Pondering her next move, a social media superstar takes time to listen and learn
~ By Julia Prodis Sulek; photos by Stuart Lirette.
The first thing Tina Sharkey did when she left the successful Internet company last spring was ditch her business cards identifying her very officially as chairman and global president of BabyCenter. Then, very deliberately, she created a new one:
On the front of the heavy cardstock, in bold black typeface, is only one word: “Tina.”
For the 48-year-old woman who has been on the cutting edge of social media her entire career and held such titles as co-founder of iVillage and senior vice president at AOL, she was making a clear statement.
She is just Tina, and for now, anyway, she’s OK with that. In fact, she’s embracing it.
“I decided for the first time in my professional career that I was going to take a break. I wanted to retool my brain, challenge myself to learn new things and share new things,” she says. “I didn’t want to have answers anymore. I wanted to have questions. I’m just beginning to figure it out.”
It was a bold move and tricky to define for a working mother of two school-age boys who is seen as a role model for young women executives, who, while leading BabyCenter.com, frequently spoke about the challenges facing 21st-century women. She was so ahead of her time that she was one of the first, if not the first, to use the term “social media” while working at iVillage in 1995, having no competition when she registered the domain names. When she left AOL in 2007, after overseeing Instant Messenger, one employee there lamented in an online comment, “Too bad. The glass ceiling won’t crack now.”
A dearth of female executives in Silicon Valley continues, with technology companies in California posting some of the lowest percentages of women directors and executives. That leaves working women clinging to conversations about the dramatic exceptions, including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman and the head of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, who gave birth to a son just a couple of months after taking the job this past summer.
But the sisterhood Sharkey shares with those successful women didn’t make it easier for her to manage her message when she retired from BabyCenter, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, last May. When a colleague suggested she write in her farewell note that she was leaving to “spend more time with family” — a standard line in resignation letters — Sharkey had a “visceral reaction.”
“Wait,” she remembers thinking to herself. “I don’t want to send the message I couldn’t hack it. I can more than hack it.” At the same time, the cliche “suggests I wasn’t already spending time with my family, that something was broken with my family.” And that wasn’t the case, either.
She settled on a hybrid, mentioning her family, but also writing that she was “looking forward to taking some time to listen, learn and discover.”
Let there be no misunderstanding. Sharkey has not checked out, nor did she violate Sandberg’s tenet for women in the workforce: “Don’t leave before you leave.”
Sharkey plans to take her career to the next level. She just doesn’t know where yet or what yet. And that’s just one of the things she’s taking time to discover.
As she puts it, “I’m between trapezes.”
The luxury of time
During Sharkey’s five years as head of BabyCenter, when she grew the parenting website from a regional site to a global one and more than tripled its unique visitors to 27 million, she implemented “innovation days” that allowed staff time off from their work routines to be creative.
“These,” she says, “are my innovation days.”
And they start now at home.
Sharkey lives with her husband, new media entrepreneur and investor Seth Goldstein, and their two boys, Jacob, 13, and Charlie, 10, in a contemporary Mill Valley home overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Sailboats are moored across the way, and the morning crawl along Highway 101 into San Francisco, which she used to join daily, is barely visible from her living room window.
The family spent part of the summer biking and hiking through Italy, then another week with friends and family in her home state of New York — their first extended summer vacation as a family. They’ve been taking more time to light candles and have dinner together on Fridays to celebrate Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. They hike the Marin Headlands, bike to Tiburon and kayak across the bay to dine at Fish in Sausalito. She helped her older son Jacob collect cell phones to recycle for Hope Phones, which uses proceeds to advance global health care efforts.
“Just spending time with them to have these experiences has been really joyous,” she says. “I haven’t had that time in the past.”
A month after her sabbatical began, she made a discovery with her son Charlie. In their side yard, a tree they had barely noticed before was laden with plums.
“All of a sudden, they just came out of nowhere,” she says. So what did she and Charlie do?
“I was like, OK, if a tree gives you plums, you make a plum pie,” she says. They followed the recipe and made it together. “If you stop and slow down a bit, you can apply your passion and energy to all kinds of things.”
