Meet ten women who have found a workable balance between running a family and a business
photograph by william taufic
Just watching the nightly news might have you questioning the sense of starting a home-based business right now. But our local experts beg to differ. “Even during a recession, there’s always a demand for quality services or products that are priced well and fill an essential need in the marketplace,” says Nancy Collamer of Old Greenwich, a career coach and founder of jobsandmoms.com. “If you do your homework, think strategically and proceed with caution, this can be a wonderful time to get a small business started and poised for growth, once the economy turns around.” Whether or not you’re a mom — or even a woman — you’ll be inspired by the ten Greenwich mothers we’ve rounded up to talk about the success they’ve had working for the boss who won’t fire them: themselves. They’re excited about what they do, so they gladly work odd hours to meet their goals. And because they have the flexibility to work when they want to, they’re often able to spend quality time with their kids, husbands, friends — and pets.
Company: Out of the Box
Kids: Hilary, Johnny and Jessie
This tall and graceful visionary, with a gentle yet confident way of communicating, is a natural for taking the fashion biz to a more personal level. Formal dresses should occasionally have sleeves, Jill kept telling herself while browsing through rack after rack of sleeveless numbers, store after store after store. The experience inspired her to open Out of the Box on Greenwich Avenue in 2004, a retail shop with off-the-rack fashions and specially designed pieces... including the seemingly elusive dress with sleeves. “They look crummy on the hanger, so designers don’t make them, but a certain-age woman doesn’t always want to have bare arms,” she says. “Getting older doesn’t mean losing style.” With six-figure proceeds from the sale of a boutique she owned on Martha’s Vineyard, Jill rented second-floor retail space on the Avenue. She had a positive cash flow — and repeat customers — immediately. In January, Jill relocated her boutique to street level.
“It’s a huge financial commitment, which can be daunting, and the timing of expanding a business in this poor economy has been unusual,” she says, “but our market position seems to be clicking in the new space, and my husband reminds me that I’ve been successful so far.” It helps that Jill fits the profile of her own ideal customer. “She’s the essence of the store,” says her daughter Jessie. “She’s outgoing, and she sees a potential in people, stylistically. When women walk in, they ask, ‘Where’s Jill?’ and if she’s not there, they don’t know what to do.” Working sixty-hour weeks, Jill somehow finds room for quality time with her family. “I waited until my kids were older,” she says. “They see it’s possible to be happy, work and be involved with one’s family.”
This should keep earrings from getting lost, Linda thought to herself while fashioning an on-the-go jewelry organizer to give to a friend who’d lost a diamond stud in her purse. The gift was so well-received — and other women expressed such interest in the product — that Linda decided that there was a market for her cushioned jewelry holder. So in 2007, she launched her business with $10,000, which covered legal fees to become an LLC and manufacturer fees for her first shipment.
“I feel like I’ve gotten on a Lear jet and it hasn’t landed,” says the mild-mannered maven, whose products are sold in 160 stores from Greenwich to Aspen. Though she works fifty-hour weeks, taking orders, sending out packages, fine-tuning her website and handling her bookkeeping, she finds creative ways to spend time with her daughter, like taking her along to trade shows. She hasn’t turned a profit yet, but she’s continually expanding. “My husband and daughter have been very supportive, allowing me to focus on what I need to do. You need the whole family supporting you to help you succeed.” Her friend, Chitra Shanbhogue from Greenwich, has enjoyed watching Linda’s transformation into full-fledged businesswoman during the past year. “She went from very relaxed housewife to a person who has a focused agenda during the day, making very good use of her time,” she says. “I’ve been amazed at how much she puts into the business and at the same time, balances being a parent.”
Company: Graham Writing & Strategy
Kids: Nicole, Marissa and Clay
Michele, who is bursting with personality, struck us as someone who knows what she wants. This mom started her part-time business in 2001, though many of her social peers had a hard time thinking of her as anything other than a stay-at-home mom. “When I first told people I’d started a company, we were out with couples, and all the men laughed and told my husband, ‘There’s the money pit,’” Michele recalls. “It was the best thing that happened to me. You give me a challenge, and I will prove you wrong.”
In six weeks, Michele turned a profit, offering copywriting and marketing services to local businesses. Over the past three years, her income has reached into the six-figures. “Michele’s amazing because she can articulate your thoughts when you can’t,” says Michele’s client Karen Russo, president of K. Russo Associates, an executive recruiter based in Stamford. “She’s meticulous at being able to get your message out in a very succinct way.” Michele’s twenty-hour workweek sometimes competes with family time. “My kids understand that if I’m on a conference call, their questions have to wait,” she says. “With my husband, it’s hard, because late at night, I’m e-mailing when we would have had time to take care of the house, kids, and general planning without feeling rushed. Everything needs to be compressed into a much shorter window.” Although her schedule is harried, Michele’s children still feel appreciated. “When I come home from school, she’s still working,” says daughter Marissa, “but she makes dinner every night and talks about our day. She makes time for us.”
