As the U.S. moves rapidly toward a self-directed workforce, more and more women will choose to start their own businesses. I find that many of my coaching clients are now thinking about entrepreneurial ventures—knowing that employers are trimming their ranks. In the workforce of the future employers will rely on a pool of independent contractors that can more easily expand and contract as business needs change.
There’s a certain romance to the idea of working for yourself—lots of flexibility and the ability to call the shots—but too many women stay in that dreamy phase, never taking action and moving ahead. Part of the trepidation is the misconception that “starting a business” always means drawing up a complex business plan, investing large sums of money, finding compatible business partners, searching for outside funding, renting space—and generally taking huge business and personal risks.
All of these things come into play for the mega-entrepreneurs who hope to one day hit it big and take their start-up companies public. But the average entrepreneur is looking to follow a passion and generate a siginificant, but less jackpot income. Lots of entrepreneurs work out of their homes, stay solo and find straightforward ways to sell a product or service.
“Starting Your Own Business” could be setting up freelance writing, editing or accounting services, starting an Etsy store, taking on seasonal landscaping clients, creating a clothing or jewelry line, catering parties, making small-batch artisan chocolate and much more.
Small-scale entrepreneurs can make a big impact for themselves and others, and I think of my mother as a good example. For a few years after college, she was an elementary school teacher. Then, like all women of her 1950s era, she got married and never gave her career a second thought. Other than occasional volunteering in the library or chaperoning a school trip, her job for the next 20 years was mother and wife. It was not a job she found particularly energizing, and when I was in high school she started to wend her way back to work. After a few tedious, but still freeing administrative jobs, she decided to return to her teaching roots and take on a bigger challenge. She taught herself to become an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher and her fourth child—an independent business—was born.
At first she freelanced for an established ESL school to get her feet wet. Then she started to take on her own clients. Word quickly spread about her kind and supportive demeanor among the wives of Japanese executives and the immigrants who were tending all the gardens of stately homes. The inability to communicate at the doctor’s office or supermarket was a great equalizer, and soon my mother was teaching English to big groups of students across many socio-economic lines.
Other than loving to teach and wanting to help people in the awkward position of not knowing the native language, my mother did not have a formal business plan. She did not need start-up funding or investors. She did not rent an office or a teaching space of her own…she used community meeting rooms, libraries and private homes. Supply costs were at a minimum—any book, magazine or supermarket flyer was a teaching tool and the local library had many resources she could borrow and not buy.
As my mother’s business grew, she collaborated with a few other ESL teachers and took a cut of the business she brought their way. There was never a need to formally hire a staff or pay costly benefits. The only constraint was the limited number of hours in a day—a problem she solved by taking on corporate clients and teaching big groups of executives at a much higher rate.
As small businesses go, my mother stuck to the simple and low-key brand. I remember seeing her at the dining room table surrounded by books, lesson plans and invoices. Like many entrepreneurs she wore many hats—taking care of accounting, scheduling, marketing and all operations late into the night.
Though the small ESL business got my mother out of the housewife role and into work she found very fulfilling, it also generated a significant income when overall household finances needed a big boost. It was work she loved on her own terms: she had the flexibility to fit clients around our school schedule and be available to us when we needed her around.
At the end of each long day, she was tired—but very happy doing her own thing. When she passed away at the height of her second career, we realized that her entrepreneurial venture was not only an uncomplicated way for her to use her talents and increase her personal income—but also a way to make a personal difference in the lives of others. I’ll never forget all the foreign executives—and all the gardeners and housekeepers—who came to her funeral sharing big thanks for the American lady with the small business teaching ESL.
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