performance of the entire sales force, suggests Anderson.

Use an automatic service to forward incoming calls to the manager, and check in regularly to oversee decisions and emergencies. (It's easy to breastfeed while talking on the phone -- invest in a cordless headset.) Try a weekly conference call with your salespeople, says Beth Sirull, co-author of Creating Your Life Collage: Strategies for Solving the Work/Life Dilemma (Three Rivers Press).

MAKE A LIST. Try to keep criticism to a minimum: "Just because your manager makes a different decision than you would have doesn't mean it was a bad decision," Sirull says. Make a complete client list for her -- phone numbers, what they've purchased, a note about their habits and quirks, says Rosen. ("She needs to be called right back." "She only wears 18-karat." "She needs to meet on weekends.") Make a similar list of vendors, shippers, and messengers.

Luckily, a normal postpartum recovery is fairly predictable, so you can say in advance when you will be back. When the time comes, ease in. "There are three functions: Sales, sales management, and overall management," says Daubek. "You can be back at overall management fastest." As your duties pile back up, hire a housekeeper or nanny to care for baby during your naps and working hours. Try to find someone who'll shop for food and baby supplies, and handle laundry and housework. But keep feeding and bathing the baby for you and your husband -- some things are too important to delegate!

Send your questions to

Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y.


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