It’s often impossible for women entrepreneurs to step away long enough for motherhood. But retired business leaders could enable female entrepreneurs to have both a business and a baby, suggests Harriet Kelsall
Working out maternity cover for young female entrepreneurs would encourage more women to start businesses before they get to the baby stage of life – and this would have a positive knock-on effect on gender equality at board level.
I was 28 when I started my business. Despite being married, and close to the typical child-bearing age, I didn’t really think about my own future maternity.
Now, I’ve had to jump through a lot of hoops as an employer so that the women I employ can take maternity leave. I know people like to pretend otherwise, but it’s a nightmare, because the rules make it hard for small businesses to afford.
But importantly, it has always been worth it to retain those women. On a personal level, though, I’ll admit it’s doubly hard, because it just makes me think about the maternity leave I couldn’t take.
After my first child was born, somebody brought round gemstones for me to price at home just a few days later. There was nobody else in the business with those skills, so I had to do it or potentially let customers down – not to mention risk my own livelihood and the revenue needed to keep eight team members in wages. I was working properly again just a fortnight after my baby was born.
Ten years, and another beautiful baby later, my business has thankfully grown larger and more successful. But it’s been a tricky balance and I’ve had to work extra hard to find time for both my kids and the company. I’m glad I did, because now my company supports my home and family, as well as those of more than 30 others.
Before you dismiss this as self-congratulation, I need to tell you that it’s actually about two brilliant women who have recently come into my life, giving me a glimpse of what might be possible.
Martha had been a customer of ours for years. One day she said: “You know all about my style and my jewellery but you don’t know much about my working life. I have worked for many years in large businesses as a business development consultant. I retired eight months ago and I’m utterly bored. I love your jewellery, your business and what you do and I’d love to offer some of my time to you free of charge.”
She has become an important non-executive adviser for me and her advice and experience have been really helpful.
Meg got in touch after I gave a short speech when handing my Everywoman in Retail award to the next winner. She liked what I said about the importance of ethical decision-making. She turned out to be the MD of a large clothing company and she offered me her help and friendship.
Now we meet a few times a year to talk about the business. She gives me great advice. She isn’t at retirement age, far from it, but is a little further on in her career than me, and her advice and support has helped me grow as a businesswoman.
These two amazing women got me thinking. What if there had been a retired person who had a month to give in exchange for jewellery, allowing me to have a month of maternity leave? How amazing would that have been?
But you can’t have just anybody to take over the running of your business a few days a week – they have to be experienced, a mentor of sorts, someone you’d really trust.
So here is a ‘safety-networking’ idea that might give female would-be entrepreneurs the help they need to start businesses and families without fear of failing either.
Let’s tap into the huge pool of talent in the ‘just retired’ business community; individuals who don’t want to commit long term, but do want to give back to the next generation, to share their valuable experience, stay in touch and help small businesses grow.
Can’t we put these two sets of people together? There are many organisations like the IoD or female networks that could help to connect them – akin to a business matchmaking service, seeing if there’s a connection to be made and then stepping away.
The experienced business person could mentor a female-run young business, headed by someone thinking of having a baby, on the understanding that there’s an experienced pair of hands ready to step in for a longer stretch (a month, say) when the baby is born.
I believe this could provide the impetus for women who want to start a business without sacrificing the possibility of family. It would likely increase the number of women on boards while improving gender equality and contributing positively to the economy.
How about it?
Harriet Kelsall is founder of Harriet Kelsall Bespoke Jewellery