You can have it all. Enterprising mothers explain how they run successful businesses around family life.
Before I had children, I worked at the South China Morning Post (SCMP) as travel and design editor. I went back full-time after my twins were born, but when I fell pregnant with Roxy the hours were unsustainable. I wanted a job with flexible hours.
As travel editor, I’d dealt with the communications team of a high-end hotel brand and they asked me to help with their corporate communications. Sparkle took off from there in 2006 and we still work on the materials for their hotels in Asia-Pacific.
I set up Blank in 2011 after creating a canvas for myself and having people ask me to create similar artworks. We create canvases for homes and commercial spaces and are working on more than 200 wall-art projects for a six million square-foot mixed use development. Although my degree is in journalism, I’ve always had a strong interest in graphic design and did a lot of freelance design work to pay my way through Central Saint Martins.
I fit my work life around my children. If I need to take a few hours out for a school meeting, I’ll catch up after supper. The studio was busy over the summer while I was holidaying in Britain, so I worked after the kids went to bed and held conference calls when Hong Kong was waking up. Not being able to fully “clock-off” is perhaps the main challenge, but I love what I do so I don’t really mind. I enjoy the creative aspect, working with lovely clients – and also the freedom.
Starting a business is hard but experience and a proven track record make the learning curve more manageable. As for regrets about starting my own business… honestly, none.
The founder and CEO of women’s forum Heels & Deals has two sons, Jack, eight, and Ollie, seven.
I started Heels & Deals in Dubai in 2009 at the height of the economic depression. I had launched a magazine for families the previous year and many of my female clients were worried about the effect of the spiralling economy. Many of them were almost paralysed by fear… they stopped marketing and networking and were just waiting for things to get better. One day in March 2009, I had the same conversation with four separate clients and decided to help these women by getting them together to share their experiences and promote their businesses. At the first meeting, we thought we’d be lucky to get 30 to 40 women attending but we packed the wine bar with 180 amazing women.
We had no idea how popular Heels & Deals would be. Expanding to Hong Kong was the first step and we plan to license the brand in other countries. We will provide centralised support and our members will be connected locally and globally. Gender inequality still exists and sometimes women don’t have the same access to contacts, knowledge, inspiration and role models as men. Heels & Deals is designed to provide this access.
I have an office in Central as I work more productively there, but also have a home office when I want to spend more time with my boys. I work harder and longer hours than when I was an employee, but it’s worth it.
Having a strong support team is essential. Include family and friends in this support network but also spend time with others who can empathise with you as a female entrepreneur and lift you higher when you most need it.
The boys have grown up with me working and understand that I juggle family and business. However, I firmly believe the decision to have your own business or be a working mum is an individual choice – what’s right for one family may not be right for another. One of my mantras is to “be present when I’m present”. When I’m with the family I focus on them and when I’m working I focus on business. There’s no point in being at work and feeling guilty for not being at home – it’s a waste of time and energy.
The founder of artisan deli company Not Only Olives has three children Ellie, 24, Justine, 22, and Joe, 20
I started my business making and importing deli goods about eight years ago to subsidise extra tuition and extracurricular activities for my children and have a credit-free Christmas. I was in a supermarket and asked the sales assistant where the olives came from and he looked as if I was from Mars. I realised I could do better. I used to work in my family’s delicatessen in Cornwall and selling comes naturally to me.
From October to mid-December I work every weekend, but I started the business when my children were teenagers so they were quite independent. However, I did rely on friends taking my son to the occasional rugby match but my husband works odd hours as a pilot so I don’t think the children were affected that much. Running my own business has enhanced my role as a mum and the extra income has been able to generate better opportunities for my children. I love meeting people and developing new products. My biggest challenge has been keeping prices down. Rising table costs and raw materials make it difficult to keep it real.
My business has the potential to grow, but do I want the extra headaches of landlords, staff, logistical nightmares? No. I keep it simple to cover my costs and reach my own financial goals every month. My husband and I are a team and together we keep the family running. Your ideas are your dreams, fulfil them and you will feel happy and complete.
The joint owner of card and gift company House of Cards has two sons, James, 11, and Jack, seven.
House of Cards was born in 2009 from a desire to return to work for both me and my business partner, Andrea Prickett. I’d resigned as a purser for British Airways after 15 years, while Andrea hadn’t worked since starting a family [she has two children, Jack, 12, and Ellie, nine, and now lives in Britain]. We both had young children and wanted the flexibility to choose our working hours in order to fit in school runs, events and being around for our families.
Having experienced difficulties in finding quality greeting cards and gifts in Hong Kong, we felt there was a demand. We bought cards in Britain on a summer holiday and a week later we hosted a home sale for friends and sold out. This gave us the confidence to approach British suppliers to secure exclusive rights to distribute their products in Hong Kong.
We now distribute to more than 100 stores in Hong Kong. Two years ago, we moved into an office in Kowloon Bay and are now in a new space twice the size. We employ five full-time and several part-time staff – we’ve come a long way from selling cards out of a suitcase to friends.
