When I decided to start a family over 25 years ago, I never really considered the full impact on my work and personal life. I knew these little darlings would change the way I lived my life (less travel... more diapers), but I underestimated how they would alter my attitude towards work. In honor of Work and Family Month, I wanted to share my story of how a personal tragedy turned into a thriving business opportunity.
I had an unusual first-time mom experience in that my eldest son, Jason, was born with a heart defect and Down Syndrome. I was devastated by this news and wasn't sure how I was going to handle it. Working at Intel at the time, thankfully I was able to negotiate a part-time work arrangement after he was born (otherwise I would have had to quit). Part-time work options were not the norm back in the late 1980s, but I had a very understanding and caring boss. Having figured out my work schedule, I now needed to arrange for part-time child care, which, as a first-time parent, was a daunting task. Needless to say, finding care for a special needs child was especially difficult. With minimal support (not many resources were available back then), I personally researched over 70 child care providers -- one asked me when Jason was going to outgrow the Down Syndrome! I finally secured a good spot with a family day care provider, an Occupational Therapist staying home with her three kids. Having a reliable, trustworthy child care option enabled me to focus on work again.
While working part-time and taking Jason to his Early Intervention Programs, I had an epiphany. After experiencing first-hand how incredibly overwhelming and challenging it was to find a child care solution as a working parent, I decided to make this process easier for other families by starting my own child care referral service. I researched child care providers, programmed my own database and started advertising in local parenting magazines. The business was soon gaining publicity, interest and clients, but at the same time, I realized that the consumer market was going to be a long, arduous road to building a business. So I started targeting Bay Area corporations with the approach of offering enhanced child care benefits for working parents as a tool for employee retention. Of course, benefits like this are now very popular, but back in the 1990s it was a very new concept.
Unfortunately, when Jason turned two years old, he had heart surgery and did not survive. This was such an emotional time for me as I wondered how I was going to cope with the loss of my son. Children aren't supposed to die before their parents, and I struggled to come to terms with this. I knew I needed to continue to work, and I desperately wanted more children. Intel asked me to come back full time, but I had started my business because of Jason and didn't want to give up on my dream. I knew that in order for working parents, families and businesses to really succeed, there needs to be easily accessible, affordable, convenient and comprehensive caretaking solutions. So I dug deep and decided to commit to the corporate business full time and even expand services to include elder care, pet care and concierge services. I am also grateful that my husband fully supported me in becoming a full-time entrepreneur, which was certainly a much riskier venture.
As I dove full-time into growing the business, my husband and I also decided to grow our family and had two more children, Chelsea and Cody. While I don't think 'balance' even comes close to describing what it is really like to manage the day-to-day needs of raising a family and running a business, I was determined to create a work environment where I could spend as much quality time with my kids as possible. In the early years of the business, I was able to work out of my home. It certainly wasn't always the most ideal situation, but I loved watching the kids play in the office and learn to file and answer phones as they got older. Chelsea and Cody also observed first-hand a hard-working staff and a boss (me) that treated employees fairly and with respect.
As the business grew, I always chose to lease office space near my children's schools so I could be accessible to their needs. Dropping them off and picking them up every day became the norm, as did working into the night when they went to bed if I needed to meet a deadline. While there were definitely bad days, rough nights, and the normal ups and downs of life, my kids experienced a mom who was passionate about them and passionate about her work, without having to choose one over the other.
What started as a novel idea has now turned into Leverage Concierge, a full-service corporate concierge provider that works with companies globally to assist employees in better balancing their work/life responsibilities. I am very proud that I was an early innovator and entrepreneur in this industry, and that I was able to positively influence so many employees' lives. The tragedy of losing a child created a unique opportunity for me to get involved and help shape the emerging work/life industry.
Looking back as a "Momtrepreneur," I feel very fortunate that I was able to have flexibility in raising my children. There were definitely challenges when my husband and I had to travel at the same time, but I am incredibly proud of the young adults both Chelsea and Cody have grown into. In fact, when my daughter Chelsea was in college, we were having dinner one night in New York City and she told me, "I want to raise my kids the way you raised me." I was floored by this statement, and very proud that she would feel this way.
In talking with my kids about their childhood, I found out that they were glad I was available if they needed me, but that I also gave them space and independence as they grew older. They observed my work ethic and have modeled that in their own careers. I have always encouraged them to find jobs that they are passionate about, even if they don't follow a 'normal' career path. And they both have done just that - Chelsea has started a career in writing and Cody is working in the golf industry. My daughter, in particular, observed a strong, hard-working woman who went after her dreams, and this has influenced her own career choices. I am confident she will be a great role model for her children as well.
Cathy Leibow is Senior Vice President of Leverage Concierge (powered by ACI Specialty Benefits), a full-service corporate concierge provider to companies worldwide. For over three decades, Leverage Concierge has helped employees better balance their work and family lives, and helped companies become great places to work with innovative work/life and concierge benefits. For more information, visit www.leverageconcierge.com. Ms. Leibow can be contacted at email@example.com.