There are a lot of accomplishments in Sheila Marcelo’s official bio, not least of which is founding running the publicly traded Care.com. One thing that isn’t in all those official bios is that Marcelo– a Filipino born girl who was sent to America to get educated and become a lawyer– got pregnant unexpectedly in college. At a women’s college no less.
She wound up marrying her boyfriend of just three months and having the baby, but that wasn’t necessarily a given. “I was worried,” she says. “I wanted to be a banker. I was worried about what I was going to do in my career. Was this going to hold me back? He kind of said all the right things.” He also said the right thing to her parents at the wedding: “We will make sure she gets to law school. She’s going to do everything that you wanted her to do and more — we will make sure of that.”
They are still together more than 20 years later, and Marcelo got her law degree but never wound up becoming a big lawyer as her parents hoped. But her career was certainly wasn’t held back by being a mom: She spent years in consulting and working at other tech companies before starting her own in 2006. Today, Marcelo is not only one of the most powerful women in tech, she is one of the few female founder/CEOs running a publicly traded tech company.
Without becoming a mother, and that early experience of juggling a career and kids and later elderly parents, she might never have founded Care.com. She started her career under pressure to lie about being a mother to avoid workplace bias, but ultimately achieved her goals by tapping into her unique experience as a mom. It’s the ultimate give back of a female CEO– build a platform that helps others balance their lives out enough so that they can work too.
In a 2015 interview, I sat down with Marcelo to talk about her life as an “outsider” in the typical business world as an immigrant, a woman, and a young mother during the most formative years of her career. We also talk about her advice for women, and how she “iterated” her parenting strategy just like she iterates at her companies, from Tiger mom to American mom.
We started out by talking about her home in the Philippines and her first trip to America.
Sheila Marcelo: I was born in Manila. I went to school there, and then I went to visit the United States between about seven to nine years old, because my parents were entrepreneurs. They wanted to go Houston.
My parents were actually in the coconut business. We’re no longer in this business, but at the time generating energy through the husk of coconut. My father wanted to research how to extract oil from coconut to turn it into energy. So we went to Houston because we had an American family visiting our small town in the Philippines where we vacationed and encourage us to go to Houston.
We traveled around the country. We did go to school for a short period of time here in the United States. Then I went back to the Philippines, and I went to an American boarding school, which is why I speak very Californian. Everyone’s always telling me I sound Californian.
I went to an American school. I graduated there, and then I came here for college.
Sheila Marcelo: I remember being scared coming to Houston. It was definitely very foreign even though I spoke English growing up as a child. It certainly was overwhelming. Of course, going to Texas, everything is big in Texas. And I felt like a tiny, small, little Asian girl. So it was intimidating, but it actually taught me a lot about flexibility and change and adaptation.
When I went back to the Philippines, my parents put me in a provincial school for one year because I’d forgotten the language. So I went back to this little town called Candelaria, Quezon for about a couple south of Manila.
My parents put me in this parochial Catholic school, and I had to go learn the language all over again. That was probably one of my toughest years in life.
I was in fifth grade, and my teacher was my mother’s best friend. So she made me stand up every day and read in Tagalog and it forced me to speak the language all over again. And that was very important for my younger brother and me, for my parents.
But that’s also a time where I grew up and I saw a lot of diversity, and learned about the culture all over again.
Everybody in the classroom scrubbed floors. We had to clean our classroom actually with coconut husks as well, and we had to polish it shiny clean. I know how to clean floors.
Sheila Marcelo: Coconut husk is great, yes, coconuts. There’s a special wax you use to polish it shine.
Sheila Marcelo: We did a lot of things with coconut. Cleaning, coconut oil for your hair, coconut oil for your skin, coconut water, all of it, coconut, all of it, yes, yes. I mean it’s one of the largest exporters of the coconut in the world, so in the Philippines.
