“Moms do whatever it takes to get things done. But we live in a constant state of guilt. Balancing it all—it’s tough,” says Pina Romolo, founder of Piccola Cucina, and mother of two.
Pina isn’t alone. The pandemic has exposed the impossible balancing act that society demands of working mothers—and how incompatible our ideals of the “good mother” and the “career woman” are. More than that, it’s shown us how unsustainable the nature of work has been for women with children.
And while the data is clear that the pandemic has driven mothers out of the workforce, what’s less clear is how they will re-enter the workforce when all of this is over. We’re optimistic that the nature of work is changing—and based on new Shopify research, we think that mothers may be seeking a healthier work-life balance through entrepreneurship.
In a survey of 1,532 parents in the U.S., 62 percent of mothers said they were interested in supplementing their income, with more than half of moms reporting at least some interest in starting their own business. And the women who are bearing the brunt of this public-health emergency—mothers of color and single moms—are reporting the highest levels of interest in entrepreneurship.
Could it be that the pandemic has laid bare how broken the system was? Are we witnessing the beginning of a shift in the way working moms participate in the labor force—away from rigid work arrangements and towards a more flexible model? Through research and interviews with women founders, we explore the current attitudes moms hold about entrepreneurship and the future of work.
More than half of women with children are interested in entrepreneurship
Of the mothers surveyed who are not already business owners, 44% said they're either slightly or moderately interested in starting a business, and one in six mothers indicated that they are very interested in starting a business.
📊What our research shows
- 16% of women with children are “very interested” in starting a business.
- 44% of women with children are “slightly/moderately interested” in starting a business.
- 40% of women with children are “not interested” in starting a business.
👀 Why it matters
While these results suggest that most women with children are interested in starting their own business, there are still many moms who find entrepreneurship altogether unappealing.
When talking to several women founders and mothers, we quickly understood why: entrepreneurship has a bad rap. The word “entrepreneur” conjures images of 80-hour weeks and sleepless nights. And while this is certainly a reality for some, it’s also a choice.
“My perception of the business world was very negative. I thought that it was all about making a buck no matter what and constantly hustling. Wolf of Wall Street stuff,” says Patrice Mousseau, founder of Satya. “But it’s not really like that. We’ve all been fed this lie about business.”
But beyond perception, current circumstances also play a prominent role in women’s interest in entrepreneurship. In particular, current employment status and income. Employed moms in the highest income bracket—earning $85K or more—were significantly more likely to cite having "no interest” in starting their own business.
For the moms who have lost their jobs or voluntarily downshifted their careers because of increased domestic responsibilities, the pandemic has been an opportunity to explore alternative ways to work. But for women who have fought to secure high-earning jobs and were lucky enough to keep them during the pandemic, upending their career (and life) to pursue a new venture may seem like an unnecessary risk.
Moms are “leaning out” as they opt for part-time entrepreneurship
Women with children are very interested in supplementing their income—but want to do so on a part-time basis. Men with children, on the other hand, were more likely to report wanting to supplement their income full-time (58%) compared to part-time (42%).
📊 What our research shows
- 62% of women with children are interested in supplementing their income.
- Of the women who are interested in supplementing their income, 70% of them only want to do so on a part-time basis.
👀 Why it matters
Decades of research shows that women do significantly more housework and childcare than men—so much so that working moms are often said to be working a double shift. And while more women have joined the paid labor force, men aren't joining the unpaid labor force at the same rate. "It's all work, but no pay," says Therese.
It's unsurprising then that most mothers are interested in running a business, but only on a part-time basis.
“As mothers, we have so much responsibility on our shoulders. Especially right now. We have to meal-plan, make sure everything is clean, supervise the kids’ virtual learning, and maintain our own jobs or businesses," says Pina. “We need more hours in the day."
Too often, it's the American working mom's reflex to think she's failed if she can’t “do it all”—if she can’t be totally devoted to her family and her work. And though there are practical solutions that would improve moms' work-life conditions—such as more affordable daycare and flexible work policies—there’s also a psychological aspect that needs to be addressed. Through our interviews and research, we’ve found that women feel pressured to “do it all”, but many just want the work-life balance that part-time work offers.
