Stephanie Dua of HOMER: How To Develop Mindfulness During Stressful Or Uncertain Times
It’s great to get the next reward, but more important to build confidence. We need to push back on the desire for instant gratification. Moments of challenge and discomfort are an opportunity to build resilience. Both at work and at home, don’t be afraid to show your struggles. It helps demonstrate that confidence is a long-game.
As a part of my series about “How To Develop Mindfulness And Serenity During Stressful Or Uncertain Times”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephanie Dua, co-founder and president of HOMER.
Stephanie Dua is an education entrepreneur and a parent. She’s currently the co-founder and president of early learning company HOMER, where she brings 15 years of experience in public education to a team helping parents raise children who love to learn. Before founding HOMER, Stephanie was the CEO for the New York City Education Department’s Fund for Public Schools, raising more than $165 million to support literacy and teacher-training.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I was the CEO of the Fund for Public Schools in New York City, working at the heart of the biggest reform effort in the history of education when my 5-year-old came to me and said, “Mommy, can you help me read?”
Honestly, I had no idea what I was doing. It was overwhelming. I was a working mom with three kids. And like most parents, I had never taught anyone to read before! But, I had access to some of the foremost experts in literacy in the country. So I started asking them, “What should I be using? What actually works? What’s the best resource out there for parents?”
And they all said the same thing — there wasn’t one. It didn’t exist. That’s why we created HOMER. At the time, there was an enormous gap in trusted resources for parents. COVID-19 has turned that gap into a gulf.
McKinsey estimates that 60% of low income students are at risk of losing over one full year of academic gains during the pandemic. HOMER is proven to help children make those gains. Whether kids succeed this year, especially our youngest children who are least likely to benefit from distance learning, really comes down to how equipped their parents are to teach them. Nurturing a deep love of learning is the greatest gift you can give your children. It creates curiosity, endurance, and confidence. You can’t build that kind of foundation based on the junk food of learning — learning that’s triggered by rewards and incentives.
At HOMER, we aren’t entertaining children, we are educating them. HOMER is on a mission to ensure every child fulfills their learning potential. We have more than 250 years of combined experience in teaching children to love learning. We partner with the most recognized and trusted children’s brands including Sesame Workshop, LEGO Ventures, Gymboree Play & Music and Fisher Price. HOMER is digital, it’s physical, it’s experiential. Our apps, educational toys, games and classes are all designed by experts to provide parents with consistent, engaging curriculum personalized for their child’s interests.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I’ll share one of my most rewarding stories. I was taking my youngest daughter to the doctor after she had experienced a series of nosebleeds. As we were sitting in the waiting room with our box of tissues, my daughter Isla tapped me, telling me to look at what the other little girl in the room was doing, who was playing HOMER with her mother in the waiting room. Isla proudly ran up to the girl and said, “Did you know that my mom made that?”
The other little girl was beaming and just so excited and started asking us about all about the characters. HOMER was founded on the idea that learning begins at home and it was so fulfilling to run into someone in an everyday setting using HOMER and really enjoying learning.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
I think it comes down to three things:
- Regularly demonstrating love, kindness and character is your most important role: My mom, before she passed away, always talked about treating others as you wish to be treated. This may seem obvious, but putting it in practice is different. Whether you’re a CEO or an entry-level staffer, you have to treat everyone with the same amount of respect, love and kindness. In my role, I’ve had to make really tough choices as we’ve scaled up quickly and had to let individuals go that just weren’t a right fit. But I’ve always approached these situations by thinking about how I’d want to be supported. This isn’t just a check the box and move on action. I maintain great relationships with people I’ve let go and still check in with them every six months or year whether by text or email. This creates a human experience that we’re all in this together and that we can still honor relationships even after we go through tough periods.
- Don’t compartmentalize. Bring your entire self to work: I’ve worked at big consulting companies and engineering companies that didn’t have a lot of females or female leaders. As a mother and a leader of a company, for a long time I believed I had to show up and be hard charging, tough and direct in order to survive. But I now understand that’s not the right way to approach work. It’s incredibly important to show that it’s ok to be messy and that you can bring your entire self to work. In fact, it makes you more approachable as a leader. For example, I’ll often start meetings by sharing a story about my life with kids, such as updates on one of my children’s medical issues. I often tell my teams, don’t compartmentalize. Your whole life is your whole life. Bring all sides to yourself to work.
- Reject perfection: I used to have this model in my head that you can have it all at the same time. But in reality, it’s understandable if not everything is going well. It’s way too much to do everything perfectly. You don’t have to always do everything and it’s ok not to do everything well. It’s ok to get a C on some things, you can’t get straight As on everything. It’s ok if you forget something.The rejection of perfection is very important, especially for young girls.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I love to read. I read both fiction and non-fiction and listen to a lot of audiobooks. I often read right before bed, and find it so calming to read poetry in addition to some meditation books by Thich Nhat Hanh.
The book that has made the biggest impression on me and biggest impact is The Prophet by Khalil Gibran. My mother loved that book and found it when we were living in Beirut when we were young. One great piece he wrote on children really encapsulated the way that we grew up.
