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What "Leaning In" Means to Me

What "Leaning In" Means to Me

I'll take a moment to introduce myself.  With my husband, Dan, I co-founded Makes 3 Organics®.  Here, I've shared my process of becoming a business owner and managing my own expectations of what it means to be successful. We all have a story and a perspective on what it means to be a woman in today's world.  

Whether we are doctors, lawyers, teachers, sales clerks or stay-at-home Moms, at some point in our lives each of us asks the question, is this right for me?  Is the way I am spending my daily life bringing me satisfaction, or is it bringing me stress?  Like each of you, I have a story and I find myself hoping that sharing it might help someone out there make the changes they too need to make in their own lives. Finding my way to starting a business with my husband and taking on responsibilities that allow me to fulfill my desires as a Mother and as an individual person is how I am "Leaning In."

I graduated law school in the spring of 1998 and after a few months started practicing in Chicago.  I set out to be a lawyer to “help businesses” which was my very sheltered idea of what lawyers do who don’t go to court.  Even after three years of law school I would say the world outside of representing plaintiffs and defendants is a vague notion at best.  But I happened to graduate at the beginning of one of the biggest boon periods in our economy and so I learned quickly what it really meant.  Companies were growing and law firms needed lawyers to service their ever growing demands and needs.  One year later The Glass Steagall Act was repealed with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act and as a result banking needs soared and I found myself practicing finance law at one of the most prestigious firms in Chicago; specifically I was mostly practicing securitization which was an area of investment banking that was growing exponentially at the time.  As the barriers between banks and investment firms disappeared, new investments grew and armies of lawyers were needed to paper the deals the banks were making.  It was a wild ride, to say the least.  Myself and my colleagues would find ourselves working 9am to Midnight, six or seven days a week and when deals were closing it wasn’t unusual to find us in the office for two or three days straight with barely enough time to run home and take a quick shower once a day.  At the time, I was exhilarated by all of it and was working with some of the smartest people in the industry and gaining a tremendous amount of experience as a relatively novice attorney.  We all were.  We would typically leave the office and hit our favorite restaurant or bar and stay out drinking until 3 or 4am only to get up a few hours later and do it all over again.   For us at the time, it wasn’t a matter of making sure we could find enough hours to bill to make our annual minimums.  It was more like who was going to get the biggest bonus out of all of us because all of us were assured a bonus for working as hard as we were.  You can probably imagine that working these types of hours under the pressure of closing billion-dollar deals might start taking its toll, and it did for me.  Although I brought my own set of personal problems with me, the stress of the job wore deeply on my psyche and like most of us when we are feeling extreme stress we search for reasons.  At the time I thought it must be the practice area, so at a mid-point in my career I made a strategic decision to migrate my practice to asset based lending and moved my practice to a different firm.  I thought the change of practice area would somehow reignite my energy because I would be actually helping businesses, rather than monetizing a stream of receivables.  But the same stressors followed me to my new firm as well.  Again, I was working with some of the smartest people in the industry and everyone I knew was working through the same stresses as I was.  And yet… there was only one woman partner in that finance group at the time and she was not married and did not have children. Where were my role models?  Who was I supposed to model my career and life after?  Although there were several women partners in my previous law firm, I wasn’t sure that they were leading the type of life that I truly wanted to lead.

Somewhere during my third or fourth year of practice, my firm at the time threw a lavish and impressive retirement party for four men who had spent their entire careers at there.  I was awed by the nature of the event which was held at the Art Institute of Chicago.  The surroundings were amazing and for me, growing up without access and without money, it was the most expensive and impressive event I had ever attended.  It was more beautiful than any wedding I had ever been to.  We all had private tours of the museum and then mingled over cocktails and sat down to a gorgeously prepared dinner.  As the meal was winding up, there were speeches of gratitude and congratulations.  The wine was flowing and the mood was elevated.  Although I cannot recall his name, the last retiree gave a speech that made a lasting impression on me.  He said if he were to be young today he would not choose to go to law school.  He would not pursue a career in the practice of law.  He said that lawyers were no longer counselors to their clients.  Instead, he remarked, lawyers are commodities in which clients now seek the cheapest payment for the least amount of work.  He saw the competition to provide the lowest fees as the downfall of a profession which had been built on trust and expertise.  It wasn’t the lawyers, but the market that had changed.  Law firms were implicated in this evolution, but it was the client that now drove the realities of the profession.  And this was before the realities of electronic practice made us accountable 24 hours a day, seven days a week!  Our jaws dropped - at least until we took our next sip of champagne and shrugged it off to the musings of an old man.

