Allison O'Kelly is having a hectic day.
Oh, sure — it all looks perfectly calm, with Daisy, the golden retriever, sleeping at her sock feet, a space heater's quiet hum the only noise in this spacious second-floor home office. Outside, snow blankets her upscale Farmington, Conn., neighborhood; picturesque trails carry huffing bikers and brisk walkers through woody glens. But O'Kelly (BBA '94) is in her usual pose: cross-legged in front of her PC, chipping away at the 100-plus emails she receives daily, aimed at matching employers with the 35,000 job-seekers in her Mom Corps database. Another nearby computer holds the complex financial spreadsheets she's working on to keep this $2 million business rolling. She calls a broker about selling her first franchise, and touches base with employees in Atlanta. She's also planning a family trip to Costa Rica. On the phone, she repeats one word often: "Perfect," she says, clipped and upbeat, occasionally adding, "I like easy." Just when it all seems under control, an underling appears in the office doorway to report a critical technology breakdown.
"Mom," says 6-year-old son Nolan, head cocked, arms akimbo, "the Wii won't load Mario Kart."
On a snowy day with two young children at home, there's only one response: Head downstairs immediately. Email, spreadsheets, franchises, and trip-planning can wait — the potential peril presented by a duo of young, bored boys is too dangerous to ignore.
A small emergency, to be sure. But only a few years ago, "a hectic day" looked like something entirely different to 36-year-old O'Kelly. She was poised to leap into the high-level executive's life she had dreamed of, and prepared for, since she was a little girl in Maryland. Daughter of a doting, full-time "June Cleaver mom," as a child O'Kelly "begged to work," says her mother, Elly Karl. And work she did, starting at age 14 in a bakery, moving on to a children's shoe store and The Limited in high school, always carefully saving her earnings. "Allison always had money," says Karl. "Whenever we needed it, we knew who to go to."
After earning an accounting degree from Terry, O'Kelly gained entry into the Harvard Business School's MBA program. Then, as now, female business students were a minority at the elite Ivy League grad school, although the projected figure for 2010 (38 percent) has increased 10 percent over the last 15 years. She remembers a Harvard dean welcoming new students to the prestigious university, telling them, "Let me assure you that right now, every person in this room feels you were an admissions mistake."
With her Harvard MBA in hand, O'Kelly went to work for Toys R Us, where she was eventually put in charge of the company's Alpharetta store. It was a heady time to be at one of the most innovative and successful retailers in the country. But in 2003, her first son was born, throwing chaos into her already action-packed, but carefully calibrated schedule. She took four months off — a combination of paid and unpaid leave — and prepared to return to work part-time.
O'Kelly was well aware of the choices she faced, a stark reality rarely mentioned by those who still believe "having it all" is a can-do proposition. With her time-off limits stretched to capacity, she prepared to take her infant son to day care. Even with understanding, patient employers, the alternatives were bleak. She has ticked off the stats while speaking to Terry students.
A 2004 study showed that women, who typically face salaries 10-20 percent lower than their male counterparts in their first year of employment after graduation, graduation, fall much further behind in their childbearing years if they take extended leaves. More than half of the women surveyed spent at least a year out of the labor force, with the long-term result of a 32 percent pay cut, compared to women who did not leave. Two years off slashed pay by 46 percent; three by 56 percent.
"What a waste of talent and training," says O'Kelly, whose native intelligence, education, and energy could not counter the effect of one small infant who developed a dairy allergy. The year of tests and worry it took to uncover the problem exhausted her sick leave — and her heretofore unflagging spirit.
Reluctantly, she quit Toys R Us. "To this day I still miss that job," says O'Kelly, who hung out her CPA shingle and got back in touch with former colleagues at KPMG, her first job after college. She quickly found as much contract accounting work as she could handle — and more.
"It started out with me hiring other people — usually moms — who were qualified CPAs looking for flexible work they could do at home," she says. Word got out about O'Kelly's mini-army of professional working women looking for more part-time, temporary, or at-home work, just as businesses began outsourcing more high-level operations. Soon, she realized she had a business idea, and the ideal background to make it happen. "Being a CPA again was only a placeholder until something better came along," says O'Kelly, "and it did."