“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
This idea that children are borrowed for a time and then you let them out on their own is very much how she thought of us. We were very independent from a young age, partly out of necessity and partly out of this philosophy. I left home at 17 with a full-time job.
My mom died of breast cancer, three months after she was diagnosed. I had a day with her at home before she passed away where she asked me to read her The Prophet. As I sat next to her in bed reading, she passed away and it was really peaceful.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
I define mindfulness as the state of noticing — quiet and peaceful noticing that brings equanimity. This idea that no matter what chaos is going on around you, you have calm within you.
I love nature and being outside. It is my happy place. These are the mental images of mindfulness that I recall to bring me back into my presence. One of these images is from college when I hiked the Sierras by myself. I was in Long Lake, south of Whitney Portal and had been walking by myself quietly for days hearing nothing but the sound of my hiking books and the rustling rocks. This is a very formative image in my mind.
The second is an image of being in Italy, swimming in the Mediterranean. It stirs up images of diamonds floating in the water and brings me an incredible sense of bright light and peace.
Lastly, I think of the neighborhood where I live in Coconut Grove, Florida. We have our own little jungle full of banyan trees, coconuts, tropical birds and iguanas. Walking around anchors me and reminds me that life is living every day. Those moments when I can be outside walking my dog, experiencing the sunrise and sunset bring me a lot of mindfulness.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
One of the biggest benefits of practicing mindfulness that I’ve found from an emotional standpoint is the ability to pause my reaction. This allows the space for whatever needs to happen to just happen. Whether my teenager is grumpy with me or things are not good at work, by noticing and pausing, I give myself space to not react or overreact.
Physically I also have experienced tremendous benefits from becoming mindful. My sleep is better. I have more energy for exercise. I just generally feel like I take better care of myself. Being mindful creates discipline to make better choices like drinking more water and eating better.
Mentally, I define mindfulness as noticing and being able to listen with intention, instead of for instance, checking the next email. As a mom and business leader, I often find myself trying to do four things at once. Even if it means every thing doesn’t get done, I’d rather be present and really focus my energy than trying to do it all at the same time without noticing.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Learning begins at home. Build a strong foundation for mindfulness with your kids: A parent is a child’s first and most important teacher — that’s never been more clear than it is now. Whether this motivates or terrifies you, this is an opportunity to lead by example and showcase the importance of pausing and noticing. My whole family practices mindfulness — all five of us. We each have our own way of finding peace. For example, one of my daughters documents her emotions in a bullet journal.
- Seek control, but not too much: When things are really stressful, we tend to want to create control and order. But often this can be more harmful than helpful. One of the things I’ve learned is to focus on the things you can control in positive ways, instead of getting distracted by the negative. Routines are really important in times of chaos, but you need to make sure that you don’t add so much control that you lose the space to be mindful.
- Pause while you hug each other: When you’re hugging your children, your mind can often race to think about the next thing you have on your to-do list. But I find that when I hold them tight for one second and breathe them in, I find a real sense of intimacy and connection that helps ground me.
- Create your calm bank: Develop your own mental list of images or moments in life that bring you calm. A lot of my grounding moments come from experiences in natures or times when I was challenged. Thinking of these moments helps me regain a sense of peace and calm.
- Don’t turn your relationship into a task list: My relationship with my husband is better when we’re both practicing mindfulness because we’re not as tactical about everything. It’s easy for a family of two working parents to approach everything with each other like a task list, rather than checking in to see how you’re actually doing.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- It’s great to get the next reward, but more important to build confidence. We need to push back on the desire for instant gratification. Moments of challenge and discomfort are an opportunity to build resilience. Both at work and at home, don’t be afraid to show your struggles. It helps demonstrate that confidence is a long-game.
- Everyone learns in different ways. Everyone has the potential to work through anxious times. It’s all about finding what works for you. For some this may mean going on a brisk walk outside. For others it may recalling a zen memory.
- Just because it is broken, doesn’t mean you broke it. Remember that we’re all in this together.
- Surround yourself with a small group of trusted advisors. Figure out who is in your circle and lean on them when feelings of anxiety resurface.
- It’s not about any one moment, it’s a method. Mindfulness is a muscle. You have to develop it over time. The more you use it, the easier it is to return to it.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
I use the Insight Timer app and I love Tara Brach’s Smile Meditation. I enjoyed “Creating a Conscious Morning Ritual” series by Jason McGrice on the app. Tara’s meditation, a cup of coffee, and sitting amongst my little jungle are part of my daily morning routine. I also read Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Your True Home” in the evenings.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Own your own life.”
My mom was a single mother. She never went to college, but was fiercely intelligent. I remember her deep compassion, generosity, and pride. She made her own way, at times maintaining three jobs at once to care for her family. She had a common refrain for any challenge I faced: “Own your own life and choices.” She encouraged me to be grateful for what I have today, rather than define my life by any external value or person. From her, I inherited the drive to live with purpose and integrity. It is my hope that the women I work with, and the daughters I raise, inherit the same from me.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)
I feel like that is exactly what we are trying to do. Education and early learning, in particular, is the most important building block in a child’s life. Universal Primary Education is one of eight Millennium Goals by the World Bank in 2020 for a reason. For the first time, technology can provide high quality educational experiences to children irrespective of their zip code.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!