Biz

Family is not philanthropy

My son has had a fever for five days straight and is starting to wheeze. Sickness has hit our house.

My son has had a fever for five days straight and is starting to wheeze. I've been coughing for over a month and Kai's hiding it, but he's struggling. Sickness has hit our house.
There are no sick days for working parents, especially small business owners. We're always on.

Earlier this week I had a call with a business counselor who was referred by a good friend. We're also connected on Facebook and have met a few times in person. I was looking for someone who I could bounce ideas off of, and she is supposed to be an "expert." Perfect. A win-win. 

After joining the call, the first question that she asked me was what can I do for you. And I replied that you could start by telling me what it is that you do. She sped through her elevator pitch, making sure to hone in on all of her/her company's accomplishments; We have started xx number of businesses here. Helped business owners grow their businesses there. Collectively generated billions of dollars last year, etc., etc. 

I politely listened as I looked at my sick toddler who was sitting beside me. His eyes were sunken in, and I was really concerned about him. I was also thinking about the deadlines that were approaching and how, because of this call, I would have to get up at 3 a.m. to get them done; The contracts that I had lost that week. The clients who were behind on their invoices. And how the day before my mother, who's insurance expires today, told me that her heart has been skipping beats.  

After taking me through her pitch, she turned the tables on to me. 

She said, "tell me about your business," and I'll tell you what I think. 

"Well," I said. "I own a business strategy agency, which I've had for five years and my husband and I own an organization where we make it easier for working parents to manage their professional and family responsibilities."

"Yes. Your organization is called MORE, right." She jumped in to say. I remember hearing about your retreat last year. It's a great concept, you're touching on an important issue, but I don't see the business model here. 

"Have you seen our website?" I said. 

"No. I haven't." She replied. But you may want to think about your work and life integration idea separately. There's the philanthropy piece, which I know is close to your heart, and then there's the business side which is going to be the tough part. I want you to be successful, but I don't see you making any money off of this idea. 

At that point, I had two options. One, go with my natural instinct and justify our position. Or two, wrap up the conversation because, apparently, she didn't know who she was talking to or what she was talking about. Given the situation, and my sick toddler who was sitting beside me, I chose the latter. 

I could have stayed on the call and walked her through our website, shared my credentials or given her my business plan. But doing so would have been a waste of my time. And I needed to save my energy for my business and my little man. 

My hope is that one day we'll look beyond our computers and see that there are real people in front of us. People who own businesses. Have children. Are dealing with issues. Family isn't a one off thing that we do when we get off our 9-5. Family is who we're working for. Family is, for most of us, our why.

When life meets work.

For ten years... 

I dedicated my life to my work, committing myself to every project, every deadline, every boss and every opportunity that came my way.

I drove initiatives, built products, launched new services and made the companies I worked for lots and lots of money.

Coming from a working class family, putting in hard work was just something you had to do. I viewed it as a right of passage, for moving up a tier, and I took it on as a challenge.

I gave the best of me to my career and to the people I worked with. Anything they threw my way, I ran with. Were there challenges? Of course, but I always had the strength to get past them and the drive to keep going. I was committed. I was loyal. I was young. And, I was also smart.

I knew how things worked, especially in technology. Your value is defined by the last project you complete, not by your past experiences. The challenge, however, is that once that project is finished, there would always be another and then another and then another. To keep going, you had to stay fresh and on your toes. There was no time for breaks. Things had to be done. I remember my husband, Kai-Saun, pulling me aside one day and saying, "Amber you need your rest. You can't keep working like this. You're going to burn out." At that point, I was waking up at 1 a.m. every morning to work and had pulled a couple of all-nighters. I smiled at him and gave him a kiss. I knew he was right, that I couldn't keep this up forever, but I couldn't stop. Not now. I was so close. I was almost there. So, I waited until he fell asleep and then got back on my computer and picked up where I left off.

