C-Suite Moms: “ I am a much more present parent when I’ve also allowed myself some time each day just for me” with Kate Eberle Walker and Jessica Abo
Every parent feels the pull in multiple directions and the inadequacy of not being able to do as much as you want to. I’ve tried to focus on quality over quantity, to make the most of the time. The most conscious things I’ve had to do to make this work are 1) establishing times for looking at my phone and reading/responding to messages, so that I can then put it aside when I’m spending time with the kids. I turn off notifications during the times when I need to be focused. 2) prioritizing time for myself too — it doesn’t work to give everything you have to work and family and not keep any time for just yourself. I am a much more present parent when I’ve also allowed myself some time each day just for me, whether to read, get a drink with a friend, or go for a workout. 3) finding things that we like to do together.
As a part of my series about “C-Suite Moms” I had the pleasure to interview Kate Eberle Walker, the CEO of PresenceLearning, which provides special education therapy services in K-12 schools. In this role, she leads a majority female employee population, whose mission is not only to serve students with learning needs, but to provide a flexible career path for nearly 1,000 special education clinicians, 97% of whom are women. Previously she was CEO of The Princeton Review, a leading provider of college admissions advice and support for parents and students. In all of her CEO roles she has built and led teams that are 50% female, and has spent a lot of time thinking about how to support women in the workplace. She is a working mom, who lives in Brooklyn with her husband Chris and their two daughters. Kate earned her MBA at Harvard Business School and her undergraduate degree from Georgetown University.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” behind what brought you to this point in your career?
I started my career working on Wall Street as a Goldman Sachs investment banker. I was fortunate to meet some wonderful clients during my years there, including the owner of Kaplan, a large education company that ultimately became my work home for my first 9 years after business school and gave me the opportunity to learn many facets of the education business. I’ve worked in education ever since, moving from Kaplan to Tutor.com and then The Princeton Review, where I earned my first C-suite role as CFO, and then later became CEO. This year I took on the CEO role at PresenceLearning, a company that I was really drawn to because of the work we do, helping K-12 schools provide special education therapy for the students who need support.
Can you share with us how many children you have?
I have two daughters: Marion, who is 10 years old, and Audrey, who is 8 years old.
Where were you in your career when your child was born/became part of your family?
I had my first daughter about 3 years after I graduated from business school. So I was working my way up in my career, but was already at a point where I had been promoted a couple of times and had a team working for me. By the time Audrey came along two and a half years later, I was a Vice President, still not in the C-suite myself, but spending a lot of time with the executives who were. It was a lot easier from a work perspective to have my second child, because I had been at the same company for over 5 years, through my first pregnancy, and I had the credibility from returning from maternity leave the first time. I got far fewer “do you think you’ll come back?” questions the second time.
Did you always want to be a mother? Can you explain?
Absolutely, I always wanted to be a mother. I had a happy childhood experience growing up as the middle child of 3, and I always envisioned having my own big, busy family one day. Having children was a fundamental part of my vision for my life, and a much-discussed part of my husband’s vision too. Both working and parenting were things that I planned to do, and until having my own children I never really second-guessed wanting to do either. (After having kids there were definitely times that I second-guessed the working part, which I think is something most mothers struggle with.)
I had a significant conversation with my mom when I was in college and was starting to think about my first job after graduation. I was questioning her, honestly probably judging her a little, as to why she didn’t keep working outside our home. I couldn’t understand it. She, like me, had been a strong student and had a great job after graduating college, in fact she met my dad at work. She told me that she was raised with the understanding that it wasn’t really a choice she had. Having babies and staying home to take care of them was what everyone did. “It’s different for you,” she said. “You can choose to have children, and then you can choose to stay home or you can choose to work outside the home.” My reaction to that was “Well I choose both!”
Did motherhood happen when you thought it would or did it take longer? If it took longer, what advice would you have for another woman in your shoes?
It felt like it happened when I was ready. I got married when I was 30, had my first daughter at age 32, and my second daughter when I was a few months shy of 35. One thing I believe is that it’s not something to rush. Your life and identity fundamentally changes once you have children, and I’m grateful that I had those ten years after graduating college to build my own career and identity before bringing children into my life.
Can you tell us a bit about what your day-to-day schedule looks like?
I’m a morning person and have my most fulfilling hours early in the day. So over time I’ve pushed my alarm clock earlier to allow for everything that I want to accomplish, to the point where now I’m living a large portion of my day before the official work day even begins! I wake up around 4:30 and do yoga and core exercises, before looking at my phone or email (which requires discipline — some days I have to say out loud to myself “don’t do it! the email will wait.”) After that I go to the gym for a cardio workout, during which I listen to an audiobook — I’m big on multitasking! By 6:30 I’m back and will do 30 minutes of email or other work, usually focused on responding to notes from the day before and trying to clear out things that I was holding up or that need direction from me. Then I make myself a cup of coffee, bring it upstairs along with smoothies for the girls, and wake them up at 7:15. The next hour is spent with them, cajoling them out of bed, getting ready with them, eating cereal together, and talking about our plans for the day. At 8:15 we’re out the door to school. Then I come back and get myself ready to head to the office. I’m fortunate that in our neighborhood in Brooklyn all of these things are 5–10 minute walks — the gym, the school, the subway. If I didn’t have that geographic convenience, something would have to give! I’m also fortunate that I have the ability to start meetings at 10am most days, or to work from home when I don’t have time for the commute. Because my company has a large west coast presence I can start and end a little later. I really feel for moms that have to adhere to someone else’s working schedule — I have the luxury of making my own.
