UK: Mothers of invention.

UK: Mothers of invention. - A growing band of women entrepreneurs, skilled at juggling the demands of family and career, are in the vanguard of the revolution in working practices, says Jim Davies.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

A growing band of women entrepreneurs, skilled at juggling the demands of family and career, are in the vanguard of the revolution in working practices, says Jim Davies.

Gone is the macho corporate culture that prevailed in the 1980s, where working late into the night with shirtsleeves rolled up was some-how thought of as a sign of virility. Attitudes towards employment have shifted, with people recognising that it is possible to organise their work around their lives rather than the other way round. Buzzwords such as 'portfolio careers', 'networking', and 'fixed-term contracts' have suddenly become prevalent, reflecting a desire to cherry pick projects rather than be tied to a lifetime of wage slavery.

There's a simple reason for this move away from the hard-working, hard-living stereotype. The revolution in working practices is being led by women - in particular women in their late thirties, forties and fifties, many of whom have returned to the workforce after raising their families.

The Lloyds TSB Millennium Monitor, which tracks its 100,000 female business customers and will continue to do so until the year 2000, revealed that a surprising 28% of new business start-ups were initiated by women in the 45-59 age bracket.

'Older female entrepreneurs are becoming an important economic force,' says David Singleton, managing director of business banking at Lloyds TSB. 'This older generation have the necessary experience and skills to run a successful business. Having successfully juggled career and family, they have the confidence to set up on their own once the children have left home.'

So what kinds of businesses are emerging according to the Millennium Monitor? 'A lot of them are one-woman bands,' explains Mark Hatcliffe, senior manager of business banking at Lloyds TSB. 'They tend to be small cottage industries, and are often a reflection of many women's desire to be their own bosses. We were quite surprised - we weren't expecting to see this second generation coming through so strongly in the (Millennium Monitor) results.'

Without prompting, Sue Birley, professor of entrepreneurship at Imperial College Management School, London, also homes in on this particular area of activity. 'They tend to be smaller, lifestyle-oriented businesses,' she says. 'Increasingly, there are women who wish to take responsibility for their own lives and their own incomes. Assuming you could go and work for someone else in your forties, which is by no means a given, the beauty of running your own business is that it allows you flexibility.'

This was certainly the case for Karen Cunningham, who launched the London-based commercials and video production company, Pink, at the tail end of 1995. When a first attempt at starting her own business had collapsed around her a few months earlier, she quickly reverted to plan B, despite being pregnant with her first daughter, Tallula. On top of this, her business partner, Bash Robertson, had broken his neck in a freak accident and was recuperating in hospital. 'People were saying: "You must be mad. God is trying to tell you something," ' she recalls. 'We couldn't have had more things going against us at the time but that made me even more determined.'

Cunningham explains that becoming pregnant had made her 'rethink (her) life'. She had spent nigh on 20 years working in various advertising agencies and film production companies as an account handler and a line producer respectively, before feeling she had hit something of a brick wall.

'There's no logical career progression in our industry,' she says. 'You can produce all kinds of different commercials, or aim to work with the number one director, but that doesn't lead you anywhere in particular. I decided that the next realistic challenge for me was to set up my own company and do things my own way.'

There were a few initial complications: the banks didn't seem too impressed by the sight of an eight-month pregnant woman and a man with a curious cage-like contraption strapped around his neck and head asking for start-up funds. A couple of years on, Pink has prospered and expanded. It now represents six busy directors and employs nine full-time staff. It has produced a raft of commercials for Cadbury, Ford, Honda, the Ministry of Sound and numerous others, and was named Production Company of the Year at this year's prestigious Midsummer Awards.

'The main reason for starting up Pink was to take control of my personal life and my work destiny. Bash is sympathetic because he has a family too,' explains Cunningham. 'I know that if I need to take time out to look after my daughter, I can, or if I feel like working from home tomorrow, I can. I'm far more relaxed about work than I ever have been.'

Colette Hill, founder of the six-year-old public relations consultancy, Colette Hill Associates, which specialises in human resources and management clients, takes this logic even further. Now a 44-year-old mother of two, she found the culture of mainstream PR unsympathetic to women with children. For her, the industry's workaholic tendency was summed up by a note circulated to staff in one of the larger, more respected companies which read: 'Anyone working late (ie after 9pm) is entitled to take a cab home'. 'Those kind of hours are the norm in PR and that's totally impractical if you've got children,' says Hill. 'It's a young, dynamic and hardworking industry - you either get to the top quickly or you leave.

'I don't accept that it's necessarily all women returners who are starting up their own businesses,' she continues. 'It's more women in their forties who have young children and need more flexibility. I need to be able to organise my day around my children because, ultimately, although I put every effort into my work, they come first.'

Though she worked a four-day week for her previous employer and still continues with this pattern, Hill is now usually able to leave the office in time to take care of her children after they finish school. She also has an office set up at home, so that she can continue working from there, if necessary. This arrangement hasn't stopped her from building up a business that employs eight people and turns over around £500,000 annually.

Similar flexible working arrangements are open to her staff, one of whom recently took a five-week sabbatical to travel around India, and another who works three non-specific days a week and is paid on an hourly basis. 'It's a matter of balancing their personal needs with the needs of the business,' explains Hill.

