A good parent is living in the moment. It’s a cliche but they grow up so fast. You don’t want to miss it. The entrepreneur’s story only has a happy ending if you remember to put your family first, or at a minimum, on par with your business. For me, having a children’s business makes it easier to be a good parent because it’s fun to work on ideas together at home. My children are my greatest inspiration.
As a part of my series about “How extremely busy executives make time to be great parents” I had the pleasure to interview Sofia Fenichell, CEO of Mrs Wordsmith. Sofia is of Tunisian origin, educated in America, and studied history at Northwestern University. After graduating, she worked in advertising and then enrolled at Columbia University to complete her MBA. While working at Goldman Sachs as a tech analyst, Sofia’s passion for writing and research was reignited, and she founded Mrs Wordsmith in 2016. Under Sofia’s leadership, the company is focused on writing research-backed books to improve children’s literacy and educational outcomes. Mrs. Wordsmith’s 37 House Rules is the first book in the company’s new child development line. Sofia is on the Advisory Board of Common Sense Media Europe. She is also slowly working away on her book Silicon Sally, about female entrepreneurship.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?
Myfather used to wait tables in Tunisia and would bring home a newspaper instead of tips — he wanted to educate himself, move to a different country, and create a better life. He always had big ambitions for me, too. Fenichell credits her parents for “taking the plunge” that brought the family to the U.S. so that she and her 4 siblings could be educated here. It was very difficult for my parents who strove to educate five kids with a first class American education. We should always remember that immigrants come to the States wanting to build a better life, and they arrive full of hope and renewal. They imbue the country with this spirit, and it forms the very fabric of entrepreneurship. My parents always raised us to believe that any accomplishment was within our reach.
Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?
“Ilove words,” explains Sofia. “Words have always been a huge part of my life. I was the kind of child that walked around with a book in my face all the time. My parents always thought I would end up a fiction writer or a screenwriter. But it wasn’t until later in my life that I was able to put my writing skills to good use. When I was a senior in college, my screenwriting professor sent one of my manuscripts to Disney Screenwriting Fellowship because he thought it was so good. I was waitlisted and never really got over it. I spent 6 months in L.A. trying to figure out how to get into the industry. It was hard. It seemed like such a gamble. I remember asking my professors “how do you know if you are a great writer?”. His answer was “you will know when you have a great story to tell. Being a great storyteller is almost more important than being a great writer.” I thought that was such good advice. I didn’t feel like I had a great story to tell yet so I took a job in advertising instead.”
She spent four years in advertising, took an MBA at Columbia Business School, then interned at Goldman Sachs. She was sent to London by Morgan Stanley, and became a media and tech analyst for 10 years. That was the perfect job for a long time. I think it prepared me most for what I am doing now. I was able to write about companies and industries that were at the forefront of disrupting the world as internet pioneers. It was real gold rush kind of stuff and exhilarating. I had a seat at the table with access to CEOs across the world in media, telecom equipment and technology. I even covered for-profit, publicly-traded education stocks. This was all back in 1996 to about 2003. We didn’t even have email accounts or mobile phones when I first started.
I think the most important thing I learned was how to ask questions, and what questions to ask. A question is your most important tool and weapon. I was fearless when it came to asking questions about how the world was changing, and I still have an insatiable appetite for reading about industries and academic research. It’s enabled me to develop strong pattern recognition skills and to become very knowledgeable about my current field of education.
I left finance when I had kids. I dabbled in a lot of entrepreneurial projects because I have a lot of energy but my real passion was at home with my kids and in my community.
The impetus for starting Mrs Wordsmith was personal for Fenichell. “I wanted to help my own children fall in love with writing and become great writers. I could only see the value of writing going one way with the internet.
But I was shocked by the poor quality of educational materials available for the language-learning industry — poorly conceived, low-quality visuals, with many products that had very old copyright dates! The more I dug around, the more I realized that the sector was dominated by large publishing houses that underinvest in data-driven curation and high-quality content. All the investment and creativity was going into video games and entertainment. So, I was determined that Mrs Wordsmith would become the Pixar of Literacy. The irony of all of this is that it was easier for me to create my own version of Pixar than to get a job at Pixar. I think that’s an important lesson for entrepreneurs and young people. I always say to my children, ‘you have to believe if you want to achieve.”
