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Working Moms Tear Down Office Walls

Laine Caspi, CEO of Parents of Invention, begins her morning at 6:30 a.m., when she reads e-mail. Then she gets her 7-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter ready for school. Both kids are out the door by 9 a.m., and then Caspi puts in an additional three hours of company time.

Caspi picks up the kids between noon and 3 p.m. and spends the rest of the day juggling cell-phone calls and mothering chores like helping the children with homework and chauffeur duty to tae kwon do. She's usually still answering e-mail after the kids go to bed.

"I have a full day," says the founder of the $1.5 million business that sells children's products invented by parents. Her clients are national chains Babies 'R' Us, Bye Bye Baby, and the Right Start.

NEW REALITY. This is the world of the working mother today, where "work-life balance" has evolved to mean something drastically different from what it did just five years ago. Increasingly, work and life are barely separate -- they're fluid. One flows into the other as growing legions of mothers who are entrepreneurs, or "mompreneurs," work to tear down barriers and redefine the workplace.

"It's totally acceptable to design your own workday and be as nontraditional as possible," says Victoria Colligan, founder of Ladies Who Launch, a women's networking organization with 11 U.S. locations that offers workshops for its 25,000 entrepreneur members, 40% of whom are mothers. Colligan worked as a lawyer and an investment banker in New York City before deciding to quit and start her outfit from her home. She did a 30-minute phone interview with BusinessWeek Online while her two young children napped.

The number of women in the U.S. workforce has doubled since 1970. But until the past few years, the vast majority who worked had little choice but to leave their children at day-care centers or with caregivers and join the 9-to-5 compartmentalized workplace. However, according to Michael Silverstein, director of Boston Consulting, women also continued to juggle many roles at all hours and still handle 75% of the housework -- whether putting dinner on the table for the family, driving kids to school, doing homework, or grocery shopping.

STRIKING OUT. Technological advances -- chief among them, the Internet and cell phones -- have helped alter that dynamic. Another factor is changing attitudes, especially among Generation Xers in their late 20s and 30s. As they launch their careers and prepare to have children, they're demanding -- and often getting -- radically different work arrangements from those their mothers did.

"Generation Xers are willing to take a stand and are more interested in flexibility and making it work for their families, rather than the security of having a job like their predecessors," says Susan Seitel, president of Work & Family Connection, a human resources consulting group. Seitel says this generation, having felt the impact of mass layoffs in the 1980s and 1990s at places like IBM (IBM) or General Electric (GE), has adopted corporate loyalty that's more situational than staunch.

Working mothers who can't get employers to offer flexible working arrangements are striking out on their own. "Women are starting businesses at twice the rate of all businesses," says Sharon G. Hadary, executive director of the Center for Women's Business Research, a Washington (D.C.) nonprofit. The center also found that from 1997 to 2004, employment at female-owned companies grew by 24.2%, more than twice the rate of the 11.6% logged by all businesses, and the pace of revenue increase was also higher -- 39% vs. 33.5%.

FLEXIBLE OPTIONS. "Women no longer want to be defined by the rules of the outside world," says Ellen Parlapiano, co-author of two books on mompreneurs who also takes credit for coining the term. Her Web site provides a forum for entrepreneurs to get advice and is a resource for books and business strategies.

Reshaped workdays aren't just the preserve of women who have started their own businesses. With the jobless rate below 5.5%, competition for skilled employees is forcing many companies to offer working mothers arrangements unheard of a decade ago. At management consulting firm Bain & Co., employees are allowed to choose flexible options that fit their working style. Sometimes, that means shifting schedules according to the needs of the family.

Case in point is Heidi Locke Simon, a partner in Bain & Co.'s San Francisco office, who shuttled between part-time and full-time work and even carted her baby and nanny along with her the first two years when she had to travel for work. When her daughter turned 4, she worked part-time. "I wanted to spend my Fridays going to museums and answering all her questions as her curiosity awakened," says Simon.

MESHED WORLDS. Now that her daughter is 5 and in kindergarten, Simon is back full-time. However, her workday is a mosaic of work-home tasks -- starting at times with a 6 a.m. conference call from Europe, followed by breakfast with her daughter, whom she then drops off at school. Simon dashes into the office for work, gets back to pick up her daughter from school and spend an hour with her, before working again. The consultant is back home in the evening to read stories to her daughter and tuck her into bed. Then she spends another hour or two online, answering e-mail and writing memos.

She also devotes a substantial amount of time as a board member at a nonprofit called the Marin Cancer Project and trains for and competes in equestrian events. Her life, she admits, may sound frenzied and unfocused to an outsider, but this is the work zone that suits her best today, she has found. "I can shift and work, and I don't need to compartmentalize. That way I'm leading a more fulfilled life," says Simon.

Some don't have the need to separate work from life at all. Natalia Rose, a 29-year-old mother of two and clinical nutritionist, runs a personalized raw-food diet program from her home in New York City and sees four clients a day. Her sessions with clients include visiting the health-food store, assessing diets, and offering cooking classes.

Sometimes her children walk in while she's in the middle of a cooking session with her clients, and Rose says it's hardly disruptive. "I am unafraid of meshing the two worlds," says Rose, who's getting ready to launch her first book, The Raw Food Detox Diet, on May 10.

HIGHER PRODUCTIVITY. Not all mompreneurs feel comfortable working from home, however. Holly Bohn, for one, is a 31-year-old mother of two and founder and CEO of two separate businesses: See Jane Work, an office-supplies company, and Bohn & Associates, an accounting and office-systems outfit. When Bohn started the accounting firm in 2001, she found it disruptive to work with her two boisterous boys, now 8 and 6. So she moved to an office a five-minute drive from home in Newbury Park, Calif.

"I like the ability to choose that I will pick up my kids twice a week from school, and I can't imagine missing certain aspects of my kids' life. But I make my choices, and that makes me and my kids happy," says Bohn.

No matter what their work preferences, working mothers today are creatively interweaving their work and personal lives like never before. Companies may still be adjusting to the seeming lack of control, but they're likely getting more productivity from such deals than from traditional working arrangements, workplace experts say.

Mompreneurs are a huge force in this evolution. With their sheer numbers, they're running businesses on eBay and firing up the economy. Along the way, they're radically changing the way America works. By Pallavi Gogoi in New York

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