Sheila Marcelo: My parents were entrepreneurs. They did inherit land from my grandparents. My parents were actually elementary school sweethearts. They eloped three times.
Sheila Marcelo: Yeah, and they got caught, and then they went away again. There are all these stories of my father in this motorcycle going after my mom because they locked her up in this Catholic school, and in the rain. They’re beautiful stories.
My parents got married in their teens, and became entrepreneurs like that. They inherited property. They had to learn to go run their own businesses. Whenever I used to complain at different times when I was doing my JD/MBA, and I was telling my mother my life was really hard, she said, “Honey, when I was in my early 20s, I had 6 kids, so let’s not complain.”
She said, “You can handle that. That should be OK.”
Sheila Marcelo: Exactly. My mother’s a tiger mom. I love her to death, but she definitely was assertive. What’s interesting about the Philippines, Sarah, is that I didn’t grow up with gender stereotypes. My mother was the tiger mom, aggressive in the business. My father was the teddy bear dad.
They both ran the business, but they split everything 50‑50 at home. My mom did all the bills. My dad did all the cooking. At work, it was the same thing. They split everything. My dad was the great people person. My mother was the accountant, strategist, and…
Sheila Marcelo: Yeah, the hard‑ass, exactly.
The Philippines, actually ‑‑ a lot of people don’t know this ‑‑ it’s the only Asian country in the top 10 lists for the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report that has the narrowest gender gap of the Asian countries.
It’s been on that list for years now. You scratch your head, and you’re just like, “Why?” Even pre‑colonial times, women were allowed to be priestesses. Women were allowed to own land and property. This was even before the Spanish influence, became a colony.
If you look at government, many women in government, many women in business. Lots of entrepreneurs in businesses, on boards. We have more girls in STEM than boys. We actually have difficulty trying to encourage boys to stay in school.
Sheila Marcelo: It’s a very strong matriarchal society, very strong. Women are just expected to take charge, to run the family, to take care of everything.
Sheila Marcelo: You’ve seen it in the data as well, that if you invest in women, you get a better ROI.
Sheila Marcelo: It’s interesting. I didn’t actually experience discrimination until I came to this country. I didn’t grow up in the Philippines experiencing it.
It made me even more aware, because I went to Mt. Holyoke, which was a women’s college. I read a lot of feminists books. I remember working, and I was a VP here in New York in one of my jobs. I was an executive. I slid into a meeting late, and was commenting, and asking all these questions about this important software that we were interested in. An older gentleman said, “Little lady, I don’t know if you know anything about the recruiting industry.”
I just proceeded to ignore his commentary, and I just kept asking the questions. I think he realized I was the decision‑maker that was going to buy his software. Certainly, he changed his tone at that point.
It is interesting that I think that there is sort of this natural, and it’s not all men, but there is clearly discrimination in the business space. I think that raising more awareness, and role modeling, especially for women, I think what [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg is doing is the right thing. It’s about building confidence.
A lot of things that she’s written in her book is something that has been articulated in the past. The big difference is she’s very effective at actually having the dialogue. That’s the most important thing, is engaging people in the dialogue.
Now, to be fair, on men, I will say in our generation, I have found at Care.com, in the early days we were raising money, I would say not as many men were clearly participating in helping find care.
Now, I find in our generation, more men are participatory. They’re much more aware of this 50‑50 split that they’re taking on the responsibility. At the same time, I’m also finding that men are becoming more articulate to say, “I don’t really know what you want me to do.”
It’s a shared ownership between men and women. You have to have men in the dialogue.
By the way, it varies by industry. It really does. To me, working in banking, and working in consulting, versus working in the tech space, there’s fundamental things that are different, because the norms and culture are formed in different ways.
Sheila Marcelo: Now I’m not an engineer in training, but I’ve found in the technology space, especially in the consumer space, that there was much more openness.
In consulting to me, the challenge was that work/life balance of the hours for people to understand, “Are they going to treat you different because I’ve got a child at home, because I had a child at such a young age. Is that going to be fundamentally different?”