Like all mums, I am good at juggling different roles. We have a great team, which gives me the flexibility to spend time with my children when I need to. Technology is also a big help as I can catch up with Andrea via Skype and with my emails when the children are in bed. We have a great helper, who I rely on with the child care. I feel a bit guilty that I’m not able to spend more time with the children but I have a lot more flexibility than mums in full-time work. I enjoy being my own boss and making a significant contribution to our family income.
Setting up and running your business is always more work than you think. You need a supportive husband (mine has had many roles in the business – marketing director, card counter, IT support) and do lots of research. It is also imperative to enjoy what you do.
Founder of Peony Literary Agency and mother to Maya, 13, and Maksym, 12.
Before children and Hong Kong, I worked in publishing in London. I thought about setting up my own literary agency in Hong Kong, but the children came along so I shelved the idea. Nine years later, I saw a job ad for help needed by a literary agency. I ended up running the company until the person who funded it relocated back to Britain, taking the funding with him.
I took on their authors and founded the Peony Literary Agency. I now employ two staff members – in Taiwan and Shanghai – and work with several freelancers. I have a degree in Mandarin and I work with a lot of Chinese authors but not exclusively. In 2009, my first year of business, I represented Su Tong [whose book Wives and Concubines was adapted into the film Raise the Red Lantern], who won the Man Asia prize for The Boat to Redemption, and I was Nobel Prize-winner Mo Yan’s first agent. Finding new authors, doing the deal and seeing them published and selling well here and overseas is a buzz.
I confess I manage my job, children and socialising with difficulty. I think my biggest challenge is attempting to juggle it all I try not to allow the different areas of my life to blend – when it’s work, it’s work. I have an office at home, I shut the door and I don’t answer the landline or the front door. It’s the only way I can do it, but I do feel pulled in lots of different directions.
The overseas markets I deal with start in late afternoon and about 10pm Hong Kong time so I have quiet patches during the day and can fit things around the children.
I travel quite a bit, which has made me appreciate my children because I don’t see them as much as I would like to. A lot of women here don’t work and I know my children see that I’m not helping at school as regularly as other mothers, which I feel bad about.
Hong Kong is a great place to set up a new business – there is no way that as a mother I could have done this in Britain – and I wish I’d started sooner. But there’s no point looking backwards. You have to have clarity and vision to always look forwards.
The founder of nightwear brand Sam’s Jams has four children, Oscar, 18, Chloe, 16, Jesse, 13, and Arkie, 10. Her partner Julie Dixon (left) is mother to Lewis, 14, and Ella, 12.
Sam: I set up Sam’s Jams in 2010 because I couldn’t find good-quality children’s pyjamas in Hong Kong. I was working in a kids’ boutique in Sai Kung and I had many parents asking for pjs but nothing to sell them.
We started small, choosing fabrics from Shenzhen and getting the pyjamas made there. When Julie came on board, we managed to find reliable factories through her husband, who is in the garment industry.
Our priorities are stylish designs and comfort. Our name tags are on the outside as kids hate scratchy labels, and the specs are larger than average because nobody likes to be constricted by their nightwear. One little boy thought our pjs were so comfy, he didn’t want to take them off and tried to wear them to school under his uniform.
I like the money side and the fairs, but this isn’t a quick moneymaker and everything we make goes into the business. We have a five-year plan and if we’re still not paying ourselves after that we will call it a day.
Julie: I have a design background and my skills complement Sam’s so fortunately we manage to share the workload. She is the businesswoman, I love coming up with textiles, patterns and styles, and we now design and print our own fabrics. Our biggest challenge has been finding a factory prepared to do small orders and still value us as serious customers. We need reliability and fortunately we have that in place.
If you’re thinking of setting something up, make sure it appeals to a broad audience and do your research. But if you’ve got an idea or found a niche, go for it.
The founder of Apronto World has two children, Tyler, 11, and Jessica, 10.
In 2011, I conducted an experiment and documented our eco-behaviour as a family from March to September. The results surprised, shocked and inspired me.
My most important asset when I was eco-householding, cooking and crafting was an apron: wearing it gave me a sense of dedication and saved tons of laundry. But the aprons available were unsatisfying so I reinvented this simple accessory with a talented seamstress.
We created prototypes, tested them, changed them and tested again. A merchandising group, who have produced quality textiles for decades, sourced organic cotton canvas and oversaw production and quality for me. I started trading in March 2014.
Whenever I look at women who have founded businesses, I am impressed by how they fit in work, children and a social life. I don’t know how they do it. As I work a lot from home, the kids have been part of many steps. They helped me with packaging and design, and my son even made a movie about my aprons.
I enjoy the creative process and the creative direction towards building a brand. My biggest challenge is everything that isn’t creative. I have to bend my brain to execute the necessary steps to support a successful business strategy. I suck at finances and work on the premise that I should have no costs I can’t control.
Not following too much advice is the best advice I can give. At the same time, listen well. Even if you don’t follow advice, the process of engaging with it is educational. Also, create short, realistic to-do lists that make sense in terms of workflow. Whatever happens, I have no regrets. I’m no good at regrets. Never was.