• Women 2.0 HowTo Conference San Francisco, September 30 - October 1, 2014

The Secret to (Really) Having It All

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“Having it all is all about redefining what ‘it all’ really means.”

By Emily Lonigro Boylan (Owner & Creative Director, LimeRed Studio)

My story is probably a lot like yours: Driven career woman works a million miles a minute until life takes an unexpected turn. Suddenly, the person who never thought she’d get married or have a family does both of those things and has to completely redefine her priorities.

Ever since Ann-Marie Slaughter, former director of policy planning at the state department wrote this controversial op-ed for the Atlantic, the debate about whether women can have it all has been front and center among working moms like me. Now that I’ve brought my own child into the world while continuing to grow my thriving company, I feel like I can weigh in on that.

Perhaps Fortune 500 CEOs and top ranking government officials can’t have it all, but small business owners like me most certainly can. The secret? Having it all is all about redefining what “it all” really means.

I’m balancing a family life with a fast-paced, entrepreneurial career. It sounds crazy and let me tell you: It’s not the right lifestyle for everyone. I’m definitely not advocating for this life, but it’s mine. And guess what? I get to decide what is and isn’t right for me. If I want to slow it down or speed it up, I can make it happen.

There are tons of women like me who have manage their companies and families. They probably feel a lot like I do: Sometimes things feel perfectly balanced, other times I just want to leave the office and go home, while there are other days I want to get out of the house and go back to the office.

My story isn’t perfect and it’s far from over, but it’s a real one. I‘m not a millionaire and I don’t run a huge corporation — I run a business with five employees. And I don’t want to “have it all” if that means what assume we’re all thinking: picture perfection with a big fancy house. I just want to be happy, do great work and make an impact that outlives me.

Work Was My Life…

In my 20s I worked nonstop to build a strong reputation for delivering high quality work that made sense to clients. I could never agree with the idea of ‘paying my dues’ or ‘working my way up,’ because I worked hard to produce good — no, great — work and I wanted credit for it. Pretty early in my working career, I realized I could probably run the show myself. That was back in 2004 and I had a handful of clients, no real ties to anything — I rented, was single, decided to move to NYC on a whim, whatever.

It was great and exciting and I worked all the time.

The Other Secret to Success: Other People

That lifestyle wasn’t sustainable, though, and I knew something had to give. It sounds great to work all the time and live it up in New York and it totally was. But I had a few other goals: I wanted to work less, make more money and turn my freelance design endeavor into something real. I also needed to take a stand and stop working on things that didn’t make a positive impact. Around the same time, I met someone that I wanted to be serious about. 

After that, I got serious about my company and my future husband and moved back to Chicago. I realized that working so hard all the time, by myself, wasn’t getting me anywhere. I needed people – advisors and employees – to make it work. I hired a business coach. Then I began working with a financial advisor who began to help me understand the story of the numbers that keep my company profitable. None of these people tell me what to do (I can’t stand that!) but they do help me see the forest from the trees. And, more importantly, they help me to understand how to grow the trees. 

Together we set big, scary goals that I bust my ass trying to achieve every year. Sometimes those goals are as simple as Emily gets paid, or Emily takes a vacation. Seriously, I have to write things like that down and have someone hold me accountable or I’ll get lost in the business and forget about myself.

That is even more crucial now that I have a family. My familiar, safe way of operating is to buckle down and work all the time because it’s what I know how to do. That model doesn’t work anymore so I’ve had to come up with new rules for working and new priorities. My new roles — wife and mother — are foreign and humbling to me. There’s no old familiar thing to sink back into when things get rough. They require way more concentration and effort than what I do behind the desk at my office because they’re all new to me, and I’ve been working to master my career for years. 

Having a good support network, both at work and at home is critical. Both of these roles get lonely at times. I’m sure you’ve felt it. One of the hardest things I’ve had to do is ask for help, but the fastest way forward is to find experienced people to help.

Change Is Constant, But…

…you don’t have to stand there and take it – you can create it.

In the last few years my life has undergone a tremendous amount of change. I met my husband five years ago, we got married almost two years ago and had our first child right away. This was all while bringing on five new staff members and doubling our company revenue for a few years in a row. Oh, and we moved to a new office, and my husband and I bought a house.

Am I crazy? Don’t answer that.

Let me tell you, I think about quitting more often than I’d like to admit. Any entrepreneur who can’t admit that is probably lying.

Here what I it means to have “it all” in my life:

  • I can put food on the table, pay the bills and save a little money every month
  • My daughter feels nurtured and supported and she’s surrounded by people who love her
  • My employees feel like they are growing professionally and will say great things about me and my company when they leave
  • I have a flexible schedule so I can do what I need to do at work and at home
  • The business can function without me for a few days

There’s probably more in there that I’m forgetting, but there are enough big ideas in there to get started.

 What Does ‘It All’ Mean to You?

To some on the outside, it may look like I have it all. And I like to think I do – but in my opinion it really comes down to your personal definition of all. I have a healthy daughter, a husband I love, a wide and varied support system, a company to call my own and great people to work with. But all of this didn’t just fall together by happenstance. 

Sure, some of it can be attributed to luck or what have you, but a lot of it is thanks to hard work, time spent envisioning and planning for a bright future and the goals I’ve set with my team. Beyond that, the biggest deciding factor in my happiness is truly caring about the people who work for you and the people you serve and being thoughtful and intentional about how you treat them. The Golden Rule, people, it works.

You have to trust. You have to delegate. You have to let go of things. You have to take care of yourself and make time for a spa day or a frozen yogurt or a walk in the park. And you have to be happy with who you are and where you are. Comparing yourself to Marissa Mayer or Martha Stewart is going to make you nuts.

Let’s stop debating whether women can have it all. Every woman I know has her own answer. The point is: Create the life you want for yourself. You can be caring and nurturing and also create positive change for yourself. You just have to know what you want and how to ask for it.

What does ‘it all’ mean to you?

emily-headshot0913Emily Lonigro Boylan is the owner and creative director at LimeRed Studio, a community-building design firm in Chicago. LimeRed works with socially-responsible businesses, universities, nonprofits, and other organizations to promote the people, programs and ideas that make people’s lives better.