“Finding balance.” With Penny Bauder & Catherine Tabor

Separating work-life from home-life and finding that balance has been the hardest adjustment for me and my family. It’s easy to get lost in my work and I have had many days where I’ve spent a lot longer than eight hours in front of my computer. Like many other mothers, I cherish the time I […]

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Separating work-life from home-life and finding that balance has been the hardest adjustment for me and my family. It’s easy to get lost in my work and I have had many days where I’ve spent a lot longer than eight hours in front of my computer. Like many other mothers, I cherish the time I get to spend with my family, and as a business owner, also need to support my employees and the business itself.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place. As a part of my series about how women leaders in tech and STEM are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Catherine Tabor.

A technology pioneer and digital visionary, Catherine Tabor is a seasoned entrepreneur who has founded and scaled several businesses over the last 20 years. Currently, she is the founder & CEO of Sparkfly, an offer management solutions company. As CEO, Catherine leads the Sparkfly team while working to give brands the power to understand and engage customers on an individual basis.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I’ve started several companies throughout my career, but I had a bit of a humble beginning. I created my first company — a concierge business running errands for clients — while attending Georgia State University as a way to earn extra money. A company my husband worked for at the time, developed a simple website for my errand business for a mere $600. Meanwhile, the Coca-Cola Company was internally managing an employee discount program where they would offer employee discounts on tickets to the movies and other locations such as Six Flags, and even various other products. As that program progressed for them, Coca-Cola’s HR department decided to outsource that employee discount program and launched a national internet search. I had no idea what Search Engine Optimization (SEO) was at that time, but my concierge business in Atlanta came up in an internet search and they called me! They did not tell me who they were at the time but I had caller ID and saw it was Coca-Cola. They talked to a lot of big firms during the RFP, but I won the contract to manage that employee discount network for Coca-Cola and all of their employees.

As I was working to grow the business with Coca-Cola, I quickly realized that many other large employers had similar discount programs for their employees, which initiated the founding of my second company, Sparkfly Perks. Sparkfly Perks grew to manage employee discounts for hundreds of companies and over a million employees and is still a thriving company that I own today.

In 2011 I realized that online coupons had become totally commoditized and found a new gap in the market. The idea that companies could put a digital promotion out into a network, and then track the way that promotion performed in the physical store really interested me, so I decided to go and tackle this point-of-sale to offline attribution space, which is how I founded my third and current company, Sparkfly.

I have now successfully managed corporate discount programs for over 20 years. In my first business, I saved time for my clients by physically running errands. In my second business, I managed discount programs for large corporations; providing discount tickets or coupons for employees. My third business, Sparkfly Inc., connects digital promotions/discounts/coupons to the physical point-of-sale. Our digital technology was developed specifically for this purpose. The main obstacle for me was inventing something that was brand new. The perception in the market was, and still is, is that point-of-sale is very fragmented and difficult to integrate with. I was told over and over this was a futile effort, but we created the technology to successfully connect the dots between digital coupons and the physical cash register.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

There is no way to narrow down interesting stories on this journey to just one. It was interesting the first time I went to meet with Coca-Cola and was put in the waiting room with Evander Holifield, who was a spokesperson for them at the time, who had just had his ear bitten by Mike Tyson in the boxing ring (remember when that happened?). It was interesting when a corporate real estate magnate in NYC was interested in buying my discount/concierge company for all of his office buildings. It was interesting being the only woman at an analyst conference for digital technology that was not there in an administrative role. Glad to see things like that changing! Remember, I have been doing this for a long time! It was interesting sitting in the jump seat of a G5 while it was landing when I was asked to travel with a corporate team to a conference. When the pilot asked us if anyone wanted to sit in the jump seat I “jumped” at the chance! I have gotten to see and do so many things because of my decision to take a chance and start my own company. The entire journey, good parts and challenging parts, has been interesting.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At Sparkfly, we are always looking for ways to improve or innovate our technology to better help our clients, our partners, and the community.

Recently, due to the pandemic, we have been able to work alongside our partners to pivot their digital marketing efforts. For example, Sparkfly’s technology enabled Chipotle to launch its “4HEROES” program that supports health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

Another partner of ours, &pizza, recently launched an initiative in response to the novel virus COVID-19 that gives its employees and their families free pizza every day. Sparkfly helped develop the digital coupons needed to make this campaign run efficiently.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My parents have always believed in me, supported me and been touchstones for me. They are people of great character who have modelled how to approach life and work with integrity, honesty and humility. When I won the contract with Coca-Cola, I knew that this business model could scale and grow to other organizations so I wanted to generate capital to further develop my business. When my initial efforts to raise VC failed, I walked through my plans with my parents and we talked about my need for startup capital to fund the necessary technology development and business expansion. My parents, both school teachers, believed in me and took out a $5,000 loan against their Honda Accord, which became the seed money for my business. It was enough to get me started. They have never questioned my abilities or judgement and have helped me have the confidence that is essential in building a business.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?

I’m extremely fortunate in that I haven’t been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic nearly as severely as others. As a tech focused woman and entrepreneur, technology has been a huge part of my life for a long time. Using platforms like Zoom is second nature to me so that aspect of working from home has been an easy adjustment. However, as a mom during quarantine, I have had to find more time to shut off which has been challenging.

My husband and I are both working from home full-time right now along with my 13-year-old daughter. While balancing full-time jobs and our child’s school needs has been a unique challenge just given the different circumstances, fortunately our daughter hasn’t needed a lot of attention when it comes to her schoolwork. We are thankful her school had an excellent online learning program. I can’t say I’ve been actively homeschooling but I have had to make myself available during different hours, which is a new experience for me. As Summer has started, keeping my daughter occupied and happy has been tricky. Summer camps have been cancelled and we have to be careful getting together with others. Activities like tennis have been great!

