Your first act is school, your second act is work, but have you thought about what you’re going to do in your third act? Join host Liz Tinkham, a former Accenture Senior Managing Director, as she talks to guests who are happily “pretired” – enjoying their time, treasure, and talent to pursue their purpose and passion in the third act of their life.
Inspire others to get more and to do more later in life.
Athena helps women achieve executive-level leadership expertise, polish their boardroom and executive knowledge, get closer to board seats, and make leaps in their careers.
Coco and Scott are a couple with an unconventional approach to life, family, and career. Coco is the founder and CEO of the Athena Alliance, the sponsor of this podcast and the top digital platform for community, learning, and access to opportunity for women in business. Her husband, Scott, is a senior manager of partner enablement at Databricks, a data and AI company that combines the best of data warehouses and data lakes.
On today’s episode, Liz Tinkham talks to the couple about their journey as working parents. Coco and Scott discuss how their careers changed when kids entered the picture, and the couple opens up about their struggles with identity, jealousy, and guilt as each of them grappled with their role in the family.
With Coco feeling the pressure of being the family breadwinner, and Scott feeling isolated as a stay-at-home dad, the couple’s story takes what was then an unconventional path.
(3:06) Scott’s first act: Data analytics on a goat farm
(4:55) Coco gets her start in HR
(7:09) The couple falls in love
(10:32) Coco’s rise to president and COO at Taos
(12:52) Kids enter the conversation
(16:56) Scott talks about the stay-at-home dad scene
(19:30) Coco’s jealousy and devastating maternal draw
(23:51) The couples dynamic with a stay-at-home and a career parent
(28:02) Scott gets back in the workforce building custom furniture
(31:04) Coco turns her network into the Athena Alliance
(35:20) Parenting philosophies and how the kids have been impacted
To hear about more Third Act stories, subscribe to and follow the Third Act podcast at thirdactpodcast.com. And if you enjoyed listening, leave a review for this podcast at
Liz Tinkham (00:15):
Hi, this is Liz Tinkham and welcome to season two of Third Act, a podcast about people embracing the third act of their lives with a new sense of purpose and direction. The third act begins when your script ends, but your show’s not finished. Welcome back to the first episode of season two of Third Act. I’m incredibly excited to be joined by two special guests, Coco Brown and Scott Smith, the couple of unconventionalists. Coco is the founder and CEO of the Athena Alliance, the sponsor of this podcast and the top digital platform for community, learning, and access to opportunity for women in business. Her husband, Scott, is a senior manager of partner enablement at Databricks, a data and AI company that combines the best of data warehouses and data lakes. Coco and Scott fell in love in the ’90s, in the Gogotech market of San Francisco.
Liz Tinkham (01:11):
When they had their son, Kai, they planned to quit their jobs and take off in their Vanagon for a big adventure. But then the unexpected happened. Coco got an offer at work that she just couldn’t refuse. Soon, Scott was at home as a full-time dad, shunned by the local moms and trying to support Coco. Coco’s career continued to skyrocket yet she was plagued by constant feelings of guilt and wanting to be home with her kids. Sound familiar? Well, their story is more commonplace now. In the early 2000s, only 5% of dads stayed at home. On today’s podcast, they talk about how they manage their role reversal and how they’re pursuing their passions in their third acts. They also talk about the lessons they learned through the years together, and what they want their children, Kai and Malia, to take away. Coco and Scott, welcome to the show and thank you for doing this together.
Coco Brown (02:04):
Super excited to do it with you.
Liz Tinkham (02:07):
So, Scott, I know I interviewed you for season one of Third Act, but given what you’ve both been through together and what you’re doing in your third acts, I thought it’d be fun to hear the combined story. So thanks for putting up with me twice.
Scott Smith (02:17):
Great. No problem, it’s a pleasure.
Liz Tinkham (02:20):
Thank you. So, you guys, the story resonated with me and I think it will really resonate with our listeners along a couple of lines. First, you survived a bit of a role reversal when Scott stayed home with the kids, which at the time, and I’ve got some stats on those, was a little unusual, but probably more common now. And two, now you’re both working in what I would call either your 2.5 or third act, you can tell me, in fields that it seems like you’re both really passionate about. So I want to get into both, but first I want to go back and talk a little bit about your first act. So Scott, if I remember correctly, your first act was at Virginia Tech. You graduated with a degree in environmental sciences, but soon you found yourself on a goat ranch around Santa Cruz, which sparked an interest in data and analytics. So maybe quickly tell us a little bit about that.
