It will be forever stored in my memory as the distinctive scent of the cleaning product my family’s housekeeper used to polish the wood paneling in our home (it was the ’70s, after all).
I always begged him to let me help with the cleaning—which I know seems a bit laughable given my notorious hatred of this chore today. But at the time, cleaning seemed like play, as so many things do to small children. Unfortunately, because I still habitually sucked my thumb, our housekeeper never let me help for fear that I’d ingest some of the cleaning product.
My disappointment at being prohibited from cleaning was so pronounced that I remember it to this day. Children learn by imitating adults, and, like driving a car or cooking, cleaning seemed like a grownup task that would bestow maturity and purpose on a little girl.
And yet, there was something special about cleaning—a singular power that elevated its importance above those other activities. Even as a child, I could see that cleaning is one way we care for our families, helping to ensure their health and safety. And cleaning is how we prepare our homes for guests, setting the scene for great life experiences.
But cleaning isn’t only something people do for others. The act of cleaning can be personally healing. A quick Internet search of terms like “emotional cleaning” reveals the extent to which pop psychology and new age spirituality have embraced cleaning as a metaphor for emotional growth. Regardless of whether we buy into either of those cultural trends, we all can relate to the idea of calming internal distress by imposing order on our external surroundings.
Even our popular idioms speak to the idea of cleaning as a healing process. To “air one’s dirty laundry” is to make known the darkest aspects of one’s past and inner life. And, of course, to acknowledge these difficult emotions is to take the first step toward becoming a healthier and more balanced person.
No wonder, then, that cleaning appealed to me as a child. As adults, we often forget how emotionally turbulent childhood can be. Even the happiest childhood is often simultaneously fraught with a variety of anxieties and fears. My desire to help clean my family’s home was certainly an expression of love for the people who loved me. But surely it was also an effort to gain control over a chaotic world—an opportunity that children rarely have.
Today, my young daughter and son love cleaning. My daughter is particularly fond of organizing her closet, and my son enjoys helping me wash the dishes. May these tasks bring them growth and fulfillment.
I’ve been fired from Jelmar.
Actually, as long as I’m being honest, I’ve been fired from Jelmar several times. But don’t worry—my dad has always rehired me. It’s just that after having led the company for many years, my dad developed a particular set of ideas about how the business should be run. As my role in the business grew and I increasingly asserted my opinions, we often had disagreements (which, admittedly, sometimes ended in screaming matches, throwing office supplies at each other, and, yes, the occasional firing.)
Don’t get me wrong, my dad was pleased that I was interested in taking over the family business. But that still didn’t make the transition easy, and we weren’t alone in that struggle. In fact, a recent article in Forbes points out that while the vast majority of family business owners express a strong interest in transferring control of the company to a family member, generational succession remains one of the most daunting challenges faced by family businesses. I know from my experiences with my father that this couldn’t be more true.
For example, I’ve found that deeply ingrained patterns of family interaction can be hard to integrate into a professional business setting. The relationship between an employer and employee becomes infinitely more complex when your employer is someone who’s read you bedtime stories, helped you with your homework, and disapproved of all your high school boyfriends. Case in point: when I first began working at Jelmar in my mid-20s, my father and his business partner (a close family friend) would send me faxes addressed to “the little pixie”—a nickname from my childhood that no adult woman should be subjected to in her workplace!
But just because my father sometimes had trouble seeing me as his equal, it didn’t make working for him any easier. In fact, I often felt that I had to work twice as hard as employees who weren’t family members. My dad wanted me to fight him for his job—to prove I really deserved it. In retrospect, I think he feared that acknowledging I’d grown into an independent, capable adult might somehow undermine his role as my father and protector. Of course that will never be the case.
Despite the challenges of working with my father, I don’t mean to suggest that family isn’t profoundly important to Jelmar. On the contrary, family relationships are woven into the fabric of our business. Our close connections with one another beget a special kind of trust that enables us to accomplish a great deal with a small staff. There’s nothing like having personal ties to your company and colleagues to inspire you to work that much harder.
That’s why the key to running a family business isn’t to ignore or overcome the complexities of working with family—but to learn how to use them to make your business relationships stronger, richer, and more productive.
I hate cleaning.
There, I said it. And the reason I needed to say it is that just about everyone—from colleagues to customers to media—seems to think that as much as I love running a successful business, my one true joy in life is to go home, throw on a pair of rubber gloves, and scrub my bathtub. But believe me, I have better things to do—which in my opinion is just about anything else. (In fact, the best part about Jelmar products is that they help people spend as little time cleaning as possible.)
But more to the point, one of the great things about running a decades-old family business is the knowledge passed down through generations of Jelmar leaders. So I can tell you with certainty that when my father and grandfather ran the business, they were rarely asked if they liked to clean.
The very thought of asking a man if he likes to clean seems a little ridiculous, doesn’t it? The question reveals our society’s wildly different expectations for men versus women. There’s an implicit assumption that a man would take on a leadership role at a cleaning company for the sake of entrepreneurialism and profit—but a woman? Judging by the questions I’m often asked, it would seem that I run a cleaning company primarily to share my love of household chores.
