Composing a Career and Life

author: Linda Mason, Mercy Corps
published: Jan. 12, 2014,   recorded: May 2009,   views: 3664

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Linda Mason was originally going to make a case study of Bright Horizons, her $1.3 billion, early childhood care business, but reconsidered in light of the current economic crisis -- to the benefit of her audience. Instead, she takes up her own story as a recession-era entrepreneur who built several hugely successful, socially oriented ventures, navigating very real pitfalls and challenges along the way. Her “nonlinear path” yielded important life lessons, which she shares in this talk. Some highlights from her story:

Mason took a major detour from a planned career in management consulting when she and Roger Brown, who was to become her husband, left Yale in 1979 with their MBAs to work in Cambodian refugee camps. After a year, they returned to corporate life. But some time later, she and Brown experienced a watershed moment at a New Year’s Eve party, realizing their years of accumulating money and frequent flyer miles left them “depressed.” They determined that night to make a change.

Soon after, Save the Children called, looking for help dealing with the terrible famine sweeping western Sudan. Mason and Brown had 24 hours to make up their minds: There was “no time to make a list of pros and cons. It was a fork in the road, and we knew it was the path we were to take,” says Mason. This experience taught her, “It’s sometimes important to leap before you look.”

Management skills came in handy as the team set up a complex food distribution operation, one that challenged relief organization orthodoxy. This experience, which at the time “seemed crazy and risky,” fueled Mason and Brown’s next move in 1986: addressing the shortage of high quality child care in the U.S. The couple turned their Cambridge home into a start up headquarters, and developed a business plan, which they sold to enthusiastic VCs. But corporations balked at buying in, viewing the fledgling Bright Horizons team as “flaky Peace Corps types.” Mason, reflecting on this period, counsels “do your homework extremely well, then be very, very stubborn.”

As New England sank into a recession, and their idea faced collapse, the duo transformed crisis into opportunity. They summoned all their energy for a final effort, marketing onsite childcare to real estate developers looking to attract businesses. In 1990, four years after starting, Bright Horizons was in the black. The two ran the business for 15 years, when they moved onto other interests. “Discover your passions,” Mason advises, and combine them with your skills “to give your life meaning.”

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