Passion: Finally, I chose to work on something I’m deeply passionate about. It’s easier to leave home and make trade-offs when I am building something important for our society. I include my family — bringing my girls to the office and regularly talking with them about what I’m doing and why. Some of the best times I’ve had recently with my girls have been when they come to the office for a little bit — and they feel more included in what I am building.
As a part of my series about “C-Suite Moms” I had the pleasure to interview Anna Robinson. Anna is CEO and Founder of CERESA, a tech-enabled and research-based mentorship platform for aspiring women leaders. Anna launched CERESA in 2018, with the mission of closing the global leadership gap for women. Anna dedicates her time to shaping the company’s vision and strategy, driving consistent high-quality programming, building a world-class team and culture, and shaping a sustainable social impact business model. Prior to launching CERESA, Anna was a Partner at McKinsey & Company, where she led strategy and transformation work for US and global health systems, as well as leading several women’s initiatives. Anna was also COO at an early-stage tech company. She holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, MPhil, and BA from the University of Oxford in England. She currently lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and three daughters.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” behind what brought you to this point in your career?
Having spent over a decade in management consulting, I had been searching for a more mission-driven career. Additionally, I was inspired to dedicate my life to helping women leaders after experiencing a major health scare. For a period of about 24 hours I couldn’t talk, understand others, or move — and thought that was how “this” all ended. After my recovery, I was highly motivated by my three young daughters, who I feared would grow up without a mother, to pursue my passion of closing the women’s leadership gap both locally and globally — so they don’t have to have these same conversations in another 40 years. Since then, I’ve dedicated my time to conducting rigorous research — including over 200 interviews and working with a range of global experts to define what truly excellent mentorship should look like and how to bring it to women. I worked tirelessly for over a year unpaid and on my own, bootstrapping with lean approaches to launch CERESA, ensuring I had discovered a solution that delivers real impact before I sought out investment.
I’ve poured myself into CERESA — my business and passion project — but understood I could not tackle the challenge alone. I began actively building a committed community of advisors and team members, and through the hire of my co-founder, am now living my values of sharing leadership to advance the mission of my work.
Can you share with us how many children you have?
I have three young daughters.
Where were you in your career when your child was born/became part of your family?
In my mid-30s, and about two weeks before my first daughter was born, I was elected to be a partner at McKinsey & Company. During that pregnancy, I was still very much involved with the company and clients, including jumping on several planes every week to visit my clients across the U.S. I was incredibly lucky to be able to take a six month maternity leave before going back on a slightly reduced part-time program.
Did you always want to be a mother? Can you explain?
Yes. I always assumed that would be a big part of my life. My mother stayed home primarily — and was a great role model for nurturing her family. I never really questioned the ability to have children and a career — but always felt the emotional draw to starting my own family. Most of my closest girlfriends are people from university or grad school — and most of those women have also continued with their careers while having children. Before my husband and I chose to get married, we talked extensively about our values, family, how we wanted to raise children including religion, the number of children we wanted to have, where we want to live, and also, what we wanted our own roles in the community and broader society to look like. This was an important component for both of us in building a family.
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?
My husband and I were certainly lucky to have no major challenges getting pregnant. I deliberately waited to have children until I felt my career was far enough along that I would have a bit more flexibility and control over my schedule.
When we “decided” to have children, we did have an initial delay, which at the time felt incredibly frustrating, as I had to have a minor procedure to remove pre-cancerous cells resulting from a pap test. However, having seen so many others struggle with fertility over the last decade, I now understand how lucky we were in our journey. For many women who have challenges getting pregnant, this might be the first time they don’t have control over a situation, or can’t just work harder to achieve their goal — I’ve seen many friends go through that painful journey.
When I was a kid, I probably would have assumed I’d start my own family earlier — but I found my professional life so intellectually interesting, challenging, fulfilling and frankly fun — that waiting seemed like the best option for me.
Can you tell us a bit about what your day-to-day schedule looks like?
I’m fortunate to have a wonderful nanny that arrives early each day during the week and stays until around 6pm — which really gives me an opportunity to get my day started early. My days usually begin with a workout in the morning — normally around 6 a.m. I try to do this at least three or four times during the working week, and usually once or twice during the weekend. I try to always make time to have breakfast with my kids, including “breakfast dates” each week with my two eldest daughters before school.
After I drop my girls off at school, I get to the office around 7:45 a.m., and my days from there vary between company meetings, mentor and mentee meetings, as well as staying on top of the day-to-day tasks of running a company. This can include staying on top of finances, reviewing legal paperwork, and recruiting. As CERESA continues to rapidly grow, I’m finding new ways to efficiently spread my time across different projects at the company. I’m lucky to have my co-founder Nicole help me lead — whether that’s having our weekly meetings to catch our breath and review ongoing tasks, check-ins, and discuss big picture topics.