The rhythms of motherhood are only part of the power of her pause.
She is directing some of her passion and energy to becoming a more active investor in the 15 startups she and her husband have helped fund as angel investors. Now that her children are back in school, her days include regular meetings with entrepreneurs, investors and business leaders, and she opens her home for dinner parties with friends and influencers such as Kara Swisher, Aileen Lee and Zem Joaquin. (“There’s a tremendous network of talented, engaged, thoughtful women across the Bay Area — in academia, finance, filmmaking and more — that I really enjoy spending time with and doing things with.”)
She is consulting with a global bank on its women’s strategy,and lectures and mentors Stanford business students on marketing and branding. She has been a panelist for the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto and has been an active adviser in the launch of “The Future of Storytelling” conference. A nanny, she says, helps with her sons.
“I’m learning and challenging myself in ways I couldn’t do in a day job running a global company,” she says. “The pause is not just for unplugging. Time is the great resource, and part of what I’ve tried to do in this chapter is take the time to invest in relationships I want to go deeper on. I’m very conscious of having time because I know I may not always have the time. I want to invest it wisely.”
Sally Thornton, who founded a tech recruiting company called Forshay, knows Sharkey through her work at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and applauds her transition time.
“A small sabbatical used in smart ways makes you more successful, getting you further [along] to your destination and faster than doing what other people expect of you,” Thornton says. “She’s out there sort of defining it for herself and, frankly, has the demonstrated path of being right. She’s going to where the action is, and she’s in front of it.”
Sharkey’s good friend Tiffany Schlain — a filmmaker and founder of the Webby awards — says it’s important for “everyone to hit the pause button and reflect on what you’re doing the next phase of your life. Tina has a high-profile sexy life. It takes real courage to say, ‘You know? I need a break.’’’
Still, Schlain adds, “There are so many people courting her, I don’t think it will take long.”
Bolts of lightning
Sharkey grew up in New York. Her mother, Mona Sherman, was a fashion executive for Anne Klein and Perry Ellis, and after school, Sharkey would often head to her mother’s office and do homework in the showroom.
“She would let me sit in meetings as long as I only spoke when spoken to,” Sharkey says.
Her mother also introduced her to the museums of Manhattan, where her passion for art began. She was especially taken by Monet’s “Water Lilies” hanging in the Museum of Modern Art, which captured the changing light over time as the artist was losing his vision. “My grandfather was losing his sight, too, and I felt connected to him,” she says. “Maybe that’s how he’s seeing the world, through this gauze.”
She spent a semester in Paris, spending hours in Monet’s gardens of Giverny, and has been fascinated by artists who play with perspective ever since.
She began collecting modern art when she was in her 20s. Working in the high-definition television industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she met artist David Hockney, who was experimenting with digital and high-definition images to create a new art form.
Taken by his work, Sharkey says she felt a “coup de foudre,” a bolt of lightning, and had to own a piece of it. With her last savings, she says, she bought a series of his work that now hang on the stark white walls of her home.
“It was completely reckless, and I had to have it,” she says.
She had similar reactions to the modern works of Laurie Simmons (“I literally went home and Googled her for four hours to see everything she’s done”) and the bold new paintings of Rosson Crow ( “Oh my God, I can’t breathe. I have to know more about this woman and her work.”). She treasures the master works that fill her “public spaces” downstairs, she says. But shecherishes those in the private spaces, beginning on the walls heading upstairs. Family photos and school projects fill a checkerboard of red-painted squares and rectangles. There’s Jacob and Charlie at a Patriots game with their dad, Sharkey kayaking with the family across Richardson Bay outside their door and school essays written in pencil.
The walls downstairs are full, she says, but she always finds a spot for a new family memory.
Still, Sharkey is positioning herself for the next bolt of lightning to strike in her business life. It’s a bit of an anxious, unsettled time for a woman so accustomed to the forward march. When asked about her short- or long-term goals, she finds them difficult to articulate.
“Right now I can’t see that far because I walked back into the mist,” she says. “I know it will clear, but I kind of like being there now.”