When I go home at 5ish I am completely present with the kids until they are asleep or in their rooms ready for bed. I put my phone and computer away. It’s actually pretty easy once you get in the habit, as dealing with 3 boys, pickups from activities, dinner, homework, bed time is pretty all consuming. My husband still reads to our 9 year old every night, and I still lie down with him every night to put him to bed.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Sabrina Parsons. Sabrina is the CEO of Palo Alto Software, the company behind the best-selling business management software, LivePlan, their newest email product for teams, Outpost, and popular small business resource blog, Bplans. Sabrina is dedicated to her community and developing the next generation of leaders and emerging companies. She serves as a board member for the Oregon Community Foundation, where she also sits on Strategic Opportunities Committee and is tasked with creating opportunity through investments in small business and underserved entrepreneurs. In 2018, Sabrina was appointed by the Governor of Oregon to the board for the Oregon Growth Board, where she helps guide strategic investments in to help grow Oregon companies. A mother of three boys 14 and under, Sabrina authors a blog about the challenges and rewards of being a “Mommy CEO.” She is a long-time advocate for women in business, and is involved with organizations including International Women’s Forum and Family Forward. She also regularly mentors and writes about issues that impact women in leadership and business. Sabrina contributes to Inc magazine, Entrepreneur Magazine, Business Insider, Huffington Post, Forbes, and Bplans. Sabrina graduated from Princeton University.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”? Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?
I grew up in a house where my father started a business and was a staunch entrepreneur. He had spent 10 years in Mexico City as a journalist, married to my mom, a woman from Mexico City. I was born in Mexico City and lived there until I was 7 when we moved to Stanford, CA for my father to attend the Stanford MBA program. I was raised the rest of my childhood in Palo Alto, CA with parents who embraced the risks of being entrepreneurs, and who were very focused on their kids achieving academic excellence, and their daughters being afforded all academic chances to excel and become highly educated well spoken, and strong women.
I attended a private (secular) all girls college prep school that gave me an opportunity to excel academically, particularly in math and science, without ever feeling like “girls aren’t good at math and science.” I never had a co-ed high school experience. Research shows that young women can become more shy and reserved in a co-ed high school environment. They stop participating in class, and don’t speak up as much their male counterparts. It simply was not my experience in such a highly academic all girls environment. I totally believed that women could have it all, as did many girls raised in the 80s and 90s.
Fast forward to 2004, I am 8 years post college in the tech startup world helping run Palo Alto Software, the business my father started when I was in highschool, and about to have my first child. It was then when I really was faced with the harsh reality of what it meant to be a working mom, and how corporate America had done very little (and continues to do very little) to acknowledge and accept what it takes for a working mom to be successful at work. Don’t misinterpret. I do not believe that moms can’t excel and produce as much as men or women without children. But I do believe that flexibility and focus on production rather than face time are vital to allow a working mother to contribute at the highest levels. I brought my first son to work with me until he was 5 months old. I practiced attachment parenting and he lived in a baby sling around my neck/shoulders except for at night when he was in a bassinet attached to our bed.
By 2007 I had 2 boys and was the CEO of Palo Alto Software, running the business with my husband. I brought my second and third son (who was born in 2009) into the office until they were 5–6 months old. I was lucky in that my kids were not colicky, and nursed quietly and happily as long as they were in the baby sling with me. 6 other babies of employees have come to the office with their mother’s until they were 5–6 months old. I have created a new paradigm for working parents where we focus on productivity and not face time. We give flexibility and spend our budget for benefits on the things that really matter: great affordable health insurance, very generous PTO and paid holidays, subsidized gym memberships, flexibility, and instead of your typical dog friendly software business we are a kid-friendly software business.
When I took over as CEO Palo Alto Software had 30 employees. Today in 2019 we are still privately owned, debt free, cash flow positive, profitable and have over 75 employees. It is not a business that has grown as fast as some VC funded startups, but we are still growing, financially very healthy, and family owned with no outside investment.
Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?
My day to day schedules varies tremendously depending on work commitments and kid and family commitments. On a typical week day I am up at 6am, getting kids ready for school. I will get to the office a little after 8, after dropping off my high schooler on the way to work. I usually work through the day, rarely taking a break until I head home around 5pm. I spend the next 3–4 hours shuttling kids, making dinner, and working out at home, until all the kids are settled and in their rooms for the night. Depending on how much is going on, I can then hop online for another hour or 2 before I need to crash and get sleep in order to be ready for the next day.