Scott Smith (03:06):
Sure. So yeah, it’s a little bit of an unusual path, but on the goat ranch, it was a biotech goat ranch that was producing antibodies with goats. And I found myself soon in charge of the database that was being used to manage the ranch’s day-to-day activities, and got really interested in the data that we were collecting on those animals and in doing some predictive analytics to help the company understand better how to correlate things like medical history and breed with antibody production.
Liz Tinkham (03:42):
And did that lead then to subsequent jobs in what sparked your early love of data analytics or early interest in it?
Scott Smith (03:50):
Yeah, definitely. I mean, just the realization that, I had in my background, my educational background, exposure to a lot of math and statistics, a little bit of computer science for trends that will date me, but that was-
Coco Brown (04:06):
Scott Smith (04:09):
But yeah, between those pieces of my education, realizing that there was enough data being collected on these animals to statistically be significant, and realizing the power of a database to be able to collect and then do analytics on that data was… it doesn’t sound like anything today that’s surprising, but back then I think that was definitely a realization for me and set me off down a path.
Liz Tinkham (04:41):
Yeah. Now Coco, it’s funny, I’ve known you for a while and I’ve never talked to you about where you went to school, so I had to go back and look it up. So you went to the University of Pennsylvania, that’s all I know. So why did you go there, what were you thinking about majoring in, and what were you going to do?
Coco Brown (04:55):
I went to the University of Pennsylvania and majored in psychology. And yeah, I came from a family that had never worked in corporate America. My mom was a psychologist and a social worker and she was also a nurse — so everything other than corporate. And my dad was an educator, he was a PhD in economics and he taught economics at various universities in long term strategy and planning. And so I didn’t know I would end up in corporate America, that’s for sure. But he also knew that I was really interested in people, but I wasn’t interested, necessarily, in being a clinical psychologist because I figured I would end up too wrapped up in everybody’s issues and I didn’t want to do research for sure, because they felt too guilty about all of that. So I landed in HR to begin with.
Liz Tinkham (05:46):
And how did you end up in San Francisco?
Coco Brown (05:49):
Well, so this is a story that doesn’t actually exist because it’s pre-Scott story, but I found my then-boyfriend. He was getting his PhD at Stanford and we figured it was going to be five years, and why not? And I came out to Silicon Valley, actually, literally, as silly as this sounds, not knowing that there was a Silicon Valley, because I was a liberal arts major in psychology.
Liz Tinkham (06:15):
Is that where you got your job in HR? Or how’d you get into tech to start?
Coco Brown (06:20):
Yeah, I mean, well, so part of the reason you go to Penn is because it’s an incredible network, and I leveraged my network in other students that I knew and landed a job with a consulting firm out here in the HR space. And the very first thing I did was I was thrown into all of these tech startups to help them jumpstart their HR function. So everything other than recruiting, which usually small companies think of recruiting as being the HR function, but it was employee handbooks, and benefits administration, and compensation management, and design, and that sort of stuff. It was super fun.
Liz Tinkham (06:56):
So how did you guys end up meeting?
Coco Brown (06:59):
Well, Scott went from Santa Cruz Biotech, which was the goat ranch, to, what was the name of the next one?
Scott Smith (07:08):
Coco Brown (07:09):
Shaman pharmaceuticals. And I had a roommate, I was living in a big house in Pacifica with five women, late twenties, and one of my roommates worked with Scott at Shaman Pharmaceuticals, and invited him to Thanksgiving dinner at our place. And I don’t know, we ran into each other somewhere between the kitchen and the living room and decided to sit on the stairs and have dinner together.
Liz Tinkham (07:35):
Now, Scott, since I’ve had the benefit of interviewing you before, I know there was a bit of a pursuit that happened. So maybe you could say a few more words about that.
Scott Smith (07:46):
Sure. Well after our Thanksgiving dinner together, I was smitten. And Coco, I don’t think at the time, took me very seriously and so there was a bit of pursuit from Thanksgiving until Easter where I think I asked her out a few times when she was dating other people. A little bit outside of my normal comfort zone, but yeah, it took a few months and I had to be patient and persistent.
