Today more and more women are finding themselves taking a seat at the dealer’s table and making what may be the biggest gamble of their lives: “Should I focus on starting a family or furthering my career?”
Shoe designer Gwen Frempong Boadu, 46, knows just how high the stakes can get; a devastating diagnosis almost kept her from having a family. Frempong Boadu spoke with mater mea about the life changes she made to have the family she always wanted.
Little man Ian Frempong Boadu is the king of all he surveys, which right now is the entirety of his parents’ sprawling weekend home in picturesque Westchester, New York. This includes the expansive yard with wildflowers and dragonflies, as well as the swimming pool, in the back. With a plastic toy shark held tightly in his right fist, Ian runs back into his house, pointing out the contents and goings on of each room.
“This is the men’s room,” the 4-year-old says, walking around a room he, his father, neurosurgeon Anthony Frempong Boadu, and his grandfather spend a lot of quality time. He marches up and down hallways, shutting and opening doors.
“This is the bathroom. This is my grandma and grandpa’s room. And this,” he says, with a proud flourish, “is mommy’s office.”
Off to the side of a room dominated by a flat-screen television and Ian’s XBox is a glass-topped wrought-iron desk with papers on it. It’s here that mommy—better known as Gwen Frempong Boadu—runs her business: Gwyneth, a line of shoes you can find online and in 35 stores across the country. Frempong Boadu has been designing shoes for 20 years, starting her career off as a shoe model before shifting to shoe design at Sam and Libby, Kenneth Cole and Steve Madden’s Steven line.
“I find my work very gratifying, I look at it as a gift from God,” Gwen Frempong Boadu, 46, says. “I just feel really lucky that I can do something that I enjoy so much and be rewarded for it as well.”
But after two decades of nonstop work, Frempong Boadu said she realized the accolades and acclaim she received as an independent businesswoman couldn’t quiet her desire to be a mother.
“My career [was] extremely demanding, especially travelwise,” Gwen Frempong Boadu remembers. “Since the beginning of my career, I used to travel six to eight months out of the year, so it was quite difficult to even consider starting a family until I started my own business.
“I’ve been working for awhile, and Gwyneth actually came out of the need to have flexibility to start a family,” she continues. “After working for nearly 20 years for other people, it was time to go out on my own.”
Frempong Boadu’s love of travel is reflected in the art displayed in her home.
Gwen afforded her a more flexible schedule to start planning a family, but Frempong Boadu found conceiving difficult due to a long untreated case of fibroids.
“I was diagnosed with fibroids in 1997 or 1998, [but] because of my work schedule, I put having the surgery off for longer than I should have,” Frempong Boadu says. “I went [to the doctor] because of a heavy cycle and I also noticed that my abdomen was getting bigger. One of the fibroids was quite large and was in part of my uterine cavity.”
The fibroid removal in 2003 was successful, but came with an unexpected cost: Frempong Boadu’s uterus was compromised during surgery. She underwent in-vitro fertilization treatments in 2007, unsure she would be able to conceive, and was beyond surprised when the doctors told her and her husband they were expecting.
“I was ecstatic because I had wanted to start a family for over 10 years,” Gwen Frempong Boadu says. “We didn’t know that we were going to have a son, but I just had this feeling that it was going to be.”
The product of a four-child home, she was eager to expand her family and have four of her own; the plan was to try IVF again when Ian was 6-months old, she recalls.
“I’d just started my company when I was pregnant with Ian, so there was just a lot going on [and] I wasn’t able to [then]. I did go back in 2010 to try to conceive, [but] unfortunately my doctor said that I wouldn’t be able to carry again. That was quite upsetting [and] very emotional for me.”
Despite this unfortunate diagnosis, Ian’s tour will soon include a peek into his twin brothers’ nursery.
“Thanks to our modern world, we are having twins by surrogacy,” Gwen Frempong Boadu explains. “We’re just beginning to tell our family and friends about it. So I’m so blessed that we have the opportunity to give Ian siblings.”