We need to do a better job of normalizing the many women who seek a more balanced approach to their lives, instead of guilting moms and glorifying the professional women whose identity is tied to their career. As a society, it requires removing the stigma around part-time work.
For the women who want to (and can afford to) work part-time, business ownership is particularly appealing. It allows them to prioritize their own obligations—guilt-free. Entrepreneurship is the only work arrangement that doesn't need to be binary: all-in or all-out. In fact, for most independent business owners on Shopify's platform, a part-time commitment is sufficient to run a successful operation.
“I think there’s this idea that if you’re not doing it all the way, you’re not doing it at all,” says Joana Fraser, founder of LittleMore Organics. She launched her business in April of 2020, at the start of the pandemic, and is only selling locally right now. “I can manage it part-time. I’m still seeing patients a few days a week and running my business every other day, so it hasn’t been a sudden transition. You can ease into it.”
Black and Latina moms want control over their livelihoods
No one has suffered more during the pandemic than women of color. The job losses reported by the Labor Bureau in December are a stark illustration of these trends: Black, Latina, and Asian women accounted for all of women’s job losses that month, with 154,000 Black women dropping out of the labor force entirely.
Not only are women of color more likely to be working in lower-paying jobs with no benefits or paid leave, they’re also doing more at home, too. Latina mothers are 1.6 times more likely to be responsible for all childcare and housework, and Black mothers are twice as likely to be handling all of caregiving responsibilities for their families.
And yet, our study found that Black and Latina mothers were 2x as likely to report wanting to start their own business compared to White and Asian mothers.*
📊 What our research shows
- 33% of Black women with children said they're “very interested” in starting a business.
- 29% of Latina women with children said they're “very interested” in starting a business.
- 13% of Asian women with children said they're “very interested” in starting a business.
- 13% of White women with children said they're “very interested” in starting a business.
👀 Why it matters
Unemployment has been the disproportionate reality for women of color long before the pandemic intensified job losses. “We’ve lost faith in the system and in traditional employment a long time ago—all the pandemic did is remind us that we can't put our future or our children’s well being in anyone else's hands,” says Therese Dozier, founder of LUVSPUN and mother of two. “The pandemic was a breaking point.”
And systemic inequalities don’t just affect the individual—they’re intergenerational. For Therese, providing her children with financial security was the main motivator for starting her business. “I started a business to provide some generational wealth for my children. Leaving something for them was my greatest inspiration,” she says.
For the women of color who experienced layoffs and who have less access to job opportunities, the overwhelming message is that they have no control over their own livelihood. Working for themselves finally puts them in the driver’s seat. “I’m so grateful that I can create opportunity out of nothing,” says Therese.
Black women are already the fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs, growing at a rate of 164% between 2007 and 2018.
Black women are already the fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs, growing at a rate of 164% between 2007 and 2018. And they’re not showing any signs of slowing down. As more women-led households in communities of color pursue economic freedom, we have a chance as a society to close the generational wealth gap, strengthen communities, and create more job opportunities for everyone. At Shopify, we’re working to ensure that women of color have access to the resources they need to make these dreams a reality.
- Build Black: The Future is Now
- Shopify and Operation Hope Join Forces to Help Create One Million Black-Owned Businesses by 2030
Flexibility is currency for moms
Among women who weren’t current business owners, single mothers and mothers with younger children were significantly more likely to show interest in starting their own business.
📊 What our research shows
- 22% of single women with children said they are “very interested” in starting a business, compared to 14% of married women with children.
- Women with younger children (5 years old or younger) are more likely to want to start their own business compared to women with older children.
👀 Why it matters
Patrice isn’t surprised by this at all. “As a single mom, you’re already doing everything on your own. You learn to not rely on anybody else. And you realize how much you’re capable of doing,” says Patrice, who launched her own business when her daughter was only eight months old.
Entrepreneurship’s siren call is the flexibility to make and manage your own schedule. “I’m so grateful that I get to make my own hours. That if my kid gets sick at school, I can pick them up and take care of them. Without getting penalized for it,” says Therese.
