Have you heard of a pet project described as one’s baby? Moms do whatever it takes to get the job done — nowhere is this more evident than in the case of women-led businesses. Motherhood comes with its challenges, as does the role of an entrepreneur. Being a mother is a 24/7 job; add to it the demands of a startup – ensure its smooth functioning and give constant attention, time, and effort.
“Balancing family life and work for my startup is something I constantly struggle with,” says Sarah Toukan, co-founder and chief product officer at Ziina, a UAE-based peer-to-peer payment app.
“It’s not easy,” says Khawla Hammad, founder of Takalam, a UAE-based online counseling platform for mental well-being. “Being an entrepreneur requires full dedication day and night — let alone being a mom, which is also a full-time job.”
That’s life for several women entrepreneurs who find themselves in the most hectic lifestyles. There’s no switching off in the life of a startup or a newborn. “As long as you are willing to put in the effort while knowing your limits, you can balance,” says Nadine Mezher, co-founder and CMO of Sarwa.
Family and work cannot be mutually exclusive, and perhaps that’s life in a nutshell. “Work and personal life are part of us, and I cannot see clear boundaries between them,” says Mayy Abdelbary Mahdy, CEO of Hekouky, an Egypt-based online legal technology company.
Mothers can’t switch off at a given point. So the roles must exist in tandem. “Both take a huge part of my life, so I can’t separate work from family,” says Dina Abdul Majeed, founder and CEO of 360 Moms, the Arab region’s only online parenting platform.
While this could easily be a feel-good story about how women can do-it-all, it is not. To understand what challenges women entrepreneurs face and how they deal with the demands of being a mom and entrepreneur, they tell us how it’s done.
BALANCING EQUATIONS AND EXPECTATIONS
If we look at the history of balance, one woman figure stands out. Lady Justice with balancing scales representing law, order, and justice. When the scales are unbalanced, there is havoc. Applying that to an entrepreneur doubling up as a mom, does balancing the weight of expectations look as utopian as Lady Justice’s scales?
“It is challenging,” says Dina, “but my number one rule is that I blend both worlds.”
Being a single mom and an entrepreneur is challenging because both roles need dedication, says Mayy, and taking care of details while there is no one to help. “To balance expectations, I set priorities based on the circumstances and am flexible to change them once needed.”
KEYS TO BALANCING ROLES
Why is balance such an important topic, and how do women entrepreneurs handle the expectations of both worlds?
Dina explains that when her children were small, she never shied away from taking them to the office and having them accompany her to meetings. She recommends making children active participants in work rather than passive players. “I always explain to them what my work is and why I do it. Including big deals I’m working on, the impact I want to achieve, and reasons for my work travel. Which makes them feel involved instead of rejected.”
Successful balancing is a job in itself. Sarah ascribes to a combination of tactics she uses from time to time. The first she says is “ruthless prioritization.”
“For anything important that can’t be done by someone else, I do. Otherwise, I delegate, defer, or delete. For the latter, I accept that some areas of my life will fall by the wayside for a few years while things are really busy, and I’m ok with that. As time goes by, I have a better understanding of what’s important to me, my family, and my startup, and what can be deprioritized.”
After mastering the art of prioritization, a framework must be set to ensure maximum productivity and mind space in handling the two worlds of work and life. Sarah explains how she manages her time: “I like to use frameworks that help me maximize my productivity at work and help me build and maintain strong relationships with my spouse and children. I like the Getting Things Done methodology pioneered by David Allen and use a task management app called OmniFocus, where I put this methodology into practice.”
Balance is a hot work-life topic, not just in the realm of motherhood. It’s easier said than done after the pandemic, where millions encountered the work spillover into personal spaces. So if you wonder where to begin, Nadine recommends a few practical steps.
“First step is knowing what balance looks like,” she says. “It is different for everyone. Generally, work and home life must be balanced. As someone who is a business owner, you develop your framework.”
It’s about being extra diligent in time management, structuring time in your day for the right tasks – and putting everything into a schedule when it’s a working day.
“It is also setting priorities and having small daily goals to achieve and tick off the list,” Nadine adds.
Remember that even with the best set of time management tools and prioritization, life can have curve balls. “To balance expectations, I set priorities based on the circumstances and am flexible to change them once needed,” says Mayy.
DEALING WITH STRESS AND ANXIETY
Even the best set calendars and time management tools cannot prepare a leader for the unseen challenges. The life of a mompreneur is signed up to uncertainties. The get-go can get daunting sometimes with pressure to deliver deadlines, meet targets and make the most of each moment.
As a founder and mom, there is a “constant battle against time,” says Sarah, adding that many women aim to give their all to both roles, which comes with tremendous pressure to perform and eventually leads to fatigue.
To combat this fatigue, Sarah uses the weekend to unwind and recharge – whether it’s spending time in activities as simple as writing down thoughts and emotions, relaxing on the couch and spacing out, or visiting the local coffee shop with her daughters to re-energize. “Reflecting makes me recognize what I’ve achieved and reminds me not to be so ruthless with my expectations of myself. Meditation also helps tremendously.”
