BlackBerry in one hand, bottle in the other, Portland moms give birth to new businesses.
I’M LEANING against the door in a packed-to-the-gills office space in Northwest Portland, listening to a panel of professionals discuss financing, marketing, cross-promotion, exit strategy, how to acquire more Google hits, and the pros and cons of sole proprietorships, LLCs, and S corporations. It could be any conference on how to build and grow a small business, except that this one consists of some 30 mothers—a few in comfy sweaters, others in chic suits—and one fresh-from-the-womb baby. It’s called “The Makings of a Mamapreneur.”
Held this past September, “The Makings of a Mamapreneur” was the first such conference organized by 34-year-old Marlynn Jayme Schotland, founder and CEO of Mamapreneurs Inc. The Portland-based networking organization was created for mothers who are at least part owner of a business or who are in the process of building one. For $75 a year, members have access to the group’s online forums, discounts on monthly meetings, and networking playdates that often convene at the Mamapreneurs offices on NW 18th Avenue, where tots can frolic in a Color Me House fort while moms brainstorm, make deals, or just commiserate.
Mamapreneurs Inc started as Portland Mamas Inc in May 2006, nine months after Schotland started her own design and public relations studio, Urban Bliss Design, and after her son, Ethan, turned 2. She knew the fledgling organization had potential after she hosted a gathering of fellow working moms and their friends. The women immediately felt a sense of camaraderie. “That’s the night I got the first two applications and checks written for membership,” says Schotland. The group, which she renamed Mamapreneurs this year, grew to 40 local members in only two months and reached 150 members less than a year later. In part to maintain her sanity, Schotland briefly capped the membership at 150 after she had her second child, Cate, but she now has a roster of about 230 members and has even started an at-large network for women outside the Portland area.
Schotland isn’t the only one who’s turned a profit by helping and encouraging moms to start their own companies or work from home. Consider Celebrate Mama, a Maryland-based company that licenses its brand to women in some 20 US cities who want to organize expos of mother-owned businesses in their hometowns; or Hybrid Mom, a consulting and media group based in St. James, New York, that employs stay-at-home moms around the country. And there’s what might be considered the bible of stay-at-home mom businesses, Patricia Cobe and Ellen H. Parlapiano’s Mompreneurs: A Mother’s Practical Step-by-Step Guide to Work-at-Home Success, which first hit shelves in 1996. Filled with inspirational stories of women who, for example, dreamed up a children’s TV show (that would be Sheryl Leach, creator of Barney) while staying home to care for their broods, the book taught thousands of women that serious work need not take place at an office park. Today Mompreneursonline.com, which the authors launched as the community hub of the book’s working-mom ethos, receives more than 12,000 hits a month.
“The Mompreneur brand is part of the reason moms are taken more seriously now,” says Cobe. “There have been many high-profile Mompreneurs, like Julie Aigner-Clark, the founder of Baby Einstein, and Carley Roney, a co-founder of TheKnot.com, who we featured in our book. They have gained respect and status for the movement.”
That’s right—the movement. Women who decide to brand themselves as “Mompreneurs” (trademarked by Cobe and Parlapiano) or “Mamapreneurs” (trademarked by Schotland) are delivering the message that they not only take pride in child-rearing but also have a gusto for business. “Women are starting new businesses at the same rate as men,” says Sharon G. Hadary, executive director of the Virginia-based Center for Women’s Business Research, “and moms are clearly a significant portion of that. Technology has made it possible for moms to work from almost anywhere."
Perhaps it’s not surprising that many Mamapreneurs have opted to start small businesses based on feeding, clothing, and caring for the family. Schotland’s members run companies with names like Bella Bellies Maternity, Language of Parenting, and Mama Mobile Hairdresser. Likewise, mothers themselves make up the customer base of many of these businesses. When Portland-based Andrea Frost started her company, Baby Wit, now a successful online infant and toddler clothing line, a number of news articles referenced the fact that she was mother to an infant daughter, Ava. “Tons of women would write me with questions about how I did it,” says Frost. This, in turn, generated business. By working an average of 20 to 25 hours per week, Frost now supports her family—husband James, Ava, and her son, Atticus—on her income.
“It is an incredibly intelligent business move for Mamapreneurs to market to other moms,” says Schotland, who notes that mothers spend some $1.7 trillion on consumer goods and services each year and also manage about 80 percent of household spending.
And enterprising moms look to organizations like Mamapreneurs Inc to connect with other women experiencing the trials of business-launching and child-rearing. “I have always branded myself as a mamapreneur, but I was in business for eight years before Mamapreneurs Inc came along,” says Jennifer Ferrero, who co-owns the Alameda preschool Purple Moon Child Development and also Sitter Soiree, an event series that brings together babysitters and parents. “As Type A, ambitious women, we’re all striving for the brass ring that we call balance … but after joining the group, I was better able to articulate my personal and professional needs.”
That sentiment largely explains these businesses’ success. Once upon a time, women thought they had only two life choices: either abandon a career to stay home with the brood or climb the corporate ladder and resign yourself to raising latchkey kids. Cute catchphrases aside, the women at “The Makings of a Mamapreneur” conference are smart, creative, driven, and, in terms of their clothes, far better put together than I am, despite being the only childless woman in the bunch. Most important, they show me a way that mothers really can have it all.
Correction appended: The Mamapreneurs Inc membership fee is $75 a year, not $75 a month as was originally published.