The CEO of Palo Alto Software leans back — and grows a tech company.
// Photo by Adam Bacher
When Sabrina Parsons was growing up, she, her brother and their boy cousins would roam their grandmother’s property in Cuernavaca, outside Mexico City, hunting scorpions and snakes. Parsons lived in Mexico until she was 7, then went back every summer after moving to Palo Alto. As a child, it was her responsibility to make sure the gaggle of children returned home safely. One afternoon, when cousin Rodrigo found a hanging wasp nest and decided to see what would happen if he poked it with a stick, it was Parsons who ordered two boys to run to the house for help and told Rodrigo to roll on the ground to stop the wasps from stinging.
In her corner office on a Monday morning, wearing a pink-striped shirt, blue jeans and blue plastic high-heeled sandals, Sabrina Parsons does not look like a self-described tomboy. But Parsons, now CEO of one of Eugene’s fastest-growing tech companies, is still very much in charge. And still surrounded by men.
A Hispanic woman in a leadership position in a cutting-edge industry, Parsons is making things happen. A $10 million company today, Palo Alto Software projects annual earnings of $35 million within the next three years. The fifth-floor offices in the renovated Broadway Commerce Center in the heart of Eugene’s downtown hum with excitement. The products offered by Palo Alto Software may not be the most electrifying (Parsons says some people roll their eyes at business-planning software), but this fall the company has attracted major investors. Palo Alto’s continued success — their software is nationally recognized as the leading business-planning tool for entrepreneurs — is inspiring other tech companies to move to Eugene.
Parsons is a sign of the rapidly growing and evolving tech industry in Oregon and nationwide. But if she is part of a local and national zeitgeist, it’s also because she is helping shape a national dialogue about high-level female professionals, especially those working in traditionally male-dominated fields such as the tech industry. At a time when Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg exhorts America’s professional women to lean into their careers, take risks and stay in the workplace even while starting families, Parsons champions a different attitude for businesswomen.
Instead of keeping her parenting in the background, she identifies herself as a “Mommy CEO” on her blog for Forbes, unabashedly arguing that women need to be able to integrate parenting into their work life and bring their babies to work without raising eyebrows. Parsons shares these and other opinions about 21st-century corporate culture freely: business needs to be more child-friendly; risk-taking and innovation feed success; and accomplishments are more important than face time.
That balance makes Parsons something of a paradigm for other women in the industry. “She’s a source of inspiration for women who are looking to pursue careers in technology,” says Skip Newberry, president of the Technology Association of Oregon. Parsons’ unapologetic embrace of life-work balance enhances her effectiveness, combining entrepreneurial moxie with the know-how and people skills a CEO needs, says Caroline Cummings, vice president of business development, who herself started two companies before joining Palo Alto Software’s management team.
“She’s a great leader,” Cummings says. “Compassionate but no bullshit.”
From left: Timmy, Leo and Sammy hang out in their mother’s office after school. The company has also outfitted a special kid-friendly office space for children, featuring a television, coloring books and toys.
// Photo by Adam Bacher
Parsons’ parents were strict Catholics, and Sabrina, one of five children, was a well-behaved, high-achieving young person. She excelled at sports (soccer, water polo, cross-country) in high school, and was elected both class president and class treasurer of the private all-girls high school she attended. Weekends were spent helping her father, Tim Berry, put labels on floppy disks for the company he started in 1987: Palo Alto Software. “In an entrepreneurial family, they didn’t have the option of not being involved,” says Berry of his five children. At the same time, Berry and his wife wanted all of their children to find their own path. “We very conscientiously avoided pressuring them to come back to the business,” he says.
After majoring in history and minoring in Latin American studies and education at Princeton (class of 1996), Parsons planned to be a teacher. But she soon realized a traditional field like elementary education was not for her. So in 1999, Parsons and her new husband, Noah, left their jobs to launch Epinions, one of the hottest new tech startups in the Silicon Valley that had hit upon a revolutionary idea of having consumers write reviews of their favorite products and services.
It was exciting to be on the cusp of the creation of the Internet — a group of young, ambitious, forward-thinking recent college grads managed to attract an infusion of $8 million off an eight-slide PowerPoint — but Parsons did not like the culture of the startup. Her co-workers would brag about pulling all-nighters and sleeping under their desks. Parsons thought they cared more about face time than results.
