Mom-preneurs: Moms Create Work Options that Work
By Jean Sheff

Part time, flex time, job sharing, telecommuting – call it what you will, working in the corporate world hasn't changed nearly enough for most women. Sure, there have been changes, but not enough to accommodate family life.

Mothers (and Fathers)
of Invention

Read all about 7 great product ideas launched by parents just like you!

Many women are tired of waiting for change; they've begun to think outside the box. Instead of asking, "How can I fit my life into the corporate work world?” they are changing perspectives, thinking creatively and asking, "How can I create a working life I want to live?” 

What You See

For Sue Downes, 9/11 changed the way she looked at everything. "There I was trapped underground in a subway car writing what could have been my last notes to my kids," she says.

Downes, who describes herself as first and foremost a career woman, had had enough. So, after 18 years of providing technical services to Wall Street firms, she left the corporate world to start Downestream. As a computer solutions consultant, Downes now provides technical support to small businesses and households closer to home.

"I was putting in a full day plus a four-hour commute and I didn't get to see the children enough," says the Garrison mother of two. Her days are now radically different, require new juggling skills and are more satisfying. Downes sums it up, "I'm part of a new group of women who are creating a new way of working and a new way of being."

Numbers Talk

According to Anne Janiak, executive director of the Women's Enterprise Development Center, a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) designated women's business center in White Plains, Downes is not alone. "Women entrepreneurs are the next big thing," says Janiak. The center, which provides support, counseling and education to help women achieve self-sufficiency through entrepreneurship, is busier than ever. Janiak says, based on the 1997 U.S. Economic Census, published by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are more than 24,973 women business owners in Westchester. "And we know we haven't counted them all," she notes.

At a recent "Women Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century" conference in Florida, U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao indicated that women-owned businesses are growing at twice the rate of all U.S. firms. And there are more books and Web sites dedicated to women's entrepreneurial efforts than ever before.

Of course, there have always been women entrepreneurs. Westchester's Lillian Vernon started her successful mail order business by monogramming products on her dining room table. And Martha Stewart began by running a local catering operation out of her kitchen.

Herb Engel, a volunteer at the White Plains office of SCORE (Starting and Operating a Small Business), says he's always seen women come in for business advice. "It was usually a young mother getting itchy to work a little or an empty nester who wants to do something with her life," he says. Money was not always the driving force.

Today, women are becoming entrepreneurs so they can live the life they want to live and make a decent income at the same time. For them, corporate America is losing its appeal; loyalty is gone, health benefits are dwindling and overtime is expected. What's a woman to do? Do it herself.

Going Solo

For some, the decision is primarily a career move. Take Nancy A. Shenker, a Mt. Pleasant mother of two who had dreamed of opening her own business for some time. "I had 30 years of corporate life and I was ready for a change," she says. A background in strategic planning and marketing led her to open theONswitch™, a business specializing in customized business marketing solutions.

Shenker admits opening your own business can be risky, but she's found the rewards far outweigh the challenges. She even sees a growing trend among men who desire to work in closer proximity to home. She points out that running a home-based business has several side benefits. "I have the opportunity to chat with my daughters when they get off the bus, and without the commute, it's amazing how much more you can get done," she says. While she might be working hard, she's taking advantage of odd hours and, most importantly, she's enjoying work more.

Enjoyable Work

Yorktown resident Kara Battinelli was a successful CFO on Wall Street who had worked at the most elite accounting firms. "My career really took off, but truthfully, I never enjoyed it," she says. "I liked the people, but there were other things I felt more passionate about." Like her family, which included her young daughter, and interior decorating.

With a long commute and longer hours, the trade off got harder and harder and Battinelli knew she had to make a major life change. "I thought, life is too short to spend an entire career doing something you're not passionate about," she says.

One day while surfing the Web it occurred to her that she could combine her skills in finance with her passion for interior design if she opened a Decor & You franchise.

"I signed the franchise agreement the week I found out I was pregnant with our second child," she says. The flexibility the new business provides is invaluable. Yet, it requires discipline. Battinelli finds she works early in the day and through nap times. A pause in the afternoon gives her time with the children, and once everyone is asleep for the night, she heads back to her office.

Enjoying your work may be important in other ways. Shenker recalls a talk she heard during a Second Shift meeting, an organization that supports working mothers. "We heard that research has found children of working parents were not troubled by the amount of time their parents were, or were not around. They were troubled, though, by the level of stress they perceived when their parents  were at home."

Two-Paycheck Family

That's not to say running your own business is never stressful. It may be satisfying, but it's not just a matter of fun – the women we spoke to must earn a solid income for their families. Grace Bennett, a Chappaqua mom and publisher of Inside Chappaqua magazine, has found there are often misconceptions that surround being a woman entrepreneur.

"On one hand, some people assumed I was a trust-fund baby looking to keep busy, and on the other, that this new venture is making me a fortune; if only that were so," she says. The truth is most of these businesses are just that – businesses. Bennett, who makes what she says is a modest teacher's salary, relies on that income to run her household. As a journalist who worked in the newspaper and New York women's magazine world, Bennett runs her operation the way she wished her former employers had run theirs. "Parents who work for me have a great deal of autonomy and flexibility," she says.

Times Two

It's every woman's dream. Quit your job and go into business with another mom. Laurie Hess D.V.M. of Mt. Kisco and Katherine Quesenberry D.V.M. are doing just that. These board certified veterinarians, who specialize in exotic pets and avian practice, have founded BirdCallVet, P.C., an exotic pets (birds, rabbits, ferrets, guinea pigs, small rodents and reptiles) house call business. Affiliated with The Animal Medical Center, in Manhattan, both women had a strong desire to set up a practice close to home with flexible hours. Hess, whose children are 2 and 4 1/2, believes working from home gives her more control over her business and what she affectionately calls, "this crazy mom act."

Betsy Cadel and Laura E. Wilker would agree. Founders of Suburban Goddess Press, these two mom friends have already published one book, KidSavvy: Westchester, and are working on their next. "When the book came out, at that moment I felt like I had it all," says Cadel. Some early naysayers don't have much to say now that the book is being carried by major book retailers and many local shops.

New Women’s Network

Many of these women report satisfaction, and a fair amount of business, helping other women with their start-ups. Whether it's providing technical expertise, developing a marketing plan, providing services that make life easier or expanding to employ other women in an environment that is family-friendly, it seems there is a new women's network on the rise.

In her book Creating A Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children  (Hyperion, Miramax Books, 2002), Sylvia Ann Hewlett explores at length the many ways corporate America does not support or encourage family lifestyles. Hewlett contends the message is clear: the only way to win the game is to play it as it's always been played – like a man. Perhaps by striking out on their own, women have begun to create their own game, one with a win-win scenario.


Second Shift – 212-819-8930 – A career networking and support group for working mothers.

Starting and Operating a Small Business (SCORE) – 948-3907, – A free national mentoring service provided by retired business professionals with eight offices throughout Westchester.

Women's Enterprise Development Center 948-6098, – An organization offering a full array of free services to support women entrepreneurs.

Jean Sheff is editor of Westchester Family, a United Parenting Publication.