Erika-Marie S. Geiss
Erika-Marie S. Geiss runs Red Pencil Editing Services and is the editor-in-chief and publisher of theWAHMmagazine – the only content-driven digital magazine for work-at-home parents. A work-at-home 'mompreneur,' Erika is also a freelance writer, professional blogger, editor and published non-fiction author. Trained as an art historian, she received her Master’s Degree in art and architectural history from Tufts University, and her Bachelor’s Degree in developmental psychology from Brandeis University.
Erika has been a Barbara Fish Lee and Muriel G.S. Lewis Fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) where she worked on several exhibitions, including Van Gogh: Face to Face (which also toured the DIA) and Monet, Renoir and the Impressionist Landscape. In the fall of 2003 Geiss joined the staff of Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History where she was the curatorial liaison for And Still We Rise: Our Journey through African American History, the museum's core, permanent exhibition.
This year Erika launched theWAHMmagazine, designed to address the needs of work-at-home parents. She has written articles on parenting, work-at-home issues, energy and "green" issues as well as women’s issues/feminism. Her articles have appeared in local and national publications including The News-Herald and World Energy Monthly Review, the latter of which she has been a copy editor for over a year and for which she contributes periodic columns.
No stranger to blogs, Erika has been a guest blogger at Family Resource and is a regular contributing blogger at babiesonline. She also maintains her own personal blog, Musings from the Mitten and since January 2008, she has been the host of the Cyber Savvy Show, a weekly show at Passionate Internet Voices Talk Radio.
Active in local politics, Erika was a former Commissioner on the Steering Committee for the Master Plan for the City of Taylor. She is married to Taylor City Council Chairman Douglas A. Geiss a candidate for the open State Representative seat for Michigan’s 22nd District. They have one young son.
Erika will be writing about the personal, professional and economic issues of being a work-at-home professional.
PLEASE FEEL FREE TO JOIN THE CONVERSATION WITH YOUR COMMENTS!
Before I start my fifth and final guest blogging post, I want to thank the editors of Metromode for allowing me my 15 minutes of fame. Many thanks as well go out to the readers and to those who commented.
A Huge Network of Mom Bloggers
In my fourth post “Isolated? Not so much” among the topics I broached, was how work-at-home professionals have opportunities online for socializing and networking. Among those opportunities is blogging, and it probably seems that today, everybody has a blog (or two or three)—especially moms. Lately, the media has been all over mom bloggers (or mommy bloggers, for those who prefer the cutesy term), suddenly realizing the powerful role of women networking with one another, sharing and sometimes commiserating.
Not that this women networking is anything new, it’s now, however that big business has figured out that we are a profitable demographic. Women have been networking verbally for centuries, whether it was at the laundry hole, in a posh and lavish tea room or on a 1950’s party line. Now, we have the Internet, and can do so with an even larger audience, broadening the boundaries of community and our network of “friends” and simultaneously closing the gap of difference among cultures and regions—united in the fact that what is shared is parenting and motherhood. Many mom bloggers are professional writers. Other mom bloggers are not professional writers, but use their blogs as a business tool occasionally discussing family, children and husbands or partners in the context of being WAHMs. And then there are mom bloggers for whom blogging is all about the journaling aspect of documenting, chronicling and sharing their life stories.
Purpose and Platform
Regardless of which category a mom blog falls into, it is important that from the onset, the purpose of that blog is understood by the owner, and therefore her audience. (This goes for the dad blogs out there too, by the way.) Is your blog a platform for venting about kids, interactions with other parents, your spouse or partner? Is your blog about issues that you’re passionate about, with the occasional weaving in of family-related stories and anecdotes? Is your blog about your business, with very little discussion about anything related to family outside of how family might relate to your business? While blogs can grow, evolve and the purpose shift, these are the questions to consider. Why are your readers coming back? Is it for a voyeuristic peek into your life? To learn something? To share experiences and get validation? Or something else entirely?
An Offspring of Feminism
The Mom Blog, regardless of its purpose or platform, their large market share is a sign of the powerful voices of women—not just as women, but as bloggers. With a large portion of mom-bloggers either being WAHMs or SAHMs, the prevalence of mom blogs shows that the flexibility and ability to choose to work from home (or stay at home) is not only due to technology, but also is a logical offspring of feminism. Many of us grew up learning that we could do and be anything that we wanted, and that our choices were ours to own. And with that, we sought different models of working, living, parenting and approaching relationships. Mom bloggers are, on the whole, a collective of outspoken women, powerful in the sense that they have embraced and owned technology (once the locus of male-dominated expertise), and are using it to validate, empower and enrich the lives of others, regardless of whether that is the taciturn intention or not. And Big Business has caught on, as the Today Show reported in early May. The comment the article makes about "word of mouth turning moms into business women" aside, mom bloggers are voices that are being heard, even if they are simply musing.
