Boundary setting is of paramount importance for life/work balance, with Erica Mackey and Dr. Ely Weinschneider

Boundary setting. When it is your company and you are passionate about what you are building, it is hard to set and stick to boundaries that protect family time. It was hard for me to lose the embarrassment around not being available all the time. I’ve learned to become okay with any external judgment that […]

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Boundary setting. When it is your company and you are passionate about what you are building, it is hard to set and stick to boundaries that protect family time. It was hard for me to lose the embarrassment around not being available all the time. I’ve learned to become okay with any external judgment that may come from my choice to be present with my family during the late afternoon and early evening before they go to bed. I shift that work window to after bedtime as needed.

I had the pleasure to interview Erica Mackey is a serial entrepreneur who recently co-founded MyVillage. As CEO, Erica is building a high-quality, community-driven solution to the national childcare shortage by empowering home-based childcare and preschool providers with the tools they need to grow a successful business that puts kids and families first. MyVillage’s model mixes the best parts of franchising (quality, connection, support) with the best parts of a do-it-yourself startup business (freedom, control, independence).

Previously, Erica co-founded and was COO of Zola Electric (previously Off Grid Electric), the world’s first massively scalable off-grid electric company, connecting over 1 million Africans to affordable solar energy. Her ventures have raised more than $250 million from world-class investors including Tesla, Paul Allen, and others. She was a fellow at the Skoll Center for Social Entrepreneurship, and she has been recognized among Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs (2012). She was a delegate for the Academy of Achievement (2014) and was awarded the Zayed Future Energy Prize (2015).

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” behind what brought you to this point in your career?

As a general rule, I don’t believe that “the way it is” is the way it has to be. What drew me to become an entrepreneur has always been the chance to solve meaningful problems. The company I previously co-founded, Off Grid Electric (now Zola Electric) is based in Africa and is democratizing energy access by providing affordable, clean solar energy.

Once I became a mom, my focus shifted. I experienced firsthand the struggles that families have in finding affordable, high-quality childcare. I also learned how hard a childcare provider must work to make ends meet, all the while encountering red tape and confusing regulations.

My time abroad also made me truly value the role that community plays in helping children thrive. I believe that happier providers and educators mean happier kids. Happier kids mean happier parents. Happier parents mean happier communities. And happier communities mean a better world. I wanted that community for my family — for all families.

That’s where the vision for MyVillage was born — to rebuild the village of care in our communities. We created MyVillage as a solution that works for everyone: kids, families and care providers. MyVillage makes it easy to start and successfully run an exceptional home-based childcare and preschool business. We also make it rewarding for families to find these incredible programs in their neighborhood. We give our educators a lifeline to a community of other fantastic, smart educators who can share all of the expertise they’ve learned…best practices, best marketing ideas, recipes, systems and ideas. We provide support so that instead of going it alone, the community can share and support them through the ups and downs of starting their own childcare business. We provide tools to streamline their business so that they aren’t staying up all night building processes. We set-up their website and market their program. And we continue to advocate for them and this industry at large until the world agrees with us: early childhood education is the most aspirational of professions, and should be regarded as such at every level, from government to kiddos.

To build the company, I consulted with early childhood education experts at Harvard, spoke to hundreds of care providers around the United States, and drew on my past experience as an entrepreneur, co-founding and leading operations for the premier off-grid solar company in Africa. Both of my companies were rooted in public-private partnerships and help empower people to become business owners.

Can you share with us how many children you have?

I have two cute and very bold little girls, Izzy (just turned 3) and Roxanne (1).

Where were you in your career when your child was born/became part of your family?

I was COO of Off Grid Electric (now Zola Electric) when Izzy was born. I was living in Tanzania, managing a team of almost 1,000 people and expanding our operations from East to West Africa.

I love my work. My husband, who is also an entrepreneur, but a self-professed “work to live”-er, once told me that he considered business to be my only hobby. That sounds depressing saying it out loud, but you get the point… before having kids, I always “lived to work.”

When Izzy, my oldest, was born, I faced a choice. Give up my work or find (and trust) someone else to help raise my kid while I was at work. We needed my income, and I love my work, so I started looking for options. I made more phone calls than I can count to childcare providers. My mind was blown. I received frequent comments like:“Oh, you didn’t get on a waitlist while you were pregnant?” Or my favorite: “I will never have a vacancy because my parents plan their pregnancies around my program openings.”

I was devastated. It turned out that because I didn’t get my unborn child on a waitlist before I started thinking about conceiving her, I was forced into a tradeoff between a quality experience for my baby and something that was available and affordable to me. I felt like I was failing as a parent before I even got started. This pain motivated me to move back to the US after 12 years abroad and re-focus my attention on the US childcare crisis.

Once I started researching, I realized I wasn’t alone: 70% of mothers are in the workforce, which means 15 million American kids are in paid childcare before they start kindergarten. The cost of this care is more than a college education for most people. And the U.S. has the worst maternity leave mandate in the world — none — so a quarter of working moms are back on the job by the time their child is 10 days old.

