The Mom Underground

There's a secret sisterhood for work-at-homes -- an informal network of women that provides contacts, jobs, and income. Put out some feelers and you'll soon find it

By Jill Hamburg Coplan

In the year I've been writing this column, dozens of mothers have written to ask how they can build a business out of the home. Certainly, there are hundreds of books and Web sites dedicated to showing would-be mompreneurs the way, and I've mentioned a few of the best. In several columns, I've considered:

-- taking a hard look at the "virtual assistant" trend ("The Catch in Being a Virtual Assistant," 11/22,00) -- explaining how a graphic-design collective shares work and child-care ("It Takes a Collective...", 10/18/00) -- blowing the whistle on cyber-scam artists who prey on moms desperate to work from home ("Help for Moms Who Want to Work at Home," 8/23/00) -- weighing the pros and cons of starting up online vs. offline ("Plugging Work-at-Home Entrepreneurs into the Web", Sept. 13, 2000), -- and options for a single mother with a disabled child, ("Working from Home: A Single Mom Starts from Scratch" 4/12/00)

Here's yet another tip for those who want to work at home: There's a secret Mom Underground more pervasive than most of us could ever imagine. It's women putting one another to work -- and there's probably a branch operating somewhere near you.

I discovered it during my maternity leave in 1999. I was dreaming of quitting my job and working from home, so I called an acquaintance, Carol Dannhauser, a Connecticut writer and documentary filmmaker who had taken the plunge -- with great success -- a decade earlier. She now employs work-at-home moms as research assistants.


  She was encouraging, but I didn't really "get" the underground until the phone rang a few hours later. It was one of Dannhauser's contacts, Barbara Chintz, an editorial director with Silver Lining Books. Working mostly from her home an hour north of New York City, she was expanding her team of editors for a book series. There was part-time space available in a lower Manhattan office, but she thought it would be easier done from home. It turned out her secret was to contract out the work that publishing requires (writing, design, production) almost exclusively to home-based moms. They would fit the work in at odd hours, communicating and shipping pages via e-mail attachments. A few software purchases, and I was in business. "A lot of moms who are at home once worked in high-powered careers, and their talent and drive is still there," explains Chintz. "They're very vigilant and dedicated and extremely reliable. They know their commitments, and they honor them. Maybe it has something to do with being a mother -- you have to be organized, and you often have to be creative about it."

One year and hundreds of playground conversations later, I've learned that the underground reaches into many fields. Moms who've worked in the nonprofit/public sector (city government, social-service agencies, philanthropies) tell me they find (and pass along) grant-writing, speech-writing and publicity work as readily as gossip on favored preschools.

But it's not only for parents selling services. The underground worked for Cynthia Ryan, a jewelry designer and former architect who found loyal customers and great referrals. Ryan used to produce her architecturally influenced gold and silver collections using casters in Providence, R.I. She sold it at trade shows and through reps in showrooms in San Francisco and New York. Nordstrom's carried her line, and she had been featured prominently in the trade press. But after a rough pregnancy, she called it quits -- until this holiday season.


  "I was ready, and she was ready," Ryan says of her toddler, Eve, now nearly 2 years old. She decided to sell a basement full of inventory. She sent postcards to the playground regulars, and she set up a booth at the local elementary school's holiday crafts fair. That earned her a neighborhood following. Then there were successful home parties for moms where she sold out her stock and generated more orders than she ever imagined.

"It was a tough decision to pull out of the showrooms," Ryan says, "but it's really exciting with the network of moms. It's a new group of people, a real community." Now she has persuaded her manufacturers to produce smaller volumes at good prices, putting her officially back in business -- though on a miniature scale. She's at her jeweler's bench designing new pieces with softer edges (less likely to scratch babies). And the Mom Underground has put her in touch with neighborhood stores, which appear likely to carry her next collection.

You might try to find your own friendly virtual community at www.MothersandMore, formerly F.E.M.A.L.E., an acronym for Formerly Employed Mothers at the Leading Edge. This 14-year old advocacy group is devoted to helping mothers mix work and family in creative, profitable ways.

Jill Hamburg Coplan has covered work, family, business, and finance for the past decade as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. She left Working Woman magazine, where she was senior editor, when her first child was born and now works solo from a home office in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can e-mail her at Jill Hamburg Coplan

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