Mama Shaker: Jessie, Giving Back On Your Terms

Chicago-based event planner Jessie Williams could have succumbed to the school of hard knocks, but instead she pays it forward in all elements of her business and daily life with her daughter.

“I want people to realize that just because you grew up in a certain neighborhood or with a certain financial status doesn’t mean you can’t make something of yourself,” she says.

“I grew up with not a lot,” says Jessie, sharing that she traversed teen pregnancy and adoption at 17 years old. She credits her mother for pushing her to go to school and get a job. Eventually, she married a supportive partner and they started a family of their own.

“I’m super blessed right now,” she says. “I could have potentially not been; I could have been a complete statistic.”

Jessie’s resilience paved the way for her to create a business–on her terms–in response to a toxic boss.

“I woke up one morning and I was like, I can’t do this anymore,” she says. “I’m too old to have to work for somebody like that and like dread going into work, or go in crying, because he asked me if I needed to be home early so I can make my husband dinner.”

Jessie built a purpose-driven event planning business, WE Events Chicago, to help non-profits and individuals incorporate activities that give back while hosting fundraisers, parties and parents night out.

“Everything I do has a charitable component with my event planning,” she says. “This way I can do it my own way doing something I love, which is the creative side, as well as, we have a crafty side to it to like collaboration art and all that kind of stuff.”

In addition to paid client work, Jessie and her lean operation make time to support preferred charities through a pro bono program. This year, that list includes Hello Baby, The Nora Project and Shine Fertility.

“I’m exhausted,” she admits. “I wish that I could shut off after five o’clock. But it has also been fantastic because I have made some amazing connections and it’s also nice to know that I’m doing it on my own and I’m a role model now.”

Jessie tries to make it a fun work environment for her “twenty-something” employees as well as family-friendly enough for parents to bring their kids if childcare falls through.

“If it’s something that we can do and you can still hang out with your kids–we’re prepping a backdrop, whatever–I’m fine with that,” she says.

“I want it to be a better work experience more fun, open, making people feel good, too, because every part has some sort of giving back component.”

Giving Back: How This Mompreneur Makes it Work

Jessie feels the same way about building a business model that works for her, and a workplace that supports the unique needs of her employees, that she does about giving back.

“There’s no one size fits all,” she says. “Some people want to write a check. Some people want to go volunteer at their organization. Some people want to do it at home.”

When we spoke, Jessie rattled off several ways to give back that don’t require a lot of time or money, including picking up trash in your neighborhood, or using sidewalk chalk to write inspiring notes.

She encourages clients to rethink occasions where guests feel compelled to bring a gift as an opportunity to give back, like asking for board books that can be donated to a local shelter.

“It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money and just getting your kids involved early on, makes a huge difference,” she says.

Jessie’s daughter wanted to do something for babies at her birthday party, so she set out to donate 100 boxes of diapers.

“She wrote letters to everybody and she ended up getting 250 packages,” says Jessie. “She saw that impact and it was enormous.”

Even if you’re in a season of parenting puts time or money at a premium, Jessie believes that small gestures like holding the door open, or making an extra batch of cookies for a nursing home, can go a long way.

“A lot of it is just like being kind,” she says. “A smile can make a big difference, and that is a way of giving back.”

Mama Shaker: Marlene, Growing Businesses and Babies at The Inc.

Marlene Mejia Weiss longed for a place where she could talk to other women who were also figuring out their next career move after staying home with young kids.

“While I had an amazing time being at home, and don’t regret that, it has been quite the journey back trying to rebuild what I had before,” she says.

Marlene had previously worked in sports marketing in New York City, where she forged licensing partnerships for Major League Baseball.

When her family was transplanted to Seattle, she tried her hand at consulting for small businesses in the neighborhood, but found herself wanting more.

“Freelancing life is a bit lonely,” she says. “I’m more of a collaborative person.”

Fortuitously, Marlene found parents who were trying to get a non-profit women’s business incubator off the ground. She became a founding board member for The Inc., where she helped shape the mission, goals and even the physical space–which included co-working and part-time preschool.

