Profile on a Silicon Valley Mom: Johanna Wise


This is the first is a new feature profiling Silicon Valley moms of note, providing a glimpse at what other moms in the area, shared struggles, the quest for balance, and what they’ve learned along the way. Thank you, Johanna, for being brave enough to go first!

Johanna Wise

Family life: Married with two children (22 year old daughter, who is a recent college graduate, and a 20 year old son, who is a college junior on a brief break while working at a startup).

Home: She and her husband live in Cupertino after downsizing from a larger home in Los Altos Hills where they raised their children.

Background: Johanna is the founder of Refresh Your Career: Connect Work Thrive and works to help people changing careers or re-entering the workforce, especially moms who took time off from work to raise children. She’s the force behind the Return to Work Conference this Wednesday in Redwood City. She got the idea for the conference because the subject is a passion for her and she didn’t see anyone else tackling the issue.

Johanna left the full time work force in 1994. While raising her children, she was an active volunteer, did project and consulting work, and then once her kids grew older, she started a company with a friend called Keep Me Tax Free that helps tax exempt organizations to regain or retain their status with the IRS by keeping up with proper filing.

Before you had kids, how did you imagine your career going?

I was in management consulting, and I loved the work, and I never thought I’d take any time off. When our first was born, we had an au pair. When I was pregnant with our second, the au pair left (for graduate school), and I was realizing that all the travel for work was getting to me. I was on the road all the time, and I just decided I couldn’t do it anymore. In that field – at least at that time – there was no part-time job share. Nothing.

It was a weird transition, too. I was the first woman at that company on the consulting staff who had ever been pregnant and they didn’t know what to do about it. They handled it really badly, and that also colored how I felt about staying there. In the early-to-mid 90s, companies, some of them, were not cognizant of what was even legal. So that made the transition a little easier, too. In so many ways, I decided I wanted to stay home.

You don’t really know what life is like with a child until you have one. You can make all the plans you want ahead of time, but once your daughter or son is born, life changes. I love being with them. I put my energy into their activities. I put my energies and my skills into various organizations. My days were really full. I never said “woulda, shoulda, coulda” because I did have the other choice, I was working when my daughter was first born. There was no regret. I had the choice and I made an informed decision.

How did you work into the second stage of your career?

As the kids got older, I began to think about what it was that I wanted to do with the rest of my life. For me, a sense of accomplishment was missing a little bit because I had gotten to a certain level in my career, and could have continued, but chose not to, so there was that piece of me that said “What impact can I make now?” My priorities have changed a little bit. Things like how can I better the world has become more of an issue. I have two children, I want the future to look good for them. Environmental things become more important, health things become more important, all of those things. I think that happens when you have offspring; there is a future that involves your family.

When pausing your career, did you struggle to define yourself?

That was probably the biggest eye opener and I didn’t think about that until once the kids were on their feet. While I was taking care of them, everything was great. I knew exactly what I needed to do. I knew what resources I had to find to help them, I knew how to support my husband and his goals, everything was external. If I had plans and something else came by, guess what happened? My plans went away, but that’s okay, because this was my priority, my job. Once the kids went off, I called it my IPO because that was my initial public offering to the world, my two children. I’m proud of them, and they are great kids, and I’ve done that part of my career really well. And I think people should feel that way. When you’ve launched your kids, and they’re vital parts of society, what better contribution to the world can you make than that? I never feel that I needed to apologize for how I spent my time and that I spent it with my children. The product proves the point, but once that no longer became my focus, I no longer knew who I was or what I wanted. It was a weirdest thing in my whole life.

It takes some time to figure out who you really are and what you really want. I lost a sense of self. I didn’t know who I was anymore, and it’s a really frightening thing. With time, with reflection, and most importantly, just getting out and doing something is the answer. Starting this company gave me direction, gave me excitement, I was learning every day, something’s worked, something’s didn’t work. That was huge because that helped me better define what it is that I wanted to do. Just getting out and doing something is important.

On transitioning for volunteer to paid employee…

For me, it’s really important that at this point in my life, I am paid. I spent 20 years doing volunteer work. I loved it and it was great. I paid my dues, and just like people who have worked during that time and were paid, it’s now my time to go into that phase. I think that’s another shift that hasn’t happened. Once you do volunteer work, you get pegged into that. People think that’s all you should do, and when you are suddenly saying that you want to be paid for work, they’re a little taken back by that because you gave it away. You just have to be firm and say this is who I am and this is what I need now. No apology. I need to be paid for this skill set if you want me to do it.

For instance, one group Johanna volunteered with couldn’t get their work done because they didn’t have enough volunteers. She said, I’m happy to do this much for you, but anything more needs to be paid. They hired her. You have to decide what your boundaries are, what your time is worth, and what your priorities are, and then simply be firm.

Tips for those ready to re-enter the workforce?

Women hate rejection, but go through interviews as practice so that when you get to the one you want, you’re polished. Also, when you network that much, you will meet more and more people who will keep you in mind. Networking is really important. Sit down and think of the people you know in your life, and you know some pretty incredible people. If you live in Silicon Valley, then you have a network of amazing people who can open doors for you. The nature of this valley is to want to help, but I need to articulate then, what it is I need help with. Saying “I’m looking for a job” is not specific enough. You should be able to say, “I’m looking to get back into the workforce, I have 10 years of accounting experience, and I’m looking for a position in a small to middle sized company that is in leading edge technology.” Then they have a picture of what you are looking for. You have to paint that picture and make it specific enough so that people who want to help you, can help you.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I definitely would have kept rigorous notes of what I was accomplishing [in volunteer roles, committees, etc.]. I did so many things – like we all do – and honestly, I’m sure I forgot 80%. I should have kept better notes and asked for recommendations. I would have done more in terms of keeping my resume up to date. I do think that staying in the game, somewhat, is better than not at all. If you can do some consulting work or projects, it helps keep you sharp and it does keep you relevant.

When you reflect back on the time of raising your children, how do you expect to remember it?

Every step of the way, I felt secure about my decisions. I’m lucky that I had the flexibility to do it because not everyone has that ability. Totally no regrets. It’s important that each person’s life is there own, and I just don’t judge. Don’t judge. Being supportive of people’s decisions and being a great listener when they need your help, is most important because if we are each happy in what we do, how great is that? Confidence in yourself means that you don’t have regrets and you aren’t judging others. I also don’t see life as a zero sum game. If you help someone and they move ahead, that’s great because the more likely they are to help me or someone else. It’s a bigger piece of the pie that we all share.  This is true in Silicon Valley and within women’s networks. The more we support one another, the better off we all are.

There is still room to join the Connect Work Thrive Return to Work Conference. Information about the conference, speakers, and sessions offered are on the event website. 

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