Meet the Mompreneurs

Is it Possible to be a Gables Mom and Launch a Business from Home? Here Are Four Women Who Say Yes

By Doreen Hemlock//Photography by Lizzie Wilcox

September 2019

This month, we look at four Coral Gables women who juggle the dual responsibilities of nurturing a business and a family, and how they approach such challenges as time management, childcare and raising capital for their ventures.

They’re moms and entrepreneurs, a combo some call mompreneurs. All launched from, or now run their businesses in, Coral Gables. Two have companies a decade old. Another started her website this spring. One rents a large office-warehouse to sell gift products, while the others work largely from home. Violette de Ayala, founder of FemCity, the 10-year-old firm that helps women start and grow businesses, knows the joys and struggles well. Her advice to fellow mompreneurs and all women developing their own businesses: Focus. Say “no” to those things that don’t align with your goals. “You can have everything in life, but it’s going to be in compartments,” and not all at the same time, says the FemCity chief.

Violette de Ayala

Born in Coral Gables of Cuban Parents | Serial Entrepreneur | Age 47 | Children: Ages 13, 19 & 25

Business: FemCity, which helps women start and grow businesses through networking, conferences online classes and more. Now expanding across the U.S. and Canada, and going into France

Violette de Ayala was running her own public relations firm, doing work for the mayor of Miami, when the craving hit: She yearned to share with fellow women entrepreneurs. She began chatting with peers, with no intention of making that outreach her business. But the “passion project” grew, and when her existing PR contracts finished, she switched gears to focus solely on helping women develop businesses.

That was in 2009, and though she’d had many ventures before – even a personal training studio at age 22 – de Ayala harbored fears. She had a liberal arts education from Florida International University but no business degree nor experience in a major corporation. Could she make it in community-building? She wondered.

It turns out that such doubts are widespread among women business founders, and bonding together actually helps address those fears, build confidence and expand the entrepreneurial community. The most important thing de Ayala says she’s learned in building her venture, FemCity: “If you don’t believe you can do it, you’re never going to do it,” she says.

FemCity now has signed up more than 20,000 women at 100 plus locations across the United States and Canada, with plans to enter France soon. Members meet monthly, and the business offers online classes, conferences and other programs – all with a gratitude component. “I always want it to feel like a home for women, not clinical or corporate-y,” says de Ayala.

Memberships now run $99 per year, though women can join for $9.99 per month or 30 days for free. Groups usually cap out at 25 women to stay intimate, but conferences can attract thousands – as at recent events she staged in Des Moines and Philadelphia. Online sessions range widely, from how to market on Instagram to how to silence “negative talk” in your head. “If you see you can inch your way forward bit by bit, it gives you confidence,” she says. De Ayala started the business with $35,000 and now employs three people in the U.S. and Canada.

Over the years, the FemCity chief has culled plenty of valuable advice for entrepreneurs. One unconventional tip: Know yourself and when you’re most productive. “Design your schedule based on your energy levels,” says de Ayala, who works best in the morning and hardest earlier in the week. A practical hint: Treat your home office as much like a conventional one as possible, separating yourself from chores like laundry or dinner to stay focused on business tasks. She gets home help from family members who sometimes pick up the youngest child from school.

De Ayala says many women entrepreneurs falter because they say “yes” too often. They overcommit to others, because they’re excited and want to help out. She suggests instead to the nurturing founders, “figure out your fundamental goals and stick to that path.”

Use the marketing platforms that are out there for free to really leverage your business

Vanessa Liebl

Gables Resident Born in Texas of Bolivian Parents | Nonprofit Volunteer | Age 39 | Children: Age 5, and by Marriage, 22

Business: ChoiceMD, which offers people with medical conditions listings of healthcare providers, information on support groups, and medical news articles

Vanessa Liebl was only 21 years old when she lost sensation in both legs. It took doctors more than a year to diagnose her with multiple sclerosis, a disease that affects the flow of information in the nervous system. She knew nothing about MS then. “I didn’t know how much time I had to live,” she says.

Doctors offered her mainly clinical information. So, she had to do her own research and seek out nonprofits for help – for body, mind and spirit. “I went to MS Society support groups on a weekly basis, and they had real answers, because people there had actually been through it,” says Liebl.

After college, she volunteered at MS-linked nonprofits, first in Houston, and since moving to South Florida, with MS Walk of Coral Gables. Yet Liebl saw that nonprofits often struggled to get their message out because of small budgets.

Her answer: A website launched in March, ChoiceMD, aimed to help folks like herself with unexpected diagnoses to connect with doctors, therapists, support groups and other resources. Liebl started this “passion product” from home, initially offering listings for some 2,700 local doctors, a calendar of events from some dozen local nonprofits, and articles from a medical news service. It’s tougher than she imagined. One challenge: “finding talent on a limited budget.” She’s also encountered “a steep learning curve” to master the nuts and bolts of entrepreneurship without lots of business training or experience. “You think you’re going to put in 100 percent of your passion and you’re going to be successful,” she says. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Fortunately, Liebl is learning creative ways to juggle time to meet the needs of her business, her family and her health. She takes her daughter to school by bicycle, so she can exercise along the way. She quits work for a bit when her daughter needs urgent attention. “If I give her those 15- 20 minutes to play a game, then I often can get an hour of my own time to work,” she says. And she’s been hiring freelancers for specific business needs.

Liebl sometimes wonders whether mompreneurs are held to “unrealistic and unattainable standards” to build both a strong business and a strong family. Dads with startups, in contrast, aren’t typically expected to hold down the fort at home, too. “Patience is the name of the game,” she concedes.