“They did not build a healthy environment,” she says. “People were paranoid about seeing and being seen.” So in 2001, the couple left Epinions and moved to London, where they started a software distribution company. After a year in Europe, they came back to the United States and joined Parsons’ father’s business, eventually taking the helm of the company in 2007, just before the onset of the economic downturn.
The transition wasn’t easy. A year after Parsons took over, the business practically failed. The recession put people in a panic,” she says. “People didn’t buy stuff, including our products. We suffered from the paralysis that everyone was experiencing, and our sales fell 10% to 15% below the previous year.” After working together on a financial forecast, the company’s main stockholders — Parsons’ parents — insisted on laying off employees.
Parsons and Noah, Palo Alto’s COO, balked at this idea, believing it would not be in the best long-term interests of the company to let people go. So they made a deal with Berry: If they could meet their profit and loss goals, Berry agreed to let them weather the recession their own way. Sabrina and Noah took a hard look at their expenses and renegotiated every contract, managing to cut the company’s cost by a whopping $17,000 a month and to avoid lay-offs.
The process of running a company during a severe recession gave Palo Alto Software exactly what it needed to pull the company out of its financial rut: an idea. Businesses could recession-proof themselves, she realized, if they developed long-term financial plans and analyzed their numbers every month, comparing actual earnings and expenses to what they had projected. LivePlan, the company’s signature computer program that businesses can subscribe to for a small monthly fee, was born. “If you don’t have a plan,” Parsons points out, “how do you make decisions?”
Tim Berry, who is chair of the company’s board of directors, is impressed with what his daughter has accomplished for the company. “I have a Stanford MBA,” he says. “I can read the numbers. Under Sabrina’s command, the numbers from Palo Alto Software look very good, and we’ve released a new product that’s exciting. It’s not just the touchy feely — the numbers are great.”
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.”
Every other Thursday, a group of forward-thinking tech types meets at the Barn Light, a new coffee joint next door to Palo Alto Software, to strategize, share expertise and brainstorm new businesses. This year Eugene’s Chamber of Commerce invested almost $500,000 in angel investments across multiple companies. “We’re still in the earlier phases of the industry,” explains John Hull, a former venture capitalist who is currently executive director of the Business Innovation Institute at the University of Oregon. “Palo Alto Software is paving the way.”
That growth is part of a tech trend in Eugene and smaller cities outside of Portland. Over the last five years, there has been an increase in technology startups and technology-related business relocating to Oregon with Portland at its hub. But most recently, according to Newberry, other cities are benefiting from the presence of the Silicon Forest: the Columbia Gorge, Bend, Eugene, Corvallis, Medford and Ashland. Eugene, the second-largest city in the state, is starting to build a pool of software and engineering talent to support the startups moving in.
Palo Alto’s business-plan software isn’t exactly sexy. But its practical applications can’t be overstated. After taking a business course at Clackamas Community College, 59-year-old Shasta Bunnell started using the company’s LivePlan platform. “I always wanted to have my own business,” says Bunnell. “But as a young person, when I got to a point in the planning process, my lack of knowledge and skills held me back. I didn’t follow through.” Instead she worked as a cook for 35 years, eventually getting promoted to executive chef.
But now Bunnell has started an event-planning company, Custom Event Creations. “This plan helps you follow through. It challenges you to do the things you should be doing.”
Palo Alto’s weekly managerial meeting takes place after lunch. One item on a recent week’s agenda is an upcoming renovation: With the growth they are experiencing, the company plans on almost doubling its office space. The managers brainstorm how to recruit the tech-savvy, innovative employees they will need, whether to in-house or outsource a headhunter, and how to connect the fifth-floor offices with the fourth-floor offices in a cost-effective way. Josh Cochrane, the vice president of product development, suggests a zip line. “Or a fireman’s pole,” Cummings quips.
No one really knows what the future of the highly competitive software business will bring, but the buzz among both employees and managers is decidedly positive. Indeed, 2013 is an exhilarating time to be in the tech industry as new technologies emerge at lightning speed, innovative products hit the market, and online technology and digital communication are changing every day.
“Every technology company has to always be thinking about the next two, five and 10 years down the road,” says Newberry. “It’s hard to predict where the tech industry will be…[but] Sabrina is looking to the future, and Palo Alto is constantly thinking about what’s next. That’s exciting.”
Before Sabrina left for Princeton, she and her brother spent two weeks exploring Oregon’s back roads with some friends. Just like in Mexico, they were restless for adventure. Whenever they discovered a new bridge, no matter how high, it was Sabrina who jumped off first. Forty years old now, Parsons still isn’t afraid to jump.