Miranda Nash & Jennifer Foster have paved successful careers in technology via very different paths. Yet through deeper and more varied experience in the field, and each starting families of their own, their philosophies and ideals around work-life balance have overlapped. Where Miranda spent her earlier days conforming to the traditional work norms and “playing the game,” Jennifer experimented with alternatives to integrate the expectations of the workforce and her desires to be a (mostly) stay-at-home mom. Their converging paths have brought them together now to introduce Qeople, a company dedicated to changing the work dynamics facing women (and men) professionals so that their mission for personal career growth and successful family life are not so directly opposed. We get the scoop on how the work force and work field are changing, and how women in STEM can come up the ranks in a more natural and healthy way, blending and balancing the goals in work and life more sustainably.
1. What were you like as a child? Who are you today?
Miranda: As the oldest of 5 kids growing up in a small town in Eastern Washington, I believed from a young age that the natural order of things was for me to be in charge. I reveled in anything competitive – broke my nose playing football, beat my dad in Scrabble about 1/3 of the time, successfully ran for school President in 9th and 12th grade. My parents raised their children with aggressively non-gendered expectations (all 3 girls are now in STEM fields), and I was filled with a confidence, blissfully unaware of the smallness of my pond.
My competitiveness and achievement -orientation remains, but some wisdom acquired along the way has softened the sharp edges. Facing my share of failures as an adult helped me become who I am today-stronger, more mindful, and more empathetic. I’m thankful (now) for getting 2 C’s in fall quarter of my freshman year at Stanford, for being publicly ridiculed by Senior VPs at Oracle, and for failing to raise $20M from investors for my last venture. Each experience has helped me discover and internalize that the way best way to achievement is to find and follow my own path, continually striving to be a better version of myself.
Jennifer: Growing up, I was fairly independent and self-driven. I was an only child and often felt more in sync with adults, yet loved social play with other kids. I was also enrolled in various gifted programs and magnet programs throughout the school years. I loved the faster paced learning opportunities, but hated the atmosphere. It was upsetting to see classmates breakdown under academic pressure, and I never felt I fit in with the kids who had a single-minded interest area. I wanted to be a writer, an actress, an archeologist. An inventor, a mom, a world traveler. From age 10, the school system kept trying to groom and mold me for a high-achieving career in college and beyond.
Instead I honestly wrote college application essays about wanting to be a “Renaissance Woman” with multiple interests and perhaps multiple careers over a lifetime. It’s still a work-in-progress, but today I feel I have a solid foundation for that. I am a mother, a co-founder, a writer, a strategist and marketer. A volunteer art teacher, and “after-schooler” teaching my own kids French & Latin, a Scouting troop leader three times over. A Bronze 2 ballroom dancer, a beginner piano player, a mediocre but enthusiastic tennis player. The friend to be called in emergencies, an only child who loves spending time with my parents,and as a committed wife.
2. Describe your life’s work.
M: My life’s work is to play my part to advance and equalize the position of women in the workplace, in leadership, and in families. Phase 1 of this work was rather self-absorbed: climbing the corporate ladder in a very male-dominated environment, I was proving something, to someone. Phase 2 continues and is deeply personal yet more nuanced: raising two boys to be feminists with a husband who’s also a feminist. Those early professional challenges and today’s personal advantages are driving Phase 3. Now I want to change the work dynamics facing other professional women like me so that their missions for personal career growth and successful family life are not so directly opposed. This is the reason for Qeople.
J: Ultimately, my life’s work is about supporting families and children. Each family is different, and all of them are continuously changing. There is not a single formula. Whether it’s education, at-home parenting and hands-on care-taking, or modern careers, people need a greater variety of options to blend the important pieces of their lives together. I’d love to see more engineers double majoring in art or journalism, more new parents and adult children with aging parents able to take temporary career breaks at critical times, and a variety of career options and working arrangements that reflect the full spectrum of people’s talent and commitments.
3. What attracted you to the world of tech?
M: My parents and some inspiring teachers fostered my natural knack for math and physics. Then I stumbled into computer science in college as a lover of math and logic – not as a jobseeker, a video gamer, or a tinkerer.
