Bottom Line: Working mothers who choose to start their own businesses represent a new and growing type of entrepreneur. They are motivated primarily by the desire to be available for their children, and they turned away from the corporate world because their former jobs lacked the opportunity for advancement or flexible scheduling.
In January 2010, if you Googled the terms mompreneur or mumpreneur—the now common catchphrases for entrepreneurial mothers who start their own company—you’d get about 120,000 hits. A year later, according to one paper, you’d get more than 700,000. Now, the number may be in the millions. It’s clear that like telecommuting, self-employment is an increasingly attractive option for working mothers. Why do they embrace the twin challenges of entrepreneurship and raising a family rather than returning to familiar, corporate jobs?
To explore the motivations and mind-set of mompreneurs, the authors of a new study conducted long, open-ended interviews with 20 women who opted for self-employment after having children. The interviewees were between 32 and 43 years old, and all but two were married or living with a partner. Their startups, based in an area of the U.K. that weathered significant economic turmoil during the Great Recession, operated in a wide range of industries, including industrial window cleaning and consulting.
The in-depth conversations allowed the participants to reflect at length on the issues they faced, and the reasons they most often cited for their choice to start a business were inflexible work hours and a lack of opportunities for promotion at their previous jobs. The lure of autonomy and the hope that business ownership would allow them to achieve a healthier work–life balance were the most appealing aspects of entrepreneurship.
One of the interviewees decided to become self-employed after being let go, which occurred during her maternity leave. The others framed their plunge into the startup world as a deliberate, proactive escape—from office politics, arduous commutes, and long workdays that kept them away from their children. As one human resources consultant put it, “I had a week where I didn’t see my daughter because I was coming home after she’d gone to bed and leaving before she got up, and I just thought, ‘I don’t want to do this.’”
Indeed, interviewees emphasized the newfound sense of control they had over their work, which allowed them to fit in other tasks. Although they valued their self-employed autonomy, they also put in very long hours—disproving the notion that mothers are not as committed to their business as other entrepreneurs, or are seeking to work less. “You know, I’m sitting there at night at 9 p.m. on my computer doing something and if it had been a proper job, as I put it… I’d have been sitting there getting all angry,” one participant said, “…but I don’t, because it’s me doing it and it’s my choice.”
Still, it’s not all roses and rainbows. There were many stories about dashing from room to room while on work phone calls to avoid wailing or rambunctious children, or distracting kids with TV or video games. These experiences, in turn, fueled guilt among participants that they were neglecting their principal reason for starting a business—to be there for their children. Perhaps exacerbating this stress was the fact that none of the interviewees regularly used outside child-care facilities.
Although five of the businesses represented the family’s sole income, and all of the participants desired their startups to be successful, the interviewees felt that raising their children was far more important. In fact, the majority worried that expanding their company would reduce their flexibility, or require a separate office away from home. All but one of the respondents worked out of their house, and as a result they expressed concern that they would not be seen as “proper” businesspeople.
“Our findings suggest that in their daily activities, the women enact a dynamic trade-off between the roles of entrepreneur and mother,” the authors write. “It could be argued that the discourse of good motherhood dominates, as they curtail their business in order to be able to be at home with their children; however, they are less available to their children than they might be as ‘stay at home’ mothers.”
Indeed, the authors argue that these women represent a new type of modern entrepreneur, those who start a business as a way to “have it all” by balancing their career goals with traditional aspirations of being a good mother. Looking forward, 12 of the 20 interviewees expressed a desire to stay self-employed and grow their business in small stages once their children were older.
The authors note that their findings shouldn’t be applied to each and every working mother, but they do underscore several common themes that arise in the minds of women thinking about making the move to self-employment. And companies looking to entice would-be mompreneurs to stay on board should stress their opportunities for career advancement, telecommuting, and flexible work schedules.
Source: The Career Identities of ‘Mumpreneurs’: Women’s Experiences of Combining Enterprise and Motherhood, Joanne Duberley and Marylyn Carrigan (both University of Birmingham), International Small Business Journal, September 2013, vol. 31, no. 6.