Jewelry That’s Worth 1,000 Words
Company: Romero Designs
Kids: Tate and Luke
For forty hours a week, Tami surrounds herself with photos of beautiful babies, playful kids and adorable dogs. The snapshots make her smile, but they don’t bring back any memories, because she usually doesn’t know anyone in the pictures.
The bombshell blonde features her clients’ photos in the personalized photo jewelry she creates for them: keepsake silver and gold photo charms, key rings and cuff links. Although her background was in advertising, she took a jewelry-making class years ago, and something about designing and soldering really resonated with her. In 2001, she decided to start a photo-charm jewelry business and launched it from her kitchen with $4,000, which covered the cost of a soldering station, a website, business cards and stationery. Six months later, she was in the black. Today, she has a studio in Byram and two part-time employees.
“It’s a deadline-driven business, since a lot of my pieces are ordered for specific occasions: Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day,” she says. “During my busy seasons, when I find myself working many, many nights, I can count on my husband Mark, to help out with dinner or putting the kids to bed. It’s a team effort at home.” Tami takes pride in the job she does, from helping clients select the right photo through designing and waterproofing the charms. “She’s very passionate about her work,” says Mara Ossorio, Tami’s friend and employee. “She’s also very connected to her family. Her kids call, and she’s off running to games and a class play. I’m sure she misses things, but she makes it work.”
Company: Myself Belts
Kids: Andrew and Julia
Who knew that a $25 shopping spree at a Michael’s craft store would one day elicit praise from the likes of Brooke Shields, Courtney Cox Arquette and Shaquille O’Neal? Danielle was tired of hearing her sister in St. Louis complain that she couldn’t find a belt that her preschool-age son could fasten by himself. So the take-charge gal created a belt for her nephew, using materials she found at the crafts store. Soon, the other moms at his preschool wanted to know where they could buy the belt. So the sisters launched their business in 2004, applying for a patent, placing a five-figure order for thousands of belts and sending postcards to 1,000 children’s stores. “We took a leap of faith, but we knew it was unique,” says Danielle. “From that postcard, we got into 100 stores.”
Profitable since their first year, the sisters have grossed over $1 million. Their belts are available at 700-plus retailers nationwide, including Target.com. The belt girls never forget the inspiration for their business: the next generation. They’ve created flexible work schedules that allow them to harbor a long-distance business partnership with each other and be the kinds of hands-on moms they want to be. Danielle depends on her babysitter to watch her kids until 2:00 p.m., when she switches back to mom duty until kiddie bedtime. “She can work when she needs to work and be a mom when she needs to be a mom,” says Talia Goldfarb, Danielle’s sister. The trade-off for playtime during daytime is finishing the day’s tasks after sundown. “Working for yourself is a twenty-four-
hour thing,” says Danielle. “In the evening when I’m working, my husband understands; he wants me to succeed.”
Company: Peekaboo Pumpkin
Kids: Lauren and Matthew
In 1998, Kim worked on Wall Street, itching to do something creative. Candles were popular, and she’d enjoyed making them as a kid, so she started a home-based candle company with $1,500. After a year, she was successful enough to leave her job. The next year, husband Alex followed suit.
Eventually, candles became wedding invitations and favors, then baby-shower invitations, announcements and favors. Along the way, the business outgrew Kim’s New York City apartment, so they relocated to a Stamford facility with a $35,000 Small Business Administration (SBA) loan. Last year, the family moved to Greenwich. To date, they’ve earned over $5 million in sales, and products have gone Hollywood. “We did Gwen Stefani and Christina Aguilera’s baby shower invitations,” Kim says. “Anytime a celebrity touches anything that’s yours, it’s great.”
Kim focuses on designing and works fifty-hour weeks, including two days in the office. “When you have a laptop and a Blackberry, you can parent and work anywhere,” says longtime friend Jonna Gallo. “She definitely goes full-tilt on both fronts, which is a working mother’s dream, to feel like you’re able to be what you need to be for your kids and your job.” Lately, Kim’s five-year-old gives opinions about his mom’s designs. “It’s extremely rewarding to watch your work reflected back to you through your children,” she says.
Going to the Dogs
Company: Puppy Hugger
Kids: David, Tony and James
Dogs: Magic and Chelsea
The grande dame of our momtreprenuers showed up for our photo shoot rocking a pair of five-inch heels. In thirty-five years of marriage, Elaine has owned no fewer than eight dogs: mutts, terriers, and huskies. But it was her cavalier King Charles spaniel that inspired Elaine to create her own business. It was 2004, and her last son had just moved out, so the empty nester had more time to focus on her pooches... and that’s when she had her eureka moment. “Watching my new puppy curling up inside a pillow whenever she was tired, it occurred to me that what was missing in the pet-products market was a bed that catered to the way they sleep,” Elaine says. “The Puppy Hugger bed suits a dog’s natural instinct to make a nest — it has overstuffed ‘arms’ to hug your dog and a central floor area. No more dogs turning in frantic circles while digging a hole, usually in your bed covers or sofa cushions.” With $5,000, she fashioned a dog-bed prototype, brought it to H.H. Backer’s March 2005 pet trade show in Atlantic City and received accolades. Today, product demand ebbs and flows weekly, which wards off complacency. “Sometimes I think, things are waning, should I keep going?” Elaine says. “Other times, I get lots of work and wonder, can I handle it?”
