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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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Sabrina Parsons works in the "green room," a space used for video recording of training and educational videos, as well as webinars.
// Photo by Adam Bacher

Last February Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer surprised the business world and disrupted the schedules of hundreds of remote employees by forbidding employees to work from home. In a company memo that was leaked to the press, Mayer wrote, “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side by side. That is why it is critical we are all present in our offices.”

Mayer’s statements were widely interpreted as a blow to working parents, especially moms. For Parsons, the idea that you can’t be attached to and involved with your children while also a successful, high-powered businesswoman was ludicrous.

“It is time for the working world to acknowledge that some of us have kids and that taking care of our kids does not mean that we are slackers,” Parsons wrote on the Forbes.com blog, “Mommy CEO.” “It’s time to take the next step in feminism: Stop trying to fit into the existing corporate world that defines success in a certain way (a traditional male definition), and bring the reality of parenting and career into the forefront,” Parsons continues. “Admitting that we have children, and that we want to parent them well does not make us cop-outs or people who work less.”

The Parsons have three sons (9, 7 and 3) who are cared for during the week by a nanny from Mexico. But Parsons considers herself a hands-on parent, managing her sons’ busy schedules on Google Calendar (“I live and die by [it]!”), going skiing with the boys on weekends and bringing her youngest to the office in a sling when he was an infant.

Having a family-friendly work environment is one of the goals at Palo Alto, where Parsons believes that an overemphasis on time in the office is to the detriment of both employee morale and a business’ bottom line. There is an unwritten policy that children are welcome at Palo Alto Software, as long as the kids are not disruptive. The company has a room with a flat-screen TV, coloring books and toys, so employees who have last-minute childcare issues can come to work and bring their kids. Lara Fields, a senior engineer, brought her new infant into the office every day for six months, and her colleagues fought over who got to hold baby Grace.

Still, Palo Alto Software has had trouble recruiting skilled female employees. Nearly 40% of the employees are female, but only three (25%) are engineers and two (40%) are on the executive team. These figures mirror state and national trends. As Willamette Week reported last year, a survey of 11 Portland tech startups, ranging from companies with four employees to 80, showed their total workforces were typically about 80% male, while their development and engineering teams had even fewer women.

If you need to leave early to pick up a sick kid or run errands, no one at Palo Alto will look at you askance. But Parsons also expects her employees to deliver — they are expected to make up the lost time later, at home, perhaps after the kids have gone to sleep. “We measure by what people do and achieve,” Parsons explains, during a working lunch of Caesar salad and veggie pizza from Sizzle Pie downstairs, “not how many hours they spend in the office. When you give people flexibility,” Parsons adds, “the company always wins.”

Parsons’ balanced approach to corporate culture also applies to her community involvement work. She is the treasurer of the Charlemagne at Fox Hollow school parent-teacher organization, editor and distributor of the PTO newsletter, donates computers to her sons’ school and serves as a judge for business plan competitions.

Sabrina and Noah also started an entrepreneur-in-residence program, and a company-wide employee reading group that meets once a month to discuss a business or philosophy book (purchased for employees by the company) that is also open to the community at large.

“Sabrina understands the importance of a strong community, strong infrastructure, good schools,” says one of Parsons’ colleagues, the former CEO of a prominent bank in Eugene. “She is a champion on working on the other environmental issues that are so important to creating a successful business.”

Many business leaders avoid getting involved in issues where there are divergent viewpoints, says Sheryl Balthrop, chair of the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce. “But Sabrina is willing to get involved and look for solutions. She wants to advance the community’s interests and not be staying on the sidelines.”


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