Entrepreneurship + Motherhood = A Winning Combination
…AND WHAT OTHERS SHOULD BE DOING TO CREATE A SEAMLESS RETURN TO WORK FOR NEW MOTHERS.
May 24, 2015
When I co-founded my first business at 26, I did so for three reasons; firstly I had an itch I wanted to scratch in that I felt the marketing industry in the UK (and probably worldwide) operated in an outdated manner; secondly I loved the idea of working for myself (the final straw at my previous company was selling an idea through a number of stakeholder groups only to have it fall at the last hurdle); and thirdly I wanted to have a truly flexible work life balance by the time I had children.
At the time, having children seemed light years away, but five years flies by when you’re working somewhere like Futureproof, and suddenly I found myself with a company that still demanded my time, and a young baby. But for all the challenges this brought, for me the one real privilege was the luxury I had of being able to gradually transition back into work rather than the binary system most working mothers need to conform to. I know plenty of mums who enjoyed months devoting 100% of their time to their children (and if they’re honest, as some of them have been, actually craving a little more intellectual stimulation from a few months into their maternity leave) and then overnight moved to 5 days a week away from their child the moment they went back to work. I can only imagine how hard that sudden change must be.
My maternity plan had five different stages; Teeny, Tiny, Mini, Small and Little (there was much debate amongst our leadership team about those final two and which was in fact smaller…), whereby I gradually stepped up my involvement in the business. It couldn’t have been more perfect for me learning to overcome my separation anxiety (far more common in parents than their children, I’m sure…), not feeling guilty, staying involved in the business, getting just the right amount of stretch and challenge, not to mention putting on a dress and make-up and going into the office where I was my old self, not redefined by my new son, but instead judged on my past successes and future career ambitions; an identity which I had enjoyed before in my life and was suddenly redefined in my personal life.
It was as a consequence of this experience that I was inspired to start Huckleberry Partners, my second business. The luxury of choosing the way in which you return to work after having a child, or choosing your own workstyle to suit your lifestyle more generally, is something that is currently only really afforded to an entrepreneur, and I wanted to help bring down some of the barriers in making this a reality for the many talented people out there who want to work in their own way.
Some people would say you make your own luck. I spent years building a business, and crafting a role within it, that would allow me to have this transition from motherhood back into work. I have made compromises to get here, and particularly in the early years of Futureproof worked sometimes crazy hours for sustained periods at a time when my husband and I were both investing in our careers. Now I can reap the rewards. But equally, not everyone should have to start their own business in order to get the smooth transition that I have. With recent flexibility laws changing, companies are now obliged to listen to all requests for flexible working but not to act on them. It’s my job to appreciate the commercial realities of managing a workforce and perhaps not every role in every business can be flexible, but certainly a lot more can be than currently are, and when you flex your business to suit someone’s personal needs, you illustrate you care about them as a whole person, not just the person they are when they sit at their desk. In the vast majority of cases, they give you greater commitment and loyalty in return. This is central to the Huckleberry Partners proposition.
Getting it right for you
For working mums, and dads for that matter, the functional elements of returning to work, like childcare, are much-discussed. But for me, it’s the emotional challenge that demands more attention, and in particular a more gradual transition. I’m sure if we were better at this as a nation we’d find fewer high-achieving and high-potential women dropping out of the workforce. Individuals need to work out what’s right for them, but organisations need to radically update their outlook in order to accommodate an infinite range of workstyles in order to attract the very best talent. In the meantime, here’s hoping Huckleberry Partners can kick-start the movement.
Lizzie Penny is Co-Founder of The Hoxby Collective, aswell as a devoted mother to her three children.