Launched in 2016, the company is now among the fastest-growing startups in Europe. Within a year, they were invited by the London Mayor’s Office to attend the prestigious UK2Silicon Valley female founders trip to meet leading US tech unicorns. The company has launched 14 best-selling books and products such as the Word-a-Day series to accelerate children’s reading and writing skills, teach them English, and make them happy. Mrs Wordsmith’s independent studies show that their products increase a child’s vocabulary by 50 percent over six weeks.
But 2020 is going to be our big year. After 3 years of building a high quality content library focused on literacy and language learning, we are ready to go digital. We are launching two apps — one is a reading app that teaches children how to read using systematic phonics and the other is a word game that accelerates their vocabulary. And we have a book ecosystem to support blended learning.
Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?
Iam early to rise and somewhat early to bed. My day starts at 5 am. I try and get about 2 hours of work done before the kids are up. I drop my son off at the school bus at 8 am, and then I have a daily call with our game developers and designers in Copenhagen. We got very lucky towards the end of last year and were able to hire the world class gaming team that created Subway Surfers, the most downloaded app on the planet. My kids love it. So do I.
At 9 am I arrive in the office and my day to day is interacting with an enormously talented team of interdisciplinary creatives, graphic designers, and even academics from Cambridge and NYU that are part of the Mrs. Wordsmith team of experts. But the company remains inspired by children and is driven by “a community of kids”. Everything that we publish, including the recently released Mrs. Wordsmith’s 37 House Rules, has been vetted by a panel of at least six young people. When people come in here, they say, ‘Who’s running this place? A bunch of kids?’ And I say, ‘Yes. We don’t believe in products that parents have to force kids to use.’”
At the same time Mrs. Wordsmith is very much a data-driven research company. They have brought a massive concordance engine to bear on some 200,000 books in search of the best words for kids to learn. The company mines this database for words that are statistically likely to appear on exams and in the books kids read. “We teach words that actually makes kids smarter,” Fenichell says.
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?
There are so many research-based reasons why you should spend time with your children. But I would keep it simple. It is important to spend time with your children creating positive and lasting memories. This will give them a sense of belonging which means they won’t feel lonely or scared. It will make them feel safe. When children feel undervalued or lonely, they may turn to others to help them find their sense of self worth and community. No community is safer or more wholesome than the family. It’s a jumping off point for the wider world and gives children strong intuition for how to interact with people, build empathy and expand their communities. Just build memories. It makes everyone feel great.
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?
“Ithink the best example I can give you of why I think it’s so important to make time to spend with your children is the publication of our new book Mrs. Wordsmith’s 37 House Rules. It’s kind of a self-help manual for a happy home. There are 37 research-based (and commonsensical) house rules — like no phones at the dinner table, go outside everyday, kiss your mom before you leave the house and dozens of others, all illustrated in a way to make kids want to shout out and follow the rules! It was designed to give kids a sense of ownership over the rules and to create a humorous conversation in the household. Rules don’t have to have a negative connotation. Rules are actually very positive. They set boundaries and help children understand the world around them. Children who can think for themselves and respect their homes and their parents, go on to do unexpected and incredible things. Children learn how to become risk takers at home,” explains Sofia.
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?
Myhusband and I eat dinner with our children almost every evening. My parents ate dinner with us. My husband’s parents ate dinner with him. I think the dinner table is your most important parenting moment and many of our products are designed to be consumed around the dinner table. We do our Storyteller’s Word a Day every day! And my children’s teachers all tell me they have an amazing vocabulary!
On the weekends, we have the same routine, we go to the farmer’s market together, and then it’s a mad dash all over town to various sporting events. In the evening we cook together and usually have another family with kids over for dinner. We are a foodie family.
I involve my children in most aspects of my work life and value their feedback on the books, games and apps we publish at Mrs. Wordsmith. If my children are not excited about a new book or the characters in our new apps, I know we haven’t done our job correctly. Everyone in our company who has children takes great pride in involving their children or just thinking like a kid.