Although norms around flexibility are changing in the workplace, there’s often a stigma attached to taking advantage of flexible work arrangements—especially among mothers, who are more likely to suffer negative career consequences for doing so. Wage penalties, worse performance evaluations, or being “mommy-tracked” into lower-level roles are common biases that working moms face everyday. And that’s just for the privileged few women with full-time "office jobs".
For the many women who work in less traditional roles, who don’t have the option to work from home and can’t afford childcare, the question of continued childcare obligations becomes especially unsustainable.
Simply put, running a business from home allows women to earn an income while also taking care of their kids. And in today’s connected world, where technology affords flexibility in how and where we work, almost any business can be a home-based business.
- 13 home business ideas that let you work from home
- How to make money online
- What is dropshipping and how does it work?
The real (and perceived) challenges associated with starting a business
There are some very real barriers to entrepreneurship for moms—not having the time, energy, financial resources, or care infrastructure in place are chief among them. But there are also some perceived barriers that are weighing heavily on mothers’ minds.
We found that women with children were significantly more likely than their men counterparts to cite “not knowing where to start” as a top challenge associated with starting a business.
📊 What our research shows
Top 3 challenges associated with starting a business:
- 55% of women with children cite “finding the money for initial expenses” as a challenge associated with starting a business, compared to 41% of men.
- 45% of women with children cite “not knowing where to start” as a challenge associated with starting a business, compared to 29% of men with children.
- 23% of women with children cite “overall business strategy” as a challenge associated with starting a business, compared to 24% of men.
👀 Why it matters
You’ve probably heard the following statistic: men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. Turns out, this applies to starting a business as well.
Too often, women put pressure on themselves to have everything figured out before they get started. But the truth is, most entrepreneurs end up pivoting their business several times over the course of its lifespan. And while planning is good, necessary even, the future is impossible to predict. The only way to figure out what you want to do is to just try something—and be willing to adapt when necessary.
“We set up these barriers for ourselves because we think things aren’t going to work. I used to tell myself ‘I’m a journalist, not a business woman’. But that doesn't mean anything. We’re all just learning as we go. The business world is constantly being reinvented. There are no rules,” says Patrice.
For moms, getting started is taking a leap of faith—in themselves. And that thought itself can be disquieting for the women who are used to putting everyone else's needs before their own.
“Women have these restrictions that are unspoken. These voices in our head. Men can do whatever they want. They’ve been raised to feel that way. We haven’t,” says Therese. “And we’re already bringing in less money than our male counterparts from our corporate gigs. I get why it seems risky to give up whatever financial security we have to start a business full-time.”
And while these financial concerns are valid—women make less money on average and have a harder time accessing capital than men do—there are some misconceptions around the costs of starting a business. There are many business models, such as print-on-demand and dropshipping, that require little to no upfront investment.
- The 13 best low-investment business ideas
- 14 things to make and sell: the business of DIY
- Top 10 print-on-demand companies and how to pick one
- How to start an online store (and watch us build one)
Finding balance through entrepreneurship
The crisis has exposed how broken the nature of work has been, and the unfair burden its placed on mothers. But for many moms, the pandemic has also been an opportunity to reset the terms of their careers.
For the women who held 9-to-5 jobs, starting a business represents a chance to reach for independence and escape the glass ceiling. And for the millions of moms who work hourly jobs, often without benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave, starting a business is a chance to gain control of their own lives.
Looking forward, our research suggests that mothers will be quicker to choose quality of life when making career decisions—valuing the flexibility, control, and independence that entrepreneurship has to offer. And while starting a business isn’t without its challenges, it offers a promising alternative for moms who are grappling with their return to an unjust workforce.
Perhaps the crisis was the impetus professional mothers needed to redefine the meaning of work; a chance to re-enter the labor force on their own terms. Patrice agrees, adding,“I think more women are finally realizing that business can be a vehicle for change. It can be something you do to not only support yourself but to have positive change in the world and set a good example for your kids. It's a new frontier for women."