Many years later, when our daughter, Alice, was born, Dan and I did some hard thinking about the trajectory of our lives.  While the career path was laid in front of each of us, Dan was working in the finance group of a consulting firm, we just couldn’t envision how our lives were really going to work.  Would we need a daytime and a nighttime nanny as was suggested to me?  Were we to outsource the living of our lives with housekeepers and cooks and personal shoppers?  Many people do.  But we couldn’t come to terms with it.  In addition, due to severe complications that arose during my pregnancy, I had been home on bedrest for three months, taken another six months off with my paid and unpaid maternity leave and found myself unable to cope with the idea of being away from my daughter for ten or more hours a day.  Feeling the not so subtle message from partners at my firm that my choice to become a Mother was not supported, we made another change and moved back to our hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.  This was just about the same time that our economy collapsed under the bubble that securitization had made, which was cause for reflection at the time as you can imagine.  Many of my friends were being sacked and their prospects of new employment were minimal.  It was a very difficult time for so many.  So I found myself making another practice area transition when I went to work in corporate and finance law for a highly respected Wisconsin firm.  Again, the people were very talented and the work was good but the stress and unhappiness was still there for me.  Now, instead of fighting off the hours, I was scrambling to cobble them together.  And I found myself having to make major adjustments to my practice style because the clients I was working for were very different than the Wall Street and LaSalle Street bankers I was accustomed to.  In Chicago I was used to my client understanding my role and respecting my knowledge and expertise, with smaller clients you have to sell them over and over again that your services are even necessary to what they need to accomplish.  Ultimately, I realized that I didn’t believe that my original calling to go to law school had anything to do with the real-life, actual practice of law.  As the gentlemen had said at during his retirement speech, I couldn’t recommend to anyone that they go to law school.  Through all of the hours I spent worrying that it was me, that I just wasn’t cut out for it, I came to understand that it is not me at all.  The reason that women like me and a growing number of men want to opt-out of the practice of law is because much of the practice today has become inhuman and inhumane.

I say to people that ultimately I left the practice of law because I didn’t have the stress management skills I needed to thrive in the profession.  Many women do and some women manage to make a career practicing in the areas of law which I made my expertise.  But so many more of us do not.  So is it that we don’t have the necessary skills?  Or, is it that the profession asks more than we are willing to give for a job and a paycheck.  During my time in private practice I always participated in recruiting new attorneys and in training them.  It’s amazing to me how truly unprepared we are for our jobs when we graduate from law school.  Intellectually we can learn anything and we do.  Each particular practice area can be learned, the skills can be practiced and competence can be gained.  But it is the reality of the sacrifices required by this and other jobs that prompts people to seek change.  As I mentioned earlier, it’s not just women.  Men too are more and more deciding to walk away from the careers that they invested so much in.  For many men it is even harder because they become the primary financial support for their families many are stuck in jobs that are killing them with stress.  And why is this?  It’s because our clients are unyielding.  Period.  My observations from years of training and attending seminars and being the recipient of women-lawyer-retention programs is that the one thing lawyers know but cannot publicly say is that client expectations are the number one reason that lawyers leave the practice of law.  It is common place for attorneys to be on call seven days a week, any time of day, even on holidays and during special occasions.  It is common to be treated with a lack of respect and for that attitude to permeate a law firm and its culture.  We are not emergency room physicians.  We are not world leaders.  Nothing the overwhelming majority of lawyers are doing with their time is as important as that.  And yet, your clients believe that their matters are more important than saving lives or brokering world peace.  But we live in a very self-important world.

If you have read Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” you will be familiar with her argument that in order for the world to have more female leaders in politics and business that we need more women to stick to their professions and rise through the ranks of leadership.  In order to have more women in the board room, we need more women to show the will to lead.  We need more women to lean in to who they are, take credit for their accomplishments, demand equal partnership with our spouses, know our limits and overcome our fears.  This book has sparked a much needed conversation among women about taking control of their jobs, careers and lives.  I found myself nodding my head in recognition of many of the stories that she told.  Yet, I think many women find Sandberg’s book to be unrelatable, especially if you never opted-in to a professional career or if you decided to opt-out of the workforce altogether to take care of your family.  But I don’t think Sandberg intends to say that we need to stick with careers that take more from us than they give.  When I decided to quit that practice of law it wasn’t because I don’t want to lead.  It’s because I don’t want to lead as a lawyer.  To me, “leaning in” means that I create the opportunities for myself to make intentional choices about how I am going to live my life. 