I try to be home every night in time to help with my kids’ bedtime. This includes reading books, singing songs or anything else to help my kids feel comfortable, calm, and ready for sleep. And while my weeks can be pretty hectic — including board meetings for the non-profit where I am board chair — I try to keep family time a main part of my daily routine. Some days I leave a little earlier to pick up from gymnastics, meet my husband for date night, take the dog for a walk and unwind, and even spend 1-on-1 time with my two year old every other Friday morning.
Has being a parent changed your career path? Can you explain?
I wanted to be more present in my girls life, so I didn’t want to continue in a role where I was constantly on the road. Furthermore, I was really inspired to find truly meaningful work. I love being a leader and a role model for my girls, and decided to prioritize my work on my true passion. Being a leader, I know I have to face multiple trade-offs and challenges in my day-to-day. However, by working on something that I not only value, but believe is so needed for our society, it’s a lot easier to leave home and make those trade-offs. I’m able to stay focused knowing I’m being a role model for my girls.
Additionally, being a parent, I try to involve my family in my career as much as possible. I talk to my girls about my work, what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. I encourage my family to come to my office — they know my “work family”, and also play with their kids. By deliberately incorporating my family, my career path has evolved into one I’m not only passionate about, but am excited to share at home.
Has being a mother made you better at your job? How so?
I do think being a mother has made me better at my job, and has a lot to do with the way I manage my team and have built CERESA.
I find I’m much more patient and have more empathy with others. I also recognize the importance of having a healthy work environment for the team we are building at CERESA, so they can go home and have the time they need, and show up in the way they want, rather than coming home beaten up, exhausted and resentful.
Additionally, I have more perspective on what really matters in life — some things are more important in life than anything at work. I know we are doing really important work at CERESA, but can always look back at the scope of things and think “this is not the ER or even the ICU or even a step-down unit”.
We are all committed and hustling to build the best impact-driven organization we can. However, that shouldn’t supercede bigger life needs. For example, one of our team members is dealing with a terminal diagnosis for one of her parents. It was an EASY decision to tell her to go and do what she needed — and not even think twice about it. My ability to support my team deeply and without hesitation is higher since having my own children.
What are the biggest challenges you face being a working mom?
There are definitely challenges. From figuring out the right balance of caregiver roles between my husband and I as our careers continue to evolve, to making time to spend with my youngest child, to facing challenges between my work life and being a mom. These are all thing that challenge me every day.
However, rather than focusing on the challenges, I try to appreciate the opportunities created by being a woman/mother/leader, including building a solution that my daughters will be able to use to grow in their careers one day. I’ve been able to do things I’m proud of, such as launching a scholarship fund supported by a portion of the CERESA income each year, building and role-modeling a culture where all our team can truly thrive, and including my family in my professional life and mission. It is such an incredible opportunity and experience to be all these things at once — even if it doesn’t always look pretty.
Are there any stories you remember from the early days of parenthood that you want to share?
I had taken my baby with me to one work meeting out in San Francisco, while I was still working for my old company. I was flying back to Austin on my own with her, and she fell asleep on my lap while I was working on a strategic planning document on my laptop and replying to emails. It was one of those amazing moments — kind of crazy, definitely not something you can rely on happening — but just this wonderful collision of different parts of my life. A glimpse of maybe, just maybe, you can have it all… as long as you don’t expect it to always look like that.
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?
Carving out quality time is crucial for me and my family. In fact, “Family first” is our family motto.
We have very regular calm, quality nightly routines which include baths, stories and songs. For some reasons all our girls love national anthems — so I regularly find myself lying in their beds, scratching their backs and singing “God save the Queen” to my Texan kids (I am British!).
I have started one-on-one weekly breakfast dates with each of my girls before school; as well as weekly date nights with my husband so we can connect just the two of us.
We’re trying to instill community service early for them — so they each have give/spend/save for any money they receive or “earn”. When they’ve saved up enough, they choose some worthy cause to donate their “give” money to — usually the animal shelter! We’ve done some volunteering with a kids-focused non-profit here in Austin as well.
We are BIG travelers. This is something my husband and I both always loved doing — visiting new places. With family on two continents, it is also necessary in order to stay close to family. So we have taken an insane number of family trips already — even with little kids. They have crazy amounts of airline miles under their belts. These are such special times for all of us to share together. This might sound odd to people that dread flying with little kids — but even the flights have become part of the fun to us. We have taken them to the UK too many times to count, to France, Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Morocco, Hawaii, and we’re about to embark on a family trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Hong Kong.
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?
Having three little ones and running a startup, I am very intentional about allocating my time and resources to my priorities — family and social impact. I really believe the quality of the time is more important than the quantity.
1) Keeping structure: Making time for one-on-one time with every member of my family is crucial. Whether that means keeping consistent, calming bedtime routines with my children straight after dinner or scheduling weekly date nights with my husband — maintaining quality time together is key to ensuring my family remains my top priority.
