Start a Startup on the Side


Throughout my career at BMO Harris and in my current role as president/CEO of the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC), I’ve seen many women start a business while working full-time. The obligations of an executive-level job are tremendous, and I’ve always been amazed how so many women who have demanding jobs (and frequently family obligations) find the time and stamina to launch a business on the side.

The women who visit the WBDC are seldom moonlighting or freelancing. They’re serious about creating a successful business venture and ready to step outside their comfort zone to make the startup a success – and ultimately, a full-time job. Here’s what you can learn from three women who made it work.

1. Be passionate about the concept. This isn’t merely a way to make a few extra dollars. For most women, it’s a way to make a difference, and that requires a deep-seated passion for the new venture. Just ask Linda Quarshie, a full-time liability insurance underwriter for Markel Corporation and a new mom, who launched Art of Athletics in July 2013 after two years of planning. A health and fitness buff, the Ghana native was disappointed in the lack of attractive fitness clothing and designed a line of colorful, stylish active wear sold online. “There have been many roadblocks,” she states. “But if you’re passionate, when one door closes, another opens.”

Stephanie Hickman left a high-powered job as vice president of legislative affairs at ComEd to revive the ailing family business, Trice Construction. She watched in sadness as the concrete construction business her dad and uncles started in 1967 dwindled. In 2004, while still working at ComEd, she began the buyout process. “Trice, at the time, was on hold,” she says. “I hated to see the business close, so I took action.”

2. Be prepared to make sacrifices. They come in all types and sizes, including time and money. Most women who start a business on the side give up any semblance of a private life. Tammy Sciortino, a 20-year veteran athletic trainer who counts professional sports teams among her clients, launched Sport Sciorts health and fitness services while working full-time for a successful orthopedics practice at Rush University Medical Center.

Ms. Quarshie – whose side-business office is a re-configured closet in her home – says that between her two jobs she works “almost all the time,” though she admits her son “takes precedence over getting to the post office before 5 o’clock.” For Ms. Hickman, sacrifice meant putting her two favorite hobbies on hold, including long weekends knee-deep in novels and shopping for African art: “I don’t read novels anymore – just industry trades – and I can’t remember the last time I bought a piece of art.”

3. Be transparent with employers. Employee contracts sometimes state that any work you do on your own time, even if unrelated to your current work, is company property. The last thing you want is a nasty lawsuit, so don’t use company property, even a laptop, to conduct your side business. Even if you don’t have an employment contract, it still makes good business sense to be upfront with your employers. Ms. Hickman’s transparency with ComEd paid off big time: they became a client of her construction business.

4. Be willing to ask for help. Starting a business can be daunting, all the more so if you’re essentially working two jobs. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Ms. Quarshie asked a friend to do her company’s marketing on a shoestring budget. Ms. Sciortino found a couple of orthopedic clinics that let her use their therapy tables. Ms. Hickman reached out to successful business owners for advice, support and inspiration. All three received free business counseling from the Women’s Business Development Center, and Ms. Quarshie landed a WBDC microloan for her fitness apparel business.

Growing a business on the side can take longer than anticipated; so don’t feel pressured to leave your current job until the time is right. Running a business part-time can work, but if you really want it to be successful, you’ll need to make the full-time commitment.

Rosemary Fanti Illustration


About Emilia DiMenco

Emilia DiMenco is President and CEO of Women’s Business Development Center and Retired Executive Vice President BMO Harris N.A. Emilia DiMenco was named president and chief executive officer of the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) on August 1, 2013, a transition from co-founders, Hedy Ratner and Carol Dougal. Emilia joined the Women’s Business Development Center as chief operating officer in July 2010 after completing a 30-year career as an executive vice president with BMO Harris N.A. Emilia had P&L responsibility for 80% of her career and managed budgets in excess of $200 million with revenues multiples greater. Her responsibility included leadership and management for 600 commercial banking employees.