When I chose to quit my job I knew I would be searching for something outside of our home to put my passions and talents.  But that’s because I know myself and my limitations.  I know that I need a place to put my energy so that I can come back to my family to be present for them.  What I have learned along the way is that being a full-time parent and homemaker is very hard.  It can be isolating.  It can be lonely.  It can be challenging to stay on task without third party expectations driving you.  It can be full of issues socially because the social network of mothers is very different than the social network of an office.  And children can be very hard to deal with day in and day out, all day, seven days a week.  However, I think that society in general negates the importance of the choice to take care of your family.  In addition, because women like Sandberg appear unsupportive of women who do not work outside of the home, the lean-in movement proves to drive an unnecessary wedge between and among women.  Because today’s feminists exclude the stay-at-home Mom, we lose much needed advocacy for women’s rights and women’s issues within the workplace.  Because women who are homemakers are not valued among too many self-proclaimed feminists, we lose the combined female voice around the issues that are children are facing every day and the important role that stay-at-home Moms play in shaping the values of sons and daughters to go out and create a world full of equality.

So what does all of this have to do with you?  What does it have to do with Makes 3 Organics®?  One of the reasons I started Makes 3 with my husband was so I could lean-in to my passions and talents and desires to create a better world.  To do something I love and to build a workplace for others based on mutual respect.  Now my husband has joined me and left a career he was no longer fulfilled by too.  You see, these feelings of workplace stress and dissatisfaction aren’t just reserved for women.  More men want to find work that drives their passions as well.  But I do believe that, moreso than for men, the future for women is in entrepreneurism.  I see no reason to continue to break glass ceilings and to fight for respect and recognition in Top 50 Law Firms or Fortune 500 Corporations.  I see no reason to work in environments that don’t feed our souls.  I see no reason to work for men or women who don’t represent our values or who we are as human beings.  I also see no reason that a Mother biding her time in a dead end sales clerk or admin job, or a Stay-at-Home Mom whose children are now in school and now desires a new challenge in life, can’t take an idea she has for a business and turn it into reality.  So, let’s create environments for ourselves that drive our imaginations.  Let’s create them whether that be a flower shop, an app development company or a home and family that you can nurture.  Let’s help each other.  Let’s enlist the help of our spouses, partners, family and friends and let’s be on the same team creating lives for ourselves full of intention and meaning.

That’s what “Leaning In” means to our company.  It means taking the time to learn about ourselves, to identify our passions, to identify our fears, and to take the big leap of faith to live a life full of intention and meaning.  A life that is not without stress, but one that at the end of the day we are satisfied because we are working in an environment that gives more than it takes.  For us it means owning a business filled with the purpose of helping others live organic lives full of happiness and wellbeing for the body, mind and spirit.  If I can start Makes 3 Organics® and if I can start to make a difference in the world with organic soap just think about what you could do too.

Love and light,

Kristine, co-founder Makes 3 Organics® I @makes3organics I #organicforeveryone

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Kristine Sperling, Makes 3 Organics

Dear Kristin,

I apologize if you misunderstood my message. In fact, I believe the problem is that stay-at-home Moms are marginalized in the feminist discussion. I agree with you whole-heartedly that feminism is about equality for all. But where among feminist leaders do they give value to the myriad issues faced by women who choose to stay at home.

When you read Sandberg’s Lean-In, I believe you will notice the voices of women who choose to opt-out of the work place are ignored. To her leaning in means following the corporate ladder and doing what is expected of you to compete directly with men.

I say, stay home! Or start a business! Be an artist! Be whoever you want to be. Lean in to what your heart is telling you because we don’t have to follow any traditional paths set out for us by corporate America to be happy and successful.

Thanks for sharing so I could clarify.

Now about your allergies, asthma and eczema….

We find that it is an overall lifestyle change that helps the most. Reducing the toxins in food, personal care, cosmetics and cleaning products ~ as long as that doesn’t cause stress ~ and getting more down time and relaxation all help Alice the most.

What do you find that helps the most?


Kristine Sperling
Co-Founder, Makes 3 Organics®

Kristin Michel

Hello Kristine,

I’m sorry to read that you believe feminists exclude stay-at-home Moms. That is not what Feminism is about. Feminism is about equality for all.

I became a feminist as a teenager in the ’70s. I was not allowed the same things as my older brother and the boys in my class. I wanted the same choices that they were given, the same opportunities. I wanted to be treated equally.

Equality applies to everyone, particularly stay-at-home Moms who deserves respect and admiration for the difficult work it takes to bring forth a healthy, happy family. I applaud your accomplishments in all the hard work you have done, not just with you and your family, but the products you and your husband have created for the rest of us.

I, too, suffer from allergies, asthma and eczema, and I look forward to your insights in managing these three.

Kristin Michel

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