Over time, Liebl hopes to develop ChoiceMD into a “B” Corporation, a “social enterprise” certified for providing benefits beyond profits. She’d also like the site to go national, serving communities beyond South Florida with localized information. “We probably won’t pop up No. 1 on your desktop Google search yet,” says Liebl, “but we’re working on it.”

Prioritize what’s important and get comfortable with what you can do

Melanie Fernandez

Gables Resident Born and Raised in Miami Area | UM Law School | Age 33 | Children: Ages 3 and 2

Business: House of Lilac, which sells upscale bouquets and provides online tutorials, mainly to Millennials who buy online

As a young lawyer pressed for time, Melanie Fernandez often turned to the internet to find unusual, quality gifts for friends and associates. But too often, she found options to be the same: Traditional baskets wrapped in cellophane that her grandparents’ generation sent out. “What if there were something more modern?” the occasional blogger asked.

The Coral Gables resident searched online and found vendors nationwide offering small-batch, high-end items: chocolates from California, nuts from Michigan, sea salt and spices from Oregon, popcorn from New York, to name a few. In 2014, she left her law firm and expanded her blog into selling those gift items in wooden boxes. Customers began asking for floral arrangements, too – partly because the process of buying from sites like 1-800-FLOWERS could be cumbersome and their range of options dizzying.

Fernandez researched online and came across an Australian company that offered lovely, handheld bouquets. She decided to offer local customers bouquets of high-end, uncommon and seasonal flowers in an easy-to-click format: $45 for a single bouquet, $90 for a double and $135 for a triple. She marketed the flowers to fellow Millennials on Instagram and other social media, first posting photos and later, short videos on how to make bouquets, garlands and wreaths. Sales have been soaring ever since.

Today, Fernandez’s House of Lilac has 13,000-plus followers on Instagram, with some 85 percent of sales coming from that media alone. She now rents a warehouse off Miller Drive to handle all the flowers, and she employs two people full-time and three part-time in the fast-growing endeavor.

To fund continuing expansion, she’s just raised more than $50,000 online through New York-based iFundWomen, a crowdfunding platform that backs women-led businesses. The fundraiser took two months of preparation to create photos and videos and devise rewards for contributors, including private workshops on how to make bouquets. Fernandez leveraged her Instagram base as part of the 45-day push, collecting $40 each from dozens of local companies for a “corporate shout out” during the drive.

Of course, the shift from lawyer to mompreneur-employer has brought doubts and dilemmas. Fernandez worried, for instance, whether customers might think she was “unsuccessful” if she turned to crowdfunding. To manage stress, she now takes time to exercise, to meditate, and – when things go wrong – not to dwell on the mistakes but rather “learn from the failures and move on…

“Everything that’s worth it in life is challenging,” says Fernandez. “You’ll have to go through the learning pains, but it’s worth it,” she advises other mompreneurs. “Just go for it. Put your blinders on, and don’t get caught up with what can go wrong.”

Go for it. Ignore the voice in your head that is putting fear into you

Boo Zamek

Born in Cincinnati, Raised in Coral Gables | Public Relations Professional | Age 47 | Children: Ages 15 & 13

Businesses: Just Ask Boo and Just Ask Domestic Help, Both Launched in Coral Gables to Help Families Find Local Services

Working from home may seem idyllic for mompreneurs, but there are often drawbacks, Boo Zamek has learned. On the plus side, “You can say, ‘I’m going to pick up my daughter and will call you at 4:30 p.m.’ – something you can’t easily do if you work in a bank or law firm.” But on the minus side, “You work a lot more and never really disconnect.”

Zamek has been working from home for 15 years after long stints at a bank and then with a public relations firm. “When the children were born, I wanted to be more in charge of my own schedule,” she says.

Based at home in the mid-2000s, before Facebook took off, she realized how moms often struggled to find local services, from nannies to plumbers, or to meet specific needs like “somebody who makes sterling-plated widgets.” She started a digital newsletter for referrals in greater Coral Gables called Just Ask Boo, using the nickname she’d picked up as a child playing peek-a-boo. Soon, so many readers wanted referrals for household help she launched a separate venture for that: Just Ask Domestic Help.

Today, Boo distributes her online newsletter to nearly 15,000 email addresses each week, funding the venture mainly through ads from local businesses (Mercedes-Benz of Coral Gables is a client) and nonprofits, including schools and summer camps. Her domestic-help service offers a database of hundreds of candidate profiles. Subscribers pay $159 for six week access, or $218 for a premium service. More than 170 families are now subscribed, she says.

Both businesses keep evolving, Zamek says. As Facebook has become popular for recommendations, she’s scaled back the newsletter from three times a week to once weekly and shifted the focus more to family events around town. She’s also redefined “local.” At one point, Zamek expanded into Palm Beach County, but found her technology insufficient and retrenched. Her newsletter now sticks close to the Gables, while the domestic help venture serves Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Working from home, Zamek sometimes misses face-to-face contact with peers. So, she meets about once a month with a male entrepreneur friend to talk shop. She finds his views refreshing. “There’s a mom guilt thing. When we’re working, we feel like we should be with our kids, and when we’re with our kids, we feel we should be working,” she says. “Men are wired differently. They have less guilt. We can learn from them.”

She also bonds regularly with female businesswomen, collaborating with a local nonprofit called The Mom Economy. Zamek says she’s seen too many mompreneurs falter over the years, because they underestimate the work a business and family take. “You really learn how to manage your time,” she says.

Do your homework and research to make sure your dream can come to fruition