Working at a startup can be a challenge. Job responsibilities change at the drop of a hat, hours are long, and nothing is guaranteed. But that’s where Laura Blackmer found herself after returning home to Boston, Mass., to try and save up enough money for a second year at Colorado State University.
“I was employee number four,” said Blackmer, who hadn’t had any prior experience with office life.
“But I found I loved it … Here I was 18 years old, running their sales department.”
Two years later, she decided to move on from her dreams of becoming a country veterinarian and returned to CSU to complete a business degree.
After graduation came a job at National Cash Register, and soon after; she made her way to HP where she was offered the opportunity to join a pilot program to bring female employees into management positions.
“I, of course, was like, ‘I’ll try that, sure. Throw me in.’”
At HP, Blackmer gained management foundations, refined her skills as a sales rep, and grew as a marketer.
“I got so many different paths that I was able to explore. It was such a big company,” she said.
Then she made a decision that has become a turning point for countless professional women: She decided to have kids.
Starting a family
“You know, I took almost a year off when both of my children were born and people thought, ‘You’re derailing your career, you’re never going to recover from that.’”
In short, they said she was making a work-life balance miscalculation, putting family too far above her professional journey to the detriment of her hard-earned career.
Blackmer didn’t buy it. In the concept of a work-life balance, she saw a fatal flaw.
“There is no scale,” she said.
Life isn’t a zero-sum game, suggested Blackmer. Everything that you put into your personal life isn’t subtracted from your work. Lessons learned as a parent aren’t compartmentalized to home life, and work experience – and stress – doesn’t automatically disappear when you leave the office.
“Don’t focus on the balance; just focus on what you’re doing in the moment and just be there.”
Trying to frame work-life balance as, “I’ll put that in the box and I’ll never let it bleed over,” doesn’t work, said Blackmer. “It sets people up for failure.”
What is possible is understanding the realities of forging a successful career, and finding ways to move work and family forward in unity.
“I think if we can start debunking some of these myths, women will be a lot happier,” said Blackmer, urging her peers not to count the extra minutes they spend at home so they can later put that much more in at work, or vice versa.
Molding management for millennials and mothers
In her role as senior vice president of sales for one of Sharp Electronics’ business products divisions, Blackmer pushed to shift the company’s management paradigm and prepare leadership to handle an increasingly diverse workforce.
When she first interviewed for the position, a mentor asked why she wanted the challenge of selling products that might not even be around in a few years.
She was ready with a response: “Why not?”
“What a cool experience that would be, to work abroad, which I had never done, and to help a company try to redefine itself,” said Blackmer.
“The position was perfect. It was transformative. It was changing business. It was growing business. If someone would have said to me when I was 18 years old, ‘What do you want to do?’, it would not have to been sell copiers, and yet that’s exactly what I do every day and I love it.”
A lot of that love comes from Blackmer’s passion for helping others find their way into fulfilling careers, bringing young workers into the company, and embracing a counterintuitive approach to building employee loyalty: letting people leave.
“Allow women to leave, allow millennials to leave when they need to leave; keep that door open. If there is an employee you want to keep, leave the door open and they’ll come back,” said Blackmer, arguing the change could lead to employees returning with new skills that would be otherwise hard to teach.
Especially frustrating for Blackmer is the difficulty many women face re-entering the workforce, oftentimes leading to employers viewing their skills as out of date.
According to the Harvard Business Review, the biggest factor for women leaving the workforce is to spend more time with their families, leading to 44 percent of “off-ramps.”
Men, on the other hand, most often leave their jobs to pivot into different careers, dropping out of the workforce for family time at roughly a quarter the rate of their female counterparts.
“I think one of the biggest travesties is these women who decide to stay home and take care of the children then try to re-enter and find this just incredible iron wall,” Blackmer said.
“The reality is, if they were good employees before they left, they’re great employees when they come back, and all you need to do is a little bit of training. … You just have to provide an environment where women can feel valued and learn.”
At Sharp, Blackmer carved out a niche looking for new ways to invigorate the company, with a focus on how to bring talented women back into office life.
It’s not about separating work life and personal life, Blackmer said, “but you allow the worlds to blend a little bit.”
“I’ll bring my staff in to meet my family, I want them to know this is who I am,” said Blackmer. “I’m the same person at work that I am at home. I don’t have a suit that I put on that changes my personality; I’m exactly the same.”
Leading by example, and creating an environment where people are able to integrate their personal and professional lives, Blackmer is driving change for women in the tech industry.
“For me, it really is about being a manager, being a leader, helping develop that next generation of people coming into the business. I get so much joy out of that.”