I also lost my dad a few years ago and have needed to support my mom during a scary and sometimes lonely time for her. We do not live in the same city. I am fortunate to have a wonderful sister who is also there for my mom. Trying to meet the needs of a teenager and a parent can be challenging even in the best of circumstances but COVID-19 has certainly added complexities that we have had to navigate. My mom has gotten up to speed on the latest conferencing and digital communication methods during this pandemic, too! She is amazing!

Separating work-life from home-life and finding that balance has been the hardest adjustment for me and my family. It’s easy to get lost in my work and I have had many days where I’ve spent a lot longer than eight hours in front of my computer. Like many other mothers, I cherish the time I get to spend with my family, and as a business owner, also need to support my employees and the business itself.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

I am an organized person and I typically create a list of things I need to do each day. I’ve tried to keep myself very scheduled and on task throughout the day so when I get to the end of that list (or through most of the list… I never get to the end), I know it’s time to shut down for the day and spend time with my family. I also started a habit very early in my career of dealing with the most difficult and dreaded things early in my day. I read that tip many years ago in a book by Brian Tracy called Eat that Frog!

I also give myself a little grace. We’re experiencing very different and unusual times, so on days I feel like I need a break, I’ll log off early or take the full day off, if possible.

Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in STEM during this pandemic?

As a woman in STEM, my biggest challenge has definitely been balancing work and family. I am so fortunate to have a supportive husband who has made many runs to the grocery store and is extremely helpful at home but we are at home so much more these days. I have had to figure out three meals a day and manage important team calls with my daughter also doing work at our dining room table.

Also. I think everything has been intensified by the fact that people feel isolated and worried about their health and the economy. It is an emotional time and there is so much noise coming at us from all angles.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

One thing I am doing that has been great for my mental health is limiting my time on social media. At the beginning of the pandemic, I spent too much time on Apps like Twitter. I wanted information and what I realized I was doing was putting myself in a constant state of concern and frustration. Yelling opinions at others isn’t how I have ever successfully solved problems and I realized it was not helping me to engage in these platforms. I have edited my media sources to the ones I trust and that has lessened my own concerns and emotions.

I have also tried to keep a very open communication with my family around all of our needs and understand that they are going through these same feelings and challenges. Empathy is so important right now and I am working hard to have it with my family as well as my coworkers.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

I’ve found that setting aside specific times for my work, helping my daughter with her schoolwork, and family time has been most beneficial for me. I’ve created a routine now so that I’m able to give attention to every need, while also still being productive with my work at Sparkfly.

For example, first thing in the morning I have time set aside to check email and any relevant news for Sparkfly. Then, I have time set aside to see what assignments my daughter has for the day and to help with any questions she may have on her required schoolwork. For the rest of the day, I block specific times to complete Sparkfly tasks, any food or cooking needs, and time to unwind from the day and be with my family.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place for long periods with your family?

For anyone struggling with staying sane while sheltering in place, I suggest focusing on your hobbies or doing those activities you really enjoy. I personally love to be outside, so I’ve tried to take time to go for a hike or ride my bike — socially distanced of course — often to help with the “stir crazy” feeling that sheltering in place can give someone.

Another thing I suggest is trying something new. Now is a great time to take an online course for something you’ve always wanted to learn about. Also, this is the perfect opportunity to read some new books or do that home improvement project you haven’t found the time for yet.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

  1. We are all in this together. I remind my daughter of this all the time. I find it helpful to remember this is a global pandemic and it isn’t just happening to me. We all want to get to the other side of this
  2. Many smart people are working on solutions. There are so many remarkable people in this world working on vaccines, treatments and plans for getting through this crisis. I have faith in humanity.
  3. We have been through times like this in the past. This is not our first pandemic. We have recovered before and we will do so again.
  4. Most people are good people. This is another thing I remind my daughter of a lot. We see a lot of bad deeds and the worst of people on the news but most people are good, kind people who want simple things like freedom, the ability to raise a family and earn a good living. We must remember that the extreme stories we see on the news are the minority.
  5. This will end. The pandemic will end at some point and we will go on. We just have to keep the faith and work hard to take care of each other while we go through this difficult period in our history.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Everyone is handling this situation differently, the most important thing anyone can do to show support during this time is to be empathetic. You might not personally feel the same way as your friends or family members, but as long as you really listen and try to be there for them, it will help their anxiety. And as a business owner, it’s important for me to be empathetic to all of my employees as well. When our worlds changed overnight as we were no longer able to see our favorite colleague and give our friends hugs, or even share a cup of coffee with a workmate in the middle of the afternoon, we were all thrown for a loop. As a business owner I have had to keep all of my employees’ lives in mind, while also considering my own anxieties and family’s needs.

It’s important to use and promote the use of the technology we now have at our fingertips to keep in touch with our friends and loved ones. And I encourage my staff to do the same.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I shared this message from Maya Angelou with someone just last week. I say the last line of this all the time but the entire passage is powerful to me and has been helpful as I have gone through this pandemic, so I included it all below. It is a great reminder for me that life will go on, appreciate the things in your life, don’t be afraid to push back and remember to be kind to each other.

“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life. I’ve learned that making a “living” is not the same thing as making a “life.” I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” — Maya Angelou

How can our readers follow you online?

My LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/catherinetabor/

My Twitter: https://twitter.com/catherinetabor

Sparkfly’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/sparkfly/

Sparkfly’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/SparkflyBiz

Sparkfly’s Website: https://sparkfly.com/

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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