There's no place like Mum's biz

By Susan Edmunds

Heather Keats and daughter Emma. If Heather had stayed in her radio job she'd have missed Emma's formative steps. Photo / Supplied
Heather Keats and daughter Emma. If Heather had stayed in her radio job she'd have missed Emma's formative steps. Photo / Supplied

Thousands of women are setting up in business as they discover how they can be stay-at-home mums and run their own companies. Susan Edmunds meets the new 'mumtrepreneurs'.

When radio presenter Heather Keats went back to work after giving birth to her daughter, Emma, now 5, she was racked with what she calls "mother's guilt".

She worked fulltime for 1 years from the time Emma was 15 months old. But, by the time her daughter was 2, Keats had had enough. She dreaded the separation from her daughter and felt she was missing out on the most important job she could be doing.

"We had decided to only have one child, so I wanted to be a part of her life, not just the person funding her life. So I needed a less restrictive work schedule. They are only small once and once they are at school you never get that time back again."

Parental leave is in the headlines after the Government announced it would veto a law change that would have increased paid leave for new mums (and sometimes dads) from 14 weeks to 26 weeks.

But many mothers fed up with facing a choice between going back to work earlier than they would like and running a household on one income are finding a different way through.

Mums such as Keats are starting their own businesses to give them the flexibility that would usually only come with being a stay-at-home mother, but with the mental stimulation and financial benefits of working.

The numbers are striking. While most of the self-employed and employers in New Zealand are male, that is changing fast as women opt to start their own businesses.

Experts say family obligations are a big consideration for most of them. In 2010, 235,422 men were in self-employment, down from 236,850 in 2000. By comparison, in 2010, 141,516 women were self-employed, up from 136,410 in 2010.

A Ministry of Women's Affairs study found in accounting, for example, women were leaving big firms to set up their own practices, to have more flexibility.

Keats slowly built up her photography business until it became fully operational in May last year. "I wanted to be able to take Emma to school and to pick her up. And to be able to look after her in the school holidays.

"Having a business allows me to have that flexibility. In the school holidays I am able to schedule work around activities and condense photo shoots over a few days so that I can have the majority of it to be with her."

Associate Professor Jens Mueller, from Waikato University's management school, says while most men seek self-employment as a result of trauma, such as losing their jobs, women tend to look at it as a better way to get a work/life balance. Mueller says in some cases it's not just children whom women set up their companies to help.

"Even a husband can be a 'child' sometimes in terms of neediness. Family considerations in general drive self-employment for women."

Mueller warns that women need to be conscious that owning a business is not always all good news. Not all are guaranteed to succeed and, in some cases, women will be slogging harder - albeit perhaps in their own hours or with children around them - for less financial benefit and with no possibility of career progression. "It is usually less rewarding financially on an hourly basis - when you own the dairy the dairy owns you - so for people with career objectives, self-employment usually is counter-positioned."

And women who decide once their children are at school that they would like to give up the business and re-enter the employed workforce may suffer.

Mueller says: "There is clearly discrimination in the workplace where women who come back to a career are not able to demonstrate currency of skills and thus will not be offered the same fulltime job choices that men have."

So is "mumtrepreneurship" just another sacrifice that women make to balance work and family life? Studies show that women who start businesses to help their families may end up helping the families of others, too.

The Ministry of Women's Affairs study indicated female entrepreneurs often created flexible jobs for other women. It pointed to a Japanese company, Digimom, which hires only women. Providing IT services, it allows its highly skilled employees to work from home.

Tracey Kingi, who runs Flying Fish Distribution, is doing just that. She does not advertise specifically for female salespeople - that would be illegal under the Human Rights Act - but she offers work hours that fit around the school day. She says she decided to start her own business when her children were small.

"I jumped at the chance as I have had the experience of working fulltime with two small children and found it extremely exhausting and was forever experiencing guilt - guilt if I went to work when the kids were sick, and guilt if I stayed home to look after them."

Mueller says it's a step lots of men dream of taking, but don't because they generally have better options than women in the traditional workplace.

Corinna Homer, mother to Lulu, 4, and George, 6, says the traditional corporate environment is not always kind to women, and Gen Y mothers have the tech skills to create an alternative.

"I think for a lot of women, it's about knowing yourself. You go into a corporate environment and learn all the skills but maybe there's a glass ceiling and you find that's as much as you're going to learn or develop."

She started Baby Loves Disco, a company that puts on kid-friendly dance parties at child-proofed nightclubs in cities around New Zealand, just after Lulu's second birthday.

The parties are designed for parents to socialise while their children have fun. She was looking for a disco theme for Lulu's party and found the contact for Baby Loves Disco in the US. Homer licensed the name and brought it to New Zealand.

Since then, the business has grown quickly. "We've just increased to five series as well as a few different special events this year so, all in all, there will be about 21 parties across the country."

The parties run in cities from Auckland to Dunedin. Palmerston North will be the next city added. There are also plans to release an album.

Homer is working towards being able to make Baby Loves Disco a full-time occupation. Her sister and business partner, Michelle Bush, is mother to a 5-year-old and is a hairdresser in Wellington.

Mueller expects the number of female entrepreneurs to continue to grow. But he says mothers need to approach their business in the same way any other businessperson does.

Keats says whatever happens with her business, she knows she has made the right decision, though her income is at present less reliable than what she earned working in radio.

"I wanted to be with Emma for all the milestones, not hearing about them secondhand. Five years ... that's it. It's a tiny part of their and our lives, but the most important time of their lives. I didn't want to regret not making that effort."

- Herald on Sunday

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