Let’s 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?
No. I don’t believe what I have done, and the choices I have made are detrimental to my children’s development. In fact I think I am a better mom because of my professional satisfaction and accomplishments. I certainly know my 3 boys will be raised to be smart, feminist boys who don’t just believe, but KNOW that women can do anything.
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?
● Children need to interact with parents in a positive way. They need to see behavior modeled for them and they need to have love, support, and discipline.
● When kids are babies and very little they simply need to be cared for and loved unconditionally. They need parents willing to do the physically exhausting work of raising a baby and toddler. Parenting can involve heavy lifting — it is literally physical work.
● As kids grow up it’s no rocket science to know (and research proves it) that kids who have parents involved in school and after school activities, supporting them and taking care of them, will thrive.
● When my kids were babies and nursing they always came with me when I had business travel. I was lucky enough to be able to bring my mom with me to help out, but never had to leave a baby at home. I think this allowed me to successfully breastfeed all 3 boys for their 1st year of life, never giving any of them formula.
● As the kids got older and were able to travel and behave appropriately, and be old enough to stay in a hotel room for an hour or two while I had a meeting in the same hotel, or come sit in the back of a room at a conference I was speaking, I started to bring them once again and give them the opportunity to actually see what I do, and hear me speak in front of a room of 1000 people. For them to see that this is why I travel, and that I love what I do, models great behavior and helps them see no limits to what they can do with their lives.
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?
● I do believe quality time is important, but that does not mean quantity is not also important. Ideally kids get both. Because I run my business I have the flexibility to decide when and where I work. It does not mean that I work less, but it means that I can work from 9pm to midnight if I need to, or on a Saturday or Sunday, and I have no boss trying to figure out where I am and if I am doing my work. Because of this sort of flexibility my kids have been able to be part of an Alpine ski team 2.5 hours away from our home town. We have a cabin in the mountains and every single Friday for the last 8 years from December through the end of April we drive out to the mountains so our kids can train. My husband and I can use the drive time on Fridays (we usually leave at dinner time) to debrief from the work week (he is the COO at our company) and finish our work week while we drive. Meanwhile our kids get us at the mountain all weekend, skiing and being involved with their racing and training. The flexibility I have as an entrepreneur does not mean less work, just control over my work. I have taken calls while on ski lifts, or watching my kids race. I have been on a conference call on a weekday when one of my kids was ski racing, able to be at the top of the race for him, wish him luck (while on mute) go back to my call, participate in my call as I ski down (air pods are god’s gift!) and watch him race by. It is hard, it is exhausting, but it allows my sons to excel in their ski racing while I can still be there, but also get work done and run my business.
● My husband and I have also made it a point to travel internationally with our kids and have taken them over the course of their lives (the oldest just turned 15, the middle one if 12 and the youngest is 9) traveling to over 16 countries and every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Most times we cannot completely unplug, and I have done calls at midnight when on different time zones, but we do make an effort to be present and not commit to answering emails and calls while we travel with the kids. This sort of quality time is unparalleled. We also spend time with the kids before a trip learning about the country and region we are going to, learning about the food we should try, and include the kids planning the activities. We are a very active adventurous family and have had great experiences traveling with our kids.
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?
I have a few guidelines that help me be present:
- When I go home at 5ish I am completely present with the kids until they are asleep or in their rooms ready for bed. I put my phone and computer away. It’s actually pretty easy once you get in the habit, as dealing with 3 boys, pickups from activities, dinner, homework, bed time is pretty all consuming. My husband still reads to our 9 year old every night, and i still lie down with him every night to put him to bed.
- My husband follows the same rules, and we are a team, helping the kids and being there in the evening for them. It’s also way easier when we model “no screens” to keep the kids off screens in the evening. Middle school and high school kids are hard to keep from their social media and screens, but when the rules apply to all of us, it’s easier for everyone to follow them.
