Today’s blog post comes to us from some of our founding mothers! They’re sharing reflections on working in international education for Women’s History Month.
Jennifer Attal Allen
This Women’s History Month, I have received a number of questions regarding API, our inception and what it is like to be a woman CEO in our field. When brainstorming the idea of API, I did not set out to organize the group of women who currently comprise our Mama board; they rose to the top of knowledgeable, like-minded candidates who I believed to be the best people I could imagine starting a company with. Once the decision to create API was made, we hit the ground running and never looked back. We had clear goals about what we wanted to do, who we wanted to be and what we wanted to provide. Our mission was to project those goals to the field, for the benefit of the field.
People often ask, “Did anyone try to stop you? Was it difficult because you were a woman? Did you find it hard to balance work and life?” The answer is a little bit of both yes and no, but probably for different reasons than one might think. I never considered creating API in the traditional, corporate way or operating in the status quo. I did not find it difficult being a woman while leading a company. Frankly, my parents raised me to believe I could do anything I set my mind to, so I never approached situations from the point of view that anyone would treat me differently because of my gender and I feel, therefore, that no one did. If that would have come up at any time, I would not have continued business with that person and I am sure they recognized that. Body language can speak volumes. What you allow and do not allow during interactions will also dictate the outcomes of a conversation or transaction.
In regard to work and life balance, it is always challenging for a woman to find that equilibrium. There is usually a sacrifice in at least one area but setting things up so that you can do the best that you can is paramount. Control the variables that you can control and do not feel guilty for the ones that you cannot. For example, our children traveled with us from the time they could get their passports issued. They sat on our laps during business meetings and while signing our first contacts with universities abroad, interacting with and learning about the cultures within the countries where we were setting up our programs. There was no reason that I couldn’t negotiate and execute contracts with my children present. On the contrary, it often humanized the situation and kept us present in the moment.
We forged not only business relationships, but personal ones as well. To this day, 22 years later, I am often asked about how my children are doing and requested to bring them along with me again on my trips. My children have come in contact with amazing people because of business and view some of them extended members of family – Uncle Fabrizio or Aunt Federica in Italy, Aunt Inma in Spain… They have known them for their entire lives.
I regularly advise women to not let life stand in their way, to forge their own paths and to be true to who they are and what they stand for. People respect that authenticity and see your character through your interactions. To women starting their own businesses, you have to prepare and be prepared to make personal sacrifices and to work extremely hard. A strong work ethic and focus are key! Lead with energy, stay calm in critical moments and never be afraid to show your human side.
Sharon Foerster, Ph.D.
As I look back at our almost 22 year history, I do so with such affection and admiration for my co-founding mamas and for the many young women whom I have seen grow into amazing professionals throughout these years at API (Not that we do not have wonderful men working for us as well). But watching women supporting women in an atmosphere that I have heard many of our staff say is unique and genuinely caring makes me proud.
As the oldest of the mamas, I feel like a mother to these women. One of the most beautiful parts of working in a women–centric setting is that we have always allowed our new moms to bring their infants to work during those important early months of life. Those are the times that I feel like a grandmother to our staff babies. But ironically, working with so many young women gives me the lovely illusion that I am much younger than I am – maybe like an older sister. These women give me energy and nourish my spirit. I celebrate the collective API notion that we are here to open the world to young people, to help transform their lives and to do this with care and sensitivity.
The vital role of women’s perspective must be recognized and honored in every aspect of our lives. I feel that API is a leader in showing the world how this is done. I look forward to seeing how today’s young women step into many more roles that will inform and shape our future in such a positive way.
Thinking back on 22 years, what made those early years possible?
We can thank an African proverb for the phrase “it takes a village.” I think for all four of the “mamas” it was supportive family and friends that made those early years possible. I was fortunate to have a wide local net in the Boston area (where I live) that enabled me to try and manage balancing work and family. The list is long, but I am eternally grateful to my husband, my mom, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, our cousin, and friends that all helped with childcare, as well as the teachers at our pre-school. This army allowed me to begin to open up API on the east coast, while at the same time, giving me piece of mind, logistical support, love, and some semblance of sanity! (Though, everyone may not agree with that claim!)
Additionally, being able to talk with and watch Jennifer, Brittany and Sharon navigate similar issues, of work-life balance, was a great support. Although I wasn’t working in the office (since I was out in “left field”, in Boston, as I used to say), I always felt proud and happy that one of the benefits of working at API is the focus on family. Babies are welcomed in the office after leave for an extended period and if emergencies of any kind befall an employee there are extra supports offered to try and give everyone some balance and flexibility to get through a trying time.
Work-life balance can be an ever changing and elusive goal, but we can get closer to it with determination and support from colleagues, friends and family. I feel incredibly lucky to have spent the majority of my working career at API, surrounded by incredibly smart, hard-working, caring, efficient, nurturing colleagues who love what they do and give their all. This is the special sauce that has made API what it is today, a force to make positive and caring change in the field international education.
I’ve done a lot of jobs in API over the years. When we founded API, Jennifer and I worked in our living rooms and soon after I pushed a stroller to the post office daily, with catalogs to mail and forms to collect. Those were the days when we were excited to be able to fax forms instead of just using the postal service! I have spent time creating forms, calling universities and students and parents, collecting payments, writing documents and policies, recruiting, fairs, leading director trips, interviewing, leading and mentoring VPs, and more. We moved from our living rooms to a small space in San Marcos on the square, to a larger space on the square, to a building we bought, to the current beautiful space in Austin. But my most special aspect of all of it has been working alongside Jen, Sharon, and Julie. We have worked together for over 20 years now and we know that we have something special. If you ask people about going into business with other people and starting companies, you often will get a list of dos and don’ts. One of the don’ts, is don’t go into business with friends or people you have never met. We did both. And we wouldn’t trade it for anything. As a foursome, we have cried and laughed and traveled and sat around wrestling with how to do whatever was best next for API and talked and talked and talked and hugged and dreamed. We know each other in ways that others can never know each of us. We together make each other better. There is a part of me who wouldn’t be, were it not for these three ladies. We share a passion to play a role in changing people’s lives by opening to them a piece of another part of the world. API was my first child and I wouldn’t change much about how the four of us have walked this journey. I give thanks for them and the part they have played in my life, and am proud that we didn’t listen to other advice when we joined together to found and make API what it is today.