Work Wrecked Her Health. She Started A New Business Because ‘It Doesn’t Have to Be this Way.’
Arlene Siller is a mother of two and has her PhD in Biochemistry. She has worked as a biomedical researcher and a grant writer for a nonprofit and now owns her own business while being a single mom. She decided to significantly change her work-life balance when the stress of her career overwhelmed her health. Arlene founded Ascend Nonprofit and Business Solutions, a small business providing grant-writing services via a virtual, remote, contractor-based model. As a business owner, Arlene prioritizes the wellness of her team, allowing them flexible schedules and complete control over how much work they take on. This model has been popular with her team members and clients and hints at a future in which parents can further their careers while integrating care for their families.
This interview has been edited with permission for length and clarity.
Please introduce yourself, your work history, and how you’ve integrated family life with your work.
I started working for a nonprofit research institute in biomaterials and quickly fell in love with it and was doing well. I worked there for about 12 years. I had very supportive bosses straight out of college who encouraged me to pursue my PhD. My bosses allowed me to pursue my education while working until my PhD program required me to work in the laboratory full time to complete my research project.
While I pursued my PhD, I was raising one child and had two babies. There are a lot of requirements to fulfill for a PhD that are incredibly challenging when you are a mom and pregnant. When performing laboratory work, you are standing eight or more hours a day and working six or seven days a week, including nights and holidays. When I was pregnant, I was susceptible to smells. You work in a laboratory and share office space. There was the smell of animal dander, feces, food, and chemicals. I was constantly nauseated. And then, once I had my children, breastfeeding in between science experiments was a challenge. The bathrooms were not equipped for pumping. You pumped by the sink where everyone could see when they walked in the door or washed their hands, and you hoped that the door didn’t open enough for everybody else in the hallway to see. I also defended my dissertation three days before I gave birth to my second child. Those were just some of the challenges.
Then I did a postdoc in a military laboratory, leading to another position where I was a contract program coordinator for a military medicine scientific department. The installation had 7:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. working hours. At the time, it was tough to find quality, affordable childcare that opened at six o’clock in the morning to drop off your kids and get to work on time. Further, because of the nature of my work in the sciences, many experiments I managed required me to work around the clock. It didn’t matter if it was a holiday or birthday or whether I or my children were sick.
To add insult to injury, the military environment was challenging as a contractor with daily issues of inequity, underrepresentation, discrimination, sexual harassment, and lack of support, empathy, and protection. Every day was a fight, which took its toll on my health.
What changes have you made to find a more supportive work-life integration?
Ultimately, I found a position with better hours and more support. I went through a program that helped me determine which of my skills would transition to another industry, and grant writing emerged. I went on my very first interview and got the job as a grant writer for a nonprofit. Within the first month of our probationary period, I secured a $1 million grant for them! So they kept me. I really liked the mission and the people, and I stayed there for four and a half years.
From a family perspective, it was still a challenge. I was in traffic for over an hour one way. Every evening was challenging to make it home at a decent hour to cook, do homework and the laundry, go to a PTA meeting or sports and band practices, etc. The years of stress took its toll on my health, and there were days I didn’t feel like being at work. I was often tired and unproductive in the morning. But you don’t want to use your leave, because it doesn’t stretch far when you have three kids.
While I loved the organization, the stress of being responsible for the organization’s fundraising caught up to me. Every year, my goals were increased by people who weren’t the ones doing the work, and they created fundraising goalposts that felt unrealistic and arbitrary. I was going through a divorce at that time as well. So there was stress at home and stress at work. I woke up stressed and went to bed stressed. I suffered from adrenal fatigue really bad. I had to take time off of work. There was nothing I could do. And that led me to realize I need to change everything about life.
Do you feel the choice to have children was worth it even given the professional challenges that decision has entailed?
Kids are hard! Being a parent is hands down the most complex and challenging experience of my life, and I don’t think that will change. In my experience, they are a sacrifice; they do hold you back from being able to do whatever you want, and they limit your freedom. But having children was a choice worth making. My babies challenge me to be the best version of myself. They force me to think outside of myself and think about what is best for them. Having children has helped me focus and prioritize my life. Every single thing that I approached or was faced with was automatically screened through being their mom.
Having kids kept me young and active; when they were little, we swam, roller skated, and rode roller coasters and bikes. As they got older, we paddleboarded, hiked, and went snowmobiling. They keep you laughing and help you to see the joy in life.
Kids are hope. I have to admit there were days I looked at our world, schools, government, and culture and felt nothing short of terrified to bring a little person into this world! But when I look at my kids, I see hope—so much hope. When I see my kids growing into adulthood but still hold my hand randomly, snuggle up with me on the couch, want to sleep with me when they come home from college, make wise decisions by themselves, do something silly, talk about their future, or tell me they love me, it is the purest, undiluted, natural source of joy on earth!
There’s no question parenting is hard! But it is so rewarding and fulfilling and gives my life both meaning and joy. I wouldn’t change it for the world, and I am so thankful that I was blessed with these little people and that God chose me to be their mom. They were absolutely worth the sacrifices.
Was it a surprise to you that it was difficult to integrate work and family life?
The amount of work it takes to raise children was not a surprise to me. I saw my aunts and cousins putting in the work to raise children, but they weren’t working professional women. What was a surprise was how difficult it would be to continue to pursue my career and raise a family, especially with minimal support. I loved my babies but was intellectually bored with the infant stage, and I knew staying at home was not for me.