“I loved that I was helping to solve a problem that I myself faced,” she says. “I know that feeling, of feeling isolated, and not knowing exactly who to connect with, where to go career-wise, or even parenting.”

It Takes a Village

The Inc. attracted mostly part-timers, consultants, students or “anyone who could work remotely and was in charge of their own schedule.”

Plus, Marlene says full-time working parents often showed up when nannies or daycare fell through.

“Which made you realize, gosh, childcare is such a big issue for so many parents, no matter what type of work or schedule,” she says.

When I asked Marlene about the complexities of setting up a preschool from scratch, she pointed out what made it possible.

“The four hour mark is the big differentiator,” she says.

Plus, they applied what Marlene describes as the “IKEA rule,” meaning parents had to stay close if there kids weren’t potty-trained.

“We were set up to have some time for parents to work on their own while still being nearby their children,” she says. “A lot of parents just need those 2-4 hours.”

“Nap time was actually our biggest competitor,” she says.

“By 12:30 or 1:00, you could feel and hear when the energy changes.”

As parents themselves, the founders brought perspectives from a variety of childcare experiences to inform their approach.

“We were focused on making sure the care was quality care,” Marlene says. “So it’s making sure the curriculum was what was needed for the kids, that the teachers were caring, nurturing people and had the right credentials.”

For the parents, it was designed to be much more than a space to pop open their laptop while their kids are cared for.

“We have a lot of small business owners just starting up, like really in the early stages,” says Marlene.

“They have this idea. They’ve incubated it for some time. They needed the confidence and the feedback to try it out, and this was really a safe space for them to do it.”

She says lots of members reached out to the community to do a workshop, or a lecture, or offer different things.

“That was the heart of it all,” she says. “It was really about the parents and what we could do to help them during this time.”

Women Helping Women Succeed

Marlene spent 2.5 years at The Inc., both as a community cultivator and executive director, all the while “trying to do it as a mom, building up yet another thing.”

With everything in good hands, she decided it was time to start thinking about her next chapter.

“My season of life has changed, and my boys are older now, and I felt like I was in a place for a new challenge,” says Marlene.

“I felt like it was in a really good place to kind of go on without me, as it should,” she says. “And it’s a non-profit, so it’s not my thing to own.”

“Just seeing it continue to help parents is really, really satisfying to me.”

Marlene says that while her experiences with The Inc. have served as a springboard for other opportunities, she’s taking time to figure out what those next steps are.

“I’m still trying to stay in touch with members of the community, because I helped to cultivate it,” she says. “I don’t want to lose touch with those relationships.”

In the meantime, she’s volunteering at her boys’ school, where her youngest started kindergarten.

“I was a little nervous for the transition but he did great.”

On the subject of transitions, Marlene and I talked about the blur of life with babies and toddlers, compared to the age of her boys now.

“It’s a little bit of a weird feeling because you come out of this crazy experience and you’re like ‘oh, that was actually really fun.’ They’re not little anymore,” she says. “It just happens and then it’s gone.”

Figuring out what’s next, professionally, has many parallels.

“I just love that creative energy in the beginning,” she says. “Not really knowing where it could go to, and when it does, it’s really awesome to see it blossom like that. Getting people really excited and energetic about it is really great too.”

“I think I just like building stuff,” she says. “I guess the Lego building of my boys really does come from me!”

Marlene encourages other moms to tap into the desire to create that comes with motherhood.

“I think a lot of moms–there’s just this inner voice–you want to do stuff but you just feel like you can’t do it,” she says. “We’re really good at making excuses.”

“It doesn’t have to be this one, big giant, enormous, great thing,” she says. “Just take the little steps because you’ll get there. But you gotta take the little steps.”

Mama Maker: Luba by Hannah Payne

A mere month after the launch of Luba–a clothing brand to honor and support resilient women–Hannah’s own strength was put to the test as she faced a jolting start to motherhood.