Liz Tinkham (08:24):
Persistence that clearly paid off. So Scott, your career as a technologist is growing at Shaman and then to Aperture. I mean, where were you headed? Did you have any sense of what you wanted to do at that point?
Scott Smith (08:37):
Well, I knew I wanted to work with data and I knew that predictive analytics, it’s the best thing that we had to call it back then, was really something of interest to me. So it actually was working at Aperture, doing a project where I ran a professional services team there, and doing some work on a project for Amazon, which at the time we were doing a database project that documented all of their infrastructure and assets for all of their data centers globally, which was three buildings in downtown Seattle.
Liz Tinkham (09:16):
Early, early days of Amazon, right?
Scott Smith (09:18):
They only sold books, they hadn’t made a profit, and data centers were a very new thing at the time. So co-location facilities, there was no cloud but that was the closest thing that was cropping up, and I was doing a lot of work with Aperture in those kinds of facilities, and at Amazon was where, in talking to a lot of people in those data centers, I realized how much behavioral data was coming through their servers and networks, and they were realizing it as well. And so that sparked the idea that those kinds of analytics could be used to predict people’s behavior and provide them a better and more efficient browsing experience or web experience. I certainly wasn’t the first one to come up with the idea, but it came to me through experience and that’s where I was headed at the time. So I was looking for a next role in that space, and there were a few startups that were starting to do that kind of work. Blue Martini was one that I almost took a job with, and that’s when everything changed.
Liz Tinkham (10:32):
And let’s talk about that change. So Coco, tell us about Taos and how did you go from being a staff manager to president and COO?
Coco Brown (10:41):
Yeah, so the short answer on that is that right around when I was 28 years old, 1999, we hired a vice president of professional services, and within two weeks he was gone. And I was asked by the executive team, at the time I was a manager of staff management, which essentially meant I was responsible for a couple of cities and all the consultants associated with those cities. We were a professional services firm in the deep infrastructures space. I was asked by the executive team to come to an offsite and present on behalf of all of professional services, which I really didn’t know, training and development and system support and various others.
Coco Brown (11:26):
And so I just showed up at this offsite, did a good job of presenting what we needed to be as a collective organization, and how that should be organized. And a week later I was asked whether or not I wanted to run the team. The CEO asked, and I said, “Sure.” And he said, “Go think about how you do that, what’s the structure.” And so I came back with vice president of professional services at the top of the org chart. And he looked at me like… I don’t think he was expecting me to think that that’s where I was going to go, but I thought, “Well, those are the shoes I’m filling.” So he deliberated for another week and then decided to give me the title.
Coco Brown (12:05):
And six months later, I asked for the salary to come along with the title. I proved myself for six months and then said, “Hey, whatever you were paying that guy, that’s what you should be paying me, right?” And so they did, gave me the biggest bump I could have, I mean, I remember Scott and I being like, “Oh my God, can you believe what I’m making now? This is insane.” And then, there was this meteoric rise and I was running about two thirds of the businesses because of the nature of the business. And we grew to about a hundred million in revenue. Then the dotcom bust happened, we crashed to 10 million in revenue, had to lay off 750 people, 700-ish people, shut down offices all over the country. And this is part of our transition story now, but after that I became president and COO.
Liz Tinkham (12:52):
At this point you guys are together. Did you know you wanted to have kids? And if you did, had you talked about how you were going to handle your careers?
Coco Brown (13:09):
We both come from divorced families, so for us, we were like, “Who wants to get married? Forget that.” But I think I cornered Scott in Big Sur one day, around New Year’s Eve and said, “The clock is ticking and for some reason I need a baby right now.”
Liz Tinkham (13:32):
So that was the discussion?
Coco Brown (13:34):
I think so, Scott?
Scott Smith (13:36):
Yeah. I mean, I think we had decided and determined that we wanted to be life partners, but we didn’t want the marriage piece to go with it. We felt like that could be an excuse to become lazy, and just wasn’t something that we’d had great experiences with from our own families. But we had discussions about that, about family, and the timing thing, I think, Coco did push that issue, but I was game.
Liz Tinkham (14:11):
So, after you got pregnant, I mean, did you talk about, “Okay, the baby’s going to come, somebody’s going to take… how that might work?”.