Stanford engineering gave me an understanding of computer science principles and good programming style, and from there I wanted to work where I could learn a lot. In 1995, that was Oracle. I have stayed in tech, invigorated by the culture of Silicon Valley, because the potential impact is huge, and the competition intense.
J: I’m a compulsive problem solver, big and small. While it often creates new issues, the world of tech has been responsible for making so many aspects of life easier, safer, and more enjoyable.
But my first reactions to tech were not very positive. I preferred to play outside and organize neighborhood kids into rock concerts rather than play video games. I hated staring into a screen to write stories and essays. But I also hated re-copying drafts, and my first interest in “tech” came through more efficient word processing. Fortunately, I had always been good in math (despite disliking it until Calculus) and there were always teachers and adults encouraging me to stick with STEM. When I did finally drop out of engineering in college for a year, I found I missed it. That’s when I realized that ambivalence didn’t mean it’s the wrong field, that following your passion didn’t need to require sacrificing every other interest and commitment.
4. Explain the concept and philosophies behind Qeople? How did this company come about?
M: As an employer and hiring manager, I’ve faced the frustrations of being unable to hire. I had to get creative and began attracting amazing people by being flexible to their needs. Jennifer is the quintessential example of the high caliber candidate I’ve hired in the past at rates below what her talent would warrant simply because I was willing to work within her schedule constraints. Immersed in the recruiting software industry, it infuriated me to hear so many employers whine and complain about the “talent shortage” while 40% of women with top-tier MBAs remained on the sidelines of the typical job market.
Other women I knew in big companies worked in full time jobs but still bore the brunt of parenting. With tenure in the company, they would use success to ratchet back hours in the office rather than to “lean in” for the next promotion. It’s a sensible choice, but over time, they felt stuck – no longer growing and thriving but afraid to leave the relative flexibility they had achieved. Why couldn’t a young startup snatch up these highly valuable experienced people for an engaging growth opportunity, luring them not with free sushi and onsite fitness centers but with schedules that fit their lives?
And, it’s not just women. My husband, a Stanford-educated computer science engineer and musician, left the traditional engineering job market for the freelance world to allow enough time for his music. But as with many freelancers, he found the flexibility benefits get overshadowed by the business development overhead. His heart is in the engineering and the music, not the hustling.
All this potential – people who have opted out, who are hiding out in big companies, and who are freelancing without optimizing-remains untapped. We estimate that 12 million knowledge workers fall in these 3 categories, underutilized. The mission of Qeople is a personal one – to create a new kind of talent market for these high caliber people to connect with the employers that need them.
J: A greater variety of working arrangements is better for employees, better for companies, better for the broader community. Smart, accomplished people do not suddenly become under-achievers if they shift to a 60% schedule. They don’t become obsolete if they take a few years off. Even startups are starting to realize that the business won’t fold if senior people take a few months off for maternity/paternity leave. It won’t crumble if the Marketing VP generally leaves at 3pm. Things often get better. There’s a lot of waste and inefficiency with the 100% always-on, always-available model.
Miranda and I had actually been living the Qeople model for years before formalizing it as a business. When I quit my job to stay home full-time with my oldest daughter, I prepared myself that my career might have come to a permanent end. During my stay-at-home years I met doctors and lawyers who were able to work 2 days a week and stay in their fields, but no one knew about part-time options for business careers. So Miranda and I created them as we went along. When she approached me to join Oxygen Equity (O2E) I nearly said “no”. My only reference point was the very full full-time jobs I had in the past. But I have always loved working with Miranda.
So, we started from scratch figuring out what O2E needed most from me and what I was able to contribute without compromising the time I had committed to my children. My husband and I made some changes at home, and Miranda and I were very organized about priorities and communication. Often her nanny would bring her son to play with my kids while we worked. Even now my youngest insisted to his teacher that I don’t work. I’m able to be with my kids most of the time they are out of school, and when I do have Qeople meetings they think I am going to have some kind of grown-up play date. In a way, I am. I love what I am doing, and I work with people I like and respect. More people should have these options.
5. Tell us about your partnership.
M:Jennifer and I met in 2001 in our first few days at Stanford Business School. I was immediately drawn to her singularity of purpose and strong sense of self, and fascinated by the ways in which we were polar opposites yet cut from the same cloth. I really can’t imagine traveling this startup path alone or with anyone else.