On the face of it, women are far more adaptable and better equipped to come to terms with life changes than their male counterparts. Men, by contrast, tend to be happier in the plodding security of a long-term routine where they are able, slowly but surely, to climb the stereotypical corporate ladder. As a consequence, when they hit 40, men are likely to be found hiding behind their desks hoping no one notices them, or watching their backs as the younger, thrusting bucks make their presence felt in the corridors of power. Meanwhile, women are just hitting their entrepreneurial prime. It has also, if you believe what you read in the glossy women's press, become increasingly fashionable for women to 're-invent' themselves on a regular basis, trading one fading work incarnation for another more vibrant new one.

Indeed, the October 1998 edition of Vogue carried a four-page feature on women who have eschewed the traditional path of job, marriage and motherhood to follow 'more fluid' career patterns. It cited this year's legal Partner of the Year, Pamela Castle, as a prime example. She started out as an industrial chemist while bringing up her three children, then turned to broadcasting on BBC Radio 4's Women's Hour. After that, she started up the Highgate Granary health food store, before retraining as a lawyer.

She now is head of the environmental law team at the top City firm Cameron McKenna. Liz Bavidge, director of the Women's Returners Network, was a marketing executive for Shell, a stay-at-home wife and mother, a teacher and then a magistrate.

These chameleon-like career paths shatter most preconceived wisdoms about switching, stopping, coming to terms with a new discipline and, ultimately, succeeding. There is absolutely no reason why such unorthodox progress shouldn't work. It's doubtful, however, whether a man would have had the imagination or chutzpah to do the same.

'Women are far more flexible than men,' says Birley. 'If you think about it, they are capable of juggling several things at a time, such as running a business and a household. Which is probably just as well because, whatever you say, it's still the women who are expected to take charge when the kids are ill. (Women starting their own businesses in their forties) is born out of impatience rather than frustration - they don't want to play the silly man's game that is the corporate ladder.'

Having said that, Hill believes women are generally more cautious (read canny) when it comes to setting up a business. 'Men are more prepared to learn on the hoof,' she says. 'I was extremely experienced, understood the subject and developments thoroughly and made certain that I was marketable before I even thought about going it alone.

Once you're up and running, you discover your true market value very fast.' Cunningham agrees: 'It's not as if I was 24 and really taking a chance. I had a broad spectrum of experience and, hopefully, had already made any mistakes I was going to make when I was out there, working for other people.'

There is also the perennially thorny issue of the 'glass ceiling' for women to be considered. Alyssa Lovegrove, who worked at top management consultants McKinsey & Co before starting up her own mail-order business in 1995 (see below), notes that there are as few as half a dozen women directors at the consultancy out of a total of 200 directors (her husband happens to be one of those 200).'When I started there as an associate, the numbers were about equal. OK, it's a pyramid structure, so people do it for a few years before getting out, but the ratios are still pretty stark.'

Lovegrove, who turned 40 earlier this year, observes that many of her contemporary female friends have either dropped out of the workforce altogether to devote time to their families or have done exactly what she has - conceived and launched their own boutique businesses on their own terms, thumbing their noses at the male-dominated status quo.

Such initiatives constitute a real trend that looks set to maintain its momentum as societal attitudes and gender roles continue to evolve. 'There are ways of balancing the demands of a family and a career,' maintains Lovegrove.

'I wouldn't have been happy not working, but I wanted to be there for my kids, too.'

Birley adds: 'These are huge, horrid generalisations, but women simply don't feel the need to stay at work until 10pm to show how great they are. They prefer to get home and see their children. That's healthy.'


The Great Little Trading Company, a UK-wide children's mail-order outfit, was established in London four years ago by New Yorkers Alyssa Lovegrove and Caroline Clark. GLTC markets itself as being slightly 'unusual and exclusive', offering a range of ingenious and occasionally bizarre products designed to make life with little ones a tad easier.

Take the KiddyBoard, for example. The small, heavy-duty platform with wheels, which attaches to the back of a pushchair or buggy, is part skateboard, part trailer. Or the Choke Tester, an ingenious plastic cylinder, which measures items to determine whether or not your baby is likely to choke on them. More typical products include storage systems, colourful waterproof clothing and safety devices.

Lovegrove and Clark both previously enjoyed high-flying careers in the UK - Lovegrove was a management consultant at McKinsey & Co, Clark was a lawyer - before they had children and decided on a radical change of direction. 'I knew I had the desire to do something entrepreneurial,' says Lovegrove. 'But I had no idea what sort of business.'

Introduced to Clark by a mutual friend, it quickly became apparent that they had much in common. Lovegrove had been to Harvard, Clark to Yale; both were originally from Manhattan; they had lived in the UK for the same length of time, and so on. They now also have three children apiece.

Starting up a new business was a means of 'achieving flexibility and control, but also doing something more tangible that brings immediate results', says Lovegrove. 'This is every bit as demanding as working in management consultancy. Running your own business makes you feel quite exposed. You take everything to heart and minor setbacks really seem to bother you. I find myself waking up in the middle of the night worrying about things.'

Compared to the US, the infrastructure of mail order was in its infancy when GLTC came into the market. Though there are far more participants today, GLTC has established its niche and is hoping to turn over around £2.5 million this year. Does Lovegrove miss management consultancy? 'Sometimes I do.

'I miss having a secretary and the niceties of working in a great office,' she says. 'But what I'm doing now is far more satisfying and enormously liberating. Besides, I'm unemployable now. I couldn't possibly go back.'.

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