Motherhood didn’t kill my career—moving abroad did.
And by “killing my career” I mean that moving abroad completely changed how I needed to view my employment opportunities. It forced me embrace a field that used to terrify me—entrepreneurship.
I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur. Not in a million years. Entrepreneurism was too risky, too uncertain, and too extroverted for my inner nerdy introvert to ever consider as a possible career choice.
Besides, I’m pretty skilled at learning languages and motivated to integrate into local society. Finding a traditional local job will be a snap, right?
I don’t have the “risk-taking gene” or the “wanderlust gene” gene, I have the my-brain-needs-to-be-engaged-to-be-happy gene and when landing a job in my field ended up being much more difficult than I had imagined, entrepreneurship was my best option.
But…I’m not an entrepreneur…
If you don’t like the term entrepreneur because you associate scary amounts of risk with it then embrace the term, “digital nomad.”
It’s so much sexier and sounds like we are very 21st century, no?
But why is everyone pushing entrepreneurship onto expat partners?
Flexibility is Necessary
During a conversation with Tandem Nomads creator, Amel Derragui, we both commented on how we never thought entrepreneurship was right for us until it became our only choice. Amel’s mission is to help expat partners discover their passion and assist them on their entrepreneur journeys.
“Most expat partners don’t initially think that they’ll need to become entrepreneurs, but most of them do. It solves a problem,” Amel explains.
The problem—knowingly unsaid—is creating a flexible career that a highly-mobile person can take wherever they go and entrepreneurship is the solution.
At the Families in Global Transition Conference, I met tons of life coaches, expat partner career coaches, relationship coaches, artists, designers, and relocation experts—all entrepreneurs who figured out that their highly mobile lives required highly mobile careers.
Hypothetical conversation with 98% of managers
“Hey boss, we are going to be moving every two years. Can I take my job with me wherever we go?”
“Uhh, no. We need you in the office. Here. In this country.”
“Well, okay then. Guess I’ll be unemployed for a while or figure out how to make money on the side doing something else.”
Let’s face it—how many families can successfully maintain two traditional careers while changing locations every few years? Not many.
Something’s gotta give at it’s usually the expat partner’s career that is forced to become malleable.
But how was I supposed to know that I would need a mobile career when I never knew we’d be living abroad?
Without a crystal ball, it’s nearly impossible to pick the right career choice that can easily work with a mobile lifestyle when you originally had no intentions of ever leaving your country.
And yet, when the opportunity to live abroad arose, the only way for me to maintain any semblance of a career was to convert to consulting/freelancing.
Freelance Feast or Famine
The transition from full-time employment to project-based-but-mostly-at-home-with-my-baby employment was a welcomed change. I was a new mom—our son was only nine-months-old when we relocated—and I was comfortable slowing down my career to focus on my baby.
It felt like a natural progression to move from a full-time public health career into a project-based consulting career.
Taking on projects as a public health consultant allowed me to keep my toes in my familiar pool of work while still allowing for immersion into other realms like motherhood and what-the-hell-am-I-doing-in-Sweden things.
At first, I was too busy with my public health projects to even think about anything else. I was stretched to the max—waking up at 4:30 am for calls with colleagues in India, cranking out proposals 9 am – 3 pm while the kiddo was at preschool, and then again on conference calls with east coast colleagues 9 pm – 11 pm every night.
Slowly, over the course of a year, my projects ended and new ones fell through. I intentionally declined a few projects when my daughter was born and found myself without anything on the horizon except for baby snuggles and time.
Without any projects on the horizon, I dove deep into life. We took the opportunity to travel while my husband was on parental leave and I focused more on enjoying my family time.
"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." —Benjamin Franklin
Imagine two faucets pouring into a deep sink—one pouring out statistics, epidemiology, and public health knowledge and the other pouring out poetry, music, and writing.
For me, only one faucet can be turned on at any one time. When the public health faucet turned off, my faucet of creativity turned on which led to the Knocked Up Abroad series.
Had I not experienced a famine in my public health projects, I never would’ve been able to create those books.
What seemed like a disaster at the time (no money, waah!) led to the discovery of an amazing passion that I had no idea was bubbling under the surface.
Quiet times in consulting/freelancing are totally part and parcel of entrepreneurship. Embrace those moments to learn new skills and make new connections that will help you during the busy times.
If you have some time, there’s a great TedX talk that explains exactly why this happened and how boredom is perfect for our brains to create amazing things.
