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How Women Entrepreneurs Could 'Lean Out'

Women in business are searching for new answers, new possibilities and new careers.
How Women Entrepreneurs Could 'Lean Out'
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In her hit Netflix stand-up special, comedian Ali Wong declared that she didn’t want to “lean in.” Maybe you remember it (and I hope you do, because it was really funny): seven months pregnant and still hustling, eyes full of conviction, Wong made you utterly believe her when she said: “I want to lie down.” 

It was a joke, but it was also a great about-face to the zeitgeisty women-and-work call of 2013. Three years later are women -- and specifically, those in line for the corner office -- reconsidering their relationship to work? 

Let me start off by saying that I both read and respect Sheryl Sandberg and admire her greatly for all that she has done to awaken the women-and-work conversation. We do need more female corporate leaders, of course. But I think it’s important that working women who aren’t office-bent also have a voice, especially now that more of us are working from home than ever before. There’s not a readymade template for female entrepreneurism, especially if your skills are creative in nature. Moreover, models of work are changing -- for the better. Traveling the world reporting on women, I see all different styles of life and work, but the reoccurring and consistent theme I hear from most women my age is that work/life balance is a myth. A myth. As it turns out, all the juggling -- striving to be the office star and simultaneously the best mom/wife/domestic practitioner ever -- is not making anyone happy or satisfied. As a result, women are searching for new answers, new possibilities and new careers. Maybe it’s time to lean out.

“Having it all:” Define what that means for you.

Success doesn’t look the same for everybody, so let’s stop pretending it does. What if a butt-kicking office job isn’t part of your personal success equation at all?  

“Most of us are only just beginning this pursuit of it all, and we have so many old rules to undo,” says writer Jennifer Griffith Wayland. “Staying at home can mean you now have the opportunity to create the golden mean of “having it all.” You can nurture family while you determine exactly who you want to be, and what you want to do.”

Related: Chasing the Myth of Work-Life Balance

Amen. In our American culture, one of those old rules is that the office = industry and productivity, while home -- yoga pants and relaxation. Guess what? Now we can take a little of column A and a little of column B. Compartmentalization has its perks, but let’s face it: thanks to smartphones, working folk are always accessible anyway, home or otherwise. Maybe a better solution is to change expectations for our bosses/biz partners/clients/etc. that we always want to work. It’s OK to not.

Let’s bring back the well-rounded individual.

Hey, remember how much our college applications craved well-roundedness? Startup culture and corporate culture both reward single-minded focus at the expense of, well, pretty much everything else -- but it didn’t use to always be that way.

“I don’t ever want to lean in again -- at least not all-in,” says Jennifer Foster, co-founder of Qeople, a startup that matches companies with senior-level talent who work on flexible schedules. “I prefer to lean in a little, across a range of important areas. Early on, schools and employers genuinely valued a well-rounded person. For me that meant performing in plays, singing in choirs, writing articles, volunteering in local elementary schools, travel. But the traditional career track increasingly narrowed until it seemed people were allowed a serious career and maybe one very minor hobby.”

So Jennifer and her business partner, Miranda Nash, started Qeople: a company whose mission reflects Jennifer’s own life. In trying to find a way to stay home with her kids, she got the courage to lean out, and carved a path that includes being a part-time entrepreneur, a mostly at-home mom, a volunteer art teacher and a beginner piano student. She contains multitudes -- maybe we can act on ours.

Home may be where the heart and the paycheck, is.

So working at home might be the key to leaning out, while still earning an income. Now, let’s break down another old rule: that kids and work don’t mix. Just ask Melissa Kieling, founder of the multi-million dollar company PackIt.

Related: Tips For Women In Business (From Women In Business)

“I started PackIt after going through a devastating divorce that left me in extreme financial hardship, with no real job experience on my resume,” says Melissa, who packed her boys’ lunches for school each day. “PackIt started in my kitchen, after trying to find a lunchbox that would keep foods cold. It did not exist. I began researching materials online. Soon my dining room table was covered with materials that I then cut up and pinned together as the first prototype. Once I had my assembly, I took it to my dry cleaners and begged them to sew it together for me. The first prototype was born and I was off to the races.”

Not only were Melissa’s children the inspiration for PackIt, they have worked for the company, have a say in product and print design, and are always the first to test a new prototype. It doesn’t happen without creative scheduling, as Melissa admits – but she doesn’t mind.

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“We have all made great sacrifices that have allowed me to create and build the company.  It has meant missing the few first days of school, soccer games, and other important events. But making my children part of the process has allowed them to feel part of the success. And at the end of the day to hear that they are proud of me has been my greatest return.”