Beijing expats who do both
I was interviewing a source for this article when my eldest son barged into my office, clutching his throat and coughing wildly. He’d been sick, and it seemed his cough had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. Unable to hang up the phone, I tossed a can of soda his way, figuring it might calm his cough long enough for me to finish the interview. By the time I emerged from my office 20 minutes later, he was coughing so badly that we had to leave for the hospital.
Here I was, writing an article on how to balance working life with parenting, while my son was writhing around on the floor, gasping for breath. Clearly, there are no easy answers.
Nevertheless, many Beijingers manage to make it work, even starting their own companies while simultaneously raising families. I went in search of one who could tell me how to do it properly.
Karen Patterson is one expat entrepreneur who seems to do it all. In addition to running NU2YU Baby Shop, which she founded in 2005, she also runs a small art consultancy with a friend. On top of that, she’s raising 3-year-old Hannah, along with Hannah’s dad, a Chinese artist. Has she ever run into some emergency where she had to choose between her child and her business? “Luckily, no,” she says, “because as an artist, my husband has the flexibility to help out with Hannah and in the shop if I need him.”
Sarah Peel Li, the owner of Kindermusik with Sarah, is also married to a Chinese national, and because her mother-in-law lives with the family, she knows her daughter Julia would be in good hands during an emergency. She notes: “My husband once had to take Julia to the hospital while I was at work. It was good that he protected me, made sure I could finish my work, but at the same time, it was hard for me to know that I wasn’t there when my daughter needed me.”
Other expats, without the benefit of local relatives, cope because they’ve found reliable ayis. “An ayi is a huge help that I never had back in New Jersey,” says Bita Farid-Mohebati, who runs Rumi Persian Grill alongside her husband. “Having someone help with the mundane things gives me time to spend with my daughter.”
Being a working parent is never easy, but these parents have all chosen to start their own businesses, which presents its own special challenges. Jim James, the director of East West PR and father to 4-month-old Amity, says, “A company can absorb all of the time you have to allocate to it. Like a spouse, there’s no end to the time or energy you could spend with the business.” On the positive side, he says, the “gift of self-employment” is that you can choose between money and time. After his daughter was born, he chose to take time off. “I brought up a senior person from another office for six weeks to ensure that I could be there for my family. It impacts your profit margin, but it’s a choice you’re allowed to make when you run your own company.”
So, say you have a good idea for a business, but you’re not sure you can make it work while still running a household. Jasmine Keel, founder of Inspired Beijing, can help. When she arrived in Beijing in 2006, she didn’t expect it to be difficult to find a job. But she struggled through a long period of unemployment, during which she missed having a professional identity. She started Inspired to help other expats in similar situations, and encourages those with ideas to turn them into profitable businesses. “In China you don’t need to have a very long track record to start doing something,” says Keel. “People here just want to see what you can do. They don’t ask for a CV.” Through her work, Keel has met so many people with good ideas that it gave her an idea of her own; in April, she launched a new program to help people start their own businesses through a series of workshops on finances, marketing and building websites.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Just start your own business and watch the money flow in while you are free to schedule your own time. But all of these entrepreneurs warn that the business can also suck the life out of you and consume every free moment – and that isn’t something most parents are prepared for. Sarah Peel Li laughs, “The irony is, I started Kindermusik for my daughter, because I really believed in it for her. And now I’m busy with other people’s kids.” Also, she notes, the business has taken over the apartment, with Kindermusik files stacked in every available space. Peel Li recommends finding a house with space for an office if you can afford it, so you can leave your work behind. NU2YU’s Patterson concurs: After years of running the business from her home, she finally leased a separate office and even removed the computer from her house because she couldn’t escape her work otherwise.
Jim James advises other entrepreneurs to carve out time for family instead of focusing solely on work. After years of focusing primarily on growing his business, he now has to shift his priorities, and he finds it hard to let go of work. “The biggest challenge I’ve seen so far is that I keep seeing more opportunities. In the past I would’ve said, ‘That’s an opportunity.’ Now I’m learning to say, ‘I haven’t got the time for it.’”
Potential entrepreneurs, James says, need to learn to schedule and prioritize. “Remaining focused is one of the keys to success in starting and maintaining a business. If you’re not focused, you’re not managing your time well.” Farid-Mohebati agrees that you need to schedule wisely to ensure you’ll have time for yourself and your family. “I try to find time to exercise for my own sanity, to recharge and find my focus,” she says. “I schedule the time before I leave the house.”
Each of these entrepreneurs has a unique way of keeping in touch with their kids despite their own busy schedules. Farid-Mohebati says, “I plan special events with Nadia, things like going to the ballet. Those are the things she’s going to remember.” Keel has a different strategy: “Every Wednesday, I take my daughter out of school early and she chooses something she wants to do – simple things like swimming or going to Starbucks and coloring together. I try never to plan any work events on those afternoons. We both really enjoy having that time together.”
So go ahead and start that business if you have an idea in you. Just don’t forget: At the end of the day, go home, lock the door and enjoy your family.