By Andrea Buffa
Stereotypes about Berkeley women die hard. Ask an out-of-towner what Berkeley women are known for and the answer might reveal visions of a Birkenstock-wearing, organic-food loving activist.
As complimentary as we may find that list, there’s another descriptor that should probably be added: small business owner. That’s because more than a few Berkeley women — particularly women with children —have discovered that 9-to-5 work isn’t always all that it’s cracked up to be, and that starting a small business is an exciting and rewarding alternative.
“I’ve really enjoyed learning a whole new set of skills, and just feeling much more rooted in my community and doing work that is much more tangible,” says Ladan Sobhani, 36 years old, the co-owner, with her husband, of Auto Glass Express.
It’s not that Sobhani hated the type of work she did before she dropped out the world of stable, full-time employment to take on the customer service, marketing and accounting for her auto glass company. In fact, she worked for nonprofits like Global Exchange and Green For All doing work she felt was helping change the world.
“I’ve always had jobs that I felt very passionate about and grateful to have because they were the kinds of jobs that other people would volunteer their time to do,” Sobhani says. “But there’s always this culture at nonprofits that you’re so lucky to have a job that’s intended to change the world that you have to work extra hard – and you want to work extra hard because you feel passionate about what you do.”
Sobhani didn’t mind the extra hours until work started competing with the time she had available for her 4- and 6-year-old daughters. She missed her daughter’s first three days of kindergarten, because she was in Philadelphia speaking at a conference. And when she stayed home from work because one of her daughters was sick, she felt stressed out about falling behind on her work assignments. “Even though people are always well-meaning, and they always tell you to take the time and help your family, the deadlines don’t go away,” she says.
Having a more flexible work schedule that allows for more time with the kids is undoubtedly a reason why many women with children choose to go into business for themselves. Lea Grundy, co-owner of GroundWorks Campaigns, says, “As long as I’m getting my job done, I can feel totally fine with going to pick up my kids every day from school. I don’t have to feel guilty.”
But it’s not the only reason. In fact, for Grundy — and for most other women and many men for that matter — there are a number of factors that when considered together provide the momentum to shift from being an employee to a business owner. Grundy, for example, was working too hard at her 9-to-5 job as a labor union organizer. In fact, the work hours were never 9-to-5. “Once I started doing politics [for the union], when I was actually leading a campaign, I was out fourteen hours a day working,” Grundy says.
“My kids were so excited if we would intentionally do camping trips in places where there was no cell phone reception. They’d say, ‘Oh mama won’t have her phone.’ But coming back from the trip, I’d be in the backseat of my car with a laptop in my lap working again.”
Working that many hours was becoming hard on the 42-year-old Grundy’s health. But even this didn’t get her to quit her job. The final straw came when her union, SEIU, began to go through a major internal upheaval. “It just became a lot harder and less fulfilling to do the job that I signed up for.”
Unlike Sobhani, Grundy didn’t go into a completely different line of work. She hooked up with two co-workers, and they started a business running political campaigns — work that she’d done when she’d been on SEIU’s payroll. The business was incorporated almost two years ago, and last year Grundy made more money than she ever had previously in her work career.
Deciding what type of business to go into wasn’t difficult for Grundy or Sobhani. In Grundy’s case, she stuck with her area of professional expertise. Sobhani went into an industry that other family members had experience with so they could mentor her. But the spark of inspiration that leads to the creation of a small business can come from almost anywhere. For Hilary Goldman, it came in an art class.
Goldman, 48, had left her job at a San Francisco financial services firm because she was burnt out after working as a business analyst and technical project manager for some 25 years. Nothing she tried would rejuvenate her — not even a sabbatical in France — and she was experiencing medical problems she suspected were associated with her burnout. So when she heard that her company was going to be implementing layoffs, she took the initiative to speak up and suggest to her manager that she was ready to go.
Goldman didn’t have a plan to start a small business, but she did have a business degree and an entrepreneurial spirit. One day when she was taking a class at The Nova Studio in Pt. Richmond, the teacher brought in a guest instructor who taught the students about making glycerin soap. Goldman decided to make some colorful, artistic glycerin soaps and sell them at a market that her sons’ school had organized. “All of a sudden I realized, there are people who actually bought what I made!”
Goldman researched the suppliers and found out that two, including the glycerin supplier, were located in the Bay Area. “I looked at the pricing and thought, oh my, I can drive to their store, buy it in bulk with a re-seller’s permit and get it wholesale. Here’s where the business side comes in – look at that, I could actually see some positive money flow from this!
So Goldman, with some more encouragement from the guest instructor, took the plunge. She got a business license for her company, A Slice of Delight, and a re-seller’s license. She took photos of her soap, developed a web presence on Etsy, a site that allows craftspeople to sell their products online, and figured out how to market her wares. “I wasn’t working, and I had all of this desire to do something,” Goldman says. “In the end, what was kind of a hobbyish thing has now become an obsession.”
Running their own businesses has allowed Goldman, Sobhani and Grundy to spend more time with their families and have more time to take care of themselves. But it’s not all bread and roses in the land of self-employment. A major challenge is financial instability. Grundy, although she earned an unexpectedly high income last year, will probably make half that this year.
“It’s hard to do financial planning for our families. I have a partner who has a very stable job and that’s fortunate. And my business partners and I have never been straight up without work. But it’s not as stable as knowing exactly how much money is coming in this month,” Grundy says.
Goldman’s main challenge as a business owner isn’t the finances — it’s the isolation of being the only employee of her company and carrying out most of her interactions in the virtual world. To increase the amount of human interaction she’s exposed to during her work day, she’s begun doing part-time contract work for her former employer. But she’s very careful to keep the number of hours she’s working for the company “in check,” and she only does the work she most enjoyed when she was a full-time employee.
For Sobhani, health insurance is a significant challenge — as is the case for so many small businesspeople. Buying insurance on the open market is incredibly expensive — and even more so for anyone who has a pre-existing condition. “The hardest part is the financial insecurity and especially the transition to buying your own health insurance when you have medical issues in your family,” she says.
Still, Sobhani wouldn’t trade these challenges for the benefits of being her own boss. She’s learned new skills and is looking forward to spending a whole summer with her kids, who in the past would have spent their summer in camp. She’s also figured out a way to continue her work “changing the world” — but on her own terms. She recently joined the board of directors of the Berkeley-based Ecology Center.