by Susan Hammel, Founder and President Cogent Consulting
Now that my 2 babies are grown up, I can’t help but ponder the question we asked back in the 1990’s, can we balance family and career?
Now that both kids are launched into adulthood and I’m at the red hot center of the impact investing movement, driving private capital to work for good in the Twin Cities and beyond, I’d say yes, we can, just not all at the same time.
I’m perplexed that we’re still posing this question. Call it youthful optimism or naivety, but I certainly thought we would have been getting closer to parity by now, for all.
Maybe I felt optimistic because of the times. I grew up in the 70’s: the decade of Women’s Lib, the ERA, Kids are People Too, the Sunshine family dolls, and Free to Be You And Me. Of course it was also the decade of the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the Love Canal Disaster. Still, looking back it was a great time to grow up, especially as a woman. I had so many inspiring female role models: Gloria Steinem, Coretta Scott King, Geraldine Ferraro, and of course my own mother, who the Star Tribune calls the “Unsinkable Bette Hammel”.
During my teen years in the 80’s, I loved the catchy and tad racy ad for Enjoli Perfume. I didn’t like the scent but I loved their you can have it all attitude. The 80’s photo below links to the 1978 ad, which I prefer since they included the awesome “because I’m a woooomaaan” refrain.
Coming of age in the muscular women’s movement with progressive parents, strong women forebears, and powerful female mentors on Wall Street meant that I thought I could have it all at the same time, too.
In the early part of my hard-charging career doing corporate finance and impact investing with Prudential Financial, earning my CFA, gaining a Masters in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, conducting credit analysis for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and serving as Chief Credit Officer for the City of St. Paul, I never thought I’d feel such an overwhelming love and desire to be devoted to a tiny being (6 pounds 4 ounces). But when my little girl was born, everything changed. After surviving newborn hell, as we so aptly called it, I wanted to be with her as much as possible. I felt the same way a short 18 months later when my son was born.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my job as Loan Program Director for what is now Clifton Larson Allen and as a mentee of Susan Kenny Stevens, PhD, who pioneered much of what we call impact investing today. In helping nonprofits and small businesses obtain loans when banks couldn’t and empowering them to be smart about money, I had found my calling.
Or did I?
Life as a working mom frustrated me. I felt like I was doing a sub-par job as a parent and as an employee. I suppose that’s my Type A personality. And as my boss said, you can’t get A’s in both motherhood and career. The Pioneer Press even penned an article about my decision: They Gave Up Dream Jobs.
Turning to my comfort tool (creating a spreadsheet), I figured out if I didn’t buy new clothes, furniture, meals out, a new car or travel, I might be able to work less and be at home more. Hey, that old, rusty 1986 Mercury Topaz might run for a few more years, right?
Several fortunate prerequisites made my choice to work less possible:
In the 1970’s our feminist pioneers believed in a world where everyone, (yes, that means men too), has choices. We’re a long way from that ideal, since the vast majority of mothers don’t have the choice to be at home with their kids. Single moms face enormous challenges, as I would find out the hard way.
We need Scandinavian style parental leave and many other reforms. We need supportive work environments, flexible hours, on-site day care, and affordable housing. Choice for the privileged few is not choice; it’s just another entrenched privilege.
In my time as a stay-at-home mom, though, I have to say I only lasted about 4 hours. That’s when Paul Williams, then running Twin Cities LISC, called to see if I was ready to consult. Boy was I: it turns out my baby slept a lot and I got a little bored. And lonely. And sort of rudderless. But that’s a story for another time.
I’m sharing my personal journey because I’m troubled to hear that working moms deciding to pivot from full-time work are feeling social censure from their peers for making the same choice I did. This blog is my mother’s-month love letter to you and my message is yes, whatever you decide, it’s ok to follow your heart to make the right choice for you and your family. Your choice may look different than mine: full or part-time work, flexible work, work-sharing or your partner may stay at home.
As my babies grew, I took on more projects until I realized I had the makings of a company: Cogent Consulting, a financial and strategic advisory firm for mission driven organizations.
Now I serve as Executive in Residence for the Minnesota Council on Foundations thanks to the Otto Bremer Trust and Bush Foundation, energize the Twin Cities Impact Investing Ecosystem and lead Cogent. With my kiddo’s safely propelled into adulthood, I am 110% devoted to making a difference with my working life.
My message to parents considering stepping off the fast track is that full-time work will be here when you come back. Just don’t drop out completely. Here are my tips:
The humbling truth is that we’re all replaceable at work. But only YOU can be your child’s mother or father and the time really does go by fast. Whether it’s going part-time, asking for reassignments that make family life more manageable, or juggling with your partner, DO IT! On their deathbed no one ever says gee, I wished I had spent more time at work.
In making the choice that’s right for you and your family, I’ll leave you with the words and tunes from the invincible Helen Reddy. This song inspires me every time to follow my heart and I hope it does the same for you, and men, too!
I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
Tweet me your working mom stories @susan_hammel.
Susan Hammel Bio: As a philosophy major who went to Wall Street, Susan Hammel translates between passionate social changemakers and expert accountants. In her role as President of Cogent Consulting, Susan is celebrating 20 years as an impact advisor and is serving her second year as Minnesota Council on Foundation Executive in Residence for impact investing thanks to support from the Bush Foundation and the Otto Bremer Trust. Her daughter, now 21, is a college junior studying social justice and her son, 19, is a freshman pursuing entrepreneurship. Like in her youth, Susan remains optimistic and passionate about changing the world and enjoys downtime by the lake with her husband and blended family.
Top of my mind these days is investing in line with Diversity, Equity, Inclusion values. Many institutions promised bold moves after George Floyd was murdered. Who is following through and doing this well? Racial justice requires new pathways for capital flows. I’m excited to be part of the McKnight Foundation’s Groundbreak Coalition, aiming to deploy $2b in flexible capital over 10 years to disrupt the status quo. In Minnesota we are a generous state, a charitable state, a hard-working state: we need to try new approaches to create that famous quality of life for all. We are leading a session on Place Based Impact Investing at the Mission Investors Exchange conference in Baltimore. Reach out if you’ll be there so I can include you in the informal MN meet-ups.