Entrepreneur Joan Barnes details her journey of professional success and personal struggle in her memoir, Play it Forward: From Gymboree to the Yoga Mat and Beyond. Barnes is the founder of Gymboree, an innovative, billion-dollar household brand, and her book offers a refreshing perspective on the ongoing national conversation about work-life balance, from a woman who built her business with balance at its heart.
Play It Forward offers wisdom and inspiration, and reminds us that our most difficult stories, when bravely and transparently told, can have a lasting impact on others. To celebrate the book's publication on June 1, we are sharing this Q & A with the author below.
Why did you decide to write Play It Forward? Why now?
After I sold the yoga business and took a pause, many—including publishing people—encouraged me to write my business memoir. While I knew my two entrepreneurial turns became home runs and held valuable lessons, and that the story had some punch, I resisted. Why? Partly due to humility, and to be honest, partly due to wanting to feel passionate about that sort of project, which, I can now vouch, is a significant undertaking!
I was, however, up for speaking engagements, particularly at women’s entrepreneurial conferences. That seemed like something I could do. As I started speaking publicly and saw the raw, heartfelt, tearful, and enthusiastic reactions of audiences to my unvarnished story, as well as repeated requests for a copy of my “book,” I experienced a shift. As time passed, I knew deep inside that my story held significance and meaning for others, especially women, and that a book could make a genuine contribution to a variety of audiences. When my partner enthusiastically agreed to coauthor, I was all in.
You write frequently about the improvisational character of your leadership at Gymboree. What’s your sense of both the strengths and challenges of that approach?
Ah, yes, improvisation in leadership! In my early entrepreneurial days, the cliché “on-the-job training” had robust application. I had neither business training nor role models to guide or inspire me. When lady luck dropped opportunities at my doorstep, I threw caution to the winds, believing I could make it all happen. Acting with a passion-driven vision thrilled me.
The consistent challenges of having a strong and persistent “can do” perspective are staying faithful to what you believe in and who you are and being careful not to line up to satisfy others’ expectations. Essentially, you are running two businesses: one outside and one inside you. Both need vigilance to maintain integrity and achieve ultimate success.
What do you see as most different for women entrepreneurs today, compared to when you started your company?
Business culture has changed significantly and more favorably for women. When I was building Gymboree, I was a little out of step with the times, as most women, if they worked at all, were limited to a narrow list of traditionally female employment and business opportunities. The climate was tricky for launching women-owned businesses. Now, we are blessed with so many innovative, dynamic, and bright women entrepreneurs putting their mark on any number of industries. While there is much work to do, women are steadily redefining the business world.
A major byproduct of these changes is that women have increased access to capital, as more investors are willing to finance entrepreneurial women and share in the success of their leadership. And, importantly, women have developed a powerful network of mentors, role models, and support systems. It is a great time to be a woman entrepreneur.
What’s your advice for women seeking to become entrepreneurs?
Never, ever, stop believing in yourself. Surround yourself with the best colleagues possible and give them room to create. Identify mentors and role models. Leave pride at the door and seek out people who inspire you. Their advice and support is invaluable. Experienced and successful women are gracious about giving back. After all, that kind of sisterhood is second nature to most women! Dream big, take risks for what you believe in, and doggedly pursue your vision and goals. Treat setbacks (or, if you must, “failures”), as springboards for the next success.
What are some of your personal beliefs about the best way to achieve work-life balance?
The best way to begin is to acknowledge that work-life balance is elusive. As is said in yoga poses, “balance, she comes, she goes.”Accepting that there is no consistent moment-to-moment balance makes things easier.
Personally, I access and assess my personal value system as a yardstick for how to live and make decisions, both in and out of business. Work-life balance, then, is seen in the rear view mirror to get the long view of whether and how I have dedicated myself to the all-important practice of checking in with myself, my inner board room and what is truly important to me. My slippage comes from not catching my shadow where the ever-present danger of prioritizing the expectations of others over mine can hijack me. This kind of unconscious habitual environment can lead to temporary overload, imbalance, and ever-dreaded stress.
I urge working hard to establish and honor boundaries in order to ward off tendencies to feel guilty or too self-involved about making private time for you and your loved ones. As I honor myself, I gain both my own respect and the respect of others. We are all in this together!
What’s next for you?
Other than writing a sequel to Play It Forward with my coauthor, I have no grand plans. It might sound trite, but my focus is on continuing to do whatever keeps me in personal harmony. And yes, I am always on the lookout for creative expressions that grab me!