Of course work done within the home has great value, and women or men who manage households often work just as hard as anyone in business. My point is that women in leadership positions frequently face a variety of biases and perceptions that say much more about our society than about these women as individuals.
Take for instance the recent speculation on how becoming a grandmother might affect Hillary Clinton’s campaign or even her ability to lead. Male political candidates face no such questions—and certainly no extensive media scrutiny on how grandparenthood would shape their political careers. Our culture seems to propagate a myth that women who dare to run for political office or lead a business don’t have the drive or focus to see it through without succumbing to the distractions of our gentle, domestic nature. As a mother and the president of a company, I can tell you that this stereotype simply isn’t true.
It seems that, to an extent, Clinton’s team has embraced parts of the “grandmother” narrative as a tactic to make the candidate seem more relatable. But that’s precisely my point. I can assure you that all women are far more complex and multifaceted than socially constructed gender roles would suggest. Let each of us tell our own story.
Recently in conversation, the topic of Jelmar being a third generation, family owned company came up. And I was asked what I thought made me most successful in running Jelmar, a company still strong with family ties and tradition.
I’ve written a lot on this blog about my family and what not only keeps me grounded, but also boosts me up to aspire to do more. Above all, I truly feel that what has made me so successful is rooted in how I was raised as a child. My father never sugarcoated anything with me, and from when I was a young age made set goals and supported my ability to achieve them.
For everyone reading who has children, and who wants to raise them to aspire to be leaders, in whatever industry they pursue, here are some tips I wanted to share after reflecting back on what drove me to success:
- Earn Your Worth – since I was old enough to work, I have worked. Despite my family’s early success with Jelmar, nothing was ever handed to me. So I appreciate the value of working hard and seeing the fruits of your labor at the end of the day.
- Have Perspective – I’m not saving the world with what I do, but I do like to think that I make people’s lives easier. By making chores, which are stereotypically dreaded, a bit easier, I’m giving people the opportunity to do things that really makes them happy. Having this basic perspective keeps you grounded while finding the joy in every day.
- It’s OK to Sink or Swim – It’s ok to not get it right all the time. Kids should learn that it’s when we don’t do as well as we thought we could have that we grow the most. And if you just give it your best effort, that’s really the most important thing. In other words, teach them to “do your best and forget the rest”.
While I bring kids to work, and want them to learn more about the business, at this age they are more interested in running up and down the hall doing cartwheels, rather than learn about the products we sell. But just by exposing to them what I do on a daily basis, and serving as an example of what can happen when you work hard, have perspective and take a little risk, I know I’m instilling in them the values and characteristics that my father shared with me. And whether or not they decide to take on the family business, or venture on to new adventures in their careers, I know they will be well armed to succeed.
Recently the world celebrated International Women’s Day, the theme of which was “Make It Happen”. The day was created to celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future. More than that, I saw it become a platform to really honor the women in our lives and how we, as the one and only Beyoncé says it, “run the world.”
March is also Women’s History Month, which makes this even more fitting. We should be doing more to not only look back at all the trailblazing women who have helped create the ability to have the opportunities we have today, but also to contribute to future generations of women who aim to be 21st century trailblazers. Currently, women-owned businesses contribute more than $1.3 trillion to the U.S. economy and women make more than 80 percent of consumer decisions worldwide.
As the president of Jelmar, I take great pride in my work, not just here at the office, but also at home with my two children. Being able to juggle both work and family life truly has tested me from time to time, but I’ve also found it more rewarding than I ever expected to. That’s why I want to make sure that we as a company are participating in programs that continue to honor the hard work that women are doing every day to create success for their companies and also in their lives. I’m so passionate about this topic that I’ve written about it before on my blog (also quoting Beyoncé) and really have made it a priority in my career.
For example, we are participating in an initiative started by the Womens Business Enterprise National Council and supported by Walmart that commits to sourcing more from women-owned businesses. This program encourages companies to clearly state on their packaging that they are women-owned, making it easy for consumers to select products from women-owned businesses.
Also, I think it’s important to help inspire girls to grow up to be empowered women. One of the ways I do this is by participating in community organizations, such as Community of 200, an organization focused on empowering women and girls by developing women leaders. I’m a firm believer that no one’s circumstances will necessarily prevent them from becoming a great leader. If they have the will, they will find a way. And spending time with girls who want to grow up to become empowered leaders, is truly inspiring. I’m sure there are some girls I have met that will have a blog similar to this one day.
I urge others to look for opportunities to support women-owned businesses as well as help teach younger women that it’s ok to dream big. In my mind, every day should be International Women’s Day. What do you think?
- The unexpected emotional benefits of cleaning
- Why working with family is the worst … and the best
- The Question that Says a Lot About Gender Bias in Business
- Teaching Your Children How to Be Successful
- On International Women’s Day and Empowerment
- A Valentine’s Day for Everyone
- Resolving to Keep Your Resolutions
- Advice for Myself As a Young Girl
- The Importance of Giving Back
- A Culture of Family
- Fall: The New “New Year”
- You Can Lead Someone to Water, But Cannot Make Them Drink