“Food is a way of connecting; Phones and iPads OFF at dinner; There’s just no reason to have electronics at the dinner table” With Dr. Ely Weinschneider & Alison Harmelin

Phones and I-Pads OFF at dinner. There’s just no reason to have electronics at the dinner table. Food is a way of connecting. Isn’t it ironic that all this “connectedness” is making families so disconnected? I had the pleasure to interview Alison Harmelin. Alison is co-founder of Zeel, a high growth technology start up and the […]

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Phones and I-Pads OFF at dinner. There’s just no reason to have electronics at the dinner table. Food is a way of connecting. Isn’t it ironic that all this “connectedness” is making families so disconnected?

I had the pleasure to interview Alison Harmelin. Alison is co-founder of Zeel, a high growth technology start up and the nation’s largest provider of on-demand wellness services. An “accidental entrepreneur,” Harmelin spent fifteen years in broadcast news before shifting her attention to building a business. In December 2012, Harmelin, along with her husband, tech entrepreneur Samer Hamadeh, and co-founder Edward Shen, launched Zeel Massage On Demand® — the first app-based at-home massage service providing licensed, vetted therapists across the country. The company has since expanded to include [email protected] and Zeel Spa®, software solutions for delivering wellness to offices, hotels and spas nationwide. Zeel has been ranked among the Inc. 5000 and Crain’s Fast 50 for two consecutive years. Prior to Zeel, Harmelin served as an anchor and reporter for CBS News based out of the network’s headquarters in New York City. She most recently served as a fill-in anchor for CBS News Up-to-the-minute, the CBS Morning News and CBSN, the network’s 24 hour streaming channel. Harmelin spent almost a decade as a freelance correspondent for CBS Newspath, the network’s 24-hour affiliate feed service. During that time Harmelin regularly anchored CBS MoneyWatch and was a frequent contributor to CBS Radio News and CBSNews.com. Harmelin’s work as a field reporter spanned more than a decade and included live reporting in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the London Bombings, Hurricane Katrina, the Collapse of Bear Stearns, and Superstorm Sandy. Harmelin began her career at NBC News in London, has covered the White House and the Supreme Court in Washington D.C., and worked as a local anchor and reporter at television stations in central Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. Prior to her work in television, Harmelin worked for the then District Attorney of Philadelphia, Lynne Abraham. In 2003, Harmelin was nominated for an Emmy for her investigative series on child sex trafficking on the Internet. A former model, Harmelin sits on The Friends Committee of the Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Thank you so much for joining us Alison!Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?

Ispent 15 years as a TV news anchor and reporter and loved every minute of it. The life of a journalist is incredibly interesting, as I traveled around the country and the world being paid to learn about people. But TV News has vastly shifted since I started in the industry, and as I got older and especially after my third child was born, the long hours, crazy schedules and “drop everything and go” nature of the job became challenging. News anchors were decreasingly valued for their knowledge and increasingly valued more for their ability to escalate conflict on live TV. It just wasn’t for me. At the same time, I have been shadowing my husband for 15 years, watching him build and grow companies, raise capital and invest in and advise start-ups. I like to call myself the accidental entrepreneur because when it came time for me to leave TV, I had this incredible opportunity to shift gears. Ironically, life at a start-up isn’t that much different than life in a newsroom. At the end of the day, it’s an all-hands-on-deck, ‘round-the-clock kind of job. And I love it.

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

Anyone who knows me will tell you I am not an early riser. Working the late shift in breaking news for fifteen years pushed my clock forward permanently. I go to bed a bit later and get up a bit later but I always get my 8 hours. All those folks who say they only need five hours of sleep are wrong. Arianna’s “The Sleep Revolution” is a revelation. Absolutely everyone should read it. Once I get up, I am on the go until the minute I get back in bed. I answer emails after the first of two ice lattes with almond milk. I schedule conference calls for noontime and often drink juices or eat very lightly until a large evening meal. Workouts consist of a combination of barre and mat pilates blended with a body sculpting method developed by my trainer Mahri Relin. She is a professional dancer and she knows how to keep my body strong and my muscles long and lean. I work out of our midtown offices a few days a week and from home the others, depending on which one of my children needs my attention and at what time. It feels like someone needs a haircut, has a play date, or has caught the sniffles each and every day. And then there are the dogs. Our next start-up should probably be “Groomer-On-Demand.” I’m also a big foodie so I cook for my children as often as possible. The meals are very elaborate and I source all the meat and fish from places like Fleisher’s on the Upper East Side. As a result, my kids have these incredible palates and also know how to cook. My middle son makes a mean Chimichurri sauce. My husband (and our company’s founder) works late. When he gets home (usually around 8:30), we often meet friends or investors for dinner or drinks. We are fortunate enough to know a lot of very smart, interesting people. Some of these dinners feel more like a Master Class than a meal. Right before bed we binge-watch Billions or Succession (confession: this occasionally includes heavily buttered popcorn.)

Ok,thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you flesh out why not spending time with your children can be detrimental to their development?

