Mixing Motherhood and Business

Creating Cottage Industries as Moms

    It’s never easy starting your own business. Add motherhood to the equation, and it’s even tougher. But some Oakland moms believe taking on both challenges simultaneously is worthwhile. The freedom and flexibility that self-employment can afford works out well, even though the work involved can be overwhelming. Three entrepreneurial moms—Amy Perl, Maggie Pace and Elizabeth Helm—say it’s all worth it.
    When Amy Perl learned she was pregnant with her first child, she’d just become an associate art director at The Gap, and so she wondered immediately how she’d juggle her demanding job and motherhood.
    “After my son was born, it was just too much,” she says. “I had to travel all the time, and it was stressful and not very rewarding.”
    Six months after her son Isaac (now 5) was born, Perl quit. She decided to concentrate on her true passion, photography, introducing Amy Perl Photography (www.amyperl.com). With a little effort, she shot weddings every weekend for almost two years. When she became pregnant with her second child, Avi, in 2004, she pushed her business focus toward child portraiture. Ultimately, she approached Crackerjacks, a local children’s resale clothing store, about hosting photo events, which became hugely successful for her business and also benefited the store.
    The 34-year-old photographer was brave enough to then take on another business venture, starting Abe Jones Designs (www.abejones.com), with one of her closest friends, Janel Jones. Their line of children’s T-shirts and clothing incorporates designs based on Perl’s photography and Jones’s illustrations.
    Carting her kids to photo labs and staying up till midnight working from home are part of daily life for Perl, who has four weekdays without the kids and often works weekends. Even so, she’d never think of trading it in for her old corporate job.
    Corporate life had also been wearing thin for Maggie Pace when she became a mom. Pace had been working as a journalist for seven years when she found out she was pregnant with her first child. After her daughter Kendal (now 6) was born, Pace continued working in a marketing and writing job in San Francisco. But the commute was killing her, and she missed her baby, so she quit and took on a freelance project for her former employer. For almost a year, she worked from home rewriting and editing a book but ended up without even a byline. “I decided at that point that I wouldn’t toil that hard for someone else’s dream again,” Pace says.
    Pace had always loved knitting, and she’d discovered a passion for felting, a knitting technique using wool yarns that produces a beautifully soft pattern. “I started thinking that maybe knitting is the thing I can do and really put my name on it,” she says.
    After the book project, Pace was pregnant with her second child and took a break to concentrate on knitting ideas and patterns for a potential business venture. One week after she got her business license, she was put on bed rest for four months, and from that was born her business, Pick up Sticks (www.sticksknits.com), and son, Callum, now.
    “I ended up designing nine hats while I was on bed rest,” she says. A friend showed Pace’s designs to the owner of Article Pract, a popular Oakland knitting store, and Pace made her first sale, and Article Pract bought all of her patterns. Today her patterns and knitting “kits” are sold in more than 800 stores worldwide. She’s also taken on two writing projects, knitting books Felt It! and Felt Forward.
    While the 36-year-old entrepreneur started her business at home, she now has an office and three full-time employees in Montclair Village, all within walking distance of her home and her daughter’s school.
    Like most entrepreneurial moms, Pace works more than full time, often heading into the office before her kids wake up (her mom lives next door, so that helps), coming home to help get them off to school and then going back to the office. Though Pace is happy she followed her dream, she admits that running her own business has been a strain. While it has given her the flexibility and time to be with her kids, she burns the midnight oil getting everything done.
    “I’ve demanded a lot of my kids and my husband in order to make this work,” she says, sometimes questioning why she didn’t wait until her kids were older to start a business. Despite the challenges, there have been many benefits—both of her children have learned to be flexible, and her daughter understands that her mom owns her own business and thinks that’s pretty cool.
    Oakland mom Elizabeth Helm also followed her dream of self-employment. Prior to giving birth to her first daughter, Helm had worked as a job developer for a local welfare-to-work program. She started back part time after her daughter was born in 2002, but couldn’t bring herself to return to work full time.
    “As part of my quest to find a mom-friendly job I liked, I took a business course in Oakland,” Helm says. She had considered opening a resale store and had worked at Buffalo Exchange, a popular clothing resale chain, so she knew a bit about the business.
    Helm approached the owner of a children’s used clothing store off Piedmont Avenue, Crackerjacks (www.crackerjackskids.com), for an informational interview as part of her “homework” for the class, and the owner offered Helm a part-time job.
    Helm took the job and when she discovered the owner was looking to sell Crackerjacks, she applied for a city-sponsored small business loan, got it and went about making the store her own. Helm added new merchandise, brightened up the space and gave it more of a community feel. She now carries a careful selection of used children’s clothing, maternity clothing and a few lines of new children’s clothes, toys and body-care products. Both of Helm’s daughters—Kayla, 4, and Amaya, 1—spend plenty of time at Crackerjacks.
    The flexibility of owning her own business has been immensely helpful, but Helm says running a business has been a challenge. “I have another full-time employee, but even so, I don’t really feel like I’m ever off,” she says. “If I’m not at the store, then I’m doing the books.”
    Regardless, Helm says she loves her job. “I get to network and converse with moms all day—it’s wonderful,” she says.

By Keri Hayes Troutman

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