Members of the Mumtrepreneurs meet at a Beijing bar for their monthly meeting. Guo Yingguang
A group of self-employed women in Beijing have found managing motherhood and entrepreneurship can be tricky business.
"It's like walking on a high wire, hoping not to fall off," says Israeli Dana Elraviv, a mother of two who runs feng shui consultancy A Matter of Chi.
"Both jobs are extremely important; your children and family are the most precious thing you have, but so is your self-fulfillment and feeling as if you are contributing on a greater scale. It's just very difficult to balance between the two."
Elraviv says she's found it easier since she joined the Mumtrepreneurs, a support group of eight mothers who run their own businesses in the capital. The group holds closed monthly meetings, in which every member gets 20 minutes to present the latest business challenges she is facing for group feedback.
"Women power is underrated," Elraviv says. "These are very bright, educated and efficient women who have a lot to contribute. That fact that they are also struggling to balance their roles as career women and moms makes them an inspiration for me."
Canadian Sarah Peel Li and her daughter, Julia.
She says that in addition to providing a sounding board for ideas, the group helps her cope with feelings of "constant guilt" that come with juggling her family, business and personal time.
"Most of the other moms I know in Beijing are stay-at-home moms; their whole day is geared around their kids," Elraviv says. "This makes me feel even guiltier; I don't need to work, but I have chosen to. It's nice to be around other women who are ambitious and doing the same."
The group was co-founded by Briton career coach Sarah Cooper, owner of Cows From My Window and mother of 2-and-a-half-year-old Elsa, and French motivational workshop organizer Jasmine Keel, owner of INSPIRED and mother of 5-year-old Eva and 2-and-a-half-year-old Calvin.
"The biggest benefit is to pick up more brains for analyzing ideas and issues of importance for my business," Keel says. "As a group - meeting like-minded people who are in the same boat and being accountable toward others."
Cooper says hers and Keel's businesses were in similar stages, and they both felt their situation "can be very isolating".
"We were struggling with many similar issues, and just talking about these with each other helped a lot. We knew there were other mothers in Beijing with their own businesses and thought that by creating a small support group we could really help each other."
South African nutritional therapist Marcelle Dubruel, who moved to Beijing a year and a half ago with her husband and daughter, and now runs her own practice, says joining the Mumtrepreneurs has immensely helped her business.
"For me, there are numerous benefits - the creative ideas that come out of our brainstorming sessions, the constructive feedback I receive on my business ideas. And the greatest benefit is the sense of being part of a team and feeling less isolated."
For Canadian Sarah Peel Li, who came to Beijing in June 2006 with her husband and daughter Julia, who is now 3-and-a-half years old, the meetings of minds helps her tackle issues she struggles to manage on her own.
"For me, it's a way of having the benefits of a group of colleagues but the freedom of working for myself," she says. "Sometimes, I wish I had a water cooler I could walk over to and talk about my ideas or challenges I'm having."
Her company Kindermusik With Sarah went from a group of six children in her living room to a larger operation very rapidly, and so she needed to conjure new marketing strategies.
"We talked about crafting a campaign that would give me the results I was looking for and build on the work I have already done to promote Kindermusik here in Beijing," she says.
Peel Li explains that while she had developed a knack for "person-to-person" marketing, she had yet to cultivate the broader marketing skills needed to complement her company's growth.
Fellow Mumtrepreneur Karen Patterson told Peel Li her profits jumped noticeably on the months she ran a small logo box advertisement in a local parenting magazine.
"That is the kind of result I want, and since we serve a similar client base, it was the proof I needed that it would be a good place to invest in my business," Peel Li says.
"It was a really great lesson for me, because I didn't have to run an expensive ad and have it be ineffective, and learn that lesson by myself."
Most Mumtrepreneurs say there are pros and cons to simultaneously assuming motherhood and entrepreneurial responsibilities. The main concern most mention is that working from home blurs the dividing line of life-work balance.
"When you are an entrepreneur, you are constantly thinking about ways to develop, improve, change your business; it isn't something that you necessarily put on hold while cooking dinner," says Canadian Karen Patterson, who runs second-hand baby clothing and maternity wear store NU2YU Baby Shop.
Peel Li agrees that it's more difficult to find equilibrium among career, family and personal matters as a self-employed mother. "When you're working for someone else, you can leave your job at the office. You turn off your computer; you close the door; you maybe take a few calls on the way home," Peel Li says.
Jasmine Keel, of France, with her two children: Calvin (center) and Eva (left).
"When you're self-employed and you are your own boss, it's quite a challenge to tell people you are not actually working on a Saturday at 6 pm, but I find no matter what, I still answer that phone."
And, she says, it's particularly tough in fast-paced Beijing. "People work really hard in Beijing. It's all day, every day; it's late nights and odd hours."
Cooper says that despite the challenges of being a Mumtrepreneur in the capital, it's one of the only places she could strike a reasonable balance between nurturing her company and child.
Now, she works mornings and evenings, reserving afternoons for time with her daughter. "As a single mother back home in the United Kingdom, I would not have had this luxury. I would have had to start much more slowly, building up my own client base in addition to holding a 'proper' job," she says.
"So I am constantly grateful to Beijing for the lifestyle it gives me."
Peel Li says that having grown up in an entrepreneurial family, she understands that the entire family must "get involved" in the business for it to be successful.
She's happy she's able to include her daughter in her work life, she says. Julia helps her mother clean instruments, practice songs and test new activities before they're introduced into the classroom.
"Three-year-olds are really good at keeping you honest, because they call it how they see it," Peel Li says.
"Julia lets me know when I need to refocus; it's easy to slip into working long hours when you are self-employed, and the business side of things can distract you from what is really important.
"She also reminds me that in the end, a love of children and the joy in music are more important than anything else I bring into the classroom every day."
(China Daily 04/07/2008 page10)