Scott Smith (14:19):
Yeah. We had big plans. We had enough of a nest egg set aside, and we were both wanting to reevaluate our careers a bit. We both had creative interests, and neither of us was completely certain that, longterm, what we wanted for our life was a corporate career in Silicon Valley. And so we had saved up money, and made plans to take off for a year once our baby was born and old enough to have been done with shots and travel. And we were going to take off for a year and travel around, and we had a landing zone planned, and we wanted to explore and figure out if we wanted to return to Silicon Valley and if we wanted to return to a corporate career life or pursue other interests. And that was our plan at that point in time, and I left my job first.
Coco Brown (15:21):
Well, first we bought the Vanagon.
Scott Smith (15:23):
What is a Vanagon? I understand you have one now as well, so what is a Vanagon? I’ve never heard that phrase.
Coco Brown (15:29):
It’s the best camper, it’s the absolute best camper. It’s a van with a pop top, a Westfalia, people probably call it.
Liz Tinkham (15:36):
Scott Smith (15:36):
A Volkswagen Westfalia.
Liz Tinkham (15:41):
Okay. So you had one then. You were all ready to go in the Vanagon?
Scott Smith (15:44):
We bought it —
Coco Brown (15:45):
Liz Tinkham (15:47):
Yeah, for the trip. Okay.
Coco Brown (15:48):
So basically what we did was, I took my three-month maternity leave and at this point, I was not yet president and the COO of the company. I had just gone through all these massive layoffs, and we’d just been imploding and our plan was that Scott would work through my maternity leave and I’d work a little bit after my maternity leave, but that we’d continue to start to build that nest egg a little bit and wait for Kai to get a little bit older to travel, our son Kai. And so that was the plan, and then what happened was, as I came back from maternity leave, the two owners of the company who had been in retirement, came out of retirement and fired the CEO who I loved, Bill. They fired Bill and said, “Hey, Coco, we want you to do a turnaround with us. We’ll make you COO to begin with, and we’ll make you third owner of the company.” And that’s when Scott and I had the conversation of, “Well, only three years. It’s going to be three years and then we’re going to sell the company, we’re going to have a really big nest egg.” We can do anything for three years.
Liz Tinkham (16:55):
Get a bigger Vanagon, right.
Coco Brown (16:56):
But that lasted. So, Scott, that’s when you become stay-at-home dad, before it’s cool. When I was looking at the stats and then the year, around 2000, only 5% of dads stayed home. Now it’s more like 27%, which is great, that’s gone up. I loved your LinkedIn by the way, people should go out and look at it, because you did write this before it was cool. But you told me a story earlier about what the dad scene was like, and about going to the park with your long hair. And so maybe say more, I mean, how was it being a stay at home dad at that point?
Scott Smith (17:33):
Well, I was 29, I had no idea what I was getting myself into — just with the job, let alone the need for community and support and what it would be like out in, like I said, going to the park. But yeah, my hair was long and I had a big, full red beard then, and I remember showing up at the park near our house, and there being a lot of moms around with kids and a lot of chatter going on and talk and when I’d arrive they would quiet down, people would huddle together and then slowly either move further away or depart and leave altogether.
Scott Smith (18:15):
So I really didn’t know how to go about it. I didn’t feel like it was appropriate for me to go and approach any of them and I really didn’t know what to do. But nonetheless, I kept going back to the park and I had people start yelling out of their window things like, “Put a hat on that baby,” and, “What are you doing?”. Lots of strange looks in the grocery store in the middle of a workday. As a stay-at-home mom might relate to, and maybe not all of them, but I think I probably frequently looked a little disheveled carrying around one year later, well, we’ll get to that in the story, but later too.
Liz Tinkham (18:59):
Yeah, very hard. And so Coco, how are you feeling at this point about Scott staying home and you being a working mom?
Coco Brown (19:07):
Well, I mean, one of the requirements we had if I was going to stay was that Scott and Kai… we had to fly all over the place to shut down offices, so the deal was Scott and Kai get to come with us. We buy their plane ticket, too, and they come with us everywhere we go because I nursed for three years and I was determined.
Liz Tinkham (19:28):
Oh. Wow, okay.