So Who’s Musing in the Mitten?
There are some noteworthy and well-written blogs by Michigan mamas and papas—from the MichDads Blog to I am the Mom (which does a beautiful job of integrating WAHM-related issues with family related ones), Momof3Girls, Suburban Bliss, Eco ‘Burban Mom and the parent blogs at Motor City Moms. Some are touching, others edgy and there are way too many to list … and those are just the some that I know of. Enjoy the diversions.
Isolation is one of the "drawbacks" that experts cite against telecommuting and working from home. Sure, working from home, one doesn’t have that water cooler or coffee break effect that occurs in traditional office settings. (And aside from a toddler who has awakened from a nap prematurely, one doesn’t have the same kind of distractions either.) Both types of employment have their benefits and drawbacks, especially when it comes to productivity, but the social component of work (and there is one) changes dramatically when one works from home. So, how do we interface, network and get the very important social interaction? You guessed it—the Internet.
Many work-at-home professionals also engage in professional forums (or bulletin boards as they used to be called), where one can discuss professional and sometimes personal (but not too personal) issues. Those are the places where we learn from one another, help one another, get leads and advice and are still able to maintain collegial and professional relationships in our fields. And with social networking, you can keep the conversation going with your friends and colleagues on Twitter and Plurk throughout the entire day. But sometimes, that’s just not enough.
A change of scenery
Sometimes when one works from home, it becomes imperative to get out of the house. Not just for a quick trip to run errands or pick the kids up from school—but to interact with other people in real life. But what do you do, when you still have work to complete? With WiFi access at many places across the Metro area that have free or nearly free WiFi access like Heritage Perk in Taylor, Beans and Bytes on Woodward in Detroit, and Café Ambrosia in Ann Arbor, to name a few, one can still get work done, get that change of scenery, get a good cup of coffee (or two) and food, converse with the regulars (or not) and support a local business. Notice I did not mention Starbucks or any other national chain in my short list. (And if you happen to stop by "the Perk," as we call it in Taylor, check out the art exhibit by renowned Michigan artist Leo Kuschel.)
Sometimes the café is not enough
More and more, freelancers and other work-at-home professionals are establishing working collectives. I think these can be compared to the artist’s salon of the nineteenth century, where working alone, but together, free exchange of ideas and information can occur (of course without divulging anything sensitive information about clients or projects).
In fact, in 2007 the group Coworking Ann Arbor was established to seek out and create spaces where freelancing and telecommuting professionals could work together in an un-office space (my term), yet without being at home and around some of the distractions that working at home can create. Yes, as much as I am a champion of working from home and dedicated to helping support, enable and encourage the work-at-home lifestyle, there are distractions—the laundry, the television, the garden, the dishes, the phone, that spot on the wall that you really should re-paint that you notice every time you look up from the laptop to think. (Of course, the disciplined work-at-home professional knows how to handle such "distractions.")
In Detroit, several engineers (thought of as isolationist by trade) developed the Detroit Grotto, a coworking space patterned after the San Francisco Writer’s Grotto, but for software engineers only, rather than artists and literary creative professionals. Several coworking spaces have already been established in Ann Arbor, as Amy Whitesall reported in April in Coworking: Solo but Not Alone. While I haven't personally tried the coworking method myself yet, I can see it as beneficial adding yet another dimension and tool for freelancers and work-at-home business owners for connecting and thwarting that isolation and cabin fever than can occasionally creep in. As the work-at-home industry gains an even stronger foothold as a widely acceptable business practice, grottos, salons and other coworking spaces may become more prevalent in the quest for flexibility and a different kind of work/life balance.