“If I wanted to have a baby, it needed to be then,” says Hannah, about the moment she learned she had a severe case of endometriosis.

The self-described “feminine and girly” Parsons graduate had just started a socially conscious, lace-adorned line in contrast to the rugged outdoor brands that surrounded her in Denver, where she had relocated for her husband to attend law school.

Things took a turn for the worse when Hannah found out 20 weeks into her pregnancy that she had a mass on her placenta, called a chorioangioma. As she went digging for stories from women who’d been through it, she kept running into case studies that cited a 50 percent survival rate and risk of heart failure following birth.

“The whole time I was trying to figure out if I was going to keep Luba alive and I decided I needed to continue it,” she says.

“I obviously pulled back a little; but, it helped me keep my mind off of this terrible thing that was happening.”

Her daughter arrived eight weeks early, which introduced its own set of complications, but they all made it through that difficult chapter.

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The rest of Hannah’s story is full of intricate layers and textures, just like the clothing she creates.

The inspiration for the brand comes from its namesake: her tough-as-nails grandmother Luba, who survived a concentration camp but was taken by cancer at just 42 years old.

“I never had the chance to meet her,” says Hannah. “But just from the stories that I’ve heard about her, she was such an inspirational person. And my mom is so strong and so inspirational, and so are my aunts. So I just thought she’s the perfect kind of matriarch for the brand.”

Hannah treasures her heirlooms from Luba–including a leather trench coat with an emblem stitched into its lining that inspired the logo for her brand–as well as from “Glamma,” her dressed-to-the-nines grandmother on her dad’s side.

“I just love the idea of passing something down,” she says, about designing clothing to last a lifetime.

Women Helping Women Succeed

“I know the women that are actually sewing the clothes,” she says. “We’re a brand for women by women. Most of these women are immigrants who came to the United States to get a better life for their family…and so it’s full circle. It’s really cool to see and to know these women.”

With generations of strong women as the inspiration behind Luba, there’s meaning woven into every garment and aspect of Hannah’s business and accompanying foundation.

“Like a woman, she’s beautiful on the inside and the outside,” said Hannah, as she showed me the silk interior of one of her pieces.

“It’s a clean finish and really quality product and it’s beautiful and feminine and really fun fabric. At the same time, you really are doing more because a percentage of every sale is going directly to a shelter.”

When Hannah was taking a social entrepreneurship course in college, she uncovered some jarring statistics about the lack of funding for women’s shelters.

“She said our biggest problem is we turn down women and children every day,” recounts Hannah of her conversation with a director of a women’s shelter at the time. “It’s not just like getting them out, you know, and giving them shelter for two nights. You really have to break the cycle. You have to give them all these opportunities that they don’t normally have.”

The idea to create a foundation that helps women’s shelters overcome their lack of funding came into the forefront again when Hannah was dreaming up Luba.

“When I went to actually write my real business plan, it was the exact same kind of structure and idea and mission statement when I had written it three years prior,” she says.

She experienced the same sense of serendipity while deciding on a name for the foundation. After Googling Luba, Hannah discovered it means “Love” in Russian. And so the Luba LOVE Foundation was born.

Hannah points out that domestic violence can show up in places where you least expect it. She recalled a story where she spoke at a women’s luncheon in Aspen. Afterwards, a well-to-do woman approached her.

“You were just talking about my life,” the woman said. “It took me eight times,” she told Hannah, about finally getting the courage to take her kids and leave an abusive relationship.

How this Mompreneur Makes it Work

Working in the fashion business means Hannah has to spend time on both coasts, despite her land-locked home base. Understandably, she’s spent a lot of time carefully working out childcare arrangements that she feels good about.

“I feel like I have to make my time away from her valuable and important,” she says. “There’s such a thing as mom guilt and I have it all the time; especially when I’m traveling a lot. And so I think to myself, I’m doing this for her.”

“I was just so close to losing her that I’m just so cautious about everybody,” she says, recalling the first time she left her with a new caregiver.

“I remember I drove to the airport and I was terrified something was going to happen,” she says. “I was like this is probably not a good fit if I am that nervous about leaving her.”