Coco Brown (19:30):
Yeah. And that has a whole other set of weird looks, but yeah, we were kind of hippy-dippy and we still are in some ways, so a little unconventional. But I think, for me, the maternal draw was devastating. I was so jealous of Scott’s situation and I so wanted to be with Kai at every moment. We were living in San Bruno and then we moved to Mountain View and then we moved to Cupertino, we kept trying to get closer to my work so my commute would be less, and the moment I got in the car I would call them and I just wanted what he had.
Liz Tinkham (20:14):
And did you struggle with your sense of identity? Because you had a great job, right?
Coco Brown (20:19):
Yeah. I mean, by a lot of people’s measures I had a great job, it wasn’t without its challenges too. I have never touched a line of code in my life, I looked like I was in my early 20s in my early 30s, and I was surrounded… pretty much back then every CIO was a guy, every sysadmin, network engineers, database administrator, security professional, they were all men. So in a different way than Scott, but in my own way, I suffered from not fitting in. So that was always a set of challenges that I would bring home, and Scott would be like, “They don’t like me.” And I’d say, “Well, they don’t like me either.”
Liz Tinkham (21:04):
You’re both miserable. So, Malia, your daughter was born in 2005, and Scott, you said that you were all set to hang up the diaper bag, back out of comms. Were you ever resentful or jealous of Coco?
Scott Smith (21:18):
Yeah. But I think I felt more guilt than anything.
Liz Tinkham (21:23):
Why did you feel guilty?
Scott Smith (21:26):
It was very apparent how much what I had was what she wanted so badly and for me it was very difficult. I can say that it’s the hardest, when the kids, especially, were very young. And with a nursing executive wife also comes taking in the incoming milk every night and freezing it, and thawing, and heating, and bottle feeding, and diapering everywhere, and supporting an executive-level wife. My job, as I saw it, was to take care of everything I could and make sure that when Coco got home, I could hand her the baby or babies and let her have them. But having what she wanted so badly, and it being something that I struggled to have a real identity around myself, was something that was really incredibly hard for me personally. Not having a support network really of other stay-at-home parents, not really ever having imagined myself in that role and not feeling that I was enjoying it the way that she would.
Liz Tinkham (22:43):
Working and having kids is hard in any circumstance, but you guys, you’ve switched roles, you both have talked about your own personal struggles. How did that impact your marriage? I feel like I’m Oprah Winfrey at this point. So tell me about your marriage?
Coco Brown (22:59):
Wow, wow. There you go. I mean, I think this is something that I hear from a lot of couples, where one of the couple’s career is just taking off and their sense of identity is becoming bigger and bigger and bigger, and the other’s is wrapped up in theirs. It’s a struggle, it doesn’t matter whether you’re the stay-at-home or the career person, that dynamic is flawed. It’s fundamentally flawed because the one person ends up at dinner parties not knowing how to say hello and describe who they are and the other person’s like, “Well, and then I did this and this big deal and then…” And you’re just cast in that person’s shadow in the professional setting.
Coco Brown (23:51):
And it’s also, I think, hard — and I see this a lot from professional women who had big jobs and then they pull out — it’s like people used to look at them with such admiration and now they’re just like, “So who are you? Oh, you’re the husband. Okay, well.” And that’s one of the things women are challenged by and that was what Scott was challenged by. It’s not a male-female thing, it’s the role thing. And then on the other side of it, I was lucky in that because I ran the company, I could set the rules of, I do drop off, I do pick up, not every day, but a significant amount. I could invest in Malia’s healthcare issues when she had them. I could say I never miss a field trip, I could volunteer in the classrooms, I could set those rules. But still, the jealousy of not having what the other person has can be completely destructive.
Liz Tinkham (24:51):
John used to introduce himself at Accenture events as Mr. Liz. And I’d just look at him like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, you have a job.” But I think he felt like he was just my shadow at all times and it was so sad when I could see him doing that. Scott, if you think back on that, because we have an increasing audience of younger listeners, I mean, what advice might you give them and how do you handle that type of a role reversal?
Scott Smith (25:17):
I don’t know if anybody is really prepared when they first have kids, especially if they have them in their later twenties when we did or maybe even earlier, I certainly didn’t know what I was getting into or what we were getting into, but I think my advice would be, if you can, think ahead about it. And for the man or woman who’s going to stay at home, try to think about how you will support yourself with a community, how you’ll build and support people around you, outside of your spouse, which is of course there for you, but to help.
