As she drove three technology startups to acquisition, Sharon Kan felt judged talking about her struggles as a mother in the workplace.
Now, as chief executive of mom-centric startup platform Pepperlane, Kan is fostering a community of working mothers who want to create businesses of their own to make the work/life balance easier.
The Cambridge company gives women the tools to run small businesses that fit their schedules. Its nearly 4,000 members can build a Web page with a description, services, pricing, and contact information. Using the platform they can opt to receive text message alerts from potential customers.
“I wanted to create a space for women not only to make an income but to be who they need to be,” she said. “I feel that in the workforce today, motherhood is not something that you just show off. I think you shut down creativity and authenticity when you can’t talk about the things that really bother you.”
Kan wasn’t the only mom feeling judged at work. Mothers across the country may hesitate to brag about their kid scoring a winning goal or earning straight As because some employers punish women raising children with a “motherhood penalty,” a term coined by sociologists such as Michelle Budig, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, to refer to employment discrimination some mothers face.
“Employers assume women if they have kids won’t have the same dedication to their jobs as women without kids,” she said.
A 2018 study from the University of Arizona found mothers experience a net wage penalty of 5 to 7 percent per child and are viewed as less committed and capable. This can lead employers to put mothers on a “mommy track” with fewer opportunities for career advancement.
Kan, a 49-year-old mother of two daughters from Tel Aviv, lived in Europe before moving to the United States 20 years ago. Prior to founding Pepperlane in May 2017, she led two startups to acquisition, supply chain management company Demantra and data management company Zoomix. She then founded the Women Innovating Now (WIN) Lab at Babson College and an online publishing platform for kids called Tikatok, which Barnes & Noble acquired.
Kan crafted Pepperlane with mothers in mind, but anyone interested in starting their own business can join. Membership was free for the platform’s inaugural year, but now it costs $199 annually for businesses that sign up before the end of the year and $249 starting in 2019. Membership includes the online tools and discounts on events.
Almost all members — 99 percent — are women, ranging from those in their early 30s to grandmothers in their 70s. Most are mothers of school-age children, but some are new moms or empty-nesters.
The startup has raised $2 million in seed funding so far, Kan said.
Pepperlane hosts in-person and online events. Attendees leave each gathering with one task to work on before the next meeting, such as perfecting a business pitch. More than 100 women connected through breakout groups and dancing to pop tunes at the third Pepperlane Connect conference in Waltham on Tuesday.
“I saw people I haven’t seen since the first conference and it’s great to reconnect with them,” said Jana Blanchette, owner of embroidered T-shirt quilt company JLB Custom Memory Quilts and a mother of three. “It’s really about the personal connections you make and the relationships you start building.”
At the conference, Pepperlane launched its Pepperlane Pathway program, a 30-day online course that requires participants to work on one targeted goal for 30 minutes per day, such as updating their website.
“The way people (usually) build a business doesn’t really fit our lives as mothers,” she said. “We are busy, we are exhausted, we don’t have time to work 24-seven. We realized we would have to develop a very different way for mothers to build their business step by step.”
Katherine Milkosky said she was born to teach math, but working full time didn’t fit her life as a mother of two daughters. Now 37 families pay her Metrowest-based company, Ms. Milkosky, $150 an hour for test preparation and math tutoring.
“There wasn’t flexibility,” she said of her old job. “I get to drop my daughter off at preschool every morning and it’s super cool I get to spend that time with her.”