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Good, Clean Fun: How One Young African-American CEO Makes Motherhood Work

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Balancing my work and home life has become second nature to me, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

I grew up in a small town outside Chicago with an African-American mother and a Greek father. During summers, I worked for my father at his company Earth Friendly Products, answering phones and filling bottles on the production line. Even during college, I focused on gaining skills to help the family business. I got a degree in communications and history while working in public relations and political lobbying, developing a variety of professional skills that could help our company grow.

When I rejoined the company in 2003, my communications and PR background went to good use: I focused on updating the company’s branding, opening new facilities in the United States, and growing distribution worldwide. By 2014, when my father passed away unexpectedly, I had been promoted to executive vice president (and earned a master’s degree). The board of directors named me president and CEO.

Family has always come first, and my unique heritage has deeply influenced the way I run our business. I’m proud to say that more than 50 percent of our executive management team and C-suite is female, while 36 percent of our management team is Hispanic, African-American, Asian, or multiracial.

Finding Time for Passion Projects

Despite running a family business, it’s challenging to find a work-life balance. But my daughter is my top priority, and I make time for her. As my father did with me, I incorporate her into company happenings when possible. When I have work trips, I take her when I can. She’s also familiar with our company’s mission to reduce, reuse, recycle and knows that nontoxic products are our way of life. My daughter even helped implement green practices at her school.

My daughter picked up these habits because my two greatest passions are the fight for ingredient transparency and the fight against breast cancer. As a CEO, I’ve been an advocate of both. I’ve lobbied in Washington, D.C., and California for safer chemical and ingredient transparency legislation — and got to see California pass the Cleaning Product Right to Know Act last November.

Shortly after my daughter was born, I lost my mother to breast cancer. She was initially diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer when I was 14, but we were lucky to have her for another 15 years. Still, at 58, she passed away. That experience of growing up with a sick mother — and the loss of my mother at far too young an age — has encouraged me to support the American Cancer Society and the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer program as both an individual and as a CEO.

This year, our company expanded its partnership with ACS through the Go Green for Pink campaign, which contributes up to $100,000 for every bottle of ECOS laundry detergent sold. Our company will also be walking at Making Strides events across the United States with four teams representing our manufacturing facilities in California, Illinois, Washington, and New Jersey.

Balancing Family and Work

Incorporating my family focus into my work has always been second nature to me. I chose to study abroad in Greece and Africa as a college student to explore both of my rich cultural backgrounds. My early professional career involved jobs at the California African American Museum and at a political action committee lobbying Congress for issues affecting Greece and Cyprus. My husband, the owner of a renowned African-American art gallery, helped raise our teenage daughter to be proud of both her Greek and African ancestry.

This passion for my heritage has informed my behavior as a CEO, too. I recently opened Earth Friendly Products’ first manufacturing platform in Greece, my father’s homeland, to help create jobs for the community.

Balancing my work and home life has become second nature to me, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I follow a set of rules that help me lead a company successfully while giving my family members the time they deserve. You can do it, too:

1. Schedule the important things.

Everything that matters to you should be on your work calendar. Once an item is scheduled, stick with it. Things like picking my daughter up from school, meeting with friends, and exercising are all on my work calendar. I can’t fit everything into a day, but scheduling personal events into my calendar ensures I’m achieving a healthy balance in the long run.

2. Prioritize recovery time after intense work or travel.

After long bouts of travel or the completion of a long work project, I build mandatory recovery time into my schedule. When I fail to do this, I end up sick and less able to accomplish everything I need to.

3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

As women, we often try to do everything ourselves. But you can’t be everything to everyone. To find true balance, let others reciprocate favors. Sometimes that means asking for help when you need it.

4. Don’t be afraid to say no.

Your time is a precious resource you can never get back. Protect your priorities by spending your limited time wisely. If I’m invited to an event or engagement but I intended to spend that time with family, focus on self-care, or take personal time in general, I’ll say no. Don’t feel bad about saying it; we don’t always have to be “yes” women, especially when it comes to reserving time for ourselves.

5. Don’t beat yourself up.

If you can’t strike a perfect balance, try reframing missed opportunities as teaching moments. Let your lapses help you learn to schedule more effectively and ultimately live a more balanced lifestyle.

I grew up as part of a culturally rich family with a collaborative vision for our business. This background informed my academic interests and my choices as a leader; it also taught me how to prioritize the things that truly matter. These five rules have helped me keep my family at the center of all that I do. I hope they help you, too.

Kelly Vlahakis-Hanks is the president and CEO of Earth Friendly Products®, maker of ECOS green cleaning products, including its well-known laundry detergent and more than 200 other environmentally friendly cleaners made with plant-powered ingredients. A U.S.-based company, Earth Friendly Products has twice received the U.S. EPA’s coveted Safer Choice Partner of the Year award. Follow Kelly on Twitter.

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