Scott Smith (26:06):
I think some of my isolation was my own doing as well, my own feeling like I didn’t belong caused me to not reach out, when maybe I had opportunities to, and engage with other groups. There was a stay-at-home dads group that I learned about that met at a park once a week for an hour or two, but I didn’t really know how to make use of that, or again, find an identity in the role that I had. So finding a way to… knowing what you’re signing up for, figuring it out ahead of time, talking it out with your spouse or significant other, those would be important things.
Liz Tinkham (26:49):
And Coco, what about you? Anything to add?
Coco Brown (26:52):
I think recognizing what Scott’s saying and for me, the other side of it was I got into this place where I felt like I could not fail. I was responsible for so much as the breadwinner, like, “Oh my God, I can’t fail. I can’t let my guard down, I can’t, like not do this.” And you grow into your lifestyle and your lifestyle becomes bigger and then there’s more that you can’t fail on. And so I think it is important to have faith in yourself that you can fail. And for Scott on the other side, have faith that he can get back in. I think one of the things I’ve noticed with people who have been out of the workforce for a long time is the longer you’re out of the workforce, the less confident you are that you will be able to get back in. And you end up almost disbelieving you were ever there.
Liz Tinkham (27:58):
So Scott, how did you get back in?
Scott Smith (28:02):
Well, the short story of how I got back in was one, I didn’t stay inactive in trying to pursue a career when the kids were getting old enough that I had some time back. So I did pursue my own business in a creative field. I didn’t know technology like that, I’d stepped off that ship and I wasn’t sure how to get back on it. So I tried out the… This would be my third act now then, or maybe my fourth. If you consider Virginia Tech my first, then technology was my second, and then designing and building custom furniture and having a business doing that, was my third. And then running into a wall there where I realized one, that pursuing something that you love and are passionate about doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be weeds in the grass on that side of the river.
Scott Smith (29:02):
I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked at anything trying to make it in the design world, and did well enough to keep doing it, but not well enough to pay myself enough to justify it. And so I started out thinking that the only way back in was for me to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree. I really felt that I needed to retool and I did a lot of work in preparation for that which was, in part, retooling. But I was also surprised to find out how much my past experience gave me context and how much the business problems that people were facing had changed shape or form in some way or other, but really still were fundamentally the same in many ways.
Scott Smith (29:49):
So I didn’t end up going back to school, but had done a lot of work training and then overseeing teams that did training as part of professional services back in technology, in my original career in technology. And then I had kept some of that going, delivering trainings and workshops at a company called The Tech Shop, which gave me access to a lot of great, expensive tooling and equipment for my furniture and business. So I realized that I really love teaching and I really loved educating people and I really loved that kind of engagement, and realized that was a way for me to get back into technology — a place where I could get back into it. So that’s really the way I got back in, finding that niche where I had skills and capability with the tooling and technical skills that I had regained.
Liz Tinkham (30:57):
And Coco, and how does the Taos story end?
Coco Brown (31:04):
Well, the Taos story ends in 2012. So I’d grown the company back up to about $54 million in revenue, it had been 10 years that I’d been president and COO, and I was the only report to the CEO, and being second in some ways has its shelf life. I stepped down from running the company and stayed on the board for two years, then sold my interest in 2014. I decided I was going to pursue something far more soul-serving. I didn’t know what it was going to be at the time, but I knew that it was going to be related to the women I had cultivated as a community as my own mechanism to create an ecosystem of support and education as I was learning the ropes of my job. I pulled together a whole bunch of CIO’s who were women, and over time that grew. Eventually it became my posse, and my posse turned into Athena.
Liz Tinkham (32:04):
What gave you the idea that it should be, at least to start, about women and boards?
Coco Brown (32:10):
That was a mandate that was given to me, actually, interestingly, in that I had been getting these women together on a quarterly basis because I needed a safe place to learn from, to say, “Okay, so you’ve got this data center strategy and dadadada…” that wasn’t going to make me look even less like I knew what I was doing than I already looked, because of who I am in the context. And so I had this great ecosystem of women and I was invited by Yvonne Wassenaar, our mutual friend, who introduced the —
Liz Tinkham (32:44):
CEO of Puppet.
