Business Start-Ups during Parental Leave
Entrepreneurial Mothers

Meike Fehr | © Ute Zauft
Meike Fehr | Photo (detail): © Ute Zauft

With the child comes parental leave – and for many woman the career slump. Some therefore simply become self-employed. The number of women entrepreneurs is rising steadily; many women set up businesses during parental leave.

When Meike Fehr looks at her workplace, her eye falls on a play area with a plush carpet, a wooden stove and a small table full of painting utensils. Her one-year-old son Matti romps here when she has collected him from his nursery but still has to do some quick book-keeping. Her older son Yuri prefers to hang out in the workshop next door and enthusiastically tinker small airplanes or ships out of scrap wood. The six-year-old has practically grown up with wood, for when his mother became self-employed by opening a shop for Scandinavian furniture from the 1950s and 70s he had just begun going to nursery. Now Stilraum Berlin (i.e., Style Room Berlin) has two spacious sales areas of about 280 square metres, including office, warehouse and workshop.

According to a 2013 study by the Federal Ministry of Economics, 25 per cent of entrepreneurs with employees in Germany are woman, and among the self-employed without employees the figure is even 38 per cent. The proportion of women among so-called solo self-employed has thus risen in the past ten years by 51 per cent. One of the women with the desire to set up a business was the mother of two children Meike Fehr – though she realized her business idea together with her husband Genja.

In a pinch, the evening at the desk

The support of the partner is immensely important, says management consultant Jutta Overmann. She has accompanied many woman into self-employment and says: “If your sharpest citric is sitting right next to you, things can become difficult.” Furniture aficionado Fehr appreciates her constellation for very practical reasons: “If one of the children is ill, we can arrange between us who takes him to the doctor and who takes care of the orders.” In a pinch, the latter is also done in the evening when the children are in bed, because of course the work does not thereby become less. For both young entrepreneurs, self-employment has turned out to be ideal for their small family.

Consultant Overmann has also observed that more and more mothers on parental leave are playing with the idea of becoming self-employed. “Especially when they have the feeling that their job, at least full time, isn’t compatible with having a family.” She advises these women to use parental leave as a well-planned test phase or for developing a precise business plan. “The step into self-employment should be considered carefully”, says Overmann. A decisive question, she says, is always whether the family must live from the income acquired through self-employment. “Starting up a business is always connected with risk, and the time a start-up will take is often underestimated, especially during parental leave.”

Set the goals of a market test precisely

To test the chances of a product idea, the start-up consultant recommends using the online portal Dawanda, where home-made products are offered for sale. According to recent company statistics, 250,000 manufacturers currently offer their products at the platform, about 60 per cent of whom are mothers. Conspicuous among the offering are hand-sewn goods such as bags, children’s clothes and toys. “In making such a market test, you should set clear objectives”, emphasizes the consultant. “What do I want to achieve in six months’ time so as to decide whether I should carry on or not.” Without such clear objectives, there is the risk that self-employment will lead into a precarious dead-end. According to a 2010 survey, 22 per cent of self-employed women earn less than 500 euros a month. This is a nice additional income, but not a sum on which a family could live.

Fear of a career slump after parental leave

Before she became a mother, the Swiss-born Jacqueline Schwope had an executive position at the Getty picture agency. Her job as marketing manager included many business trips and weekend appointments, and it soon became clear that this position was not compatible with her idea of family life. “I wanted to have time for my children, but my job wouldn’t have been possible on a part-time basis”, says Schwope. “So I preferred to become my own boss”; and six months after the birth of her daughter she founded Motherworld, an agency for child care.

Today Schwope compares self-employment to an “addictive marathon”. Important are courage, strength and perseverance. When her second child was born, the mother of two took stock and had to admit that “what came out in the end didn’t stand in proportion to the time and energy I’d put into the project”. But instead of throwing in the towel, she resolved to start again, put money into her website and expanded her services to include more cities. The decisive turning point came when she found a business partner. Together with him, she also offers what she now calls her “family service” to financially strong companies. But at least as important for her is to continue offering child care for private clients, mainly mothers who want to re-enter professional life. Because she knows from her own experience: “If the child care doesn’t work, you can’t work.”