My second child, Roxanne, was born the day after I closed my first round of funding for MyVillage. That seemed fitting, because my journey had come full circle. When I had Izzy, my career and my personal life were very separate things, and work was my focus. With Roxy, I took the time to be intentional about building a business that solves a major problem I cared about, which I’d done before, but this time, to do it in a way that culturally supported my family and this phase of our lives. Becoming more of an integrated person has helped me become better as an entrepreneur and employer, as well as in my role as a mother and partner.

Did you always want to be a mother? Can you explain?

Yes, but I always thought that snuggling my little baby was something that future me would love to do, not present me.

Then one day, I woke up and felt differently than I had before. I told my boyfriend I wanted to start a family with him. We weren’t married. He is Australian, I am American, and we lived in Tanzania — basically the farthest point from either of our families. I am lucky that he is brave, loving, and family-oriented.

Did motherhood happen when you thought it would or did it take longer? If it took longer, what advice would you have for another woman in your shoes?

I didn’t have a specific expectation about how or when motherhood would happen for me. I just knew that I wanted it to happen. I was fortunate not to struggle with fertility, but the flip side of that is we didn’t have a lot of time to think about our decision to start a family.

Can you tell us a bit about what your day-to-day schedule looks like?

My morning starts with the pitter-patter of feet coming into our room at about 6 a.m. Izzy jumps in bed for what she calls a ‘bonus sleep’, but she never closes her eyes or her tiny, hilarious mouth from that point on. My husband and I work in unison to get the girls ready and us out the door. I do clothes; he does food.

The MyVillage headquarters is in Bozeman, Montana, and we have a MyVillage childcare and preschool in our office that both my girls attend. This way, I can be my own customer and test out our new ideas and systems before rolling them out to all our other MyVillage programs in the country. There’s nothing more powerful than being your own guinea pig, and Montana is a great state for it. We intentionally choose to live here because Montanans care about families. The state offers great access to the outdoors and a high quality of life. It’s small enough, population-wise, to access decision makers and influence business and policy, yet so many of its challenges reflect those of our country. It’s a great place to build a national solution to early childcare.

As a company co-founder and CEO, my job doesn’t have a set daily schedule. I spend a lot of time listening, strategizing and advocating. Some days, I’m visiting schools, while others I’m meeting members of my team, partners, or investors.

We’ve intentionally built a company culture at MyVillage that respects family time. We usually are offline between childcare or school pick-up and bedtime. Our team knows that if there is anything urgent, call rather than email.

Has being a parent changed your career path? Can you explain?

Absolutely. If it wasn’t for the birth of my first daughter, I would probably still be in Africa, working on solving a totally different problem. Once I understood what it felt like to feel like you were failing as a parent before you even got started, my focus and priorities shifted and led me back to the US.

Has being a mother made you better at your job? How so?

Other moms told me about the heightened efficiency that I would experience at work after entering motherhood. Unfortunately, I am still waiting to experience this. I don’t do the same amount of work in less time, as was promised to me. However, I am able to prioritize what is most important and let the rest move to the backburner in a way that I was never able to do before. By nature, I love a clean inbox. Asana’s My Task List has always been my favorite feature. Letting go of the clean slate as the ultimate end goal has helped me constantly keep the most important work at the top of the pile. The to-do list will never be finished. I have to be okay with that.

What are the biggest challenges you face being a working mom?

Boundary setting. When it is your company and you are passionate about what you are building, it is hard to set and stick to boundaries that protect family time. It was hard for me to lose the embarrassment around not being available all the time. I’ve learned to become okay with any external judgment that may come from my choice to be present with my family during the late afternoon and early evening before they go to bed. I shift that work window to after bedtime as needed.

Are there any stories you remember from the early days of parenthood that you want to share?

When I brought my firstborn, Izzy, back to Africa at six weeks postpartum, I did not even think about a plan for my maternity leave. Shortly after landing in Tanzania, I jumped on a plane to the other side of the continent and left my daughter with her dad for a couple nights. The second I buckled my seatbelt on the plane, I knew it was a terrible idea. I cried every time I hung up the video chat. Additionally, there were city-wide power outages, so all of my pumped milk spoiled and had to be dumped. I think it was another 30-minute cry every time I poured a bottle of that liquid gold down the drain, which was about eight times a day. It was awful.

When Roxanne was born, I was just launching MyVillage. This time, I had family support from our incredible relatives and set expectations that I would not be traveling. When she was about 3 months old, I was still working flexibly from home most of the time. I would often breastfeed her during calls and she would fall asleep on my lap while I worked. That magic window was brief, but it was special to literally be building a company that I knew she would benefit from while also giving her snuggles at the same time.

I still wrestle daily trying to balance being the best mom I can be for my family and showing up at work in a way that allows me to be the best version of myself. When Izzy was two, I was leaving for a work trip and she leaned in for what I thought was going to be a sweet little kiss and said, “Rox needs you and I need you more than they need you.” Knife in the heart. I explained that Mommy is doing important work, I gave them a big hug and a kiss, walked out and shut the door and started bawling immediately.