Aaron Kojo Atta and Isaiah Kojo Atta Frempong Boadu came into the world on November 12 (in the Ashanti Akan tribal tradition Kojo means “boy born on Monday” and Atta means “twin”).
“I couldn’t have gotten luckier,” Gwen Frempong Boadu muses, “because we actually wanted two more. We looked into adoption, which is still a possibility. Four is ideal.”
After putting away his Sonic the Hedgehog and Mario games, and pointing out the vintage wooden exercise machine next to his mother’s desk, the tour is over. Joining his mother in the kitchen, Ian hugs her legs as Frempong Boadu pours herself a cup of coffee. Later, they’ll sit in the living room, Ian curled tightly into the crook of her arm, and read about sharks, one of his favorite animals.
With a successful business of her own and a growing family, life hasn’t slowed down for Gwen Frempong Boadu. But these days, she’s setting her own pace, and enjoying her path every step of the way.
HOW HAS BEING A MOM CHANGED YOUR LIFE?
I’m much more sensitive. Even when I see other kids, I’m much more sensitive to how they’re being treated or cared for. It makes you much more of a selfless person.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A MOM?
I think the best thing [is] having the opportunity and responsibility to shape this person and guiding them to be the best possible person they could be [so they can] do something good with their lives and for society.
[That and] the joy and the unconditional love that comes along with being a mom, how my son greets me when I come home every day. There’s lots of smiles and laughter, lots of joy.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE IAN’S PERSONALITY?
He likes being in charge. He’s very bossy. He likes impressing people. He’s [talked] a few times [about] a little girl in his class. [He’ll say], ”I want to do this. She’s going to be so amazed and so impressed.” He likes getting a lot of attention. He has quite an extensive vocabulary for a 4-year-old. (Laughs) My husband and I are always amazed by what comes out of that little mouth.
YOU MENTIONED YOU’D IDEALLY LIKE TO HAVE FOUR CHILDREN. HOW DID YOU SETTLE ON THAT NUMBER?
I have three brothers, so not a huge family, but certainly not small. I always said that if I could afford it, I would have as many kids as I possibly could. It comes back to just having the means and the mind to raise a child that I think is going to make a difference in the world, to be a valuable member of society. I just had not planned on doing it this late in life. It’s much later in life than I would like, but now they’re saying that we have the possibility or the means to live to be 100 years old in the next 20 years, so that makes me optimistic.
DID HE KNOW HE WAS GOING TO BE A BIG BROTHER?
We’ve been talking about it for a while, actually. He started asking about a year and a half ago. So now we’re just trying to get him into the mindset that there’s going to be someone [else].
It’s a challenge because he requires a lot of attention, so we’re a little concerned about that. But we talk about the things that we’ll do, and how he’s going to be the big brother, and he can be in charge. Just reinforcing the fact that there’s going to be someone else is how we’re preparing him.
WHAT PARTS OF YOURSELF DO YOU SEE IN HIM?
GWEN:Personality, just his energy. My mom told me stories, [and] I start remembering things when I was about his age. I was very mischievous [just like he is]. When I look at him also, he has my eyes, even though he’s the spitting image of his father. He calls him “Mini Me.” We lay together. He likes to lay on Mommy, right?
IAN:And I love tickles!
G:He loves tickles and wrestling. We wrestle a lot. He likes to play hide and seek behind the pillows, even though you can see his feet.
IAN, WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE THING ABOUT YOUR MOMMY?
Kisses. Hugging. Laughing. And whistling. I don’t know how to whistle. My Vanessa [his nanny] whistles very loud.
GWEN (TO IAN):How big does the great white shark get?
IAN:Like, 4,000 pounds.
MATER MEA:He’s a carnivore? Is that why he’s 4,000 pounds?
I:Because he eats a lot of vegetation.
G:But if he’s a carnivore, he eats a lot of meat.