I’ve found, as an entrepreneur ‑‑ and you probably have found ‑‑ that the flexibility in the tech space has been incredible. It really has been, the openness for people to understand, especially I’m in the business of care, of what we’re building, understandably, and the flexibility of our culture makes sense.
Sheila Marcelo: Yes and no. I had visited my sister [who was already in college here]. It was interesting. My parents thought that an all‑women’s college meant that men were not allowed on campus. They were definitely very surprised that I got pregnant in college at women’s college.
Sheila Marcelo: I did. Yes, I did.
Sheila Marcelo: I met my husband in a party at Yale. He was at Yale University, and they were forming for the first time what they called FIND. He was one of the founders of FIND. It’s called the Filipino Intercollegiate Networking Dialogue. It is still in existence.
Sheila Marcelo: Yes, he is Filipino American. He didn’t find his Filipino‑ism until he went to college. He grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, and he didn’t hang out with Filipinos until he went to college. He helped found the Filipino organization at Yale, started this Intercollegiate Networking Dialogue, which is still in existence now 24 years.
They invite colleges throughout the northeast. Each school hosts it at different schools. They invited Mt. Holyoke. I was very involved. Because I had a driver’s license, I brought all my Filipino friends who were also from the Philippines, and Filipino Americans, too, and I drove them.
That night, I had a fever, and I didn’t actually want to drive. But we drove down to Yale. That’s the night I met my husband, Ron.
Sheila Marcelo: There you go, exactly. She loves my husband dearly. She’s great.
Sheila Marcelo: Yes, and I will say that my parents are thankful that they met him at least before I got pregnant.
I was shocked, growing up with a Catholic family. I said to him, “What are we going to go do?” He said, “What do you mean, ‘What are we going to go do?’ We’re going to go get married.” This is, I guess, forever going to be [on the record]. We had known each other for three months, and we’ve now been married 24 years.
My mother said to me, “You lucked out.”
Sheila Marcelo: No, it did not. It did not, actually. I was worried. I wanted to be a banker. I was worried about what I was going to do in my career. Was this going to hold me back? He kind of said all the right things.
At our wedding, my parents were very upset, because they had wanted me to go to law school. He said to them, “We will make sure she gets to law school. She’s going to do everything that you wanted her to do and more, and we will make sure of that.”
It was hard. It was very, very difficult. I can’t say that I was a great mom. I certainly tried my best. Certainly, the juggle was difficult. I remember when Ryan was a toddler, and I had to dash off. I was doing my JD/MBA at Harvard. I had to get to class. He was just kicking, and screaming, and pulling a tantrum. Then he says, “I just hate you. I just hate you.”
Of course, that’s gut‑wrenching for a mom, and the guilt that you feel, because I was dropping him off at daycare and he wanted to spend more time with me. Those were very difficult years.
Sheila Marcelo: I know, but at the time when you’re going through it, right?
Sheila Marcelo: It’s just gut‑wrenching
Sheila Marcelo: I will say I have a very, very close relationship with both of my sons. Probably TMI ‑‑ too much information ‑‑ from them. I’ve forced myself to really have real conversations with them. Here’s the kind of mom I am.
If one of my sons is having an issue at school, I will shut the door, lock the door, sit on their bed, and say, “We’re going to talk about it.” They’re like, “No, I don’t want to talk about it.” Put a pillow on their face, “I don’t want to talk about it.” I say, “No, we’re going to talk about it.”
We’re going to talk. We’re going to get their emotions out. We’re going to have to talk about it. Both my boys, I can say, are very strong feelers. They know how to communicate. They know how to really express how they’re feeling. They’ve got great friends who are women in their life, which is great.
It’s something that I tell both my boys, “One of the greatest prides I will have is that your partner in life, whoever you choose, and if it’s a women, she will say to me that, ‘Your mom did a good job of having you grow up and respect me.’ That would be awesome.”
