woman working at a keyboard
Know the value of your network, but preserve your boundaries.

I was at the flea market in Georgetown, in the late afternoon sun, thinking of all of the women’s narratives that were lost, tears dropped sewing buttonholes, sweat dripping while you roll out the dough, fingers sore while you write another eight stories a week accommodating the world of men in every way, smiling and pretending you don’t mind at all …


Seven years ago, an event occurred in my life that, statistically speaking, was likely to lead to a life of declining earnings and perhaps even poverty as I aged.

I got a divorce. 

I had two daughters in elementary school, enough cash to pay three months of mortgage, and $40,000 in legal bills. My chosen profession, journalism, was a mess. I knew enough about finance and demographics to know my standard of living as a single mom was likely to drop precipitously — just when my children needed me, and stability, the most.

Gritting my teeth, I started to look for a job. But I remembered why I stepped off the career ladder in the first place. At best, my jobs had been uncomfortable. At worst, abusive.

I started my career as a journalist at a small paper in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. At that first job, my editors looked hard at my breasts and my engagement ring.

“That’s a big rock,” said one. I shrugged it off, as I’d shrugged it off when men were promoted ahead of me. When I asked about becoming assistant news editor, I was told,  “maybe in 10 years or so.”

I went on to a job in New York City. I gave birth to my first daughter while working there. My first day back at work after maternity leave, I put in a 15-hour day, turning steadily grayer as the hours ticked, away from my newborn, Lillie. Every couple hours I went to pump breastmilk in the smelly third-floor restroom.

Returning to that corporate world after my divorce, even when everything around me was saying, “you need the security, you need the income,” was unthinkable.

I know that many women are thinking along similar lines right now. Workplaces are re-opening. But a record 4 million people quit their jobs in April, according to the Labor Department. One reason is that people are flush with cash from government aid. They’re thinking: Now is the time. 

They’re also remembering how little corporate America valued them. During the pandemic, stock market wealth was pooling around America’s biggest companies, as they saw parents conduct meetings with children climbing up their backs. Companies could have stepped up to support their employees. They didn’t.

Working people were not their priority. Working mothers and women are never anyone’s priority.

In my journey, seven years ago, I realized I didn’t want to trade one patriarchal system, marriage, for another, corporate America. 

Three Friends

I talked to many friends. My friend Charley Ellis, a brilliant financial advisor, encouraged me to focus on cash flow, so I didn’t feel so overwhelmed by the big picture. Elaine Pofeldt, who left a high-powered editor’s job for a freelance career when she had twins, reminded me that a full-time job offered only the illusion of security. A former boss, Xana Antunes, then a vice president at CNBC, said what I needed to hear most: “I used to be terrified you would quit, because I would have to hire two or three people to do the work you did.”

I knew that I could work harder than most people. Instead of getting a job, I poured myself into a freelance career, becoming a real solopreneur. I built a budget, signed up clients, took risks, overbooked myself, and worked many, many hours. In the early days of my entrepreneurial journey, I worked all day, put my children to bed and then worked more, writing one or two blog posts for $500 each till after midnight. That was a start. 

It has not been easy, but creating my own job allowed me to rebuild my confidence, pay my bills and be flexible for my children. I took two kinds of work: the work where I was being paid fairly, and the work I was passionate to do at a very high level. 

That strategy led me to become an expert in financial writing and reporting, and to travel for many stories, to regions I loved. We lived in Jerusalem for the summer, while I worked for the U.N. I took my girls along whenever I could, which was often. And, I could walk away from toxic work situations. A bad client is a thousand times better than a bad boss.

In 2019, I had built enough of a career to win a grant from the Kauffman Foundation to do more of the kind of business writing I love. I still work until 11 some nights, paying invoices or figuring out marketing strategies for what’s now become a small company, with a couple of employees. My solo journey grew into that of a founder of a business that values humanity and passion.

Entrepreneurship is not a path for everyone, but it can be a better path for many, including people whose value is systematically discounted or erased in today’s workplaces.

I was at the flea market in Georgetown, in the late afternoon sun, thinking of all of the women’s narratives that were lost, tears dropped sewing buttonholes, sweat dripping while you roll out the dough, fingers sore while you write another eight stories a week accommodating the world of men in every way, smiling and pretending you don’t mind at all …

I bought the rolling pin that day in Georgetown, so I could remember the woman who used it. Sometimes, I look up at it, still on my fridge, and hear the voices of so many women whose stories we don’t know, who didn’t get a chance to show the world what they could do.

Two things especially helped me succeed so far, which might be useful for others contemplating a break from a bad system.

Get working capital. Even if you want to quit right now, save enough to give yourself a cushion. 

In the final stages of my divorce, I negotiated for $15,000 in seed capital. I kept it in the bank as working capital, and it enabled me to hold out for larger and better clients, and to make small investments in computers and subscriptions. 

Recognize your own value. 

I recognized the value of the network built up over decades of work, and realized I had the sensibility and wherewithal to use it. Being a journalist meant my network was broad and reached into the echelons of very smart people I’d interviewed for articles. I was lucky. But networking effectively is also something that can be taught. The best piece of advice I received on this front came from the Wealthfront CEO Andy Rachleff, who told me: “Always be one favor ahead.”

For women, it’s especially important to remember not to get more than one favor ahead. There are too many people who want to take advantage of you. Don’t let them do it.

When I look back on the person I was seven years ago – I see a woman who’d had the agency kicked out of her, not only by a bad marriage but by those years of existing in a working world that was fundamentally built for men. This year, I hit another milestone. I published a book, The New Builders, with a co-author, Seth Levine. It’s about the people rebuilding America’s economy, bottom-up, who are mostly women and people of color.

But I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression. Carving a path for yourself outside the patriarchy is not a tortuous path. It’s not only a serious matter.

In the early days of my freelance career, I was taking every assignment I could. Thanks to Xana, some of them were stories for CNBC. One day, I got up early to do an interview with a refugee mother in Jordan, which meant that Lillie, my then 9-year-old, would need to get Quinn, then 5, dressed for school. My kindergartner came out in flowers and stripes, the brightest colors you can imagine. Both my girls were both immensely proud.

A few days later, I took some of my first meager earnings, $50, and bought a giant blowup stack of glowing happy skulls for Halloween. I put on Aaron Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Starting a tradition we carry on every year, we flipped the switch together and watched it slowly puff to full size, laughing uproariously the whole time.

Building a career and a company outside the corporate world has been like that, too: A slow buildup with a little bit of fanfare, and surprising and colorful all along the way.

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.

A business journalist for 20 years, am the founder of Times of Entrepreneurship and the co-author of The New Builders.