Fashioning a Career: Single Mother Entrepreneur

By Paula Santonocito

Becoming an entrepreneur wasn’t originally part of Mary Beth Stern’s life plan. But 14 years ago, when she divorced, Stern was faced with a new reality. She needed to find full-time work.

Finding a Fit

The typical solution, seek employment with a company, didn’t feel like a fit for Stern. Not only was she a single woman, she was a single mother, with children who were then 2, 5, and 12 years old.

“My children really were my priority. I wanted the ability to pick them up from school, attend events, and, if possible, be home when they came home from school,” Stern says.

While married, Stern had dabbled in marketing and occasionally worked part time. She knew she had skills she could tap into, as well as a strong interest in public relations and advertising.

With her children as inspiration, Stern took the leap and became a public relations, advertising, and special events consultant.

Balancing Work and Family

The rest, as they say, is history. Today, she runs a successful Phoenix-based business, and has an impressive portfolio of retail fashion clients.

Even though Stern says she’s been blessed, she acknowledges that the road to success has sometimes been bumpy. Specifically, juggling work and family hasn’t been without challenges.

She tells of when her youngest son, who was around 6 years old at the time, was home sick from school. She had explained that he had to be very quiet because she would be making business calls. While she was on one of those calls, her son came running into the room screaming, “Diarrhea, diarrhea.”

When it happened, Stern was mortified. “There’s no professionalism at that moment,” she says.

However, over the years she has come to realize this kind of situation is part of the package. “You have to laugh it off,” she says. “Thank goodness society has changed enough so that people are understanding.”

Professional and Personal Rewards

Building a business from the ground up has been very rewarding for Stern. Not only has she seen her business grow, she’s watched as her clients have expanded their operations.

E&J’s Designer Shoe Outlet, which was her first client, had only one store in Phoenix when she first started working with the company. Today, E&J’s has six locations.

From a personal standpoint, the rewards have likewise been worth the effort.

“Given the circumstances, I wouldn’t do anything differently,” Stern says. “Now that my children are older, I see the positive results of what I did.”

Her entrepreneurial advertising career has also had a side benefit. All three of her children, now 16, 19, and 26, have an interest in advertising, which, she says, they picked up through osmosis.

Advice for Would-Be Entrepreneurs

Nevertheless, being a business owner and a single mother hasn’t always been easy.

It takes a tremendous amount of focus to be successful in business, Stern tells SMW. The financial and emotional strain is difficult enough, and when you include raising children it can be overwhelming.

“I don’t think it’s for everyone. You have to be structured and disciplined and flexible and open-minded,” Stern says.

It also helps to have a support system. “I’ve had a lot of support. Friends were amazingly helpful in picking up children,” she says.

Even so, there were issues with which Stern had to contend. One of these was dealing with her children’s reaction to business travel. “They don’t like it when you travel,” Stern says.

Another issue was that her children perceived her as being present physically but not emotionally. If Stern took time off during the day to go to a school play or a baseball game, she would make up the work time at night. “Issues I had with my children were that I was constantly working,” she says.

In some ways, they were right, she admits. Being a business owner requires a different kind of commitment. “You tend to work around the clock,” Stern says.

The long hours presented yet another issue. Although for years she focused on work-life balance as it related to her family, it was extremely difficult for Stern to carve out time for herself. “You almost have to schedule your personal time,” she says.

Realizing she had yet to cross this goal off her list, and recognizing the importance of doing so in the context of health and well being, last year Mary Beth Stern finally got personal—as in a personal trainer. These days, this single-minded woman entrepreneur still has a busy work schedule, but that schedule typically includes morning workouts.

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