I was very blessed to find a fantastic home childcare provider. She was amazing! Her in-laws, teen and adult children, friends, and retired neighbors were always playing with and teaching the children. She only took in six children; two were mine, two were my good friend’s children, and the other two were from wonderful families. We were all very close. My children were in a loving family environment, which took a lot of worry and anxiety off my mind.
But it was still challenging to integrate work into family life and advance in a career I loved. My high-level jobs required extremely long hours, my family responsibilities made it impossible to put in those hours, and my career suffered as a result. Additionally, when I spoke to my employer about my challenges, I was encouraged to go part time and shift to an internal-facing role, which derailed my career. Having a family meant sacrificing advancement and income; at the collective level, it meant the continuation of a pattern in which powerful positions remained the purview of men.
Before starting your own business, was there anything your employers could have done to accommodate you better?
As a contractor for the military, nothing was going to be done. First, it was a male-dominated environment. Second, as a contractor, the atmosphere was, “This is what it is. Suck it up, or leave.” The contract company made it very clear that they would not sacrifice their contracts for anyone. A whole culture needed to change, and that was not going to happen, so I left.
Then, at the nonprofit I worked for, I had a very supportive boss who allowed me a lot of flexibility in my schedule. I didn’t have a strict eight-to-five schedule. The work just needed to get done, and she let me get it done on a schedule that worked for me. As a result, my team met or exceeded our fundraising goals every year. What would have made it better was just the opportunity to work from home. Getting ready and traveling to and from work and the kids’ schools wasted so much time and was stressful.
Tell us about your decision to start your own business and why you designed it the way that you did.
My experience as an employee was a typical eight-hour office day but 50 or more hours a week, because I often also needed to work nights and weekends. As a grant writer, you are always up against hard deadlines to submit grant applications on time, but the people you need the information from often don’t give it to you until the last minute. You often find yourself working until the wee hours of the night to submit before midnight, or you’re working on the weekends, holidays, or vacations because grants are vital revenue for nonprofits. I thought about it and realized that it didn’t have to be this way!
I wanted to create a model that didn’t exist for me. I evaluated every negative experience I’ve had as an employee and asked how I could do it differently. I intentionally built a company with flexibility, feedback, support, meaning, purpose, and pay equity. Ascend Nonprofit and Business Solutions (NBS) is a 100 percent remote, virtual, grant-writing firm. We utilize contractors from around the world. They create their own schedules based on when and how many hours work best for them. They can work for other clients if they choose. They are encouraged to be creative and think outside the box, draw from life experiences, share the workload, and get support from the team. We attract women, military spouses, people with disabilities or health issues, and those going through life transitions. For example, we’ve had several women working for us who care for their parents. In cases where their parent’s health declined, or they passed away, we didn’t say, “I’m sorry for your loss, but you still have two grants to submit this week.” Instead, we took the workload off their plates, reassigned it, and said, “Come back when you are ready.” Some women take off three to four weeks throughout the year for travel, for the birth of their grandchild, or because their college student is back in town.
I’m frequently asked by nonprofit leaders, “How do you not have trouble hiring grant writers?” I believe, more than ever, people want more out of work than money, although our grant writers are paid well. They want more meaning and more purpose. They want to see how their contribution to the workplace makes a difference. They want flexibility, and when given it, they do a fantastic job for your company. Purpose and meaning are a two-way street: our contractors are encouraged to bring their values and strengths to work, and, in turn, Ascend NBS supports the contractor in using those values and strengths in service of its mission and our clients’ missions.
What feedback have your contractors given you about your work flexibility model?
The feedback is positive about the flexible work model, but remote work is not for everyone. Some people do not like working from home, some need more support, and because we are general grant writers, some find writing for more than one client or mission challenging. We also receive great feedback on our process because we’ve systematized grant writing and our support system. I’m also not afraid to exit a client who is challenging to work with, and our grant writers really appreciate it. They don’t feel like they’re being taken for granted. I have had contractors say, “I’ve never been this relaxed about grant writing.” I don’t want them stressed out. Their health and well-being are important to me.
From your perspective, what can the United States do better to support parents?
The other day, I watched the movie 9 to 5, and the things they were trying to put in place in the 80s are still issues that we don’t even have solutions for today. We need things like flexible work schedules, onsite daycares, and support programs. Affordable, quality, flexible childcare is critical for working parents, and childcare providers should be paid well to reduce the high turnover in that sector.
What can the United States do better for contract workers, specifically?
The Department of Labor should form committees representing government; workers; businesses; and freelancers, contract workers, and 1099ers to create specific rules for determining whether a worker should be classified as an employee or independent contractor. As a small business owner, the rules and definitions of 1099 are biased toward making contractors employees. Doing so is costly to a small business like mine and doesn’t serve the needs of independent contractors and freelancers, who in many cases don’t want to be classified as employees.
What advice would you have for individuals who are struggling to balance work and family life?
Well, I don’t think there is a balance. I look at life like a financial portfolio; there are going to be areas of your life that are doing well and areas that aren’t simultaneously. Every week—maybe every day—the areas of life that make up your portfolio will require more or less of your time and energy. You’re not going to be 100 percent to everyone and everything all the time, and that’s ok. That’s life.
Editing credential to Bethany Bartholomew.