I remember justifying my actions in my head. "I have to do this." "He doesn't understand; I'm almost there." "I'm the breadwinner of our family." "We need this. I need this." "Don't worry. One day, they'll notice me, and when that happens, I will rest." But that day never came.

In November 2013, after returning home from a business trip just a few weeks before, I went into labor with my son. I was 31 weeks pregnant (9 weeks early) and at work when my water broke. His name is Kayson. His weight was 3lbs, 11 oz. His chance of survival was 50%.

 

Work. work. work. Life.


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For as long as I can remember, I have been focused on where work would take me. However, in reality, everything that I needed and wanted I already had. It's hard in today's society to stop for a moment and think. Put your phone down, and think about what really matters to you. Think about the people in front of you. Think about your family. They don't care about the new product you built, or how amazing your startup is, or how quickly you can get your company to grow. They just want you.

Today is Wednesday. It is the third day of spring and a few weeks after spring break. Most children are back to school and parents back at work. Everyone's settled back into his or her routine. Old projects are closing, and new ones are opening, and it won't be until the next holiday that everyone will be able to "relax" again.

After Kayson was born, my life changed drastically. I contemplated going back to work but decided not to because I knew that I did not have the energy to "keep up". Nor was I willing to make the sacrifices it would take to remain "competitive".

It was hard at first, seeing all of those years of hard work left behind and someone younger, more eager, with more time and more support, take my place, but I try really hard not to own that, because it's a false sense of reality.

Success is not defined by what you will obtain in the future. It is defined by where you are today. And, for me, the only things that matter are the opportunities that allow me to soak up as much time as I can with my Kayson and Kai-Saun.

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Jenny & Me: Behind every business is a person.

Paralyzed.

That is the best way to describe how I felt the moment I started my business.

I had just recently returned home from the hospital with my premature son. I had quit my high-paying job in tech and was doing everything I could not to sink into a deep hole of postpartum depression.

It's not that I didn't know how to overcome challenges. It's that I didn't have the energy. After overcoming so many hurdles—moving across the country for college, surviving a rape, spending ten years working my way up the corporate ladder, navigating through a career in tech as an African American woman, leading tech teams, overseeing global initiatives, showcasing new technologies, building strategies for Fortune 500 companies, making and saving the organizations I worked with millions, and delivering a premature baby—I was spent.

When Jenny Poon met me, I had already started and closed a business, lost some close friends and felt completely debilitated. It took everything out of me to get out of my yoga pants that day, put a smile on my face and drive 30 minutes to her office at CO+HOOTS. EVERYTHING. But I did it.

During our meeting, I presented two ideas to Jenny as my final push to dig myself out of this hole. The first idea was the creation of a product management team. This would be a collaboration of freelancers who would come together to support bigger projects and provide better services. The second idea was the creation of a program that would help people with families. Women, like me, who were navigating through the challenges of taking care of families while working.

After almost losing my son, entrepreneurship for me became a necessity, not a choice, and that made everything more challenging. I felt like I had more at stake, more to lose, and less to give, and if only there was someone or something that I could turn to for help, with no strings attached, I'd be ok. I'd be able to pick myself up and keep going, like I had done so many times before.

Entrepreneurship is the way out for many people. It is their way to freedom and balance. However, getting there takes work. It takes support. Being successful takes a village. You need people who genuinely believe in your success, who are willing to support you through your high and low times, and people who get you out of those yoga pants, send you encouraging text messages at 3 a.m., tell you that they believe in you, and, after being asked to sit on a panel with John McCain, the president of GE and the governor of Arizona, still finds time to swing your two-year-old in their arms and hug him after a tantrum.

Jenny Poon is my unicorn, my guardian angel, and one of my best friends. Because of her support, I am now the owner of Kayson, a strategy company that brings together freelancers to support small businesses, and MORE, a movement focused on helping working parents. Her husband and daughter, and my husband and my son, make up my family, and I am grateful for each and every one of them.