“We finally found someone that I love. She is just so sweet and my daughter loves her. And so that’s been really nice to have like a steady person that we really like.”

During the summer, when airports are less germ-ridden, Hannah brings her daughter along to stay with family members in New York or Los Angeles, where all of her clothing is made.

“I would not be where I am today without my support system,” she says.

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“I feel like designing is in my soul, says Hannah. “And so if I stopped, I would really lose a part of myself.”

In the spirit of her grandmother, her daughter and the legacy she wants to leave behind, Hannah has learned to celebrate small victories and take the “really low lows” in stride.

“I would just say, keep going. That’s the biggest thing; never give up. Just keep going.”

How Working Moms Find Inspiration in Hard Times

When the going gets tough, working moms get going. If you’re feeling saddened or discouraged by the wake of the recent hurricanes, wildfires or earthquakes, just read the Twitter feed of mama mogul Bethenny Frankel. You’ll see a woman on a mission, filling up private jets and cargo ships to get supplies straight into the hands of victims.

As of mid-October, Bethenny’s B Strong organization has raised more than $4 million in in-kind donations for Puerto Rico and she’s now reaching out to companies, celebrities and citizens alike to help pool together more than $50 million in donations.

Bethenny’s a lifelong entrepreneur who was driven to create her own success after a difficult upbringing. You can read more about her journey in A Place of Yes: 10 Rules for Getting Everything You Want Out of Life.

Fellow “Celebrity Apprentice” alumna Nely Galan has demonstrated the same boundless determination. Building her own fortune as a Cuban immigrant taught her lessons that perfectly capture the spirit of the mompreneur stories that follow:

I’ve added her book,  Self Made: Becoming Empowered, Self-Reliant, and Rich in Every Way to my reading list, and encourage you to do the same.

From personal struggle to a more flexible business

“I was sitting in ICU with my mother, who I almost lost the night before, and I knew I needed to be available to her when she was well enough to come home,” says Paula, who fits the definition of “Sandwich Generation,” caring for children and aging parents simultaneously.

As a personal concierge by day, Paula came up with the idea to create a service to help save busy professionals time by curating personalized gift boxes for special occasions. She “scratched out a rough business plan, started researching vendors and took the leap” to launch Ceh~Flora Gift Co.

Paula’s typical clients are busy working women, many of whom are moms as well. She’s raising 3- and 5-year-old “little divas” who she hopes to inspire to be “lady bosses of tomorrow.”

“I work while they’re at school. I set an agenda of 3-5 items I need to accomplish,” Paula says. “Whatever doesn’t get done before my oldest gets home moves to the top of the next day’s agenda.”

Gaining perspective and finding your voice

“Last year I was diagnosed with breast cancer, it totally pulled the rug out from under our feet,” says Sarah, a “proud mumpreneur of two.”

“It made me realise that life is precious and it goes way too fast. That nothing is more important than spending time with those we love. It taught me to slow down and made me want to help others do the same,” says Sarah.

“I’d finally found the topic for my blog and so A Simple and Contented Life was born.”

For Sarah, it’s the relationships with her husband, parents and siblings that nurture her.

“My husband is my biggest support,” she says. “He works from home too so we share the workload when it comes to housework and school runs etc. As a family we’re very close, our parents and siblings are an amazing support and we all help one another out whenever we can. I have a great network of mum friends too!”

Sarah has a plan in place to build her blog in a way that doesn’t take away from quality family time:

“My youngest is at school, so I usually work between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m,” she says. “I try to get up at 5:30 a.m. to get an hour of writing in each day before everyone else gets up… but I don’t always manage it! I’ll sometimes work in the evening too. I sit on the sofa with my laptop whilst watching box sets on Netflix with my Hubby.”

“Friday nights and weekends are reserved for family time so there’s no working unless absolutely necessary.”

If these mamas can make lemonade out of lemons, so can the rest of us!

This is the latest post in a series on how working moms are building and leading companies.