Once I get to the office my schedule will truly be back to back — I typically will have a 7-hour lineup of meetings and calls from 10am-5pm. I pack my lunch, water…everything I need to survive the day. I usually target one of the afternoon meetings to be one where I can convince a colleague to walk with me to get a coffee while we meet — both for the caffeine and the fresh air. Honestly the hardest part of my schedule is finding a few minutes to go to the bathroom, which ironically is exactly how I felt in the early days of new motherhood!
Then I use my last hour to wrap up work, review and follow up, ensure my schedule looks good for the following day. I’m interacting with people all day in my meetings, but still sometimes need a little more informal time with team members, so that last hour is a good time to do that.
I need to be home by 7 to spend the evening with the girls, who go to bed around 9:30. During those hours I never do work and don’t look at my phone unless it’s to look at or do something with the kids. I don’t really like working late at night but to keep up with everything I need to pick a couple of nights a week where I do at least 2 hours of work after the girls go to bed.
Of course, all of that is subject to variability — some nights I will go out, and many days I will travel. I have the most control over the start of my day, so I keep to that morning portion of my schedule religiously, subbing in breakfast Facetime chats with the girls if I’m on the road. It’s important for my own balance and for the quality family time.
Has being a parent changed your career path? Can you explain?
One way that being a parent changed me that honestly surprised me was that it made me more ambitious. Prior to having children I don’t think I ever would have said that I hoped to be a CEO one day. After having children, I became determined to make every minute I worked meaningful and impactful. It felt more purposeful to me, especially being the mother of two girls, to show them a model for working and living successfully.
Another big way that being a parent changed my course was that it caused me to gravitate toward leading companies that help parents support their children’s learning needs. As my kids have grown I’ve become more attuned to the challenges parents face in figuring out what support their children need and how to find the right experts to help them. All of the businesses I’ve run have done that — The Princeton Review guided parents through the college admissions process, Tutor.com helped parents get real time help when their kids were stuck on a homework challenge, and now at PresenceLearning, we support parents through their schools to ensure that students with special education needs get the therapy services they need.
Has being a mother made you better at your job? How so?
Being a mom has made me way more focused. It’s funny, people joke about “mom brain” and associate it with distracted, scattered thinking. But for me I’ve found that moms are ruthless prioritizers, constantly making real-time decisions about what’s important versus what you have to let go. I’ve been able to apply that approach to my work as well. Every minute counts in a new way once you have kids, and I’m much better at staying focused on making every minute meaningful than I was before becoming a parent, when I had all the time in the world, or at least felt like I did!
What are the biggest challenges you face being a working mom?
For me the biggest challenge has been constantly battling the perception or assumption that I don’t want to work hard because I have kids. After we sold The Princeton Review, I was looking for my next CEO job. I was really surprised by how many people said things to me like, “You must want to just take some time off to be with your kids,” or “You probably don’t want to take such a big job again while your kids are young.” So many people downsize the ambition of women once they have children and it’s not fair. I try to just smile and remind people that I spend quality time with my kids whether I’m working or not — those two things are not mutually exclusive!
Are there any stories you remember from the early days of parenthood that you want to share?
One day when Marion was around 3 years old I was watching her play. She had picked up a toy and was pretending it was a phone, having imagined conversations, mostly peppered with brightly spoken words such as “Ok! Bye! Love you!” Then she changed to a deeper voice, many octaves lower. Her words got faster and less cheerful. “No. Yes. Ok. Now.” I asked her what she was doing and she happily informed me, “I’m Mommy on a work call!” It was a hilarious moment of self awareness for me and definitely made me cheer up my “work voice” a bit! Your children are your closest observers and your most honest reflections.
Are there any meaningful activities or traditions you’ve made up or implemented that have enhanced your time with your family? Can you share a story or example?
We do the same things that I imagine many families do, and that I did with my family growing up. Pizza and movie night on Fridays. Board game afternoons that get way too competitive. Vacations, holidays and birthdays are all a big deal.
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 3–5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention?
