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Lean in? Not Sabrina Parsons.

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Articles - November/December 2013
Monday, October 28, 2013


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// Photo by Adam Bacher

When Sabrina Parsons was growing up, she, her brother and their boy cousins would roam their grandmother’s property in Cuernavaca, outside Mexico City, hunting scorpions and snakes. Parsons lived in Mexico until she was 7, then went back every summer after moving to Palo Alto. As a child, it was her responsibility to make sure the gaggle of children returned home safely. One afternoon, when cousin Rodrigo found a hanging wasp nest and decided to see what would happen if he poked it with a stick, it was Parsons who ordered two boys to run to the house for help and told Rodrigo to roll on the ground to stop the wasps from stinging.

In her corner office on a Monday morning, wearing a pink-striped shirt, blue jeans and blue plastic high-heeled sandals, Sabrina Parsons does not look like a self-described tomboy. But Parsons, now CEO of one of Eugene’s fastest-growing tech companies, is still very much in charge. And still surrounded by men.

A Hispanic woman in a leadership position in a cutting-edge industry, Parsons is making things happen. A $10 million company today, Palo Alto Software projects annual earnings of $35 million within the next three years. The fifth-floor offices in the renovated Broadway Commerce Center in the heart of Eugene’s downtown hum with excitement. The products offered by Palo Alto Software may not be the most electrifying (Parsons says some people roll their eyes at business-planning software), but this fall the company has attracted major investors. Palo Alto’s continued success — their software is nationally recognized as the leading business-planning tool for entrepreneurs — is inspiring other tech companies to move to Eugene.

Parsons is a sign of the rapidly growing and evolving tech industry in Oregon and nationwide. But if she is part of a local and national zeitgeist, it’s also because she is helping shape a national dialogue about high-level female professionals, especially those working in traditionally male-dominated fields such as the tech industry. At a time when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg exhorts America’s professional women to lean into their careers, take risks and stay in the workplace even while starting families, Parsons champions a different attitude for businesswomen.

Instead of keeping her parenting in the background, she identifies herself as a “Mommy CEO” on her blog for Forbes, unabashedly arguing that women need to be able to integrate parenting into their work life and bring their babies to work without raising eyebrows. Parsons shares these and other opinions about 21st-century corporate culture freely: business needs to be more child-friendly; risk-taking and innovation feed success; and accomplishments are more important than face time.

That balance makes Parsons something of a paradigm for other women in the industry. “She’s a source of inspiration for women who are looking to pursue careers in technology,” says Skip Newberry, president of the Technology Association of Oregon. Parsons’ unapologetic embrace of life-work balance enhances her effectiveness, combining entrepreneurial moxie with the know-how and people skills a CEO needs, says Caroline Cummings, vice president of business development, who herself started two companies before joining Palo Alto Software’s management team.

“She’s a great leader,” Cummings says. “Compassionate but no bullshit.”


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