Sheila Marcelo: Oh, my god. I wish. It’s probably a continuous regret. My husband and I talk about adopting later in life. It’s certainly something I’m pretty passionate about. I would love, love to have a baby girl.
Sheila Marcelo: I didn’t when I was younger. I think that, just like we do as entrepreneurs, you test and iterate. You learn. I grew up Asian, so I certainly forced my older son to play a string instrument. I’m Filipino, and he was tall, so I made him play basketball, because all Filipinos need to play basketball.
I just felt like there was this playbook that you had to do as a mom, because that’s how I was raised. I found that I changed my parenting style completely ‑‑ both my husband and I did ‑‑ for our second son. My second son sings opera, because he loves to sing.
Our older son wanted to sing, and we were like, “Why would you want to sing? Girls sing.” I had my own gender stereotypes. I realized later that’s not the right thing. My younger son sings. He plays whatever sports he wants.
This is how crazy it is. We used to pay for all these basketball lessons for my older son, and he dropped it like a hot potato when he got to high school. Our younger son picked up basketball at recess. I didn’t pay a dime for any of the lessons, and now he loves to play basketball.
You’re sitting there and going, you realize, all the learnings that I had as a parent was, “How do you adapt your style?” I actually think my style is probably more American in raising my children than it is Filipino. It’s about testing and iterating, and finding what’s the right thing.
Sheila Marcelo: Yes, which I did.
Sheila Marcelo: I worked for a couple years. I did telecom consulting. In those years, I was really debating whether I wanted to go to law school. I worked at a litigation consulting firm first. I got onto a project for the Orion satellite. That’s how I fell in love with technology. I didn’t have any technology background. Then I moved companies, and I worked at a telecom consulting firm focused on developing countries. So I did that, and then I thought about deferring again.
Of course, Harvard came a‑calling, and said, “If you want to come and matriculate, you can’t defer it more than two years.” That’s when I matriculated, and started my first year of law.
Sheila Marcelo: Oh, gosh. My son was six years old.
Sheila Marcelo: I don’t think it ever changed. I think it’s because I was raised in the Philippines, where I saw all moms work. It never came into the equation that I would stay at home. I always saw it as, “I’m here, equally responsible for raising my family. I’ve got a responsibility to do that.”
I just decided that, “Of course, I’m going to continue to work and support my family.”
Sheila Marcelo: Because my parents, we had designated professions growing up. I had a sister who was going to be the dentist, that brother who was going to be the doctor. I was going to be the lawyer. I had another brother who was going to be an accountant. I had my younger brother who would get away scot‑free, and my older brother played sports. Those were the bookends.
Sheila Marcelo: I was three years old. I was starting to read early. I was argumentative, I had an opinion about everything. My parents felt like that law was the best thing.
For my parents, they always thought that, “She had a lot of potential. She was pretty gregarious, precocious as a child. Let’s really encourage her to go into the law.” They were very disappointed when I decided not to take the bar, and that I wasn’t going to practice law, and I decided I wanted to be an entrepreneur.
Sheila Marcelo: What ended up happening was I got pregnant again my fourth year of the program, unplanned.
Sheila Marcelo: I know, exactly.
People thought, “Oh, my god, you had this all planned out. You spaced the kids…” Now, when I talk to people, “You spaced the kids out seven years.” I’m like, “No, they were both unplanned.”
I wanted to actually be an entrepreneur getting out of my graduate school. I wrote a business plan and realized I had a great mentor, Linda Applegate, a professor at Harvard Business School, who said to me, “Why don’t you instead take your JD,” which is considered still a doctorate, “and come teach?”
I taught at HBS, because I was pregnant, instead of starting a company. She was trying to encourage me to be a professor. I paused and thought that, “You know what? Maybe I would go teach as a career.” I did that for about a year.
