Looking for OnRamp inspiration? Meet Mary Alice Heape, President, ETCETERA. After nine years as a SAHM, she joined ETCETERA as a fashion consultant. Now she’s the President of one of the fastest growing clothing companies in the country. Here’s YourOnRamp.com’s interview with Mary Alice Heape.
1) You started at ETCETERA as a fashion consultant in 1989. Why did you join the company then?
I had been a stay at home mom and community volunteer for about nine years, my three boys were growing older (three, five, and eight at the time), and though I was not actively seeking a career, I think I was subconsciously looking for a change and a new challenge. I had an inner gnawing that I could do more. I found myself asking what I would be doing when my family was grown. My husband had hinted that it would be nice to be paid for all the free hours I was giving to volunteer organizations. When the opportunity presented itself, I was impressed with the product and the people. I took a risk and jumped right in, as I felt it was a serendipitous chance to build a career resume after so many years away from the work place. I’ve never been afraid of trying new things.
Was flexibility a main driver?
Absolutely! I would not even have considered a traditional nine-to-five job or any job with set hours, as we had made a commitment to be there for the boys during their childhood. Flexibility was not something I could forego. I am an expert juggler and can get things done as long as I can do it on my own time. I don’t mind working hard if I love what I am doing.
2) Tell us about your career path at ETCETERA.
It’s been pretty amazing in that none of it was planned. I believe in giving 100 percent to any commitment by simply doing your very best in the job you are in. Make the most of where you are; take the position to new heights, be creative and a problem solver, and you will inevitably shine in your role. If your name is on something, take that very seriously because you are building a permanent resume. Companies are always seeking those who stand out and are looking for ways to promote.
Have you personally been able to embrace flexibility as your responsibilities increase?
With each new promotion, my children were that much older, so I could take on more responsibility as they became more independent. I still have to actively work each day at prioritizing. I determine two things each day that must get done to make an impact, and I make sure I cross those off my list. The lesser items always seem to fit in. Flexible doesn’t always mean part time ... it means that you may have light days and heavy days, and that may add up to full time hours some weeks and not so much in other weeks, but it’s on your own schedule for the most part. I catch up a lot in the early morning quiet time before the phone starts ringing, or when my husband is glued to sports on TV.
3) As a mother of three boys how were you able to juggle the work and family balance?
I had to redistribute how I was spending my time. I made a vow that if I was going to do something for the kid’s school, it would be where they would see me and remember me as being there. So I said goodbye to chairing auctions and board meetings, and hello to being the class reader an hour a week, driving field trips, and planning and joining their holiday school parties. I chose to be an Indian in my volunteer commitments so I could be a Chief at work.
Do you have suggestions for other moms out there who want to work but want to maintain that balance?
Everyone has twenty-four hours in a day. Period. You must learn to be a master organizer and determine what you can exchange for something else. I enjoy a day that is filled with accomplishment. I choose to be engaged with a career instead of leisure activities. That means I have to get up early, and that means my days are packed, but the rewards are fantastic. Instead of lunching with friends, I now have a nationwide network of women who have become good friends. I feel I am making a difference in the lives of other women. We travel for business and pleasure and my Blackberry and laptop keep me connected. It’s amazing how you can move things around to fit in the social and personal obligations. Maintaining health is important, so now I am exercising early or late, but mid-day is not a choice. It’s all about making efficient choices.
4) You’re expanding in sixteen new markets and adding new consultants. Can you describe your ideal candidate?
Leadership is an important trait—our best candidate seems to be the one everyone turns to to get things done and seems to end up in leadership positions at every turn. She is fashionable, social, outgoing, and typically busy because she chooses to be engaged in life—she does not like to be bored. She is self-disciplined, can prioritize, and can follow through with tasks. If she is challenged in life, she is resilient and seems to bounce back without too much down time.
Are you open to hiring OnRampers, women who have taken a career break to manage family?
Onrampers who maintained social connections in their communities would be great candidates. They have past business experience and understand how careers can be rewarding, both personally and financially, and are good multi-taskers from raising families. Volunteer leaders and natural networkers are best as this is very much for the “people person,” whether the candidate is seeking sales or management. We offer excellent training so the support is there for anyone willing to learn a new business.
5) ETCETERA has grown rapidly and is ranked in the top twenty by Money Magazine for providing flexible careers for women. How important has a flexible work environment been to your corporate success?
Flexibility is one of our biggest draws in all our positions. We can attract the most dynamic and well-educated women in the nation—women who don’t mind a commitment to a career if they can do it on their own schedule. Even now, as President, I have a satellite office in Dallas in addition to our headquarters in New York City, so I can live where I choose and travel as necessary.
Would your formula work for Corporate America?
Corporate America has a ways to go with offering work at home options. Some companies are working toward that and have made improvements, but could do better. It will be a process of showing that it works and that productivity is not compromised. In exchange, the worker needs to prove she is conscientious, available, and efficient regardless of location.
What message could other companies learn from ETCETERA?
You can choose from the cream of the crop if you can offer flexibility. Many women who don’t necessarily “have” to work are very interested in the option if they can get the job done outside of an office environment.
6) What advice can you give women seeking to re-enter the workforce?
Be sure you have the support of your family. If they are rooting for you, anything is possible. It takes coordination from the entire family to make it work smoothly. My boys are now grown men, and are all responsible, charismatic, and independent in their own right. My husband is proud of what I do and the diversity of having a career has been good for our twenty-nine years of marriage. I like to think some of that stems from working together as a family so we all could “have it all.”