Elaine supervises seamstresses, provides customer service and tracks finances from home. Her kids aren’t impacted by her sixty-hour weeks and in-demand products, but husband Charles is. “The ground floor of our home is covered with fabric bolts and dog beds — there’s nowhere for him to sit anymore,” she says, laughing. “But he’s my biggest cheerleader. He answers the phone and checks my books every month.”
Charles wouldn’t have it any other way. “Elaine is so engaged, so excited by this enterprise she has started,” he says. “She’s enthusiastic and innovative, always thinking of new things for the business.”
Kids: Jamie, Matthew, Jenna, and Andrew
With four children, life can be chaotic. Nina knows. “I was missing or double-booking playdates,” says Nina, a petite powerhouse. “So I created a dayplanner for myself that had separate spaces for all the kids. It worked so well, I started a company.” For nine months, Nina researched her market. Satisfied, she spent six figures to launch in 2005 and turned a profit in two years. “It’s been a roller-coaster since the beginning, but the highs and lows are less extreme now,” she says. Revenues are in the multimillions.
Nina’s forty-hour workweek doesn’t typically interfere with mom time. “I’m working when they’re at school, in bed, at playdates or otherwise occupied,” she says. And her relationship with husband Larry has deepened. “We talk business; we have more to discuss,” she says. “And we joke that we’re both bringing home the bacon, so who cooks?” Running momAgenda is a natural fit for Nina, according to Larry. “For Nina, working makes sense; she’s probably a better mother because she has balance in her life,” he says. “I think she’s a happier, more complete person because of it.”
Nina’s employees love momAgenda’s family-friendly culture.” She sets the tone that your kids are the most important thing,” says Nina’s friend Maureen Ahern Santini, COO of momAgenda. “If the school nurse calls and someone’s sick, you can work from home. You can never have it all as a working mother, but this is the best working environment.”
Company: VMW Public Relations
Kids: Logan and Brittany
Like a true PR executive, Viveca would rather have you notice her clients than herself. But when she allowed herself to be the story, she earned a new client. “She tried to get our account and was very persistent about it,” says Don Vaccaro, CEO of TicketNetwork.com. “Then I saw her on CNN. Somehow, she got them to run a national story about trying to sell her house. When I saw that, I knew she was the real deal. She keeps up that persistence and positive, can-do attitude for us, which means everything in an emerging market.” Viveca, a technology publicist, started her home-based PR firm in 2002, ditching her Manhattan commute after the dot-com crash and September 11th. “All I needed was a computer and a printer,” she says. “I turned a profit the first month.”
Today, she works a scheduled forty-hour week, and her clients are contracted. “It manages my expectations and theirs,” says Viveca, who earns six figures. Because she keeps steady hours, her home and work life rarely conflict. “Between 9:00 and 5:00, work comes first,” she says. “My husband is working, my children are at school. I’ve signed them up for after-school programs, so they’re often there until 4:30.”
This plan lets her do what she does best: sharing household duties with husband Walter during evenings and weekends, and keeping news outlets abreast of her clients’ accomplishments during business hours. “Seeing clients written up in major publications or on major TV networks — the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CNN — is extremely rewarding,” she says with a sparkle in her big brown eyes.
Company: Birdy & Grace:
kids: Gracie and Mark
For years, Sharon loved hitting the links but hated dressing the part. “Golf clothing for women looks like men’s clothes that have been shrunk down to fit a woman’s body, changed from navy blue to powder pink,” she says. “I’d end up buying things from a sportswear line, and when people would ask, ‘Where did you get that?’ I’d say, ‘It’s not even golf clothing.’”
In response, Sharon launched a line of classic, feminine golfwear in 2007. With a six-figure budget, she hired a designer and buyers, covered marketing expenses and more. Overnight, stay-at-home-mom Sharon became
a momtrepreneur who works “constantly” on sales and PR, but her family adjusted. “The children are much more independent,” Sharon says. “They have chores and homework and know if they don’t do them, it’s their fault.” Sharon is a great role model: We witnessed firsthand how she smoothly tackled a potential shipping and warehouse issue.
Within a year, more than 100 high-end stores carried her brand, including the Breakers in West Palm Beach and the Sedona Golf Club in Arizona. Sharon has also made inroads with professional golfers: Birdy & Grace dressed LPGA player Inbee Park — who won the 2008 Women’s U.S. Open — all of last year. “She won perhaps the largest tour event of the year and was on NBC News for final coverage wearing the Birdy & Grace logo,” says Sharon. “It was definitely a highlight!”
Success hasn’t changed Sharon, according to friends. “She’s still about her family, her friends and her golf,” says Janice Jennings, a golf buddy who moonlights as a Birdy & Grace model, “although we joke with her that she’s so busy making better golf clothes, she’s too busy to golf.”