2005 – Mothers of invention
What do J K Rowling
and Aki Maita have in common? Both were mothers
struggling to make ends meet when they had ideas
that would amass fortunes worth millions.
Ms Rowling’s idea, the
Harry Potter books, would make her one of the
richest women in the world. In contrast Ms Maita,
inventor of the Tamagotchi toy, continued afterwards
to work in a salaried and relatively modest management
role for her Japanese employers, the Bandai toy
Despite these differences, both
were able to enjoy the satisfaction of seeing
their ideas entertaining a generation of children
all over the world. Neither of these entrepreneurial
women, however, was able to draw on advice about
how they should go about getting their work in
to the marketplace and both faced a struggle to
convince executives that their ideas would sell.
Tamara Monosoff, a former White
House staffer-turned-inventor, noticed that there
were thousands of women in the US facing the same
issues: how do you go about bringing an idea to
market when you’re raising a family and
may have little or no business experience? Her
response was to establish Mom Inventors, Inc,
a web-based business that markets the ideas of
Most of the ideas are related
to the everyday issues faced in child rearing.
The web site features products such as a the Mini
Bites Crustless Sandwich Cutter, the Thumbkin
for stopping thumb sucking, and Udderly Yours,
a pillow that holds the breast in position for
“hands free nursing”.
Among the best sellers are the
TP Saver, that prevents toddlers from unrolling
toilet paper, Shoe Clues - stickers that enable
children to distinguish left and right shoes –
and Fridgefile, a magnetic filing and message
A number of other popular buys
on the site, however, are product development
seminars designed to help women bring their ideas
to market. Responding to the demand Ms Monosoff
has now written a book, The Mom Inventors, Inc
Handbook, which, as she points out, is for anyone
who seeks to be an inventor. It just happens that
all her examples are American mothers.
Among the featured inventions
is something called the “Couponizer”.
This is a system for organising the discount product
coupons you can cut out of newspapers and magazines.
As one of those people who doesn’t have
plastic loyalty or “points” cards
for supermarkets and petrol stations and who has
never in his entire life cut out a coupon for
anything, I couldn’t think of anything more
But a lot of thrifty people
– mainly women – do cut out coupons
and know what a difference they can make to the
weekly shopping bill. Amy Bergin, inventor of
the Couponizer, was one of them. She did some
market research and found that $336bn in coupons
were distributed in the US in 2002. Of those,
about 3.8bn were redeemed, producing savings of
$3bn, leaving $333bn of possible savings unclaimed.
One telling statistic she uncovered
was that 79 per cent of shoppers used coupons.
In other words every year at regular intervals
millions of people in the US are reaching for
their scissors and cutting out coupons. It sounds
like it is a national past-time. Ms Bergin’s
idea was to give some shape to this shopping habit
with a handy organiser that categorises coupons
in product ranges. So instead of thumbing through
a sheaf of coupons all the time for the right
one, you have your washing powder coupons ready
when you get to the supermarket detergents aisle.
Another mother wanted something
a little bit older looking for her toddlers than
a romper suit, so created one-piece garments that
looked like separates. So a child that looks to
be wearing shorts and a shirt, for example, is
in fact wearing a one-piece suit that does not
part company at the waist.
Ms Monosoff’s book confirms
something that has been suspected for a while:
that women who continue to look after their children
at home are just as creative and possibly more
so, than those who go back in to the workplace.
But they do need an outlet for their thinking.
Women inventors have been around
for years but have always struggled to get their
ideas accepted. Historically many of them used
their husbands to put their inventions in front
of manufacturers. Autumn Stanley’s book,
Mothers and Daughters of Invention, suggests that
the US Patents Office has grossly undercounted
the number of inventions by women because of the
widespread practice of men, particularly in the
19th and early 20th century, of registering their
wives’ inventions in their own names.
“Many women have been
happy to let other people exploit their ideas
in the past,” says Ms Monosoff, “Now
they have the chance to get their creations recognised
as their own.”
As far back as 1946, Marion
O'Brien Donovan had the idea of cutting up her
plastic shower curtains to produce a leak-free
nappy cover for her baby. The idea, that netted
her $1m when she sold the manufacturing rights,
was the forerunner of the disposable nappy.
In those days the inventing
work of women tended to be eclipsed by men. Hedy
Lamarr, one of the most glamorous actresses of
the 1940s, was also the co-inventor of a radio-controlled
torpedo but her scientific work barely registered
in a Hollywood star system that only venerated
women for their looks.
Overall the US has something
like 82m working mothers, three-quarters of whom
are working. “Some 64 per cent of these
women,” says Ms Monosoff, “would like
to organise their work around their families.”
A growing number today are beginning
to realise their dreams. According to the US Small
Business Administration, the US now has some 9.1m
women entrepreneurs employing 27.7m people and
contributing $3.6 trillion to the economy.
A big contributor to the rise
in women entrepreneurs, says Ms Monosoff, has
been the internet, allowing women to run businesses
from home and to organise their work more efficiently.
“It fits in well with mothers’ schedules,
allowing them to work late at night when their
kids are asleep,” she says.
Ms Monosoff’s book is
helping to enlarge the working options of women.
Too often in the past women have had little choice
between working full time when they can still
pursue careers or staying at home with their children
when often their only option has been scouring
the situations vacant columns for advertised part-time
jobs that tend to be lowly paid. Today technology
is creating new avenues in to a world that is
hungry for ideas. The future for women entrepreneurs
it seems has probably never been brighter.
The Mom Inventors, Inc Handbook, a
step-by-step guide to creating and selling hot products,
is published in September by McGraw-Hill, $16.95.