Entrepreneurial mothers: a growing business subculture

For several years after her son was born, Phyllis Gillis worked in traditional corporate jobs that involved two-hour daily commutes. But the challenge of this demanding schedule ultimately forced her to take a hard look at her priorities.

''I finally decided I was compromising both my family life and my job,'' she says, ''so I decided to drop out of the 9-to-5 world and try other things.''

A period of free-lance journalism followed. Later, when she was about to become part-time chef as well as managing partner of a Bucks County, Pa., inn, she took courses in restaurant management and finance, professional food preparation, pastrymaking, and quantity food preparation. She also attended seminars sponsored by the United States Small Business Administration. The intensive preparation for this experience gave her courage and know-how to move on to other ventures.

After a divorce, and with a young son to raise, she turned her cooking talent into a dessert business she could run at home. She culled the best of her own, her mother's, and grandmother's recipes and began to produce carrot cakes, toffee pies, chocolate chip cheesecakes, double chocolate mousses, and other delectables for half a dozen fine restaurants in the Bucks County area.

As she developed her own business, Mrs. Gillis realized she was far from alone in her struggle to be an earning single parent. She decided that thousands of other women need help in finding ways to blend work and mothering without sacrificing either.

The result is a book, ''Entrepreneurial Mothers'' (Rawson Associates, New York, $9.95), which she hopes will encourage other mothers to go into business for themselves.

Entrepreneurial mothers, she notes, constitute a new subculture of working women. She describes them as ''women who plan for success, take pride in their work, maintain a flexible attitude and work schedule, deliver a high-quality product or service, develop a support team to help make business go, get involved in the community, consider the needs of customers, keep track of expenses, and above all, maintain an enthusiastic attitude.''

Money, says the author, is the biggest obstacle to beginning one's own small business (she prefers the word ''micro''). ''Most women are not used to being comfortable with money,'' she notes. ''But we have to learn how to be.''

The second-biggest obstacle, she has found, is fear of failure.

For the book, Mrs. Gillis interviewed more than 200 women throughout the country who had established successful small home or near-the-home businesses. In most cases, she found that success came from following through on a good idea , and that neither lack of money (some started with as little as $300) nor want of formal business training had stood in the way of eventual success. Drive and enthusiasm were the essential ingredients as women learned how to structure and plan their own businesses.

She describes a variety of ventures, among them ''Rent-a-Mom'' and ''Cart-a-Kid'' services, catering businesses, small print shops, nursery schools , tutoring services, weekend mini-camps, and home discount stores for selling children's clothing.

Son Jordon, now 7, assists in numerous ways. He scrapes and cuts carrots for the cakes, counts orders, inventories supplies, and helps make deliveries. For him, his mother's business is a learning experience he enjoys. For her, she says , ''It has done wonders for my self-esteem, made me more independent, more creative, and more imaginative in almost every area of my life.''

Although Mrs. Gillis wrote her book for mothers, she now finds it serving as a resource for other women. She has also discovered that over half of the call-ins on talk shows on which she appears are from men. They want to know how they can help their wives go into business, or how they can help themselves do the same.

In her own case, she finds the greatest satisfaction of being her own boss is ''being in control of the way I live and being able to be with my child on my terms and on my time.''

Asked to share a few important pointers for women who want to start their own small businesses, Phyllis Gillis offers the following:

* Don't underestimate yourself. Keep your confidence high and never sell yourself short. But don't have such grandiose notions that you put everything you have into a business without really knowing what kind of financial base you have. Be willing to start small and to build slowly.

* Research your business idea thoroughly. Ask questions of everyone and seek information everywhere. If you are a novice, turn to women already operating their own businesses; they will often share both information and inside secrets. This enables you to develop your own support network.

* Take advantage of all the resources available in your community, such as libraries, community colleges, night schools, US Small Business Administration seminars, and state and local business development groups. Investigate the help that can come from joining such groups as the National Alliance of Home Based Businesswomen in Norwood, N.J., or the American Women's Economic Development Corporation in New York.

* Take the time necessary to make a good business plan that fully details your concept, goals, motives, past experience, marketing expectations, start-up expenses, and cash position.

* Visit your banker. Bankers can be a wonderful source of encouragement and advice, as well as the loan that might be necessary to launch your good business idea.

If your banker isn't friendly and willing to listen, shop around until you find one who will lend a sympathetic ear. Then discuss your idea and present your business plan. This will show that you have done research, that your approach is professional, and that you know what you are doing and where you are going.

* Involve your children. Talk to them about what you are doing and let them help out in any way they can. Teach them how to talk to customers on the telephone. Always introduce them to employees and clients. Pay them for small jobs. Consult them about choice of business card, advertising, stationery, and so on.

* Involve your husband. Make sure that the new business does not seem to be a threat to family relationships, but is an adventure that can bring more income and growth to everyone involved.

* Make sure that the way you dress in public and everything you do in the community contributes to the image you want to create. This includes your volunteer, church, PTA, and club activities. A job done haphazardly in any of these areas reflects negatively on your business.

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