A lot of information passes through Tracy Odell’s mind on any given day. As executive vice president of CafeMom and publisher of The Stir blog, she will oversee the production of over 18,000 articles and 800 videos this year, with an eye toward helping some 9 million women per month who visit the site to find the information they need for navigating the pleasures and pitfalls of parenthood. From providing a forum for political debate to proffering the answers to burning questions for the preschool set on what pirates eat, Odell’s had a hand it in.
But as a parent herself (of two boys, ages 5 and 2 and a half), Odell’s also cultivated some interesting perspectives on mothers as entrepreneurs. Fast Company caught up with Odell just before Mother’s Day to talk about how she juggles the demands of a growing family alongside a digital media company and her advice for any woman contemplating starting a business.
FAST COMPANY: Is entrepreneurship different for moms?
TRACY ODELL: I think that the biggest difference is the guilt we put on ourselves as women, not just moms. We never feel like we are doing enough to eradicate that guilt. I don’t see this in my male colleagues. Logically, I know I do an amazing job at work and I know that my kids are happy but I think its something we all have to work through. Hearing from others helps a lot. We need to think about ways we can support one another.
Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO and working mom, said there’s no such thing as work/life balance. What do you think?
That Sandberg piece struck a chord with me, so a few months ago I started leaving work at 5 p.m. because I felt like I wasn’t seeing my kids by not getting home until their bedtime. The first few weeks was hard, turning down meeting invites [after 5 p.m.] but I wasn’t doing any less work. I needed to find that time elsewhere. My new thing is learning how to put down my phone for that two hours [before the kids go to bed] and really disconnect. I think you have to be in the moment and make the most out of wherever you are.
So how would you advise other women to tackle this challenge?
I think you have to take the initiative because no one is going to come and say, "It looks like you are struggling, let me make your life easier." I had to come up with a solution that works for me and the company. I think you have to come in with a solution. Don’t go in with a problem. It should be coming from a logical place, not an emotional one. You need to apply problem solving and logic, just like any other work tasks.
What is the one piece of advice you'd give to a woman starting a business while she's raising a family?
Like parenting, there is something to not knowing what you’re getting into. People try to prepare you but you have to experience it firsthand. And there’s no going back.
Six of us who worked together at ClubMom (now defunct) went to our CEO and asked build out CafeMom as a low-risk trial. We were incubated, in a sense, from that company because we had all the infrastructure around us already. We had a six-week timeline to launch—which was the same date as my due date when I was pregnant with my first child. My son came early but it was like I gave birth to two babies. And they are both a lot of work. I don’t know if I would have done it again [laughs].
There are a lot of analogies between having a child and launching a company. You have to love it because you are going to be spending every moment with it. If you can do a passion project as a job, especially for a working mom, the decisions become so much easier because all paths lead to someone or something that you love.
What special advantages do moms have as entrepreneurs and business owners?
The way we have to view the world and the ability to multitask makes moms better entrepreneurs. When you are home you are never focused on one thing, for example you’re never just cooking, you’re listening to your kids, answering the phone. The same thing happens in the office, I am constantly thinking about the next thing and I get so much done in a typical day.
Having children also teaches you that choosing your battles becomes more important. There is limited time and you need to really prioritize and let the less important things go. I like to have more control but I’ve learned to figure out when I add value and when it will be fine without me. Just like with my son, when do I step in and lead and when do I let him figure it out for himself?
Why should any business hire more moms?
Those same qualities are great in an employee. This is something I take a lot of pride in. Hiring mothers as writers and video producers have been most fulfilling moments because it gives someone an opportunity changes their lives with flexible schedules. They are amazing and so good at their jobs. I would say [managers] need to break out of 9-5 mentality and think creatively about how to use the talent around you.
What resources would you recommend for other women looking to pursue their own businesses?
Find your people. We are not in it alone and you need to find others who are like you out there in a community like CafeMom. I’ve met a lot of amazing women through blogging and hearing their stories and how they approach similar organizational challenges helps. Everything is easier when you have someone else to say yes, this is really hard. Sometimes, that is all you need to keep going, to know others have done it and succeeded and you can do it too.
[Image: Flickr user Alpha du Centaure]