Sheila Marcelo: It was very hard to teach students about things I had not experienced myself, especially in business. I was grading Internet business plans in the late ’90s when I had never worked in an Internet company. I still felt like I needed more operational experience, and maybe I’ll go back to teaching down the road. I felt like I really needed to join a company. I left HBS, and then I joined a startup that did not have a name, was out of the founder’s home. I hear all these garage stories.
We didn’t have phones, and it wasn’t because smartphones were fashionable at the time. It was just we couldn’t afford phones at the time. I joined this startup, and it ended up being called Upromise, help families save money for college.
Michael Bronner, the founder, had this wonderful vision about helping to create the largest loyalty program in the country to help families save money for college. It was my general management tour of duty.
I had graduated with my JD/MBA. I had no technical background. I took a product management job. I didn’t even have a director or VP title. I felt like they were paying me to go learn, whereas I had just paid four years of tuition at Harvard. Eventually I got promoted. I ran part of the technology team at Upromise.
I was responsible for the creative team eventually. I was responsible for the website eventually. I wrote the first press release for the company. I learned a lot. It really was my general management tour of duty.
Sheila Marcelo: I loved it. I actually was worried that leaving strategy consulting, I would be bored in an operating role, because would I be challenged enough.
I found that learning the different operations, the nuances of the people management, operations, process, how a creative person thinks relative to an engineer, the whole thing was just very dynamic. Every day was different. I loved it.
It was moving so quickly and fast. I worked tons of hours, and I didn’t mind it, because I loved my job. I had created a schedule where I would sleep early with my son, and then get up at the crack of dawn to work. It was just what you need to do at a startup.
Sheila Marcelo: I was an Asian mom. In my first job, I hid the fact that I was a mom, because I was worried about being judged as a young mom, that somehow they weren’t going to give me the projects.
They were going to give it to the guys because they felt like, “Well, you know, they can work all the hours. They don’t have responsibility, and we feel sorry for you. You’re not going to get this job, or you’re not going to be completely dedicated, because you’re a mom.”
I didn’t tell a lot of people. It was actually one of my really good friends in my first job after I got the job. He said to me, “Don’t tell anybody you’re a mom.”
I decided that I liked the tech space because it was open to ideas and different things, and I over‑projected a lot. In fact, at the company today, when I see women experimenting, I say, “Keep at it.” Then I will actually, after a meeting, help them decipher what went on.
“Let’s talk about. How did you feel? Did you feel like you were influencing people?” I’m totally cool with it.
Sheila Marcelo: Just get over it. The key thing is to fine‑tune that influence, that set of skills that you have, and the way you communicate. It’ll feel uncomfortable to over‑project in the beginning, but eventually you hone in on that. You refine it.
You realize how do you influence who you’re talking to, and know your audience. Mostly, I spend a lot of time focusing, with mentees especially early in their careers, on self‑awareness.
How are you feeling? How did you feel about that meeting? How did that go? So that you’re building your confidence.
I do think that any challenge, whatever gender, is a growth opportunity. Huge. My son is in a school now where they have to get up every morning and take care of a horse. They muck the stalls. He’s going out camping for five days, no showers, and they are going camping with horses. They are learning. It’s the same thing that my mother instilled about cleaning floors.
I think the challenge in life, whatever gender, is it makes you stronger. It makes you learn. It makes you adapt. Humans have this unbelievable ability to adapt. We do, and it’s a strength. Why not take advantage of that, whether you’re a man or a woman?
Sheila Marcelo: Worked at that telecom consulting firm, then went and taught a little bit, and then joined Upromise. I was there for about five years, [and then I] wanted to start my own company. My mentor there, George Bell, he was the previous CEO of Excite@Home.
I mean, he really taught me a lot about user experience, and the web, and a great mentor. He sat me down and said, “Why don’t you do it one more time at another company? Do it one more time, and then start your next company.”
