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DECEMBER 6, 1999


Good News for Entrepreneur Moms: Babies and Companies Grow Up
Lessons from the life-and-business cycle: Don't start company and family at the same time, but eventually it may get easier

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For women entrepreneurs struggling to balance home and family, Pamela Hopkins' roller-coaster experience holds a hopeful message: Hang in there.

Five years ago, Hopkins thought that starting a company would give her more time with her toddler, Kelsey. It did — for about two years. When she launched DataSource Inc., a software-development and network-services company, from her home, it was no sweat to slip out to the playground during the day.

Then success struck with a vengeance. The Silver Spring (Md.) company's revenues have grown more than tenfold in four years. By the third year, she saw her family for no more than a few hours on weeknights. In years three and four, she often wondered if she would make it through the day, so torn was she between her overwhelming responsibilities at work and the needs of Kelsey and her infant son, Hunter.

So she hunkered down and worked even harder. "You're between a rock and a hard place," she recalls. "You cannot afford to bring another person in to help you, and you don't want to fold the company or let down your employees — so the only way to get yourself out of the situation is to grow, and that's going to entail even more effort on your part. It's the only thing you can do realistically, so you do it."

DAILY QUANDARIES. Her determination paid off. A year later, Hopkins, as president and CEO, seems in an enviable position. Her company has 170 employees and $20 million in annual revenues. She has a full-time nanny, a three-day-a-week housekeeper, and a personal assistant, whom she hired when revenues hit $15 million. The assistant arranges Hopkins' dry cleaning, her dentist appointments, and her children's schedules, and handles business as well. With solid management — and domestic — teams in place, Hopkins can now take Kelsey, 6, and Hunter, 4, to after-school classes and on two-week European vacations.

She still faces daily quandaries as she struggles to balance her roles as mother and entrepreneur: "It's still tearing, but I no longer wonder if I'm going to make it through."

Her experience points to a life-and-business cycle that researchers are just beginning to study: When women with young children start a company, there's a halcyon phase when they have more flexibility to juggle work and family than they did in corporate life. That leeway vanishes when the still unprofitable company starts growing fast. Then entrepreneur moms recoup a measure of serenity a few years later as the company — and the children — mature.

That suggests a lesson for those with the startup bug: Don't start a family and a company at the same time if you can avoid it. "It's helpful if women stop and think about this issue before they launch their business," especially if their ambition is to build a substantial company, 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. And if kids and company coincide, gird yourself for a period of terrific stress.

Looking back, Hopkins agrees with Greene's advice: "If I could change my life, I would have had my children earlier and would have started the company when both were already in school. I'm going to encourage my daughter to have her children in her late 20s or early 30s."

HIGH-TECH STRESS. That's a notion that runs counter to the trend of the last decade, where many professional women have delayed having children till their mid-30s and beyond, when they're well-established in careers. And women entrepreneurs — many of whom left big companies to form their own when they hit the proverbial "glass ceiling" — tend to fit that pattern. As a result, the twin stresses of entrepreneurship and motherhood bear down on them at the same time.

Nowhere is the stress greater than at high-tech startups. Researchers have found, for example, that women starting high-tech businesses tend to be around 35, says Candida Brush, director of the Entrepreneurial Management Institute at Boston University. The ever-shorter high-tech product cycles generate unremitting tension in a male-dominated world that makes little accommodation for babies. "Technology is considered serious business — it's not like you're selling ceramic pots. There's nothing that links it to domestic life in anyone's mind," says Hopkins.

Heather Blease is living through the cycle at its most intense. In 1995, when Digital Equipment Corp. shuttered its Augusta (Me.) operations, Blease, then a 31-year-old manager there, launched EnvisioNet, which provides tech support and customer service for clients' Web sites. Her sons were 4 years, 2 years, and 9 months old. "I had to take the opportunity. If I didn't, I would always have the question: 'What would have happened if...'" she explains. She calculated that by starting then, she would still have time to get a corporate job and raise college money for her sons, if her company failed in five years.

For two years, she did have more time with the boys: "I could cut away in the afternoons to attend their sporting events." But as the business tripled in size each year, such nonessentials as volunteering at the kindergarten fell by the wayside. EnvisioNet, whose clients include MSN, Prodigy, eToys, Kmart Online, and Grolier Interactive, now has 1,000 employees and annual revenues of $12 million. Blease is considering taking it public.

At this stage, the company's demands dominate her life. "As the pace of the business and the demands have become more rigorous, as investors become involved and we start dealing with companies like Microsoft, it almost feels as though my time is not my own," she says.

SOCCER MOM, TOO. She's both president and chairman, but foresees cutting back to chairman when the pressure lets up. "Once we're through that phase and achieve a certain level of liquidity, I may be feeling confident and back off a little bit," she says.

When her revenues hit $4 million last year, she hired an assistant that she shares with another executive. She balances her life by reserving evenings and weekends for her children. She coaches two of their soccer teams. She takes them on business trips when she can.

She watches them closely for signs that her stress is rubbing off on them. When she kisses 7-year-old Carter goodnight, he sometimes asks: "Mommy, do you love your company more than you love me?"

"Of course not!" she responds. But she takes his question as a sign he needs more time with her. "The boys don't need toys. They don't need a bunch of activities planned for them. They just need time spent one-on-one with their parents. Nothing in the world can replace it," she says.

Those who have emerged successfully from the toughest part of the cycle say that the work-family calculus raises different issues for older children, who are used to the material advantages that come from running a successful business. Hopkins recently asked her children if they wanted her to quit working: "My husband and I pointed out that if Mommy stays home, maybe we can't live in this house or have as many things or go to that school. Both of them said, 'Work, Mommy. We want to stay in this house!'" She paused and let out a peal of laughter. "Lucky me!!" Maybe that's the light at the end of the tunnel.

By Meg Lundstrom in New York

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