[Tweet “When you don’t have any projects, learn new skills to help you during busy times.”]
Little Risk, Big Reward
Sweden has created an environment that makes it extremely challenging to secure securing full-time employment if you are not a fluent Swedish speaker.
I’m not the only one who has experienced troubles getting hired—it’s a common issue for highly educated immigrants.
My friend, Laras Piniji, originally from Indonesia, worked extremely hard to obtain a Masters Degree in International and Comparative Education at Stockholm University, became fluent in Swedish, and after four arduous years, she landed a full-time position with a Swedish company. She is my hero and role model. She took on the Swedish establishment head on and dominated in a way that I wish I could.
Another example is the impressive Emily Joof who moved to Sweden ridiculously overqualified for her position in a preschool. She found that finding a job in her field was extremely difficult despite having over five years of experience doing project management for NGOs including working for the UN. After 210 applications, she was finally successful in landing her dream job.
Not going to lie, I’m not keen on getting another Masters degree or submitting 210 applications in pursuit of a job that will result in less flexibility and a longer commute (my 10-second commute upstairs is tough to beat), all to work for someone else.
There has to be another way for me to utilize my skills while still working for myself.
Luckily, Sweden’s social infrastructure of universal healthcare, pension plans, and parental leave entitles entrepreneurs to all the same social benefits as traditionally employed workers.
This “low-risk, high reward” environment allows for wandering entrepreneurs in Sweden to take bigger leaps into the start-up world than we might have in another country with less social infrastructure.
Life As An Accidental Entrepreneur
But what if you don’t live in the magical start-up world of Sweden and are hesitant to take the leap like I was?
You may be an “accidental entrepreneur”—someone who never anticipated needing to create a mobile career for this lifestyle that you never anticipated living.
Or maybe you just don’t want to return to a 9-5 office job (those can be really boring).
Fortunately, you can do a lot of things to get started:
Identify what skills you have that you can market and sell as either services or products
Are you an artist? Photographer? Writer? Maybe your mobile lifestyle has put you in contact with a lot of international school people and you want to write a guide to help other parents navigate the international school life.
If you don’t want to market yourself, that’s fine. Then you don’t have a business, you have an expensive hobby.
Here are 9 factors you should evaluate when thinking about a business idea.
Figure out how to register as a sole proprietor or create a business wherever you will be paying taxes
In my case, this was the country in which I was permanently residing (Sweden). This step requires doing a lot of research into your work visa requirements, tax implications, and becoming a legal entity so definitely take your time on this step.
Get to work!
Once you’re all set up you’ll discover that working for yourself is pretty awesome. However, if you’re not a good boss—meaning you’re either too lenient or too hard on yourself—you either won’t get any work done and your business will die or you’ll burn out and be miserable.
Be a good boss and you’ll be a happy worker. Funny how that happens.
I will say that it is much easier to work hard on a topic that I am passionate about than one that is boring and isn’t really what I want to do.
It is a joy to stay up late working on a project that makes my heart sing. I can’t wait to sink my teeth into my next challenge and my passion drives me forward. I never said that about any office job I had previously.
The first few years will probably yield…not much
I blame those free webinars titled, “25 ways to make $10,000 in 100 days” for setting unrealistic expectations for new entrepreneurs. It is highly unlikely that you’ll see much income in the first few years of starting any business and it takes at least five years of hard work and dedication before you’ll see much growth.
Give yourself plenty of time to get ramped up and before you know it, you’ll be chugging along.
If you want to connect with more entrepreneurial-minded expat partners, there are a slew of Facebook groups out there.
Here are just a few groups I highly recommend:
And there are a ton of articles:
Some major takeaways from all of this:
- If you’re an expat partner, you may find entrepreneurship is your only option for employment, especially if you are highly mobile
- Your expectations for employment abroad may not be based in reality
- Your assumptions about entrepreneurship may be completely incorrect
- Despite your education, you may need to retrain or learn the local language in order to be employable
- “Losing” your traditional career may be the best professional move in the long run
- Don’t be afraid to take risks especially if the rewards are high and you don’t have much to lose
- Discovering a hidden passion is the best gift you can imagine
- There are tons of resources already available and people who want to help you become a digital nomad
Did your career change when you had kids or when you moved or both?
Let me know on our discussion on Facebook.
Want some inspiration about expatriation, career, and motherhood? I spoke to two moms who went through a huge career transition in Sweden.