Back to articles list

December 17, 2006

The mumtrepreneurs

A new breed of stay-at-home mothers is finding clever ways to bring home the bacon and bring up baby. Julia Llewellyn Smith reports

At a children's ballet class in Edgware, north London, Renuka Patel is trying to persuade her daughter Monica, three, to join the group. 'Don't want to do ballet,' she sobs. 'Please, darling, please,' begs Renuka, as her mobile starts to ring again. 'I need those 45 minutes you're in the class. I have to make six phone calls.'

Finally persuaded, Monica runs off. While the other mums gossip over coffee, Renuka is standing outside, shivering, on her mobile. 'Hi, I'm returning your call. Would you like to make a booking? That's great, could you just give me some details…' Renuka, 35, is a typical 'mumtrepreneur', one of an increasing number of women who, despairing of the logistics of combining an office job with bringing up children, have decided to go it alone and set up their own business. Formerly a City analyst, when pregnant she was made redundant.

'I felt like my life had ended. I'd planned to have six months' off then go back and carry on until it was time to retire.' Yet, at home with Monica, Renuka began to reassess. 'I needed to work for the money, but when I weighed nursery fees against wages I saw I'd be left with hardly anything, so what was the point?' A passionate cook who 'virtually grew up' in her Asian-Ugandan mother's kitchen, Renuka realised she could make money teaching people how to 'cook a real curry'.

She placed an advert on a community website and 'within a week I had a response and thought, "Oh, shit!"' Today her business, Ren's Kitchen (renskitchen.com), has an annual turnover of about £40,000. From her own kitchen Renuka runs between seven and 14 classes a week and employs two other teachers and an assistant. 'When Monica was tiny I left her with a child minder when I needed to. Now I can pick her up from nursery every day.'

In a recent survey of new or expectant mothers by the insurance company Axa, more than a third had either set up a firm from home or hoped to do so. Those that had were earning up to £32,988 a year from ventures including hairdressing and childcare. Another 21 per cent said they were actively considering either retraining or using existing skills in areas such as crafts, massage or yoga to earn a living.

According to Glenda Stone, the chief executive of Aurora - a women's networking organisation that has seen its mumtrepreneur members double to 12,000 in the past five years - the boom has been made possible largely by the internet. 'It's easier to start up now,' she says. 'Broadband costs have come down and there's less stigma attached to not being on the high street or in the City.'

So fashionable has mumtrepreneurism become that owning one's own business is as much a part of the yummy-mummy checklist as a Boden account and a Bugaboo Chameleon buggy. Recently Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece, a mother of four, opened a central London childrenswear boutique, with skirts starting at £45 and dresses at £77. And when Sadie Frost and her friend Jemima French - who have four children apiece - set up their label FrostFrench, with knickers costing £60 and bras £90, they cited fashion as the 'perfect thing for the mum at home'.

As a result new mums, already under pressure to return to size eight a fortnight after giving birth, keep on top of the latest Booker shortlist and cook endless organic purées, now somehow have to fit in becoming a tycoon. 'It can be daunting when people keep saying, "Oh so-and-so has all these kids and is a multi-millionaire,"' says Renuka. 'You have to pace yourself, and not run before you can walk.'

But most mumtrepreneur businesses are not so much trendy hobbies as vital lifelines for women with mortgages to pay. 'It's all very well for the Government to say all women have the right to flexible hours when those women work in a call centre,' says Amanda Alexander, who abandoned a career as an IT project manager when her son was born and now runs a consultancy called Coaching Mums (coachingmums.com), which helps fellow mothers set up in business alone. 'But if you want to aspire to something more, or are already in a profession, that open-mindedness doesn't quite happen.'

Nickey Thrussell, 37, was a film and commercials producer who travelled all over the world, until the birth of her first child, Freddie, five years ago. 'I ended up taking a year's maternity leave because six months didn't seem enough. When I did return I'd find myself having to go to New Zealand for three weeks for a shoot. For the first couple of days I'd think, "This is great, I'm sleeping in, I'm getting room service," but by day five I really wanted to go home.'

She negotiated a three-day week, working 10am to 5pm. 'But it was still wrenching. Even women in the film industry are just hideously unsympathetic to mothers. It was all, "Oh, could you just speak to this person in LA at midnight."'

By the time her second child, Tatum, was born in 2004 Nickey decided it was time for a change. Having struggled to find fashionable, comfortable clothes to wear to work during pregnancy, she saw an opportunity. A shop premises became available in Primrose Hill, north London, and Nickey remortgaged a property she owned to obtain the lease. In September 2005 she opened Elias & Grace (eliasandgrace.com), a boutique stocking stylish maternity wear and children's clothes.

'It was quite a challenge at first because I didn't know anything about retail,' she says. But a year on, the shop is thriving, with customers such as Gwen Stefani giving it a high profile. Nickey has words of warning, however, for other mothers tempted by such a seemingly glamorous career. 'It's bloody hard work. In the early days I would put the children to bed then work from eight until midnight, probably to the detriment of my relationship with my partner. The difference is that you make your own schedule. Now I can finish at five and do bedtime with the kids.'

Amanda Alexander says that the perception that having your own business provides a perfect work-life balance is a myth. 'Most of the women I coach find they are working harder than ever.' It's also a fantasy that you can run a business while your children play around you. 'Your work needs time and attention and so do children and babies. With a very few exceptions you still need to organise and pay for childcare.'

Nickey employs a full-time nanny to care for Tatum, while Freddie is at school. 'I can't take a call saying, "Gillian Anderson wants stuff to wear for a premiere tomorrow," with children screaming in the background.'

What both Renuka and Nickey love most about their new careers, however, is the chance to reclaim their 'old' working selves. 'Work is the best thing for me,' Nickey says. 'If I looked after the kids full-time they'd watch a lot more television and get shouted at a lot more.'

Nicky Hemming, 38, started selling children's cushions and hair accessories through her business nickynackynoo.com, precisely to gain a separate identity from that of full-time mother to her sons Tom, six, and Charlie, three. 'I had one of those awful experiences at a dinner party when the man next to me said, "What do you do?" and when I told him I looked after my children he totally blanked me.'

A former communications officer for a development organisation, Nicky was happy to hand in her notice after she became a mother. 'But being at home was much harder than I expected. I was brought up to believe women can have everything, and suddenly I seemed to be one of those women who existed solely through their children and husband.'

Then she made a cushion for a friend of Tom's, and was inundated with requests for more. She began selling them at local fêtes, then set up a website. 'It's a real cottage industry - last year I made about £600. But it's wonderful to feel like I'm contributing again. I think it's important for the boys to realise that looking after them is not my sole aim. And probably all those hours of blanket-stitch while listening to Radio 4 make me a better wife and mother because I don't resent it so much.'

Julia Llewellyn Smith

Click here to read the full article on www.telegraph.co.uk