Having a baby? Time to start your business! To many people that sounds counterintuitive, but women are doing just that and it is contributing to Brooklyn’s meteoric increase in women-owned businesses. According to the NYC Department of Small Business Services, women-owned businesses in our borough jumped 77% in the last decade. New York City as a whole has the most women entrepreneurs nationwide at 359,000. Brooklyn has a higher percentage of women entrepreneurs than any of the other boroughs. Taking on a new business is a stressful experience, but second to having a baby. I am always in awe when I meet women who decide to do both at the same time. What motivates them to take on both the risk of business and the dependence of a child? Who are these brave women who take on such a duel challenge? What advice do they have for other women out there who hope to hustle as they waddle? In this ongoing series, we will speak to moms who survived babies in their business!
Lindsey Engler and Zoe Van de Wiele both started their own boutiques within months of having babies. Lindsey started the children’s boutique Picnic in Cobble Hill and Zoe started Cloth, a women’s boutique in Fort Greene. They recently shared the trials and tribulations of embarking on motherhood and businesses when I visited their Brooklyn shops. Lindsey and Zoe discussed the challenges, their accomplishments, and made a good case for women taking on this duel challenge as a way to achieve the ultimate work/life balance—that is once you get over the initial bumps, baby and otherwise.
While Lindsey Engler was on maternity leave in 2011, she had two realizations. First, she realized there were no fun kids’ clothing stores in the neighborhood. She had just had a baby girl and was ready to revel in the opportunity to dress her, but found local stores lacking imagination. Secondly, Lindsey realized she wanted to be a hands-on full-time parent, something that would be impossible if she continued working long hours in the women’s fashion industry. But Lindsey had every intention of working full-time after her maternity leave. When she returned to work, her desire to be more in control of her schedule—so she could be with her child—really came into focus. At that point, she began writing her business plan. Lindsey eventually left her fashion position when her daughter was 6 months old to open her store Picnic just 2 months later!
Lindsey traded those long, inflexible hours for a business she hoped would lead to better work/life balance. It was a gamble that paid off. She signed a lease on a landmarked building that created some headaches, but she had the support of her husband, an architect, to see construction through. She says, “It was a learning curve. You have to take the good with the bad. But certainly the good outweighs the bad.” Every location has its own unique issues, but the landmark status of her store front complicated even minor repairs and changes necessary to address security concerns. Lindsey resolved each issue in stride, but did not sleep for at least the first year.
“When it’s your own business everything keeps you up. Is the computer system going to work? How much do we spend on product? Construction is never on time? A million things kept me up? Not to mention my 6 month old baby.”
When asked if babies and businesses naturally go together, Lindsey states, “I truly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.” She recommends planning businesses further in advance of having a child, but states, “It is the perfect work/life balance once you get there.” By the time her daughter was 2 years old, Lindsey was able to trade full-time childcare for trusted in-store staff allowing her time to parent. “I have the luxury of being a full-time mom and working full-time.” She is able to be in the store until staff relives her and then she is mom from 2:30pm on. The business was a win/win for her supportive husband as well. It afforded her husband the benefit of never having to worry about juggling childcare between them because Lindsey would have the flexibility to be with their child.
Lindsey has truly realized her goals. She created a kids clothing store carrying unique and lively inventory from such names as Roberta Roller Rabbit and Stella Cove while giving herself the flexibility to be a full-time mother. Though Lindsey cautions in perfect rhyme, “You really get to do it all, but at the same time you can never take your eye off the ball.” Her advice to others who want to start a business is find staff you can trust and be realistic in your expectations. She fazes in new goals every year. She recommends setting small realistic goals. A business is a long term project, so have short term goals and long term goals. Of Picnic Lindsey states,
“I am proud of where were are. Proud of what we’ve done in the past and where we’re going. It’s a wonderful thing but you have to be methodical about it and know your strengths. I truly love what I do. I love finding new product and I love our kids. We have the cutest kids in this neighborhood!”
Echoing Lindsey, Zoe Van de Wiele is another fashion industry ex-pat who decided that work and family were incompatible in her profession. She had been working as a production manager for a high end designer at the time. The hours were extremely long and there was no maternity leave. Zoe knew herself well.
“I could never go back to work even 9-5 and be away from a baby. It just wasn’t something I was comfortable with, but I also wasn’t the type to be a full-time mom. I would get restless so I started to think how can I do both at the same time. Luckily,” she laughs, “I wasn’t making that much money so I wouldn’t be walking away from much.”
The solution was to open Cloth and simultaneously encourage her husband Hub Moore to start his own business Hub Woodworks, so they could both have the flexibility to manage childcare. The businesses they created together enabled the work/life balance they sought, but there were challenges for sure.
When she first conceived of Cloth people told her she was crazy. After all, she was planning to open her women’s boutique in Fort Greene just 5 weeks after giving birth to her first child. How did she do it? Zoe took nesting to the next level by planning and purchasing for the store the season before Cloth opened when she was about 4 months pregnant. However, once her child came into the world it proved, “hard to sell clothing with a crying, breastfeeding baby.” And at times, safety issues arose that left her feeling vulnerable in the shop by herself with a new baby. A native New Yorker, Zoe didn’t anticipate personal vulnerability because New York women are tough. Ever resilient, she approached security issues as just one more learning moment resolved through accrued shopkeeper savvy.
Now in business 12 years later and surviving the last economic downturn, her venture doesn’t seem so crazy. To those considering birthing a baby and a business, Zoe advises,
“When people are thinking of opening a business, they often come to me and say ‘me and a friend are thinking of…’ My advice is be very, very careful before invest in a huge life endeavor like starting a business with a partner. You are your business’s biggest expense because you need a salary. If you have a partner, then you have two people in the business to support instead of one. That’s an enormous stress on a new small business. Having a business partner is a lot harder than a marriage, I’ll leave it at that.” She also cautions, “Be very careful who you hire. Your employees are an extension of you and your business. They should be happy, and both appreciate you and feel appreciated.”
Zoe acknowledges that having a business is endless work but feels it is rewarding in so many ways. In Cloth, Zoe has created a shop with an eclectic but comfortable mix; everything from Hope down parkas, leather bags and shoes, to Cotelac and Calder Blake pieces. She genuinely does get to be a hands-on mom and says she has, “met so many people through the shop over the last 12 years, it’s really a little staggering. I am always optimistic with my shop, customers and employees. I see growth and as long as I believe it will happen, it can!”
As I listened to Lindsey Engler and Zoe Van de Wiele discuss their accomplishments, the concept of giving birth to a baby and a new business made more and more sense. To some the duel challenge sounds crazy and chaotic, but for these two women it proved to be a great way to achieve the ultimate work/life balance, once you get past the first few years. Lindsey and Zoe have very similar perspectives as fashion industry alums and shop owners. Though Picnic is a relatively new business, 4 years in the benefits have already materialized for Lindsey, while Cloth serves as model of longevity for the future. Both women survived the steep learning curves and bumps of new motherhood and entrepreneurship, quickly learning and adapting. Lindsey and Zoe were both ultimately driven to open their own businesses because they wanted to parent in a way that was incompatible with the nature of fashion industry careers. Career/family incompatibility is a common theme among women who are striking out as business owners. But as we continue this series we will see the opinions on this are as diverse as the businesses. Stay tuned for the next Babies in Your Business!