In workshops where female entrepreneurs studied each other's companies, participants recommended solutions to real management problems: Should a computer reseller grow through hiring or acquisitions? Exactly what questions should a medium-size telecom outfit be asking if it wants to avoid a culture clash with a potential strategic partner?
DELIGHTS AND DILEMMAS. Throughout the discussions, family images were the metaphors of choice for these women, whose businesses bring in average annual revenues of $11 million. "Take it from me, a mergers-and-acquisitions partnership is like a marriage -- only worse!" a company president and veteran of seven mergers quipped to peals of laughter.
In casual conversations outside the sessions, work/family issues were inseparable, too. In one case, it was the president whose life was divided between running a company and caring for a mother with Alzheimer's disease.
For another participant, it was the pleasure of watching a teenage daughter take her first entrepreneurial steps with a line of homemade handbags. And then there was the thorny issue of how best to handle a husband and partner who is doing a lackluster job overseeing the financial side of the couple's business.
NEW DIRECTIONS. In Helen MacKinnon's case, the issue was how to cope with the personal and professional impact of watching her youngest child prepare to leave for college. The imminent departure of MacKinnon's daughter, Sarah, was prompting some soul-searching for the owner of Technical Connections, a computer-industry recruiter in Los Angeles. "I hope I'm at the age and stage to do something different," she says. "I don't need any more money. I need to see what I can give back."
The mission of the WPO is to foster financial success -- and that sometimes means helping members through family/business crises, explains Marsha Firestone, the group's founder and president. "How do you tell your husband he's incompetent?" she asks, before answering her own question: "You talk to your peers who've gone through the process."
Not all the work/family issues at the conference were traumatic. Lory Johansson, co-owner of 10-year-old Ergo DesignWorks, a Los Angeles interior-design and architecture company, is a case in point. The company has handled design projects around the world for customers like Hollywood star Johnny Depp and Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson. But at this year's meeting, Johansson was sharing the spotlight with her 14-year-old daughter, Erika, whose self-designed handbags were generating a flurry of interest among attendees.
THE BALM OF WORK. "I've had the luxury of bringing [Erika] along [on business trips], so she has traveled all over the world. She thinks of business as an organic part of life," Johansson explains. During the convention, as if to prove her mother's boast, the teenager was busy selling her creations from an upstairs hotel room.
And there was yet another work/family dynamic on display, perhaps the most powerful: When tragedy strikes at home, these women draw comfort from the pleasure of work.
"I don't know how many women have said to me, 'If I didn't have my work, I don't know how I'd have survived the deaths of my parents, or of my child, or an illness.' What we do is we continue to go to work," Firestone says. "Work is our salvation." 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. You can e-mail her at Jill Hamburg Coplan