It's Working Project

Debi Lewis didn’t face the typical “pivot or perish” workplace situation—it’s not that she had a problem with her employer’s 12 weeks unpaid maternity leave, that her return was particularly grueling, or that she was marginalized as a new mom. In general, she found her employer to be rather family friendly and supportive; the leave and return uneventful. That is until the 3-month mark, when her daughter’s then-undiagnosed congenital heart defect left the baby routinely hospitalized from the viral infections she was picking up at daycare. Debi’s decision, then, to pivot into the role of entrepreneur wasn’t because she was going to perish metaphorically in her 9-5 position, but that her daughter, quite literally, was perishing because two working parents necessitated daily exposure to a harmful environment.

What did you formerly do for work?

I managed the web presence for a major national nonprofit organization. It was a very visible position that included managing a staff, attending national conferences, and tremendous responsibility and high-level decision-making. I loved it all — the people, the mission of the organization, and the challenge of satisfying internal stakeholders as well as the organization’s members.

What inspired you to become an entrepreneur after you started your family?

When my second child was born, she had a then-undiagnosed congenital heart defect that landed her in the hospital with every viral infection. Though I had gone back to work when she was three months old, we learned very quickly that she could not manage the germ-ridden environment of day care. Crunching the numbers, my husband and I determined that paying for private child care at home would make my income almost meaningless. Since he made more than I did, I had to leave my job to stay home with our younger daughter. Her sister was in preschool part time by then.

Within a few months, I was accepting short contracts with my former employer on projects I could do from home. As my schedule and my daughter’s health improved enough for us to hire sitters a few times a week for a few hours at a time, I began to look for other web development projects and clients. Though initially I took whatever work I could find, I missed the mission-driven work of my former employer. Over the years, I’ve shifted my focus to the kinds of clients I really want to see succeed in their broader missions.

My consulting and web development company — Jebraweb — focuses on organizations and social enterprises with a broader mission. It’s both rewarding and flexible enough that I’ve chosen to stay home after my daughter’s health improved and I could have gone back into the traditional workplace. I now love my clients and my work with the same fervor as I loved the job I left behind. It’s been quite a ride!

How do you think that decision has changed your life?

It was such a painful decision, and I missed work so much, that I am even more grateful to feel now how lucky I was to have it forced upon me. Without that door closed for me, I would not have been able to enjoy my life with my daughters nearly as much as I have. Being able to walk them to elementary school and back every single day, to spend after-school time with them, to get to know my own community the way I have has been such an incredible gift.

In addition, this freedom has allowed me to connect to my local business districts and networking communities and to really respect the small business model. I would never have known any of that if I’d continued to commute downtown to work for a large organization for the rest of my career.

What do you think life would be like if you were still in your former position?

I would have my children in child care — before and after school — and I would not know their friends, my neighbors, and my community nearly as well. Our lives would be governed by my work instead of my work being governed by our shared life as it is now.

Perhaps we would be more financially well-off had I stayed employed full time, but as my daughter’s health continued to suffer for many more years, I also might have lost some of my career mobility from the unpredictability of my availability. I can’t picture a scenario where I would find my life improved by having stayed at my former job.

What advice do you have for working parents who are straining to make it work? For employers on how to make it work better for parents returning to the workplace?

I believe strongly in flexible work-at-home schedules. If the main measure is that the work is complete, then any job that requires most of the work to be done at a computer can be a telecommuting job for much of the time. Setting predictable meeting schedules would allow parents to work from home when necessary. If the work gets done, why does it matter if it is done between 6 and 8am, 1 and 3 pm, and 7 and 10pm?

Can you reflect on one moment of family life that was made possible or enhanced by your decision to make your career change? One moment of work life that was enhanced by your decision to make your career change?

Every part of my family life was enhanced by my decision to stay at home and build my own business. My mornings walking my children to school have been the sweetest part of my day for many years. Their ability to come home after school and spend time with me and each other in the comfort of their own home made their transitions to elementary school much easier; my ability to drive or walk them to the activities that interested them has allowed them to experiment with lots of interests; my freedom to work when they were at school or late at night left me available to take my daughter who continued to have many health issues over the years to appointments and procedures after school without feeling the stress of having to “miss” work. There is nothing that wasn’t improved by this decision.

My work life as a business owner has given me the opportunity to learn and engage in exactly the ways I wanted to over the years — I chose the software I wanted to use and learn, the equipment I needed, the clients whose missions moved me. That has allowed me to build exactly the business I’d want to work for!