In Post No. 2, I discussed home-parties (a Detroit original) and telecommuting. But what are the other work-at-home alternatives? Many professionals spend a considerable amount of time working from home than one might realize at first blush. Were they included in the statistics referenced in Post No. 1, the figures might actually be higher than reported. For example, many artists, who have working residences (such as those discussed by Guest Blogger, Trace Koe Wick) could quite easily be included. For readers not familiar with the creative lifestyle of having a functional studio and comfortable living space, think of Sam and Molly’s apartment in the 1990 movie Ghost. Other professions that are thought of as being done solely out of the home, have for years, been at-home jobs—from physicians (think Dr. Huxtable in The Cosby Show) to psychiatrists and therapists (think Dr. Seaver in Growing Pains), and teachers. As a former university instructor myself, I can’t recall how many times I graded papers and exams, created syllabi and reading lists at home and not in my office. My sisters-in-law, both of whom are teachers, can also attest to the amount of work that occurs not in the school building, but at home. In essence, all of these workers mentioned are work-at-home professionals.
But in the minds of most people, they are not. And as one commenter in Post No. 1 mentioned, most people, when they hear that you work from home think (or have the temerity to say), “when are you going to get a real job?” and “So, what do you do?” with a degree of skepticism. With ire, often rising like bile in the throat from a case of horrific indigestion, you explain, wondering the whole time, why it is that you are having to justify your profession at all, in the first place. The problem is that when you are a freelancer, independent contractor or home-based entrepreneur, the “collective intelligence” discounts it because there is no established, larger recognized “employment club.” Auto workers have the UAW and bricks-and-mortar entrepreneurs have the Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce. (Don’t despair, there are organizations for each field as well as the Freelancer’s Union and nothing precludes a home-based professional from joining the Rotary or Chamber.) But, in general terms, “work” is still viewed from the narrow perspective of a set of behaviors that include getting up in the morning; getting dressed; driving somewhere else; clocking-in or signing in; performing a set of tasks; and at the end of the day, leaving and heading back home (often with a stop for “happy hour” along the way). I offer that in examining the wide range of aspects to working from home, that perspective of “work” needs to be shifted. (Yet another reason why theWAHMmagazine was started ? to be a new voice for the work-at-home industry.) Working from home, when looked at in a broader way, is not much different than owning a store, for example, and living in an apartment above it, as occurs in many cities across the country.
What many are unaware of is the large and silent workforce that enables larger businesses to be productive and efficient. Telecommuters and flex-time employees are not the only home-based professionals who can help larger businesses achieve their staffing needs. From virtual assistants (VA) to marketing, public relations and networking professionals and those in the creative fields, working with a core group of home-based entrepreneurs (rather than going through staffing agencies) can provide the same level of expertise and professionalism without the overhead and fees that outsourcing companies can charge. Staffing firms specializing in creative talent, often charge a fee or percentage over the hourly wage given to the creative freelancer. On one hand, going through a staffing firm/agency has one benefit, for a larger business, of getting prescreened talent. But for the freelancers, they might not be getting the income that a company is actually willing to pay for their services. Becoming a core freelance/contract home-based professional does take work to gain the trust of those bigger clients, who do, if fact, need your services. In the Detroit Metro area, where many have become “collateral damage” of shifting corporate needs, considering working as a freelancer may be a viable alternative, since it may allow you to work in other markets and use technology such as the Internet to your advantage. After all, you may have lost that job, but not the knowledge or expertise gained doing it—leverage it into something viable and lucrative. And in Michigan where companies are saying “we have jobs, but workers without the right skill set,” you (and those companies) might find that your skill set is a good match.
To return to the original question of: “So, what do you do?” When you have those larger clients, you simply smile sweetly and say: “I do very well, actually. I perform x, y and z services and ‘Big Widget Co.’ is one of my clients.”
A prompt: Do you consider yourself a work-at-home professional and how do you handle the question?
When I graduated from college 15 years ago, torn between applying to programs in developmental psychology or art history I decided to wait to apply to graduate school. In fact, I wanted to go into art therapy, which at the time was still a relatively new field. I took time off to hone my focus. After a year-and-a-half in the investment world and nearly lured into becoming a broker, I realized that while it was a job I was capable of, it was not one that would also make me happy at my core.
With that in mind, as well as having been removed from academia, I took some continuing education courses to see if I still had that academic prowess. I did, and applied to graduate programs in art history, which held sway over me stronger than psychology did. When my dad balked at the decision to leave the financial world for the non-profit/academic world, I told him: "I need to do something that I love, and even on the worst days, go to work because I want to, not just because I have to pay the bills."
There was an intrinsic need to satisfy the soul as well as the wallet. Art history led to becoming an editor, starting my own company, writing full-time and eventually, becoming a digital magazine publisher. An unconventional path, but one where I do what I love, and now that I'm a parent, I do it from home.