Are there any meaningful activities or traditions you’ve made up or implemented that have enhanced your time with your family? Can you share a story or example?

We are committed to eating dinner together as a family more often than not, and we open our home to more friends and community these days since it is hard to go out with two kids under four.

I try to bring one of my kids with me on work trips if there’s a friend or relative who can help support me where we are going. I love to bring them with me so we get some individual time. I have noticed that it has shifted my oldest daughter’s feelings about mom’s work trips from negative to positive.

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers 3–5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention?

Pick two: I find that I can only excel in two areas at a time in my life while my kids are so young. The two priorities for me have been family and my business. Everything else — friends, hobbies, sports, etc. — fit in where it can. Unfortunately, this means that I have a list piling up of thank you cards that need to be sent (apologies to all my wedding guests from last year — I really do appreciate you!), my personal inbox gives me heart palpitations when I open it, and I am not as good at skiing as I imagined I would have been since moving to Montana two years ago.

Leave your phone at the door: Literally. I am the first person to fall down the email abyss on my phone. I found that I need a manual process to keep my attention focused when I am at home. My husband and I put our phones in a basket by our front door when we are home with our kids. I ask people to call if they need something urgent during mom-time so I am not tempted to check text or email.

Find your work travel cadence: When I first started to travel again after Roxanne’s birth, I shortened every trip to the fewest number of nights away and took more short trips. I quickly found that the re-entry and departure process was much more stressful for my family, so now I have found a monthly trip cadence works for us. I combine as many agenda items into a single trip, even if it means one or two more days on the road, but it results in fewer trips overall. I also put work travel through much greater scrutiny than I did before I became a mother.

How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?

I am an optimist. My mind is always racing. I don’t fixate on the fact that something doesn’t work today; instead, I think about what might be possible tomorrow. I believe my brand of optimist is called an entrepreneur.

My oldest just turned three this week, and we often talk about why I go to work. I try to constantly role model that I can both love her and my work. I was driving her to school the other day and she told me that she was going to have her own business one day — maybe a lemonade stand, or maybe a company that helps people be happy. I will spend the next 30 years trying to ensure that she feels like she can deliver on that ambition.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?

I usually only look for a resource when I get stuck on a specific behavior or want to understand the logic behind what I am experiencing. So far, I found the following resources really helpful:

  • Happiest Baby on the Block — A must-read for new parents, who like I was, may not be familiar with the fourth trimester and the somewhat strange activities that help soothe infants.
  • Tinkergarten — This is a really cool company that brings families together in a natural place in their community for classes where kids learn through play.
  • Tips from the Kindness Curriculum— In a country where more than 50% of Americans report that they feel lonely, The Kindness Curriculum is designed to help kids to pay attention to their emotions and practice kindness. If this resonates, ask your preschool school if they can implement this program!
  • Parenting Safe Children — This blog is based on a great book that helps parents understand healthy sexual development and bring up age-appropriate conversations related to healthy touch to try to keep kids safe from sexual abuse or assault.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you share or plan to share with your kids?

Don’t let your head get in the way of your intuition.

If you could sit down with every new parent and offer life hacks, must-have products or simple advice, what would be on your list?

  • Be present — Don’t let your phone rule your life.
  • The Nose Frida — It literally allows you to suck snot out of your baby’s nose. It’s so gross, but so amazing.
  • Anything by Lovevery— These educational play toys are both beautiful and intentionally designed to support your child through each developmental stage of their early lives…and they show up on your doorstep right when you need them!
  • Yoee tactile baby toys are a great gift especially for new dads or adoptive parents who may not have as much skin-to-skin time as moms.
  • Keep life offline for as long as you can — We aim for our kids to walk or hike as many miles as they are old, once they turn one of course!
  • Be kind to yourself. And to other moms. It’s a tough gig and we need each other.

Thank you so much for these insights! We really appreciate your time.

About the Author:

Dr. Ely Weinschneider is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist based in New Jersey. Dr. Ely specializes in adolescent and adult psychotherapy, parenting, couples therapy, geriatric therapy, and mood and anxiety disorders. He also has a strong clinical interest in Positive Psychology and Personal Growth and Achievement, and often makes that an integral focus of treatment.

An authority on how to have successful relationships, Dr. Ely has written, lectured and presented nationally to audiences of parents, couples, educators, mental health professionals, clergy, businesses, physicians and healthcare policymakers on subjects such as: effective parenting, raising emotionally intelligent children, motivation, bullying prevention and education, managing loss and grief, spirituality, relationship building, stress management, and developing healthy living habits.

Dr. Ely also writes a regular, nationally syndicated column about the importance of “being present with your children”.

When not busy with all of the above, Dr. Ely works hard at practicing what he preaches, raising his adorable brood (which includes a set of twins and a set of triplets!) together with his wife in Toms River, New Jersey.

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