I:I knew you were going to say that! And I know Megalodon. That’s a dinosaur shark.
MM:How do you know all these things?
I:Because I watch them on my iPad.
MM:Why do you like sharks and dinosaurs so much, Ian?
I:Because they have teeth that are this big.
MM:So you’re not afraid of sharks?
WHAT INSPIRES YOUR PERSONAL STYLE?
As a child, my mother. She had a really great sense of style; she was always put together really well. And then just exposure to certain things—looking at how other women around the world or in magazines dressed or how they did their makeup or hair for instance. But it started at home.
She always wore really pretty dresses, and to this day, I love dresses. I have a closet full of cocktail dresses. (Laughs)
CAN YOU TELL US HOW YOU GOT INTO SHOE DESIGN?
Well, I was interested in fashion from the time I was 12 years old, which is when my grandmother taught me how to sew—thank goodness, because it really came in handy. As a kid, I was tall and skinny, and [it was] hard to buy clothes that looked good on me because of my long limbs. So I made a lot of my clothes, and people always noticed: “Oh, you’re really good at it, you should become a fashion designer.” So before graduating, I made a decision that I was interested enough in fashion design that I would study [it].
I went to Virginia State College [for] their fashion merchandising curriculum. It didn’t take long to realize that I needed to be in New York. My parents, especially my father, was very concerned about me moving to New York at such a young age (I finished high school at 16). So I came to New Jersey instead, under my surrogate family, and finished my bachelor’s degree at Centenary College, where I got a degree in Fashion Merchandising and Design. From there, I started working, but I wanted a degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology, so I did continuing ed classes there.
One semester, someone turned me on to shoe modeling. A lot of shoe companies did trade shows, and they needed size six shoe models. I did that for a company by the name of Sam and Libby, [and] they also had a clothing division. After I finished studying at FIT, they hired me as the design assistant, [but] I was always semi-involved with the shoe division.
They ultimately sold the clothing division but wanted to keep me. That was my introduction to footwear design. So I was design assistant there, and seven years later, I was senior designer of footwear. From there, I went to Kenneth Cole for about 10 years, where I designed for the Unlisted and Reaction division. I went [on] to Steve Madden where I did the Steven line.
I thought Gwyneth would give me flexibility but (laughs)—well, I did have more flexibility because I was creating my own schedule, but there’s also the schedule within the industry that everyone has to follow. But it did allow me the opportunity to start a family.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE STARTING A COMPANY WHEN YOU WERE PREGNANT?
Oh my gosh, it was very stressful! There were a lot of tough months because I didn’t really have a staff. My sister-in-laws helped me out, but it still required me to travel. I went to Paris, London, Milan, and China with Ian in tow. He went to all those places before he was born. (Laughs)
It was hard because I still had to travel while I was pregnant. The hours were demanding [and] it was exhausting, but I had a vision in mind, so it was the sacrifice that I made.
WHAT INSPIRES THE LOOK AND DESIGN OF YOUR SHOES?
I had to walk around the city or walk the trade shows all day and I couldn’t understand why nobody was making comfortable heels. My feet would be killing me. So it was important to have that in mind when I was creating Gwyneth.
Comfort was important, and then also being able to offer tall women shoes that were pretty, feminine, and sexy. Gwyneth [also] goes up to a size 14, and we’re very much in demand in that size category, because there aren’t many people that offer fashion for women that are above size 10.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE IDEA THAT WOMEN CAN’T HAVE A SUCCESSFUL CAREER, A SUPPORTIVE PARTNER, AND CHILDREN?
Oh, it’s definitely possible. There are compromises, but you’re definitely able to have it all. The compromises you make are not consistent, so you get to enjoy your career at one point, you get to enjoy your family at another point.
While the timing may not be ideal, because things do change at one point, ultimately you do get to have it all. It’s just a matter of timing and doing a balancing act. You comprise here so you can have there, and it works. There are ways of making it work.