The hardest part of raising a child is when they’re infants, explains Dina. “When I started my company, my youngest son was six months old, which was not easy, but I also worked from home, so I created my schedule and committed to it.”
It gets a little easier when they grow up, “but it also comes with new challenges like balancing their activities and homework with my work. My balance comes from working from the office while they are at school and then from home the rest of the day. I also work at night after they sleep,” Dina says. “I believe quality time with the family is very important; I try my best to be completely present when I’m spending time with them and listen with all my senses.
Timing clashes between school and being at work is another hassle. Mayy says, “Attending meetings at late hours while the school closes its doors at 3 PM was a nightmare. First, when my daughter was young, I used to bring her to meetings and events with me or leave her with my mother. After that, when she was six, she attended an after-school child daycare center where she played and developed her skills. After turning 10, she asked me to stay home alone,” she adds.
With immense demands, the job comes with great rewards. Though it can be physically and emotionally draining, Khawla says, she reminds herself of how blessed she is to be a mom and to work on something that she loves. “That is the example I want to set for my daughter.”
SUPPORT SYSTEM AND MOM-GUILT
It takes a village to raise a child. When balancing both roles, the mompreneurs say it’s essential to surround oneself with a “strong support system.”
“Having a good support system – friends, family, a great co-founder, and a reliable team makes it all easier. Hub71’s leadership has been a bonus and makes a world of difference,” says Khawla.
Even with the best support, time management, and prioritization, can mom-guilt ever be dealt with? “Mom’s guilt is never completely gone. I believe all moms have it in one form or another,” says Nadine.
“Ultimately, it is also about acknowledging that being a mom is hard work; adding a layer of entrepreneurship ups the level. As long as you are willing to put in the effort while knowing your limits, you can balance,” she adds.
As a mom running a business, one may never have answers to every question or time to be present at every milestone. If one can use their time wisely, the best of both worlds is possible. “I use the guilt to make sure that the time I spend with my kids is quality time. No phones, no distractions, we spend time together and bonding,” Sarah says.
LEADING BY EXAMPLE
Momprenuers practice work-life integration and are the best examples of balancing expectations They exemplify and role-model an integrated lifestyle enabling their team to follow their lead.
Mayy explains a good place to start is by encouraging employees to accept there is no distinct boundary between office and work. “We built a friendly culture where it is normal to ask about someone’s health, how they spent the weekend. We have a flexible policy to work from home whenever possible and value personal life.”
At Ziina, Sarah explains she and the co-founders have ensured every teammate on board is an owner and an A-player. “Our teammates are conscientious initiative takers who believe in our mission and are moving mountains to get us to meet our goals. We don’t need to micromanage anyone, and we have minimal HR processes and procedures at Ziina. Each teammate has the flexibility to work from work when needed, come into the office at their chosen hours, and work remotely when needed. We also operate an uncapped vacation policy.”
“This flexibility gives our teammates the affordance to balance work and personal life how they see the best fit,” she adds.
At Sarwa, Nadine says, the culture is “people-centric.” “We try to ensure everyone has a balanced approach to work. We are also a very diverse team, with each team member bringing a different perspective, knowledge, and background that enriches our company and our brand.”
A key factor to running a successful business is ensuring team members love what they do, have a passion for the mission, and keep driving it with a great sense of ownership, she says. “You ultimately want everyone to be motivated to work hard. This comes by building a great internal culture.”
ADOPTING A PEOPLE-FIRST APPROACH
Leading a business as a mom implies living up to the culture set up in an organization. It’s equally important to encourage employees to embrace their work-life integration. Sarah views work culture as the key to success. “Our teammates don’t need to worry about ego or politics and can focus on collaboration and experimenting,” she says.
Describing the need to encourage employees to have hobbies and celebrate occasions together to bond, Khawla says, “Although we are a startup, we don’t expect our team to work on weekends or after hours unless it is necessary. We appreciate how important weekends are for our people to enjoy.”
“Whether it is a graduation, wedding, or a newborn — it’s important that we celebrate moments that unify us as a family and individuals first before being colleagues,” she adds.
According to Nadine, employees’ well-being impacts productivity, which directly correlates with bottom lines and profitability. Sarwa has bi-weekly check-in on the team, monthly meetings, and virtual events to keep the human touch strong. “We have thank-you channels where individuals are recognized for their sense of ownership and support, encouraging cross-functional projects and collaboration. We truly believe it is important that the team acts as a unit and family to continue making Sarwa a success,” adds Nadine.
For Mayy, making people work while they have inner peace is important. “We’re humans, and it is normal to have things to worry about that may impact one’s productivity.”
Research shows that gender-diverse businesses are 15% likely to outperform financially, proving that women’s leadership roles are important for the company’s success. And so, Dina says, work-life integration is crucial for the business to grow.
“Business is nothing without people. More mothers will contribute to the community if more workplaces foster a people-first approach of flexibility and support. We will have some balance between creativity and leadership in major positions and different sectors.”
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