Coco Brown (32:45):
CEO of Puppet, and Yvonne invited me to a round table discussion with Senator Mark Warner, who was in Silicon Valley, Hearts & Minds kind of tour. And this was a conversation between him and about 25 top female executives orchestrated by Yvonne. And he sat down at the table and said, “What’s on your minds?” And pretty much immediately the conversation was, “Why are women locked out of the top realms of business and the boardroom in particular?” And that, for me, was like, “Oh, really?” And it was an “Oh, really?” mainly because I was already in an environment where I expected to be the only woman, but I didn’t expect to see it in legal, and healthcare, and everywhere.
Liz Tinkham (33:30):
You think you’re the only one who’s in that situation? I think I felt the same way. There must be more women somewhere else, but there weren’t, just not here.
Coco Brown (33:40):
Exactly. And so the mandate I got was a flurry of emails the next day after that visit saying, “That’s it Coco, you’ve got the ecosystem, go solve this problem.” And that’s how Athena started, solving an acute problem, and then we just evolved over time.
Liz Tinkham (33:56):
So Scott, your teaching, as you mentioned, ends up being the front door to the company you’re at, Databricks, right? So back to your early goats spark of interest in databases and data lakes and all of that, are you satisfied with that career? Do you feel like you’re back with your sense of purpose or is that something you enjoy and love doing?
Scott Smith (34:19):
It’s a challenge, I’ll say that. Databricks is a hyper-growth company and it’s very exciting to be a part of. So I think what I alluded to earlier, the realization that there are weeds wherever you go, it doesn’t come without its difficulties and challenges, but I feel very lucky and appreciative to be where I am and to have evolved into the role at Databricks that I have evolved into. And so I am very grateful for that and grateful to have a career, and one that I can not only just be proud of the work that I do there, but also that financially is viable. And so yeah, I think I’m very satisfied, but I don’t know if it will be my last act.
Liz Tinkham (35:12):
Yeah, no, I’m coming to that. But I want to ask you about your kids. So maybe your kids who, let’s see, Kai, you said is 19 and Malia is how old?
Coco Brown (35:19):
Liz Tinkham (35:20):
16. So maybe they’re too young still to understand what you’ve both been through as their parents. What lessons do you think that they’ve learned about how you’ve pursued family and career? And then secondly, what else do you hope they take away?
Coco Brown (35:37):
I think kids know a lot more than we ever give them potentially credit for. And Scott and I’ve always been the parents who, as crazy as this maybe seems, our kids have never had a time out. Actually, have never had a grounding, they have had time-outs. They’ve never been grounded, we’ve never taken anything away from them, we’re just like the parents who talk out everything. We just don’t do the, “Because I told you so.” Which has raised a lot of pushback, kids who want to know why you do what you do, and who are involved. And not to say that other kids are not involved, I’m simply saying that, I think, our kids have been very, very involved in everything that’s happened in our relationship to the rockiest moments where everything was falling apart, they’re part of that too, and then everything’s coming back together.
Coco Brown (36:31):
And I think when Scott got the job with Databricks, they saw this revival in him that was just so exciting for them. There were moments when Kai would say, “Mom, I think dad’s a genius.” And I think that’s something that’s inspiring, they want to see us happy. They want to see us pursuing things that make us feel big in the world beyond them. And so they get excited about what they see when we’re pursuing big things and everything is big to them, even if it feels small to us. So I think, as they watched us grow over the years and become different people and take on different roles and shift those around, I think that always it’s been with a lot of curiosity and support from them.
Liz Tinkham (37:21):
And Scott, do they miss having you around all the time?
Scott Smith (37:22):
Yeah. I think they miss me, but I would say to your original question, I think that our kids, if they learned anything, I think that they learned that there isn’t a normal prescriptive solution that is the right fit for all sizes for all families, and that really that’s an individual thing because we’ve never really been traditional in almost any sense as parents, as individuals, as a couple. So I think that’s been a lesson for them, is that that’s okay. That you don’t need to go and try to find the mold to fit into to succeed.
