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On her own terms

Office politics. Glass ceiling. Layers of management and indecision. Pick a feature of corporate America, and you'll find a woman who's left it behind to start her own venture. Certainly, there are known tangible and intangible benefits of running your own company. The opportunity to increase wealth, capitalize on an idea, work on your own terms, and enjoy less rigidity in terms of lifestyle are just a few. But when it comes to women, are corporate expats-turned-entrepreneurs repelled by their experiences in big business or simply drawn to launching their own enterprises?

I spoke to Amy Meade, a Harvard MBA who left a successful marketing career working at companies such as Frito-Lay, Ciba-Geigy (now Novartis), and Mother's Work (now Destination Maternity). After prolonged frustration negotiating old-school and sometimes sexist work environments, and trying to please management agendas that she didn't always agree with, Meade left to become business owner of Teknika Design Group. Said Meade: "In corporate America, the culture used to drive me nuts. You never had the information you needed. You were constantly expected to give the company party line. People would play games like leaving their coats on the door to signal that they were working late even when they weren't."

Corporate culture is a critical, if not underestimated, factor in pushing women out. According to a Catalyst survey entitled, "Women Entrepreneurs: Why Companies Lose Female Talent and What They Can Do About It," the top four reasons women left the private sector are: lack of flexibility (51 percent); glass ceiling issues (29 percent); unhappiness with work environment (28 percent); and feeling unchallenged in their jobs (22 percent).

Recognition is also vital for women. Julie Gilbert, former Senior VP at Best Buy, and founder and CEO of WOLF Means Business, noted that "women grow tired of over-working in the corporate world without the same rewards they see their male peers getting. Women are willing to take the risk, garner the rewards, and be in charge of their destiny by starting their own businesses."
The maternal wall, or "mommy track," is another critical issue associated with working for big business. Meade described her experience as a working mother: "In my corporate jobs, I worked 12 to 15 hours a day, traveled a lot, and missed a lot of my son's activities. I was told it was okay to bring your child in to work if you needed to, but it really wasn't okay." Such common requirements of a caregiver, and the fact that being labeled "mom" can hurt your career advancement, earning potential and hirability, can make working on your own terms especially appealing.

So what's the reality when a woman does break off on her own? Integrating work and personal areas of your life does not suddenly become easy. "Work/life is as intense as an entrepreneur as it is working as an executive in a large corporation," Gilbert said. "However, as an entrepreneur, you have the ability to flex to ensure you accomplish your work goals while having a successful personal life simultaneously." While the demands on an entrepreneur are numerous and often unrelenting, you have the ultimate say in how your hours are spent.

When I spoke to Mei Xu, founder and CEO of Chesapeake Bay Candle, Blissliving Home, she emphasized that women must have the right entrepreneurial mindset. "Mentally, you must be prepared to fail, and yet entrepreneurs are far more focused on success than failure," she said. "The way I see it, an entrepreneur falls 10 times for every four times a corporate leader falls. I don't look back or count the times I have fallen; I try to focus on success and on what is ahead."

While corporate America continues to structure itself largely in terms of rules and restrictions, entrepreneurship remains an alternative for the corporate refugee. Many women who were top performers in the corporate world found that entrepreneurship brought out qualities in them they didn't know they had. "Entrepreneurs are a special species," Xu said. "We have an overly optimistic attitude, which you really need in order to thrive. Our optimism is not about blind faith; it is about overcoming obstacles."

By Selena Rezvani

 |  June 10, 2010; 10:54 AM ET
Category:  Corporate leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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I don't see that many of the descriptions above such as, "lack of flexibility unhappiness with work environment, parenting challenges (outside of infancy) and feeling unchallenged in their jobs" having anything to do with gender. I feel this is a tired discussion. Many couples are dual income and both sexes deal with these issues on nearly a level playing field. Maybe it is generational but I look forward to the days when women are not portrayed as "victimized" by the corporate environment.

Posted by: gcrydes | June 11, 2010 2:00 PM
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Hard to reconcile how someone who is "underpaid" can accumulate a fortune.

Posted by: WMRG70 | June 11, 2010 9:44 AM
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while it is ludicris to say there are never discriminations or obstacles to women in the work place, as a life long member of the work force I can tell you you can call one job the same as another but if you aren't willing to do that job and not repetiviely be out for this reason or another you are not going to gain the same advancement as those who are more available, more reliable and work more hours than those who do not. I would wager the success garnered by the examples in this article worked their hindquarters off and had an innovative approach to doing their jobs. Stop looking for excuses and look in the mirror if you think you've hit a wall or glass ceiling.

Posted by: theduck6 | June 11, 2010 9:20 AM
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Thanks for the enlightening, inspiring read.

Posted by: Sky1 | June 11, 2010 9:19 AM
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