J: Our friendship and partnership goes back nearly 15 years. We have worked together as classmates, extra-curricular teammates, professional colleagues, business partners. Qeople formalized our most recent working relationship – As President at a Saas company, Miranda had been successfully building up a team and evolving a corporate culture with a combination of traditional full-time, part-time, contractor and consultant hires. I had been working with her as an independent consultant.
The obvious advantage of having someone to work with is the diversity of ideas and opinions, being able to have thoughtful discussions about strategy or ops priorities. We can also be more productive and efficient sharing the workload. But what I appreciate most, and missed most during the periods I’ve worked alone, is the positive energy another person brings to the work.
6. As women-mothers, how have you paved a successful path in a male-dominated tech world? (Did you ever have to pretend to be something you were not?)
M: It’s been said many times that women must walk a narrow tightrope of acceptable behavior to get ahead in a male-dominated environment. I spent my 30s learning to thread that needle – technical-enough to be taken seriously, friendly-enough to win over advocates, ballsy-enough to gain respect, subtle-enough to help others win too – in addition to delivering results, of course. My role as mother had no place in that massive trial and error experiment.
“I’ll never forget what I perceived as a great compliment from an Oracle colleague: he never realized I was a mom.”
What I perceived then as a compliment, I recognize now as both a peculiarity of my circumstances and a tragedy of traditional work norms. The peculiarity is that my husband subordinated his career to mine – picking up the slack when we needed it as a family, because all families do. The tragedy is that the normal responsibilities of family life are too often detrimental (unnecessarily so!) to one’s success at work.
The woman, in most cases, makes the natural and necessary small choices that chip away at her esteem among peers and bosses, even when actual performance remains high. My mission now is not to help others fit into the box as I learned to do, but to change the dynamics for others.
J: I’ve always felt fortunate that I had mostly good experiences as a minority in tech. There weren’t many women engineering majors in college, but I always felt included and respected. That continued in the workforce. The differences were more cultural and indirect. I’ve felt the need to feign interest in esoteric tech topics or fake enthusiasm about gadgets that don’t really excite me. With certain people, I wouldn’t mention family commitments or outside interests because it seemed to be a zero-sum game. If I had time to sing in a choir or volunteer in schools during work hours (which I did even before kids), then I was effectively robbing the team somehow.
Quitting the first time actually set me free of that. And it freed up a lot of time and energy to spend on problems and issues that really do interest me.
7. What are your words of advice for a woman starting in tech?
M: “It’s not personal.” I say that because thriving in a male-dominated environment like tech requires a thick skin. Something I have struggled with and see nearly all women struggle with. It’s easy to understand, and you might say women are more sensible – they would rather leave a toxic environment than tolerate it. In my experience, though, criticism and failure are part of any challenge. You have to give yourself time to learn and figure out these dynamics. Remembering that it’s not personal protects your inner core of self-esteem and enables the separation one needs to power through.
Ironically, the traditional burden of breadwinner that many men bear becomes an advantage, of sorts, in sticking it out. When the pressure to provide for the family falls on your shoulders, you’re forced to stick out the tough times at work and confront these challenges rather than leave, and I have experienced that same “advantage” myself. Give yourself the chance and the strength to stick it out through your own outlook and choices.
J: There are an infinite number of paths, an infinite number of ways to be a “woman in tech”. If you fit the classic male founder/hoodie/hacker/superstar model, terrific. If not, don’t feel like this is not for you and leave.
8. How do you juggle the life-balance as founders, partners, and moms with a start up?
M: I strive toward Essentialism – the disciplined pursuit of less. Only two things make it to the essential core for me – my business and my family – and I have a partner in each one that I trust completely. It doesn’t feel like juggling things outside my control. On good days, it feels like “flow”, and on bad days I can get very frustrated with myself, but I never feel like a victim of uncontrollable chaotic circumstances. That said, I’m 6 months pregnant with my second child. Ask me again in 3 months…
J: I recognize and plan for ebbs and flows with the various parts of life. As much as possible, I go with my own personal “flow”. If I’m inspired to write a blog, I don’t force myself to do ops work. If I’m on a roll doing process work, I’ll let my kids watch an extra tv show so I can continue. If my family is having a good time together, I’ll postpone my post-bedtime projects so we can play another board game.
