The mompreneurial spirit

Mo Lynch Vashel of Diablo Doggies.

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Tess Vigeland: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act won Senate approval on Thursday and could soon be signed by President Obama. The bill reverses a recent Supreme Court ruling that said workers have to file claims for pay discrimination within 180 days of it happening. Women's groups fought for the legislation as part of a broader effort to close the wage gap.

Meantime, more and more women are starting their own businesses. Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman reports from the Entrepreneurship Desk at Oregon Public Broadcasting on so-called "mompreneurs."


Mitchell Hartman: If there's a typical mompreneur out there, Mo Lynch Vashel probably fits the bill. She has two children at home and a $700 preschool bill to pay, not to mention ballet lessons. As the economy tanked over the last year, anxiety was rising.

Mo Lynch Vashel: Like everyone, things started to get a little tight around our home and we were hitting the equity line every month just to pay our basic bills. So we weren't saving for taxes, things were getting quite stressful and I could see the stress on my husband's face and I wanted to fix it.

Before the kids and the nice house in a suburb east of Oakland, California, came along, Vashel trained guide dogs for the blind. She figured she could turn her skill to profit. Meet Scooter and Bailey, two of her current clients.

Vashel: With Scooter and Bailey, adventure walking, baths, and maybe some eventual training for collar response and just for ease of walking for the owners. It makes it more fun for everyone to get the dogs out.

Several months ago, Vashel founded Diablo Doggies. She runs the business out of her garage, offering obedience courses, canine spa treatments, dog-walking and watching. She says she's making money -- around $1,200 a month. Not huge, but a big help paying the bills right now.

Vashel: It's taking control of what's going on in your own family and your own destiny rather than just waiting to see if this economy's going to turn around. Are you going to get the bonus off your husband's company and, you know, worrying that your husband may be let go. It's getting in there and hedging the bet that if something did happen, well great, I've already got this up and running.

As editor of Entrepreneur magazine, Rieva Lesonsky has tracked a generation of so-called "mompreneurs" taking charge of their destinies. She now blogs for MSN Office Live.

Rieva Lesonsky: It's not so much that "you can have it all" kind of concept that they tried to throw on women in the '90s. It's "you can have it all when you want it." So, you want to have a kid, most people need two incomes today. And technology today has enabled you to literally sit in your kitchen or a spare room or wherever you want and run a business, so why not do it?

Lesonsky says the most successful of these ventures launch out of the "maternal consumer" experience -- whether it's in personal organizers or fashion accessories or diapers -- and market to the child-bearing female demographic. She says starting a business at home is perfect for mothers who want to take care of their kids and make money. But she does have a bone to pick with the "mompreneur" label.

Lesonsky: You take the word "entrepreneur." It conjures up someone who is aggressive and ambitious and really wants to grow their business. And then you preface it with "mom" and it makes it sound like you want to just sort of sit in your kitchen and do something part time.

For one thing, says Lesonsky, startups are time-consuming, and, when done right, all-consuming. Which is a good description of Kimberly Graham-Nye's business. She found a flushable and compostable diaper when she had her first child. Six years later, she's licensed the technology and taken it global. gDiapers are now found in more than a thousand stores. The company's got a staff of 20. And it even provides free day care to employees. Graham-Nye has the branding statement down.

Kimberly Graham-Nye: gDiaper is really the new earth-friendly hybrid. It's the third choice in diapers. It's not a cloth, it's not a disposable; it's a totally new way to think about diapers.

Google "biodegradable diapers" and you'll find an intense debate about just how "green" they are. gDiaper has jumped on the buzz in the blogosphere, with thousands of evangelical customers who post regularly to parenting web sites. Graham-Nye says women-oriented online social networks are crucial for building market share.

Graham-Nye: Mothers talk and mothers really believe in the power of a recommendation from another parent. Even if I don't know you well enough, if you're putting your stamp of approval on it, whether it be a baby carrier or a diaper or a nanny, whatever it might be, I'll trust you.

Back at her home/doggy-spa in the Bay Area, Mo Lynch Vashel is using many of these "mompreneurial" marketing strategies. With Diablo Doggies, she's targeting new moms who are neglecting their canine kids in favor of their new human ones. She has this advice for women in her situation:

Vashel: If you're in an industry and you have some background, but are in an industry that might be dying, that you've got to look ahead to see what's going to be the next thing, getting off the sinking ship before you get the pink slip.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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