Last Friday, I had the privilege of participating as a panelist at The White House Urban Economic Forum hosted by Barnard College. The event focused on inspiring, funding and providing technical support to women entrepreneurs.
A recurring theme throughout the conference was how to start and grow a business while taking care of the other parts of your life. For example:
- Rebecca Blank, Acting Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, explained that when women are asked why they started their businesses they’re more likely to answer, “So I have flexibility to manage my life and my kids.” In contrast, men respond, “To make a lot of money.”
- Joanne Wilson, an angel investor and Gotham Gal blogger, said she thought every woman should be an entrepreneur because it gives you the control and flexibility to do work you love and take care of the other parts of your life.
But when one of the moderators, Arianna Huffington, asked the women on her panel, “How do you balance your work and life?” everyone got so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. If issues related to work and life were so front and center throughout the day, why was “balance” such a tough topic for the group to address? And why does it matter?
There is no work/life “balance,” which is why no one can answer the question. It’s not that we don’t want to answer the question. It’s that we can’t, no matter how hard we try (here and here). This is especially true for entrepreneurs who rarely have any physical or mental division between their lives on and off the job.
The way to start a productive conversation on the subject is to ask someone, “How do you manage the way work and the other parts of your life fit together?” The conversation shifts away from limiting, unachievable, one-size-fits-all “balance,” to the possibilities of a person’s unique work+life “fit.” You leave room for the truth that there will be times when work is primary, and the other parts of life take a backseat, and vice versa. And that’s OK. We can learn from our individual “how to” stories.
It’s imperative that we share our judgment-free strategies for managing work and life if we want women-owned businesses to achieve their full growth potential. Since the research shows that women entrepreneurs are motivated in part by work+life considerations, then it’s critical to share strategies for managing how all of the pieces fit together. It’s the only way women are going to see the possibilities for themselves and their businesses, and expand beyond the “it can’t be done” meme that’s out there.
Personally, when I heard that my fellow panelist Margery Kraus grew her company, APCO Worldwide, to employ 700 people around the world while staying married to her husband for more than 40 years, raising three children and spending time with 10 grandchildren, I thought, “If she can do it, so can I.” Technical advice for business growth is important but so are the “how to” strategies for personal success (as you define it for yourself and your family).
We need to challenge the “all work, all the time” model that dominates entrepreneurial lore and funder expectations. In his book “Delivering Happiness—A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose,” Zappos founder, Tony Hsieh, shares his secrets to entrepreneurial success. One of his rules is that Zappos employees spend a certain percentage of their time outside of work with each other. A busy entrepreneur who has other personal responsibilities is going to look at that blueprint for growth and think, “I can’t do that.” But is it really necessary?
After more than 15 years creating work+life fit and flexibility strategies for all types of companies, I can honestly say I don’t believe that the “all work, all the time” model is the only path to business success. It’s time to identify and celebrate other examples where an entrepreneur works hard, achieves results but doesn’t completely ignore their own well-being and their important personal relationships.
Changing the narrative around the work+life fit expectations of an entrepreneur is especially critical for women.
Even Jessica Jackley, the highly successful founder of Kiva.org and now CEO of ProFounder, faced blowback when one of her VC investors discovered that she was pregnant with twins. He bravely admitted thinking, “A pregnant founder/CEO is going to fail her company.” His public honesty allowed Jackley to eloquently point out that her pregnancy shouldn’t interfere with her company’s need for funding and ability to deliver results. She will figure out how to make it all work. Success didn’t require an “all or nothing” choice. But too many entrepreneurs still think it does.
Let’s learn from each other by asking, “How does your work as a busy entrepreneur fit into the other parts of your life?” There’s no right answer or “balance,” only countless possibilities for growth and success, personally and professionally. And in the process, we can expand beyond the outdated “all work, all the time” entrepreneurial growth mindset that limits everyone—men and women.
If you’re an entrepreneur, how to you grow your business and manage the other parts of your life? What’s your work+life “fit?”