Welcome to THE BALANCE PROJECT: a series of relevant and refreshingly candid interviews featuring inspiring and accomplished women talking about work-life balance. I’ve always been curious about how women I admire manage the tragically glorified “doing it all” craze. So I asked them. As I suspected, no one really does “it all.” Everyone’s making sacrifices somewhere. And that should make us all feel a little better. I hope the conversation will be steered toward that reality rather than toward the flawed and dangerous assumption that we should try—or even want to try—to perfectly do “it all.”
By the way, looking for THE BALANCE PROJECT novel that was inspired by these interviews? It’s here.
No. 174: Illana Raia, Founder of Être
Where I live: Saddle River, NJ
Job: Lawyer, Lecturer, and Founder of Être – a new resource site for world-changing girls
Kids: A 20-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son
Have you changed jobs or adjusted anything in your career to have more balance?
Several times, actually! Straight out of law school I worked in the mergers & acquisitions group at Skadden, Arps, a fast-paced, global law firm. I loved every second of it, but when my children were born (two within 20 months) I decided to stay home for a bit. When the kids were ready for school, the firm not only offered me a part-time opportunity, but essentially created a role where I could stay in M&A and do a substantial amount from home. As school days grew longer I expanded the role to full-time, helping to build a new department that hired other women in similar situations. The credit goes both to a forward-looking law firm and a wildly supportive husband.
Now, decades later, I have adjusted my career again to focus on academic lecturing and a philanthropic endeavor in Être. My joy in founding a mentorship site for middle school girls and watching it grow over the last 22 months is immeasurable and, while entrepreneurship brings new lessons in balancing, I am having the best time learning those lessons!
Do you think having “it all” is realistic or impossible and why?
I think having it all means different things at different points in our lives. In my early career I worked all the time….there were nights I slept under my desk. And I was deliriously happy—I had it all! Then when I stayed home while my kids were small, I was certain that, in a different way, I again had it all. I think we have to be clear-eyed about what sacrifices are required and which opportunities we seize, but yes—I think having it all is realistic. And extremely individual.
Do you prefer the phrase “work-life balance” or “work-life integration”? Or do you think they’re both terrible?
I think “work-life balance” is honest. “Juggling” or “plate-spinning” is also accurate. We all balance competing needs in our lives—the trick is to attempt it bravely and creatively, and not to be discouraged when we fall short.
What part of “balance” can you not seem to figure out?
Meditation. I’m trying. I recognize how important focused and mindful moments can be…I just find it difficult. But I’m trying.
What part of “balance” are you getting better at?
I am an early riser and have learned to use my mornings more efficiently over the years. Whether listening to audiobooks during a daybreak commute or reading the news and answering emails before the house is up, filling those first, quiet hours productively makes for a more balanced rest of the day for me.
Do you have a favorite time management tool, hack, or other strategy you use that helps you achieve balance that you would recommend to others?
I rely on a pairing of tech and old-school habits: I am constantly texting messages to myself and filing emails in my phone to stay organized, but then the entire story of Être has unfolded in a bright orange notebook with handwritten notes, flowcharts, and web page sketches. Nerdy, I know, but for me putting pen to paper brings a helpful clarity.
What’s the best advice you ever heard on balance?
From a mentor/co-worker? “If you know something, whether scheduling or a strategy, can’t work at the outset, voice it. Then…get creative and fix it.”
From your mother? “There is nothing you can’t do. But focus on what needs to be done. The rest will wait. Like laundry. Laundry waits.”
From your spouse/partner? “Listen to the whole room. Weigh your options. Then decide.”
From your kids? “Mom, it’s fine. Seriously, you’re done. Mom…for real…put it down.”
If you had one extra hour in each day and you couldn’t work or be with your family, how would you spend that hour?
Reading, cooking, or watching old episodes of The West Wing.
What do you wish you’d known when you were 20?
Changing a career direction is exciting. Yes, daunting and uncertain, but new paths are meant to be found and new skills are meant to be exercised. If you can satisfy a curiosity and do some good at the same time, by all means try it.
What do you hope to know by the time you’re 60?
The good you saw in the world was real.
Whose job do you wish you had?
There are broad brushstroke answers: Christiane Amanpour, because she gets to ask hard questions; Melinda Gates, because she matches solutions to needs; Oprah Winfrey, because she effects impactful change on a huge scale. But the more closely-held answer is: I think I am growing into my dream job right now. It’s nothing I would have expected…but more fun that I ever imagined.
Whose job are you glad you don’t have?
A dentist. Hands-down. I couldn’t even look when my kids had loose teeth.
Fiction: I always go back to Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. If we’re talking thrillers, anything where Jane Marple (Agatha Christie), Myron Bolivar (Harlan Coben), or Beecher White (Brad Meltzer) makes an appearance.
Nonfiction: Hitmakers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant, Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice by Clayton Christensen, This Is How We Rise: Reach Your Highest Potential, Empower Women, Lead Change in the World by Claudia Chan and Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington.
What are you reading right now?
Carnegie’s Maid by Marie Benedict (author of The Other Einstein) and Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World by Timothy Ferriss.
Activity? Singing entire scores of Broadway shows. This is best done alone in the car.
How many hours do you generally sleep at night during the week?
Seven. If you count falling asleep on the couch most nights, nine.
What do you read every morning?
The Wall Street Journal, HuffPost, CNN and TheSkimm.
Complete the following sentences:
I think I: have been blessed beyond measure by the people in my life.
I wish I: can someday repay those blessings.
My kids: will be mortified by my saying this…are chief among the blessings.
Do you have a personal motto or favorite saying?
Never take more than you give.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Mentors are important—both for girls in middle school and women mid-career. The stories amassed in The Balance Project are so fundamentally inspiring—I’m grateful to be included.
Illana Raia is a lawyer, a guest lecturer at Columbia, and the founder of Etregirls.com – a new resource and mentoring site for motivated girls. Offering curated links and role model quotes, Être is designed to keep girls close to the subjects they love while encouraging financial confidence, philanthropy, and young entrepreneurship along the way. As Être means “To Be,” the goal is to help today’s girls figure out who they want to be.
Prior to launching Être, Illana was an attorney with Skadden, Arps in NYC – first in the Mergers & Acquisitions group and later as the firm’s first Counsel in Knowledge Strategy. Illana graduated cum laude from Smith College, interned with the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, and has a law degree from the University of Chicago, where she was Managing Editor of The Legal Forum. She contributes regularly to HuffPost on issues relevant to today’s girls, lives happily in New Jersey, and is unapologetically nerdy.
WANT TO READ MORE ABOUT WORK-LIFE BALANCE? CHECK OUT MY AWARD-WINNING NOVEL THE BALANCE PROJECT!
More Balance Project Interviews…