Every parent feels the pull in multiple directions and the inadequacy of not being able to do as much as you want to. I’ve tried to focus on quality over quantity, to make the most of the time. The most conscious things I’ve had to do to make this work are 1) establishing times for looking at my phone and reading/responding to messages, so that I can then put it aside when I’m spending time with the kids. I turn off notifications during the times when I need to be focused. 2) prioritizing time for myself too — it doesn’t work to give everything you have to work and family and not keep any time for just yourself. I am a much more present parent when I’ve also allowed myself some time each day just for me, whether to read, get a drink with a friend, or go for a workout. 3) finding things that we like to do together. The highest quality time is when we’re doing things that we both genuinely love to do and look forward to. For example, my girls and I both love to garden, so that’s one of our regular Saturday morning activities. It can be easy as a parent, especially with young kids, to fall into a pattern of spending your time supervising your kids doing the things that they want to do, versus actively doing things together. The more you can flip that around and find things that you all really want to do, the higher quality the time will be.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
When one of my daughters is interested in an activity, I try to connect it to a model of someone performing at the top of that field, to help her visualize what is possible and to understand that behind extraordinary actions are individual people who once were children just like them. For example, my daughter Marion is really into rock climbing — she climbs on a competitive team at a gym in Brooklyn. So together we researched the top female climbers and discovered Ashima Shiraishi, who is 18 years old and consistently ranked one of the top climbers in the world. It makes it so much more tangible for Marion to look at someone real who is achieving things that she otherwise couldn’t imagine.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
A big part of my approach to parenting is to use my media consumption time for my own self-fulfillment and enrichment, so that I can be more balanced and informed when I’m with my kids. Mostly I do that by reading books — sometimes for enjoyment, and sometimes for education. So my favorite app by far is Overdrive’s Libby, which enables me to use my public library card to borrow and listen to audiobooks free of charge. Some favorite recent books I’ve read related to parenting are Mom Hacks by Darria Long Gillespie and The Art of Screen Time by Anya Kamenetz. But I also love to listen to memoirs by all kinds of women who are famous for something other than being a mother, but for whom motherhood is a core part of their identities. There’s something to learn from each new perspective. Some recent examples are of course Michelle Obama’s Becoming, and also Sally Field’s In Pieces. And a perennial favorite of mine is Katharine Graham’s Personal History.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that you share or plan to share with your kids?
I constantly tell my daughters “If you don’t ask, the answer’s no.” I don’t even know where that quote originally comes from, but I say it to myself as well as to my children all the time!
If you could sit down with every new parent and offer life hacks, must-have products or simple advice, what would be on your list?
Oh my gosh, I could give you a list of probably hundreds of products and brands that I’ve considered to be must-haves over the course of my children’s lives and my life as a mother. But I’ll give you one kind of funny one that I share with moms a lot. In fact my Chief Operating Officer is a new mom, with a 10-month-old girl, and we were just talking about this. She was telling me about her struggle with those little fly-away baby hairs that stick up all over your head after you lose hair during pregnancy/early motherhood and it starts growing back. I told her that I learned from my hair stylist that all you need to do is get a strong hold hairspray (my preferred brand is Bed Head by Tigi), spray it on your hands, and then smooth it over the fly-aways. Your hair will look so much smoother and sleeker and you will instantly go from the unkempt mom look to being office-ready. It’s life changing!
Thank you so much for these insights! We really appreciate your time.
About the Author:
Jessica Abo is an award-winning TV journalist, social media navigator, author, and speaker. Her debut book, Unfiltered: How To Be As Happy As You Look On Social Media, sold out on its first day when it was published late last year. Jessica spoke about her research and her #liveunfiltered movement on The TODAY Show, Access Hollywood, ABC News, KTLA, and in dozens of publications including Forbes, Fast Company and SHAPE. Women's Health Magazine named Unfiltered #1 on its list of self-love books, and it was chosen for the official GRAMMY Awards gift bag. Jessica celebrated her book launch with an Unfiltered collection of statement tees and hoodies that she debuted on a runway at New York Fashion Week.
With her savvy insights, practical advice, and heartfelt humor, Jessica appeals to people of all ages and stages, resonating with millennials and their parents. She is sought after nationwide as an inspiring keynote speaker and thought leader, and has presented at Facebook, Microsoft, Delta Airlines, Weight Watchers, TEDx, the United Nations and hundreds of conferences, nonprofits, universities, and schools. She speaks authoritatively on career building, entrepreneurial challenges, leadership, digital transformation, living and parenting in the digital age, creating community, effective philanthropy and activism, and many other topics.
A passionate philanthropist who believes “affluence is not a requirement for influence,” Jessica has raised more than $1 million for causes by organizing her own charity events. She sits on several boards and committees and contributes to their recruiting and fundraising efforts.
A multi-award-winning television journalist, Jessica was a successful television anchor and reporter at several media outlets, including NY1 News, for 15 years. She has appeared as a social media and relationship expert on The TODAY Show, ABC News and KTLA. As a VIP contributor for Entrepreneur, her empowerment, leadership development, and employee productivity and wellness videos appear weekly on Entrepreneur.com. Through her production company, JaboTV, she creates branded content for companies and profiles athletes, celebrities, CEOs, entrepreneurs and changemakers for her YouTube channel.
Jessica received both her bachelor and master’s degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New Yorker at heart, Jessica now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their daughter.