My husband and I are both entrepreneurs, and our 11 and 15 year old children are very aware of what it means to have a start-up. We are open with them about the ups and downs, in a constructive or humorous way. Our kids know all about new product launches, game development etc. It helps them to see what their Mom does as CEO and the daily issues that I’m having to resolve. They give me wonderful, heartfelt advice about issues that may seem complex but the answers are often very simple. They say the truth lies in the eyes of a child. I think it also gives them perspective on their own life and makes them realize that they can achieve anything they set their minds to with a little ingenuity and elbow grease.
My husband and I spend a lot of time outdoors with our children — hiking, doing sports. I can’t say enough about the importance of this. Be outside with your kids all the time. It’s one of the rules in House Rules!
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.
Here are some of the strategies I use in order to be “fully present” with my own children.
Strategy 1:Hire well in Order to Share the Workload
I had to learn how to hire and to understand what “good looked like”. I had to look very hard to find good people. All of these things are challenging for rapidly evolving start-ups. It’s a journey and you can become very good at this with experience. Hire people you can learn from. Make sure you feel a connection to them and that you create an environment where people feel safe to disagree with you. You are going to debate a lot of issues together. And then delegate. The more you delegate, the faster you will learn how capable people are, allowing you to get out the door at the end of the day and home to your family. There is literally nothing more important than this. If you don’t hire well, you bring your problems home because you will end up doing the work of 5 people. If you do this well, you’ll walk in the door of your home with a smile on your face.
Strategy 2: Establish Some Ground Rules at Home
We all want a harmonious home! No one wants to come home and argue. You want to spend your quality time with your kids laughing and talking. Start by making rules fun. Mrs. Wordsmith’s 37 House Rules helps families get on the same page by providing 37 hilariously illustrated house rules that will put an end to daily arguments. Whether it’s switching off the lights when they leave a room, learning to share, or brushing your teeth for two minutes, kids will learn through practical examples of how to behave in different situations, making returning home at the end of a long day, more enjoyable for both parents and kids. It also has lots of soulful rules on reading, kissing your mom and making bedtime fun.
Strategy 3: Hug your child for 30 seconds.
Apparently it takes 30 seconds for a hug to do it’s magic on the brain. Hugging is important. It’s one of the rules “This house is a hug hub! Plug yourself in!”
Strategy 4: Do your work emails when your children do their homework.
This one really works for me. We sit at the table together and both work. I can keep an eye on what homework is being done and I can get my own emails done. If your children don’t have homework (lucky you!) then ask them to read a book for one hour while you do your work. There is something about sitting side by side quietly that feels right.
Strategy 5: Take care of yourself.
This isn’t one I am fully on top of if I am to be totally honest. I find it hard, working 6 days a week, and all my free-time goes to the family. But I am trying to carve out time for my work-outs so that I have some me-time. I want to feel fresh and bright. Leading by example, and showing your children you take care of yourself is important.
How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?
Agood parent is living in the moment. It’s a cliche but they grow up so fast. You don’t want to miss it. The entrepreneur’s story only has a happy ending if you remember to put your family first, or at a minimum, on par with your business. For me, having a children’s business makes it easier to be a good parent because it’s fun to work on ideas together at home. My children are my greatest inspiration.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
Mydaughter wrote me a beautiful birthday card for my 50th birthday. She wrote “Mummy, keep dreaming and creating. When I see how much you are achieving at the age of 50, you make me realize that everything is possible. And that I should never be afraid.” I think you can only inspire by example. And by talking to your children a lot and listening to what they are thinking and feeling and dreaming. Talk to them about what is going on in the world. Not just your world but the big world of sustainability, technology and global issues. Talk to them about their friends and the latest hoodies. Is the hoodie trend over? Would they ever start a hoodie company for charity? Have they emailed their Grandma back? “
How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?
DoI have time to work out? If I do, that means that my work life and my family life are in balance. If I don’t, it means that I am taking a deficit from one of them. You don’t want to run your life on zero ‘me margin’ for very long or you will have a breakdown.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
Myfriends and family. I think parenting is a communal good. We learn from each other and from sharing our stories, worries and hopes. No book or podcast in the world can replace a good partner, friend, sister or grandmother.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
This is the most important quote of my life….
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
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. 🙂
“You’ve got this!” Say that to someone at least once a day. It’s empowerment.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!