It's with the same mindset that I had in 1995 that many share, craving a more optimal work/life balance especially after starting families, and embark upon working from home. For them, there is a drive for a different kind of work/life balance that calls WAHMs (and in increasing numbers, WAHDs) once kids enter the picture.
Some Work-from-Home Statistics
Since the 1970s, the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics has analyzed work-at-home trends. According to the report Characteristics of self-employed women in the United States, in 1974, 25 percent of work-at-home professionals were women, and increased to 33 percent by 1990. Overall, between 1974 and 1990, the total number of work-at-home professionals increased by nearly 74 percent.
Additionally, according to the Bureau's September 2005 report, Work at Home Summary, "by 2000 4.2 million people worked at home at least part time including telecommuters, workers with flex-time, freelancers and those owning home-based businesses. In 2005, 20.7 million people worked at home as part of their primary job and 3.3 million had a formal relationship with their employer. [Additionally,] nearly 4.7 million people had a home-based business, where they worked from their home solely... ."
Today, many of these jobs and companies are professional services, many owned by women, who translated their pre-family careers into something different. Yet even with these statistics, a societal question mark hovers over those who work from home — especially WAHMs — in the perceptions of others.
But whether called contractors, freelancers, telecommuters, WAHMs or WAHDs, clearly, work-at-home professionals together create a veritable industry in itself, signified by such things as Business and Learning's virtual conference, the WAH Expo, and one reason why I developed theWAHMmagazine.
As a guest blogger, I'll be writing about some of the personal, professional and larger economic issues of being a work-at-home professional. I'll also address how important options like telecommuting can be for other businesses and for Michigan's economy, especially in light of technology and environmental and individual economic concerns.
And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't write about being what problogger.com calls the blogging niche that's "the next big 'It' when it comes to the Internet" — a mom blogger.
Home-based businesses are nothing new. In fact, one of the most-recognized home-based businesses was born in Detroit — the Tupperware® party. The plastic container with the patented, revolutionary, air-tight seal, with that infamous burp, was invented by Earl Silas Tupper in 1938. Originally sold in retail stores, the products did not do well, because they required a demonstration to show consumers how to use them. But it was the ingenuity of a single mom from Detroit who helped launch Tupperware into the household name that it has become today.
That Detroit woman was "Brownie Wise", a divorced single mother who was selling Tupperware® door to door to pay her son's medical bills and supplement her secretarial salary. She had logged considerable sales figures, and an intrigued Earl Tupper sought to discover her secret. Wise had shrewdly recognized the enormous home demonstration potential of Tupperware, and the undeniable success of her direct sales approach convinced Tupper to withdraw his kitchenware from retail outlets in 1951 and distribute the product exclusively in the form of the Tupperware party. In particular, the burgeoning suburbs of the 1950s were targeted as a "picnic ground for direct selling" (p. 100). He hired Wise as vice president of his newly incorporated Tupperware Home Parties (THP), and the two proceeded to divide the company labor: Tupper focused on design, while Wise dealt with promotion and public relations.” (From: Alison J. Clarke. Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.)
According to Tupperware’s Five Decades of Change, "the Tupperware Home Demonstration … was a welcome diversion for women, whose involvement in the community mostly revolved around their family." This "welcome diversion" has, in a half-century become the foundation and model for many other direct-sales models (think Avon, Mary Kay, Tastefully Simple and Arbonne), and parlayed itself into just one home-based business option. In a post-war, pre-feminist America, Wise created a system that was not only empowering to women by offering a different employment option, it also turned out to be good for big business. Without Wise, Tupper’s company clearly would not have had the success that it has seen, and that still exists today.
So what can companies learn from Tupperware® and the Wise-Silas story, especially in an economy marked by much uncertainty, speculations of a recession, downsizing and layoffs in both skilled-trade and corporate employees and the threat of a Lincoln becoming nothing more than a coupon for a gallon of gas? Collaborating and working with work-at-home professionals /home-based businesses can indeed be beneficial alliances. And while its opponents cite drawbacks such as isolation, lack of interaction and company bonding with co-workers, and the inability to “disengage,” for telecommuting employees, telecommuting and flex-time arrangements can have benefits such as increased productivity and employees who are not distracted by the family issues that can come up—such as a string of snow-days that we in Metro Detroit, are all too familiar with. "Workforces that are allowed to telecommute are proven to be more productive, loyal, cost-effective, and happier," says Brandon Dempsey, vice president of SuiteCommute, a telecommuting agency in St. Louis in a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor. And in today’s economy, the qualities of cost-effectiveness and increased productivity are essential to corporate survival.