There’s a increasingly good chance today that you work for a female CEO. Although still under-represented in the Fortune 1000 (at 5.1percent), women lead firms of all sizes. Women own 9.1 million businesses in the United States that generate $1.4 trillion in revenues and employ 7.8 million people. The 2014 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report estimates that on a net increase basis, 1,288 new women-owned firms launched every day in the past year.
Many women who run companies also simultaneously raise families. Balancing parenthood and business is a challenge, but anyone who says it can’t be done has not met the millions of dynamic women who do it every day. I spoke to three successful CEO moms about what drew them to leadership; their parenting and business challenges; and their advice for the hundreds of thousands of women who are likely to start new businesses in 2014.
Sari Davidson. Davidson is CEO of Booginhead, a children’s product company with worldwide distribution including Walmart, Babies “R” Us and Amazon.com. She is mother of two children, ages 10 and 6. Davidson is one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs of 2013.
“I have always been a CEO at heart,” Davidson says. It runs in the family: her mother’s company “is what put me through college.” Davidson started Booginhead while working full time at Microsoft. She did both jobs for three years until the company was profitable.
She felt the responsibility of being a CEO and a single parent. “You are never really ‘off,’ and the ability to feed your family rests on your shoulders. That can put a lot of pressure on top of an already stressful lifestyle.” Her solution: “I hired people smarter than me, got out of their way and let them do their job. Now I’m not the only one that has to handle emergencies.”
She relishes the opportunity to set an example for her kids, whose questions about the business can turn into lessons about managing people well and building a strong work ethic. While she notes that motherhood and leadership are both tough jobs, she encourages women to “be present for each. When you are at home, really be there with your children for that quality time. And the same goes for work. Your employees need care and attention, too, in order to grow and flourish.”
She urges women not to fear asking for help at work or at home. “We are not superhuman. But what we are doing is great. Let’s celebrate our successes and continue to do our best for our company and our children.“
Related: Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi: 'I Don’t Think Women Can Have It All'
Jody Hall. Hall is CEO of Cupcake Royale, the first cupcake bakery to open outside of New York City, with six Seattle retail locations and a wholesale business. She is mother of two children, ages 5 and 1 month. Hall is a passionate advocate for social justice who has testified before Congress on health-care reform’s impact on small business.
Hall launched Cupcake Royale after 10 years at Starbucks, where she worked her way from barista to executing national promotions and PR. “I learned how to create an amazing customer experience, how incredibly important it is to hold your employees as your number one asset, and to support the community that supports my business.” (Cupcake Royale’s donation program provides more than 50,000 cupcakes or scoops of ice cream each year to local schools and nonprofits.) “And I learned how to build a strong purpose and values-based culture.”
Hall brings those values to family culture as well, working with wife Kelly Ring to “become a stronger couple that communicates well and builds alignment on common dreams, purpose, and goals.”
She advises parents to follow their passion. “For me, it was starting my own business. Kelly’s was to have kids and build a loving and learning environment.” They balance hectic work and home lives through a shared commitment to individual time to regenerate, as well as dedicated time together to nurture their relationship. “It’s the best plan to build a healthy and happy person, relationship, family and business.”
Hall notes that women still face discrimination in business, but it’s essential for them to lead. “We lead differently than men, and many studies show our styles can be more effective. Keep pushing and keep your dream alive!”
Zahra Al-Harazi. Al-Harazi is CEO of Foundry Communications, an internationally-acclaimed full service design agency. She is mother of three children who were teenagers when she started the company. Al-Harazi was Chatelaine’s Canadian Woman Entrepreneur of the Year in 2011, and named one of the most powerful women in Canada by the Women’s Executive Network.
Al-Harazi started her business “because I realized that I was very unemployable. I had a fire in me to do things a certain way, and I couldn’t do that working for someone else.” The CEO role allows this self-described 50,000-foot thinker to focus on the big picture while she hires the most talented people she can find to execute the details.
She credits her children for their support when she was moving at “break-neck speed,” and she prefers to characterize the balancing act of business and family as a series of opportunities rather than challenges. For Al-Harazi, there is little difference between a son’s “massive” speeding ticket and her own early loss of a client because “I didn’t listen enough.” Such incidents, she says, become lessons that excite her because they teach her something.
She counsels CEO parents that, in work and family, the solutions are almost always simple, requiring only “patience, resolve, belief and will.” The big payoffs come from seemingly small things: a home-cooked dinner with her children, or a birthday card from staff that superimposed her face on a photo of Xena, Warrior Princess. Her advice is the same for any parent, woman or man, CEO or temp worker: get help where you can, share the load, and then “Let go of the guilt, tell your kids you love them, and go order pizza.”
The next time you’re talking to a CEO parent, don’t ask her, as Matt Lauer infamously asked GM’s CEO Mary Barra, whether she can be a good leader and a good mother at the same time. Instead, ask a CEO mom how they, as individuals and as a community of business professionals, can help each other embrace the opportunities, lessons, and payoffs of the dual leader/parent role with grace, optimism, and success.