Whether you're in what used to be your 'dream job' sitting on a business idea that you are too scared to action because, babies. Or you've already left your job and feeling guilty of the amount of time it's taking away from your family, you're not alone. Many business owners with kids share the same conflicting feelings. After all, Running a business with a family in toe can leave you feeling like you're spinning one plate too many, but with many 'momtrepreneurs' it's about finding the balance - and it is possible! Just ask ex Selfridges buyer Jessica Neil, owner of online childrenswear brand, The Mini Edit. Offering the best in contemporary children’s fashion, toys and gifting (not to mention the first web-based childrenswear retailer with customer interaction built in, FYI) she knows a thing or two about the juggles and struggles of running a business and a family. This is her story.
The Mini Edit is coming up to its third birthday this summer and has evolved in ways we couldn’t have imagined when we dreamt up the idea three years ago. It still blows my mind that a business which started out as mood boards and mock ups is now a living, breathing organism that doesn’t just matter to us, but also to our customers and our team.
Before taking the leap to start the business, I was working in what I thought was my dream job as a buyer at Selfridges. After a few years in the role I realised that my persistently itchy feet weren’t just about a desire for career progression, but also a sign that what I was chasing wasn’t ever going to fulfil what I actually needed. It goes without saying that Selfridges was an incredible and inspirational place to work and I learnt more during my time there than I had at any other point in my career, but I soon realised that I’m a one man, ten jobs kind of woman and get my kicks in life by pushing myself into puke inducing professional challenges whenever I feel myself getting too comfortable.
Of course, there are times when I miss the stability of being part of a bigger business (the reassurance of knowing that no matter which path you take or decision you make, the lights will stay on and your salary will keep rolling in) but in reality, I’m completely unemployable in that kind of environment now. I’m too used to working at the eye-watering pace only a start-up life can provide and couldn’t stay motivated to innovate without the inspiration that comes from working with a brand whose customers’ values are so closely aligned with your own.
Another huge turn off for me in the corporate world is the recently published gender pay gap results from some of the big businesses I would have considered desirable in the past - at this stage in my career I could never consider working somewhere where, regardless of the complexities, the numbers show that balls are valued over capabilities. The single biggest driver for me though in pushing for the success of our business is the fluidity it brings to my life, every single day brings fresh challenges, I’m never bored, never restricted by someone else’s rules and most importantly of all, able to structure my life around my family.
I often get asked about how starting a business has impacted our family life. The truth is that the brand came into my life before the babies did, but from the outset we knew our business needed to be an environment which would allow the women who built it to thrive alongside starting, growing and raising our families. It isn’t so much about finding balance as it is about sustainability. A business that does not recognise, retain and reward the best people is never going to be able to reach its potential. Times are changing and businesses big and small, need to start thinking seriously about which side of the line they want to be on. The idea in business that masculinity is power, formality equates to professionalism and that presenteeism is somehow proportional to output is completely outdated; the best candidates expect balance and flexibility, and rightly so.
The starkest reminder for me that businesses like ours are desperately needed came in the early days, when we were approached by one of the UK’s leading fashion universities about taking on an intern as part of their work experience programme. The course leaders knew all about our small family set-up and seemed really keen to place a student with us. They came to our home office for an informal chat to assess our suitability and talk more about the structure of the placement, but from the moment I opened the door and the assessor saw my bump (I was about seven months pregnant with Izzy at the time) the tone changed. The entire meeting became about how my ability or desire to run the business would be impacted by the baby’s arrival, what my contingency plans were should the birth not go according to plan and how we expected having children to impact our marriage and what that would mean for the working environment for future employees.
Of course, when it came to the formal feedback on our rejection, there was no mention of any of this and the excuses were polite and well-constructed, but I had been forwarded an internal email which clearly outlined that my pregnancy and the potential complications that come along with babies were the reason they were not prepared to partner with us.
Fortunately, the student who we had been matched with us didn’t share their concerns and decided to intern with us during her summer break anyway, she has now been working with us as my number two for almost three years and is an integral part of our business. She would be the first to say that the things she has learnt working alongside me as we grew our brand and our family have taught her more about the realities of being a woman in business than anything she learned during her masters and whilst it might not all be appropriate for a text book, it is the stuff we need be talking about and teaching the next generation of industry leaders if we are serious about addressing the inequalities in the working world.
I am the first to admit that life with children isn’t all plain sailing, whether you are working or not. Sometimes kids don’t play ball; they scream when you want them to be quiet, poop when you need to leave the house, or want a cuddle when you really need to finish typing that email. Equally, running a start-up is demanding and relentless and often monopolises your mental bandwidth when you’d really like to be fully present for your family. I’m at a place now where I’ve stopped caring about what is expected of me and started focusing on what I expect of myself. If I need to get my nipples out in a meeting to breastfeed my baby it doesn’t affect my ability to speak or anyone’s ability to listen, so I’m pretty unapologetic. Equally when I’ve got loads to do and Izzy doesn’t fancy watching me work, I don’t torture myself about letting her watch TV or have another snack so I can finish what I need to do. It isn’t as much about overcoming difficulties, learning to juggle or balance, as it is about overcoming unproductive feelings of guilt and inadequacy. I love my babies and I love my brand and whilst neither can have my full attention all the time, both always get what they need.
The bottom line is that the future is flexible. That is going to be hard for more antiquated businesses to digest, but it’s the reality. Flexibility means allowing your team to define their own schedules, offering them unlimited leave, the choice to work from home and pay-rises, not pay cuts when they return from parental leave. It might sound scary, but like any relationship, it’s just an exercise in trust, you have to hire carefully and then shift the focus away from holiday charts and attendance records towards development and retention programmes. If someone doesn’t thrive in that environment then they aren’t the right fit for your business, but those who do will be happier, infinitely more productive and much more likely to stay with you for the long haul.
It gives me the craziest feeling of pride and terror when I look at our plans for the next couple of years, both personal and professional. We’re a young family and a young business, operating in what is a competitive and high-risk sector, but with a team of extraordinary women by my side, a panel of ride-or-die investors, an amazing network of suppliers and the most kick-ass customers in the world, we couldn’t be better placed to tackle the next chapter.