That goes without saying, but let me play devil’s advocate. There’s a new strain of helicopter parenting that can also be detrimental. For me, there’s a balance between nurturance and enabling. I don’t always strike the perfect balance but I do try to tie my own hands when the paper mache mask looks terrible and instead try to guide my son through what might improve it. My daughter is in first grade and relies heavily on me in every possible way. We’re very, very connected and I want to honor that while also raising a strong, independent girl. Our family travels frequently and we’re adventurous together. Last year we spent Thanksgiving in Cartagena, Columbia. The kids were so funny about “the traditional Thanksgiving Empanadas.” Those kinds of memories are priceless.

On the flip side, can you give a few reasons or examples about why it is so important to make time to spend with your children?

We’re their guides. We only get them for 18 years, if that, and during that time we really are shaping the adults they will be in this world. It’s an incredibly weighty thing. Most of us have no idea what we’re getting ourselves into when we become parents, but I think we’d all agree that it’s the most fulfilling thing we have ever done. I try to spend time with each of them individually in addition to the three of them together. For my daughter and I, that means decorating the house for the holidays or a trip to Target where we fill our cart with all sorts of things we probably don’t need. With my sons it can mean a mother-son dinner date or even a little English tutoring. (They wouldn’t hire me to teach math. I’d be sent back to the 5th grade.) Committing that real time to them, and when I say real, I mean present (without a cell phone or laptop or even a TV playing in the background). This is the work of parenting and while it’s not always easy, I do see it paying off.

According to this study cited in the Washington Post, the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time. Can you give a 3–5 stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?

There’s really no point in spending vast quantities of time with our children unless we’re present for them. As any working mother knows, the time spent has to be quality because there aren’t enough hours in the day. I’ve always theorized that good parenting is actually the result of working and not in spite of it. I truly value the hours I have with my kids. I don’t take them or the time I spend with them for granted. That’s really the gift of being a working mother. When I do spend time with my children, it’s a phone-free zone. Sometimes it’s something as simple as a long walk home from school. Sometimes it’s more school related like the three hours I spent running lines for my son’s upcoming role in Romeo and Juliet. We travel as a family and often to far-flung places. Last year we took them to Cartagena, Columbia. This summer we let them stay up until midnight and placed them directly under the Eiffel Tower with their hands over their eyes. When they removed their hands and looked up, the expressions on their faces were truly priceless. My oldest son who is 13 has already asked if we can go back to Paris next summer. It just made me so happy that with all those summer camps sending us materials, he’s been thinking about traveling together as a family.

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 5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention? Please include examples or stories for each, if you can.

Phones and I-Pads OFF at dinner. There’s just no reason to have electronics at the dinner table. Food is a way of connecting. Isn’t it ironic that all this “connectedness” is making families so disconnected?

Travel as a family. We’ve been traveling with the kids since they were all babies. There’s no place they don’t feel comfortable and no hotel they’re not ready to explore. In the past year or so we’ve been on some very simple trips (Lake George, NY by car) and some far-flung trips (Cartagena, Columbia and Provence, France) All three kids have different interests and needs. We try to plan activities that appeal to each of them and remind them that it’s never about just one of us. Being out of your element anywhere opens your mind and your heart. The memories are ours alone. For me, that’s the definition of “quality time.”

How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?

A good parent is a parent who puts their child first and really sees who that child is as opposed to who they’d like that child to be. We all have these histories that come with us into parenting. It’s crucial that we don’t take our own issues, needs, desires or aspirations and lay them onto our children. They come through us but they’re not ours to keep, and the only way they’re going to be happy in this world is if they know that they are loved for who they are, not for who we are. I see these examples all the time, especially on the ball field. I see parents pushing their children into all sorts of things that clearly don’t interest the child — they interest the parent. I put my only daughter into ballet at age three. I think I had this fantasy of her hair in a bun, pink stockings, a tutu… I had already raised two boys and I was getting my ballerina one way or another…until the very first class when I saw the look on her face. Taller and less graceful than the more petite girls in her class, my daughter looked miserable. We barely made it through the session and we’ve never gone back. I am pretty confident The New York City Ballet isn’t going to miss her.

How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?

A: I want to paraphrase Jacqueline Kennedy. “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think that whatever else you do matters very much.” It’s so very true.

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

A: With my sons I think I downloaded the entire University of Pennsylvania Early Childhood Development curriculum. “Raising Cain, Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys” by Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson was a stand-out. But as I grew as a parent, I became less and less inclined to ask for advice, and I never seek advice in the park or on the playground. Other people’s children aren’t your children and what works for them may not work for you. If I have a health question, I’ll call their beloved pediatrician. Otherwise, I now tend to trust my gut, and so far so good.

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

“Leap and a Net Will Appear”. I think marriage is an act of blind faith. Parenting too. Entrepreneurship is the same, literally leaping without a net and hoping that one will appear. Whether you’re raising capital or raising children you’re taking risks and praying that they will pay off down the line.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like for every young American adult (with the resources and stability to do so) to mentor one child in an “at-risk” situation. I was fortunate to have a “little sister” in my twenties (she’s a 29-year old woman now) and the experience she and I shared was life-changing — for both of us. It only takes a few hours a month to make a lasting impact on a child. We’re all so wrapped up in our own busy-ness, there’s got to be a way to carve out that time. My idea is like the Peace Corps — but here at home, and far broader. We’ve lost the ability to connect as humans and it’s causing so much pain to us all.

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