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Burgeoning businesses: women working from home

Most days the New Entrepreneur who coined the phrase "New Entrepreneur" thinks she may have the best of all possible jobs. She commutes to work in ten seconds flat. Her hours are flexible. Corporate dress codes are nonexistent. And the pastoral view from her office could be the recurring daydream of anyone consigned to eight-hour days in a windowless cubicle.

But there are also those times when New Entrepreneur Terri Tepper thinks she may have the worst of all possible jobs. Her flexible hours are long -- sometimes 12 to 16 hours a day -- and can stretch into seven-day weeks. Distractions are numerous, interruptions the rule. Her boss can be demanding. Worst of all, perhaps, her paychecks are erratic -- and frequently small.

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Terri Tepper works at home -- for Terri Tepper. Operating not one but businesses down her wooded lane in exurban Chicago, she is one of a growing number of women who are trading the security of regular jobs for the risky, often less tangible rewards of their own businesses. They represent the coming breed of productive American, Ms. Tepper believes, and she has written a book to prove it: "The New Entrepreneurs: Women Working from Home" (Universe Books, $10. 95).

Or rather, she has allowed the women themselves to write the book, speaking into her tape recorder and composing oral history after the fashion of Studs Terkel. "Hearing the actual voices of these women has great impact," Ms. Tepper observes, and she is right.

There is a sweep to this book. Forty women speak their piece -- from New Hampshire to Oregon, from the age of 21 to 78, from a pig farmer to a stained-glass artist to the inventor of a "self-cleaning" house. Their incomes range from $500 to $500,000. Yet they share a common experience, and at times their voices speak like a chorus.

The words that come from these mouths are often sober. Most of the women, Terri Tepper discovered, start slowly ("Their confidence has been taken away by being a housewife") and as amateurs. Everything has to be learned, "one mistake at a time."

They also start alone. "Everybody discouraged me except my mother," one says. "No one said, 'It's entirely possible. . . . Others have done it.' I was a pioneer in everything," says mother. What a New Entrepreneur sees as "my business" is often misperceived as "your hobby" by a skeptical husband and friends.

The women find bill-collecting "a lot of trouble," leaving them "always a little behind in cash flow." And restrictive zoning laws mean that "we're all in violation of ordinances. They could close me down in a minute," Ms. Tepper says ruefully.

Clearly this is no compendium of cheerful little stories about "How I earn big money at home in my spare time." Most of the incomes fall below $5,000, with fewer than 20 percent meeting the Tepper definition of financial success: $16, 000 or more. But as the women talk, fascinated and a little astonished by what they hear themselves saying, something else emerges -- something more. The reader is in the presence not only of a lot of little problems but of a great hope -- and a respectable list of triumphs. Among them:

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* Jocelyn Levitt, who turned her "compulsive cooking" into a gourmet catering service in Louisville, Ky. Her husband eventually left his real estate business to help her; they now also operate a restaurant together.

* June Harrison of Palatine, Ill., who netted over $31,000 in 1979 from her home answering service. The business grew out of her need to support nine children and an ailing husband.

* Ferne Williams, a West Orange, N.J. mother of four who "really didn't know what [she] was going to do" after her divorce in 1974. Last year she grossed $ 52,000 from her manufacturing, wholesaling, and mail order business.

Still, the perils of working at home! Siblings spat. Friends call. Laundry gets dirty. Families get hungry. Pets want in. Pets want out. Plants demand to be fed, if not talked to. Priorities conflict endlessly, and quitting time never quite comes.

Just ask Terri Tepper. Her own office, 45 miles from the Chicago Loop and 13 steps from the family kitchen, is a case history in the classic confusions about separation of home and office.

The office decor is Middle America family room. Photos of cats and children dot pinepaneled walls. A "melting" ice-cube sculpture "drips" down a file cabinet. Even disorder seems more domestic than corporate: Cartons looking suspiciously "miscellaneous" are stashed under tables, and file drawers are not always quite closed -- like kitchen drawers.

Sitting at an oversized desk in a ranch house that also contains a husband, two childdren, three cats, a couple of dogs, a sulfur-crested cockatoo, a yellow-naped Amazon parrot, and a fluctuating population of fish, Ms. Tepper may be her own best example of New Entrepreneurial womanhood in action.

Her daughter and son were only six and seven when she started her home businesses. Since much of her work involves long-distance counseling, the children quickly recognized a rival -- and learned to use it.

"They would pick up the extension phone while I was talking to a client," she recalls. "They would talked to me and continue their fight. Perspiration would be running down my face as I tried to carry on a business conversation and settle their fight at the same time.

"I found myself at the beginning not allowing them enough time," she admits. "As a result, they took time when they could get it."

To give them -- and herself -- more time, she devised what she rather expansively calls the "family system." Household task have been split four ways, and the kids have learned to cook. Everybody gets points, starting with one-half point a week for feeding the fish.

The system is flexible. When someone is tired of a job, or unhappy, "we renegogiate."

It's also imperfect. "Right now the dog yard needs cleaning," she admits. "Or somebody will get overzealous in cooking veal scaloppine and won't put any vegetables together. So we have an all-meat dinner." Still, "The kids support the system. People understand what's fair."

Other New Entrepreneurs make similar demands, claiming that families and businesses grow in the process. "These women expect everybody to pitch in," Ms. Tepper notes.

Working out of the home is not a novel idea. There is a very old name for it: "cottage industry." What makes the New Entrepreneur new if her attitude. In almost every case economic need is the immediate motivation. In almost every case economic reward is not the end.Independence, autonomy, and flexibility become demands as imperative as steadily ringing cash registers.

After 98 interviews, conducted with the help of her mother, Nona Dawe Tepper, Ms. Tepper has concluded: "Certain people decide, 'Money will not be my prime motivation -- my talent will.' They will pursue their talent at any cost." And a Vermont quilt designer insists, "I started [this business] for fun and I'll end when it isn't fun."

Beyond money, beyond talent, beyond "fun," these women also find a reborn sense of self. "Personal growth," "self-esteem," "fulfillment" -- the intangible rewards become payment in themselves. Even those whose businesses have folded or whose bottom lines are written in red ink speak enthusiastically about "this positive experience."

One Utah woman, closing her feminist bookstore after four years, still manages impressive optimism: "The experience of doing it all myself did wonders for my self-confidence and self-respect. I now feel I can do anything."

Doing anything, doing everything -- the New Entrepreneur may be the last of the American dreamers. Like all her male predecessors, however, she is paying her very realistic dues. This is really the woman whose work is never done. "I'm completely surrounded by it all the time," one woman sums up.

Has it been worth it? Roll the Tepper tapes. Hear the voices:

"I felt as though I were a human being instead of a piece of machinery or a tool to be used by whoever needed me more than they thought I needed myself." (Frances Gabe, Newberg, Ore., inventor and artist)

"I see me as the director, with the baton, orchestrating." (Chris Birchfield, Cornish, Maine, manufacturer of canvas bags)

What price autonomy? What price not?

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