Scott Smith (38:10):
And just to counter when Coco was saying, about what Kai said about me, I can’t help but remember one of the realizations that had me decide, at the time when I was getting time back, to not go back to the corporate world and to try furniture design and that creative business. We were driving our car and he said, “Hey dad, you used to work, didn’t you?” And I said, “Yeah, I did.” And he said, “What did you do?” And I said, “I built and designed databases.” And he said, “Can we go see one?” And I thought, “I don’t really know if anyone is still using anything that I built, and if they are, it’s probably been changed and probably no one would know that I personally had anything to do with it.” So there was a bit of a sense for me at that point, I remember that being a turning point in my mind and thinking, “I’d like to make some things in the physical world as well and try that out.” I see both pursuits as creative.
Liz Tinkham (39:18):
Coco, with Athena, just because that’s how I’ve gotten to know you and you’re so passionate and so inspiring about it. I mean, do you feel that you are giving back to your soul and doing something that is soul-fulfilling as you said before?
Coco Brown (39:34):
Yes. I mean, my kids and Scott witnessed me unhappy for a lot of my time at Taos. Here I was, resilient on the outside and building a company and seemingly on top of everything. It was growing and I had this external view of me, but then I’d come home and there was a lot that I was unhappy about that was not soul-satisfying. And now, the kids know mom loves what she does, they get excited about it. Yeah. They’re so jazzed, they can talk about it, they know what it is. To Scott’s point about, “Can we go see that database?”, they know what I do and they think it’s awesome and cool. And I think mainly that’s because I love it so much.
Liz Tinkham (40:29):
So I thought about naming this podcast, “I’m Not Done Yet”. So what aren’t each of you done with yet?
Coco Brown (40:36):
Well, I’m definitely not done with Athena. I want it to be big, big. Executive education on-
Liz Tinkham (40:43):
Billions of dollars.
Coco Brown (40:44):
Yes. Executive education on demand. I want to corner a market that has not been served yet.
Liz Tinkham (40:51):
Scott Smith (40:53):
Well, as far as this act goes, Databricks is a very fast-growing company with a huge success, and I feel like I’ve been able to be a part of that. And so I want to see that through, and see through to building an iconic software company. Beyond that, I don’t know what the future holds.
Liz Tinkham (41:20):
Well, what about the trip? Is the trip ever going to come back? Because I understand you have a new Vanagon or a new Westfalia?
Coco Brown (41:24):
Scott Smith (41:31):
Yeah. What about the trip Coco? I don’t know, fall over-
Coco Brown (41:32):
Yeah, we have these two kids and a house and a dog and a cat and lots of bills and the dog just cost $10,000 with her surgery last week.
Liz Tinkham (41:40):
Oh my goodness.
Coco Brown (41:41):
So we’re not at vocational freedom quite yet, but when we get there, I think both of us are… Scott’s a little bit more like, “Okay, I can start to sit back and do things that I want to do.” And I’m like, “I’m going to lean in more and do more things…” we don’t necessarily know how that will reflect in work, but we do know that we can go do it from our house in Croatia, or follow Kai around and follow Malia around and just… We’re very able to be transient people. We’re very able to be nomadic and we want to be. So what I see is that whether we let work go or not, in our vocational freedom we will be travelers, we will be all over the place.
Liz Tinkham (42:30):
So I’m going to vote now to have an Athena board meeting in Croatia.
Coco Brown (42:34):
Liz Tinkham (42:35):
Get on the road soon. So anyway, thank you both so much for being so candid and sharing your story, it’s great. And Coco, you know there’s probably lots of listeners in similar situations and it’s very rare, and Scott and I talked about this before, that’s why I wanted to do it together, to hear both of you. And my husband and I are in the same situation, I think it’s very difficult, and I suggest that Scott, I think you should write a book, you guys should write a book together, but thank you very much.
Coco Brown (43:02):
Scott Smith (43:02):
Coco Brown (43:05):
Thanks for joining me today to listen to the Third Act Podcast. You can find show notes, guest bios and more at thirdactpodcast.com. If you enjoyed our show today, please subscribe and write a review on your favorite podcast platform. I’m your host, Liz Tinkham. I’ll be back next week with another guest who’s found new meaning and fulfillment in the third act of their life.
Want to share the story of your own Third Act on our podcast? We welcome stories from executives who pivoted their careers to find their passion and purpose later in their lives. Tell us more about yourself to be considered as a guest.