I’ve also cultivated a great support system. During my stay-at-home years, I had a 2 year-old, newborn twins, a husband who traveled and no family in the area. I give myself a break when I do occasionally miss games and class parties for Qeople. Even if I were not working, with 3 kids there are often conflicts, and I’ve had to skip the Big Game for one to attend a Big Recital. My husband’s support has been extremely helpful with Qeople. While we knew the Qeople model would be appealing to men as well as women, we are living that reality in my home. My husband works hard and does still travel, but being in Sales gives him a lot of flexibility which in turn supports my ability to commit to Qeople. It’s true that workplace flexibility for men is a key to supporting women’s careers.
9. There is still a huge disparity in women learning STEM, how can we tackle this issue? How can we mentor women to continue to C-level status?
M: I believe it starts with the fathers of daughters. Fathers of daughters have the motivation and the power, but often not the awareness, to truly upend the system and give their own daughters the same opportunities as the boys. First, fathers (and mothers) need to fight actively against the tendency to protect girls while toughening boys. Every action as a parent can be questioned through the lens of gender-neutrality. The solution is not to “feminize” technology or toys. Gender-neutral childhood expectations multiply during adulthood as confidence in women and feminism in men. The secondary effect of gender-neutral parenting by fathers is it makes them more mindful and aware of subtle and undermining gender expectations that linger on in their own adult spheres of influence.
As men become more mindful of gender issues (if for no other reason, do it for your daughters!) women must create a big tent for feminism. The ripples from Sheryl Sandberg’s brilliant work with “Lean In” illustrate my point. Women who’ve made the same choices I did – to throw all into work – get self-righteous about “leaning in,” and that can alienate other women (and men). Women who make different personal work choices may believe no less fervently in equality, but they shun any “feminist” label. Both extremes serve to divide women and perpetuate the challenges we all face in common. More women will gravitate naturally to the C-suite as fathers of daughters and all women take small intentional feminist actions in their own worlds.
J: We need a variety of role models. Not just a female version stereotypical STEM geek (no offense – I was one once). I think coding camps and tinkering classes designed to appeal to girls are a great start. But we need to challenge our assumptions about what a future STEM careerist looks like at age 10. I read an article where a tech founder said he wouldn’t consider hiring anyone that hadn’t been a dedicated hacker by age 11 or 12. We should absolutely be strengthening STEM education at every grade, but STEM careers shouldn’t be treated like an Olympic sport where athletes are in or out by puberty.
We read a lot about lack or C-level role models in STEM, but it really begins in elementary school. At every stage in school and careers, many women look around and look ahead and don’t see a way to fit in. Grooming them to be a traditional C-level tech male is not the answer. Getting beyond the tech success story stereotype at every level including C-level roles is more important.
10. At the end of the day, with companies like Qeople coming into the mix, how do you think the job market will change and change for the better?
M: Innovation and new technologies along with changing preferences have already blurred the lines between work and life. Although it can feel sometimes like work is taking over 24X7, I believe the ultimate effect of this blurring will be a more natural and healthy blending of work and life. Blended work-lives can then fall in a wide range of viable points on a spectrum, and Qeople plays a part to enable new combinations. We already see the change happening with the range of choices people make about where they work. Uber and other gig-economy companies have opened up choice for when people work. Millennials are changing prevailing norms for why people work. More viable options for how to work and live will be good for all.
J: The job market will finally catch up with what so many people want at some point in their lives – greater flexibility and options. It will become inclusive beyond the usual diversity metrics of race and gender. There will be support for working parents (onsite childcare, flexible hours, convenience amenities) but also for full-time parents who want to still work (reduced hours, ability to exit and re-enter the workforce over time). There will be more opportunities to extend careers into historic retirement years, as people can continue to work in their chosen fields on a part-time basis. There will be more creativity when organizations hire people with diverse backgrounds and career paths. Companies will benefit from talent and experience that are currently being thrown away every time a professional has to make that all-or-nothing career choice. When the job market reflects the reality of most people’s lifecycle, when it is open to the value of diverse contributions, everyone will benefit.