2) Avoid over-scheduling: we like to have downtime at the weekends and evenings. That means we don’t sign-up our kids for five different activities or try to have loads of playdates and spend the whole weekend ferrying them around. It takes REAL discipline not to go down that path. For us, it means we can go for a family walk — calm activities like that always get push back at first from the girls — but everyone loves it and seems to calm down once we are all together with no agenda in the great outdoors.
3) Communication is key: My husband and I always discussed our evolving roles. At times his career took precedence, other times my own. Currently, he takes the lead at home. We also have a nanny who we love and consider part of our family. That means I don’t have to be running around getting their school lunches ready, but can sit even for 15 minutes with them to eat breakfast — and I know that is a real luxury we are lucky to have.
4) Support: I have an army of smart and supportive people around me — women leaders and friends, a professional forum, mentors who help me navigate the challenges and opportunities of being a mother and a CEO. I also brought on top-notch talent to my leadership team — giving me space to be my best self.
5) Passion: Finally, I chose to work on something I’m deeply passionate about. It’s easier to leave home and make trade-offs when I am building something important for our society. I include my family — bringing my girls to the office and regularly talking with them about what I’m doing and why. Some of the best times I’ve had recently with my girls have been when they come to the office for a little bit — and they feel more included in what I am building.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
We are big readers, and read biographies and stories of amazing women (like the Goodnight stories for rebel girls), as well as stories about “changemakers”.
Additionally, we have discussions about leading, and I ask my girls what change they want to make in the world, as well as what they want to lead and why. This is such a rare question for girls, and I want to instill those thoughts early — that being a leader is normal.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
There are several resources I use for inspiration and teaching life lessons to my children. Anything from listening to Oprah’s Supersoul Sunday for great stories around mission-driven and mindful people, to instilling in my kids the importance of a good night sleep by listening to LeBron James talk about sleep and how he needs complete darkness for optimal sleep!
Additionally, I am obsessed with three people — Winston Churchill, Elton John, and Jane Goodall. My family loves the “Jane” (Jane Goodall) documentary, which inspires us to do great things with our lives and find our passions. We listen to Elton John to have fun (blasting his music out of the window) — which reminds us to be our true selves. I’ve read several Churchill books — most recently “The Power of Words” edited by Martin Gilbert. Churchill’s dedication to making the best of himself, so he could fulfill his potential for society, and do important things with his life — has served as a big inspiration to me. I talk about that with my children all the time — that there are important things we can do — and the privilege we have brings responsibility to do those things with our life.
Betsy Brown Braun is an incredible and very practical child development expert. My husband and I frequently read her books, and her insights have helped us on several occasions with how to handle very challenging situations with our children.
Finally, yoga is very important to me, and I try to share that with my family too. It reminds us to take care of ourselves and be mindful, so we give ourselves fully to others.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you share or plan to share with your kids?
“It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.” (unclear source — other than my grandmother’s bathroom!)
“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou
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?
- Have explicit conversations with your significant other about roles at home around care-giving and other household jobs. It amazes me how much of that work is still heavily led by women in dual-income households. There may be periods of time where one parent takes the lead — but that should be explicit and agreed over time — with the potential to switch.
- Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep. Having young children can be incredibly overwhelming, but until you are back having regular sleep, it is really hard to feel happy. It’s important to realize you can get through and survive. However, so many people go into dark places without getting the help they need — and especially ensuring they’re getting the right sleep. There is also growing evidence in neuroscience about the long-term effect of sleep deprivation to our memory and health.
Thank you so much for these insights! We really appreciate your time.
About the Author:
Jessica Abo believes no matter where we are in our careers, relationships or level of activism — we are all a work in progress. Her debut book, Unfiltered: How To Be As Happy As You Look On Social Media was released in August 2018 and sold out on its first day. Women’s Health Magazine named Unfiltered #1 on its list of self-love books and it was selected to be in the official GRAMMY Awards gift bag. To bring her book to life, Jessica launched a collection of statement tees and hoodies at New York Fashion Week. Jessica has spoken about her research and #liveunfiltered movement on The TODAY Show, Access Hollywood, ABC News, KTLA and in dozens of publications including Forbes, Fast Company and SHAPE.
A multi-award-winning television journalist, Jessica spent 15 years working as a television anchor and reporter. She started her own production company, JaboTV, in 2013, which profiles athletes, celebrities, CEOs, entrepreneurs and changemakers. Her videos appear weekly on Entrepreneur.com.
Jessica’s nationwide speaking tour has taken her to Facebook, Microsoft, Delta Airlines, Weight Watchers, TEDx, the United Nations and hundreds of conferences, nonprofits, universities and schools. In her spare time, Jessica is a passionate philanthropist, having raised more than a million dollars for several causes by organizing her own galas. Jessica sits on several boards and committees and contributes to their recruiting and fundraising efforts.
Jessica received both her bachelor and master degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. You may have spotted her, cast as herself, in several shows and movies including: House of Cards, Gossip Girl, Nurse Jackie, Girl Most Likely, Delivery Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2.
A New Yorker at heart, Jessica now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their daughter.