Being an entrepreneur is time-consuming, energy-draining, and often thankless—and that's when things are going well. However tough as it is to be an entrepreneur, being an entrepreneur's spouse has its own challenges. Spouses face difficulties that are often isolating because details cannot be shared with or understood by friends and family, says Gina Elkins, 48, of San Jose, Calif. For nearly a dozen years, Elkins has found help and support from the spousal forum program of the Entrepreneurs' Organization, a networking group with chapters around the world. The elementary school teacher, whose husband, Hunter, owns Elkins Retail Advertising, spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about how the forum's Silicon Valley chapter has affected her life and marriage. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Karen E. Klein: There are multiple networking and support groups for entrepreneurs. What's the reasoning behind having a group for their spouses?
Gina Elkins: Being married to an entrepreneur is very different than being married to someone who has a 9-to-5 job. The challenges that come up are unique. Even if you're like me and you are fortunate to have a great support system at home and with friends, you still need a place to share and troubleshoot and get perspectives specifically on the entrepreneur experience.
How do the EO spousal forums work?
The forums are open to all EO chapters and all active members. All members go through forum training before being invited into a forum group. The spouses or significant others participate in the same training program as the business owners. It uses a Gestalt language protocol and provides a structure for forum meetings.
The spousal forum meetings mimic the structure of the EO members' meetings. Each group develops [a] constitution that is revisited and updated annually or as needed.
It would be easy for meetings to devolve into gripe sessions about how much time your spouse works. Is that why the meetings are highly structured?
Yes. At the beginning of each meeting, you have four or five minutes to check in on the best and the worst things happening in your family, business, and personal life. If it feels like someone is bringing up the same issue over and over again, they're asked to make a presentation on it.
The response would not be to make someone feel like they're a broken record. But others would be open to sharing relevant experience they have had in the same area. It's very important that there's no judgment and no advice-giving in the forums.
Why not give advice?
Whether we realize it or not, advice comes with judgment. If you imply that someone is not going about things the right way, advice can spiral into something demeaning or judgmental without the advice-giver even knowing it.
It's very hard for me—with my Italian upbringing and my outgoing nature—because I want to jump in and tell people what to do. It's been good for me to examine whether I have an experience that's relevant for one of the other members to hear and if it will be helpful for them, without me telling them they should do the same or hurting their feelings.
Are there male spouses who join the groups?
We have not had men in our group, but there are many spousal forums that do have men as members. Some of the members could be in the business owners' forums also. Many of them have a part in their spouse's business. I'm a classroom teacher so I know lots of things about my husband's business but I'm not formally involved.
What have you gotten out of your group?
I've gotten input from a much wider group of people than I would normally run across in my social circle. Getting to know older women and women without children, for instance, has been eye-opening for me.
Some of the issues I've learned a lot about from forum are dealing with aging parents, being supportive when there are unique business challenges coming up in my husband's company, and planning for retirement.
What are some of the myths about being married to an entrepreneur?
People have misconceptions that if you own the company, you can come and go as you please and the money's always rolling in, so you're jet-setting around. They have no idea of the ebb-and-flow of money and the unique challenges that come up all the time. The entrepreneur always has to think outside the box and be on call for the business 24-7. It takes a toll, especially on families with young children.
Confidentiality must be key in a group like this, where sensitive business and personal matters get discussed, right?
That's a crucial part of the EO in general. Everything that's said in forum stays in forum. Members wouldn't even talk about something that happened at the meeting later unless everyone was there. If you brought up an issue about cash flow at one meeting, the other members couldn't talk about it again without you being there.
Having the rules so strict frees the members to bring anything and everything to the table. What we create is a completely safe place to bring up whatever it is with complete confidentiality and freedom from judgment.
What are some of the issues frequently raised by the spouses of entrepreneurs?
Entrepreneurs can be focus-challenged. They're very different from people who go to work at a big company every day. They come up with big ideas and they're divergent thinkers who don't always want to follow the rules. Living with that presents its challenges.
Vacations are a big issue, especially now, when everything is too accessible with technology. Early on in our marriage and business, it was a big challenge to pry the phone out of my husband's hands. He still takes the business seriously, but if he needs to check in on vacation, he'll tell me when he's going to do it and then limit the time frame so we can go play.
The EO experience has helped him with that: He's seen the toll it takes on marriages and health if entrepreneurs don't find that balance. Our vacation experience is a lot better now that I get it, too. It helps with my resentment because I see the challenges of running a business, I know I'm not alone and I've been able to accept that and be O.K. with it.