Small business women: Profiles in multitasking

At her Grow Thru Play center, Tara Martello shows Jen McGown (right) how to perform calming tactile integration massage on 4-year-old Grace McGown, as 3-month-old Lydia McGown watches. Martello hopes to hire staff next year.
At her Grow Thru Play center, Tara Martello shows Jen McGown (right) how to perform calming tactile integration massage on 4-year-old Grace McGown, as 3-month-old Lydia McGown watches. Martello hopes to hire staff next year. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff)
Posted: October 15, 2012

During a July campaign stop in Roanoke, Va., President Obama delivered a government's-got-your-back speech meant, it seemed, to not only attract votes, but also to console a country agonizing over plenty. "You're not on your own. We're in this together," he told his audience.

But another remark Obama made riled many and sparked a national debate on small business: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that."

Romney forces insisted that it was an insult to small-business owners. The Obama camp maintained that it spoke to the president's overarching message of collaboration.

No matter what it meant, the controversy served to illuminate the no-easy-road existence of small-business owners. Not that Alison Gross needed a presidential campaign to highlight that for her.

The 31-year-old Philadelphia lawyer has lived it daily since leaving the corporate practice of law in August 2010 to go it on her own in estate planning. By March 2011, she had concluded that entrepreneurship was particularly challenging for people like her: new mothers.

Thus, the mother of two gave birth yet again - to Philly Mompreneurs, a networking and support group.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), women-owned businesses are one of the fastest-growing segments of the small-business sector, representing about 30 percent. It's a significant enough amount to get October designated as National Women's Small Business Month.

The National Association for Moms in Business, which represents 15 million entrepreneur and executive mothers, estimates that 44 percent of women business owners have children under 18.

The following three women do. Each is a Philly Mompreneur who shared her experiences of starting a business at the same time she was starting a family, and the many challenges involved.

Alison Gross. About a year after her first child, Naomi, was born, Gross made the leap to private practice to be able to spend more time with her. She indeed got that.

But clients are a necessity to staying in business. And given that her lawyer husband keeps long hours, Gross has had to rely on paying for child care to meet with clients and get her work done.

Which brings us to one of her entrepreneurial peeves: that she can get more of a tax break for buying an iPad, for instance, than she can for paying a baby sitter.

"I don't need that," Gross said of the iPad. "I need somebody to take care of my kids so I can work." Along with Naomi, who is 3 1/2, Gross has a son, Ari, 11 months.

It was through the children that she met other mothers looking for a range of business help.

To listservs Gross went in order to measure interest in her idea for Philly Mompreneurs, where membership is free and meetings are not held at hours impossible for mothers of young children to make (early morning or happy hour).

At least 60 women enthusiastically responded, Gross said.

Marisa Piccarreto. With children ages 5, 4 and 2, Piccarreto, 34, arguably is busy enough. But she's always been a doer - whether working on political campaigns in upstate New York and Massachusetts or styling hair, which she did until 2008, when she didn't find motherhood meshing well with the kind of long salon hours that bosses required.

By the time she had three children, Piccarreto said, she had become "the master of logistics," living in a tight city rowhouse with no yard and owning no car.

In July 2011, she got the idea to parlay that skill into a baby-planning business. My Fabulous Mama is far more than helping expectant parents prepare - which, Piccarreto said, gets at one of her most formidable challenges: branding.

She offers baby basic training on changing diapers, swaddling and feeding. She also advises on designing nurseries and baby-proofing houses, and does her own installations. She goes along on shopping trips for "gear" - strollers and car seats - and provides training on how to set up and use it.

She is confident that in five years the business "is going to be wildly successful," largely because of "the values" of those in their 20s - a generation that heartily supports the personal-service sector, Piccarreto said.

Her biggest worry: "What if I can't ride it out until it's profitable?"

Tara Martello. As the owner of Grow Thru Play L.L.C., a play-based occupational/physical therapy center on South Street, Martello reddened with exasperation when discussing what scares her:

It's the prospect of adding employees.

Not because she doesn't want them but because they would necessitate reclassifying her business and, she said despairingly, having "to deal with the Department of Revenue again."

Martello, 34 and the mother of a 3 1/2-year-old son, said it took her five trips to that city agency to secure approval to use an existing business license as an independent contractor - and thus avoid paying $300 for another one - so she could open for business in April 2011.

If her client base continues to grow as it has, Martello expects to be able to take on employees next year and reach profitability. That's assuming another nemesis doesn't rise to interfere: her taxes.

"It really makes it difficult to plan and project your budget when they're constantly raising your taxes," she said, suggesting that's why most facilities like hers are in the suburbs.

The recipient of a $30,000 SBA loan and training from the Wharton Small Business Development Center, Martello said she understands the point Obama was trying to make in Virginia about businesses not doing it alone.

If only someone could solve the child-care challenge for her and other mompreneurs, she said.

"Oh, gosh," Martello said when the topic came up. "It is difficult."

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.


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