- If I have to work while also dealing with kid activities I am honest with my kids and family. This past year by oldest son who is an accomplished competitive alpine skier started training Friday afternoons at the mountain 2.5 hours from our house. I would pick him up at 10:15 am after his 1st 2 classes, and he would know that I also had a call scheduled from 10am-11am for the first hour of our drive. Sometimes I would have 2 calls scheduled. My son knew that this was work time, and that he would have to do homework while I drove and took business calls. If everyone knows what to expect, and you keep to your commitments both for work and family, I find it works better.
How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?
Anyone can be a good parent. It means so many different things. For me being a good parent is understanding what your kids need, being there for them, and helping them build a foundation of knowledge and love that will eventually lead them to be independent thoughtful, smart caring adults. I have 3 kids and the needs they each have are different. The way I am a good parent for one, is different than the way I am a good parent for another one. One of the things my three kids love, and really respond to is when I find time to be one on one with them. Then I can really focus and be there for what they need and want. There is nothing my youngest loves more than to spend a Friday night with just me, when my husband is with the other 2 boys at a ski race or regatta (my two older boys also row on a crew team). We go out to dinner snuggle in bed and watch a movie together. My middle son is a huge foodie and loves to travel with me on business and find adventurous and different kinds of restaurants to eat at. My oldest sons just craves alone time and happily will hang out, go out to dinner, or stay home. He justs wants to be able to have the one on one attention from me, and pick where we eat and what movie or show we watch.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
I have inspired my kids to dream by exposing them to as many adventures, and cultures as possible. I try very hard to never say no to trying new things, and to really encourage my kids to be active and adventurous. My kids all are exceptional skiers, they all mountain bike, they all white water kayak and they all surf. My husband and I have always focused on travel that allows us to be very active with the kids and have encouraged and facilitated trying new things. Our kids have kit boarded in Mexico, surfed in the Dominican Republic, snorkeled in Columbia and Honduras, boogie boarded in Cape Town, South Africa (at a beach with shark warnings), surfed in France, white water kayaked on the Deschutes, McKenzie and Willamette rivers, skied all over the Northwest and Colorado and mountain biked all over Oregon. They have eaten snails and raw oysters in France, conch in Honduras, kudu beef jerky in South Africa and camel’s milk in the Arabian desert in the UAE.
I believe that giving my kids all of these adventures, and exposing them to all of these activities and cultures and foods opens their eyes to what the world can hold and allows them to dream big. They are kids who always say yes to adventure, and always want to try new things. And they see my and my husband work hard to be able to provide these experiences, as well as work hard to support them in the sports that they excel at.
How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?
Success to me is being happy and satisfied with the work I get to do, and with my family life. I love coming to work every day and love being creative and running a company that is innovating and growing. I love to see our customers love our products and our employees love to work at our company. But I also love that I am present and available for my kids. I love to be there and watch them tear up a ski race, or crush it at a regatta. I love to be able to wake up early on weekdays and help them with an essay, or a science project. I love the level of involvement I get to have in their lives while still being able to run a successful company. Its a lot of work, and I don’t get much alone time or me time. But it makes me happy and I feel for me it is a success.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
I read a lot of books for fun and for business, but rarely read parenting books. I listen to podcasts whenever I drive, and given all the driving to ski mountains in the winter , I have lots of time for podcasts. I listen to many podcasts from Gimlet Media, with ReplyAll being my favorite. I also listen to This American Life, Serial, Planet Money, How I Built This, and Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I appreciate listening to podcasts that inform me about current events, interesting things happening in the world, and hearing interesting people. I like being able to have relevant, interesting conversations with my children and I think it makes me a better parent.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You don’t get what you wish for, you get what you work for.“ When my kids swam for the local club swim team (my youngest one still does) this was their motto. I love this way of approaching life, and it is something I tell my children all the time. If you work hard, you will achieve. If you decide not to work hard, then you get only what you have worked for.
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 continue the work I do in supporting better conditions across the US for working moms, all working parents and families. Our country falls very far behind on the support we offer working parents, and it’s time to step up. We need national paid family leave. We need better access for everyone no matter what your job is to have good healthcare. We need to give all families better access to high quality affordable day care. In Oregon where I live it is cheaper to pay for 1 year of in state University tuition than 1 year of childcare for a 1 year old.
Thank you for all of these great insights!
About the author:
Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.