So I went to the Ladders, and helped Mark Cenedella, who was a really good friend of mine who was a classmate from business school, helped that team scale, and had a lot of operational responsibility. Then the idea was ‑‑ because that company was here in New York ‑‑ is that I would move my family to New York.
We put our house on the market in the Boston area, we were about to put an offer in on a big on house here in Tribeca. I went to go visit the school, a terrific school. I walked out of that school, I sat on the sidewalk, and I think people thought I was crazy. I just burst into tears. I just said, “I can’t do this to my family. I love my job, but my family loves Boston.”
It was a really difficult decision, and I decided that, even though I loved my job, that I was going to quit. I gave Mark 90 days notice, because I had huge responsibility for the operations of the company. Two of the board members knew me well, because I had a lot that I was doing for the Ladders that Matrix Partners then offered me a job to be an entrepreneur in residence in Boston, because they knew.
It was great, because they were headquartered Boston. Literally, I migrated from the Ladders to Matrix, and then spent about under a year there, and wrote my business plan. I had an idea of what I wanted to do, and they were very supportive.
Sheila Marcelo: Because I got pregnant in college, I juggled with care. The other thing that I failed to add is that my husband’s parents were deceased, and my parents were in the Philippines, so we didn’t really have a lot of support here for our family. We had to find care on our own.
Sheila Marcelo: We didn’t. It was really hard. We would juggle, and long hours. Then our second son, Adam [came]‑‑ as you know, unplanned ‑‑ at one point, I begged my parents to come from the Philippines to help care for him when I joined Upromise, because I said, “I can’t do a startup job. Ron’s working here, too.”
Ron and I were working together, actually, at Upromise. “I don’t know how we’re going to do it.” My parents came, and then my father one day was walking up the stairs with Adam, and he had a heart attack.
My father fell backwards. He ended up being fine, but I was juggling. I was using the yellow pages. There was no platform to go look for care. I knew that I would put two and two together, and I was just waiting to get my entrepreneurial legs, get enough operational experience to go do this.
When I went to Matrix, I said to them that, “I want to do this family care thing. It’s going to have education involved in it, because of tutoring,” and I was very interested in the health space. They were very supporting.
Nick Beim was the partner at Matrix who invited me in, and it was just terrific. It’s been a great experience.
Sheila Marcelo: It still doesn’t to people who haven’t experienced needing both. They always told me I was doing to much. But at 29, I was sandwiched. I had to figure out childcare and senior care. It was very, very difficult. I said, “Well, wait a minute. Why can’t it be the same technology platform? It’s the same set of features to go find care. It’s the same marketing, because guess what, it’s mom. It’s the daughter. It’s the decision‑maker.”
Sheila Marcelo: Yes. The two largest costs in actually building a business, as we know today, is technology and marketing to grow it. That’s where the thesis really came. I remember when we did childcare, senior care, pet care, and tutoring at the very beginning.
I had investors say, “Well, why tutoring?” I said, “After school care is still care, because moms worry about that. That’s still care for my child I’ve got to go figure out.” Pet care, it happened to be that most families with children under 18 have pets. Guess what? Guess who’s figuring out care? It’s usually mom, too.
Sheila Marcelo: They’re cute, aren’t they? Yes, it’s mom. That thesis, as we peeled the onion and studied the market, realized that you’re targeting the exact same customer, which is mom or daughter with childcare, senior care, and you can leverage the exact same technology platform.
Sarah Lacy is the Founder and CEO of Chairman Mom and Pando Media. She's been covering technology for nearly 20 years, previously for BusinessWeek, TechCrunch and many other publications. She's the author of "Once You're Lucky; Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0" (Gotham, 2008); "Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky: How the Top 1% of Entrepreneurs Profit from Global Chaos" (Wiley, 2011) and the forthcoming "A Uterus Is a Feature Not a Bug" (Harper Business, 2017). She lives in San Francisco.