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DECEMBER 2, 1999


The New Mommy Track: Chief Executive,
Cook, and Bottle Washer

Who says it's easier to balance work and family at your own company? First in a two-part series

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At 7 a.m., Julie Schoenfeld, CEO of Net Effect Systems Inc., a North Hollywood (Calif.) company, was driving to the airport, leaving 2-year-old Nicholas crying disconsolately at day care. He was seldom so upset, and normally, she might have taken time off to be with him. That day, she had a half-hour to catch a plane to a meeting. Torn, Schoenfeld decided to call within 15 minutes. If her son wasn't calm, she would pick him up and cancel the meeting.

Her strategy paid off. He was playing quietly when she called. She made her meeting. It was wrenching, though. It's one thing to make a split-second business bet — Internet entrepreneurs do that constantly, says Schoenfeld. It's another thing to gamble with your kid's feelings: "The scary part — and the part you don't rest easy with — is that you don't know how it's going to turn out for the child."

Welcome to the new Mommy Track. Coined a decade ago, the term referred to the dead-end, but often high-pressure, jobs where corporations parked working mothers. Their ambitions thwarted, many women responded by starting their own companies. Not only would they be CEO but also they could organize their work to mesh better with family life. Women now own 38% of U.S. businesses, double the number 12 years ago, according to the National Foundation for Women Business Owners. Over half the women leaving corporate life to start companies sought more flexibility, a 1997 NFWBO survey showed.

Yet the dream of an easier work-family balance is often illusory. Instead, as Schoenfeld discovered, entrepreneur moms stagger under two all-consuming responsibilities: a young company and their young children. That's a prescription for inner conflict intense enough to catch even seasoned entrepreneurs by surprise.

"I thought [motherhood] would be much easier than it was because in the business world and in my role in my company, I got to a point where I was confident that I could do the job. I felt very much in control and able," recalls Susan Multz, president of Emerging Market Technologies Inc., an Atlanta-based customizer of customer relationship software. That world view took a hit when her daughter, Eva, arrived. She was "not sleeping through the night until she was 6 months old, spitting up on my husband's suit in the morning before work," she recalls. "I think I lost my surefootedness right there."

Of course, many male entrepreneurs are parents. But the dual burdens seem to weigh disproportionately on women. Notwithstanding media focus on twentysomething founders, many women entrepreneurs are in mid-career. Academic research shows that women high-tech entrepreneurs, for instance, tend to be older than their male counterparts — about 35 vs. 27 — says Candida Brush, research director of the Entrepreneurial Management Institute at Boston University. In other words, they're in their peak child-rearing years.

"Doing well at both requires commitment, organization, and passion — emphasis on the passion," says Patricia Greene, who holds the Ewing Marion Kauffman/Missouri Chair in Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Missouri at Kansas City School of Business & Public Administration. "You need an understanding of what your priorities are going to be, and very solid support teams" — at home and work.

Fine, in principle. Yet women entrepreneurs often manage without, in practice. They spend three times as much time on child care and housework than men do in the same boat, 34 hours a week vs. 12 hours, according to early figures from a ground-breaking study of 700 startups by the 31-member Entrepreneurial Research Consortium.

It's hard to justify hiring a personal assistant at a startup. When Pamela Hopkins, president and CEO of DataSource Inc., a Silver Spring (Md.) systems integration company, was launching her business, "hiring a CFO, getting an appropriate amount of support in accounting, getting a contracts-management person, fully staffing the [human resources] department, getting a network administrator, hiring sales people — those things were higher up on the priority list," recalls Hopkins.

Getting child care is complicated by the unpredictable hours and out-of-town trips. Women talk of "redundant systems" — a chain of backups for day-care centers or babysitters that includes relatives, friends, and other sitters. The alternative — hiring an army of servants — is seldom an option in a company's cash-poor early stages.

How do women cope? By setting priorities, for one: "First and foremost, I'm weighing the needs of my child. That's black and white," says Schoenfeld. "If he needs me, everything else will come second." That works to a point. In reality, mothers face dozens of murky judgment calls a day: Does a wailing child desperately need more mommy time or just a nap? Can a soccer game trump a dissatisfied client? Should you cancel a power lunch if you'll be too behind on paperwork to help the kids with homework?

The tough choices start the day baby comes home. Entrepreneurs often cut maternity leave short or simply work from home — between feedings. "Leave isn't realistic unless you have an amazing management team. And even if you aren't going into the office, you're probably glued to your phone," says Greene.

Business pressures forced Monica Larson, 36, to downgrade her plans for a six-week maternity leave when her daughter, Zoe, arrived. She and her husband, David Levine, run Ultraprise Corp., a business-to-business Web site based in Shepherdstown, W. Va., that serves the mortgage industry. "We had a large contract, and I couldn't stop and say: 'Sorry, it's my time now,'" she recalls. She averaged four or five hours during the day at her computer during her so-called leave, sometimes while nursing Zoe, and would take the sleeping baby to the office to work nights. When her son, Milo, was born two years later, the scenario was repeated: "It never stops, the deadlines around here," she says, with a laugh.

Telecommuting — much-vaunted as a way to balance work-family needs — is at best a partial solution for CEOs. They need to be present to lead, Multz found. She worked from home for a year after she adopted Eva. The extended leave was a condition of the adoption. Managing her 11 employees from afar didn't work well. "You need to be able to see exactly what's going on," she says. "Computers are not a replacement for human interaction."

Some women achieve a measure of balance by drawing a firm line between work time and family time, and reserving evenings and weekends for the kids. "We are consistent and insistent on having dinner together in the dining room every night," says Heather Blease, 36, mother of Alden, 9, Carter, 7, and Owen, 5, and founder of EnvisioNet, a Brunswick (Me.) tech-support contractor. "But life is not perfect. We often eat dinner too late and have to deal with tired, hungry, fighting children because of getting home late from work."

Women entrepreneurs report that they constantly evaluate how well they're doing both jobs — with some surprising conclusions. "I can't put the time into work I used to," says Schoenfeld. "On the other hand, to a person, everyone who works for me says I became a much better manager after I had the baby. I'm still hard-driving and energetic, but I've softened. I have a better sense of priorities and get better results from people working for me."

Is it worth the struggle? No one has done hard research on how having an entrepreneurial mom affects children. Muses Greene: "Is it any different if their mother is working at Microsoft or running her own company? We don't know that yet."

Absent more insight, women rely on gut feeling that professional fulfillment and the example they set benefit their families. "My surest gauges are my kids. They are happy and well-adjusted," says Monica Larson. "Without feeling personally satisfied, there is no way that I could be a good parent." The acid test will be this: Will their daughters embrace the entrepreneurial Mommy Track?

By Meg Lundstrom in New York

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