Building a Company …

Building a company from the ground up is like nothing you can imagine unless you have been there, on the ground, and in the trenches. We are learning as we are building every moment of every day. I’m charged with sales, marketing, and partnership development but I also help out with other functional areas such as product development, fundraising, and operations. You have to be able to do enough of everything, regardless of your role. 

When the morning news show, Good Morning America agreed to tell our story to their global audience, we were beyond thrilled. We had reason to be optimistic that a possible boost to our sales could result but what if it didn’t? I couldn’t help but wonder – does anyone watch morning television?

I’ll spoil the ending first. Despite our preparations we were in fact, not prepared for the seismic and immediate shift from a daily run to an all out sprint. Shortly after our story aired on ABC last week, our little company was suddenly top-of-mind to a global audience including our dream target audience of wholesalers, retailers, parents, grandparents, teachers, learning specialists and more. In the first 90 minutes, sales topped 100K. Our customer base went from 600 to well over 6000 in hours, not days, not weeks. 

Writing this post, I’ve only had two days of decompression for a company, which is still so young I jokingly say that the ink is still drying on our incorporation papers! We have now been catapulted into the spotlight among a mass consumer audience.

This is my attempt to memorialize an incredible moment in our company’s nascent history and I sincerely hope that by sharing the four key things that I learned I can help others.

  1. Customer service is everything. Be prepared. When emails started flooding my inbox at a rapid pace over the first 48 hours there was no staffing to handle the inquiries and zero guidelines in place for answering questions we hadn’t yet answered. What was our return policy? Why is shipping so expensive? Can I buy this in Australia? (They seem very energized by our product – the cute Kangaroo perhaps…). My background in retail and public relations gave me enough instinctive ability to literally craft responses on-the-fly and to create a customer manual that our entire team could work from. Everyone on our team from the founder to our interns became customer service reps overnight.
  1. Dry run all potential customer journeys. While we thought we had engineered a seamless and simple customer journey – we made one small decision that cost us trust and credibility. Hoping to catch site visitors before leaving (and not buying) we created a special exit-intent popup However, the pop up came up too quickly on the page – causing confusion. We immediately disabled it but by mid-morning it was too late – frustrated customers flooded my inbox. During this timeframe our site conversion was over 23% (compared to the industry 2-5% average).The rate dropped slightly over the next day to 19%. Could it have continued to grow with the exit-intent pop up? Maybe, but we’re pretty happy with a double digit conversion rate and zero customer complaints.
  1. Know your technical stack. Before this I think we really thought of ourselves as a consumer company that makes great products versus being an e-commerce company. Not completely understanding our Shopify platform and what it could do hurt us in those first critical hours. Also a lack of integrated customer service tools forced us to do some painful and tedious manual work to ensure that every customer was being responded to without duplication and as quickly as possible. It was a frustratingly slow process of flagging issues, taking an inordinate amount of time and people power we did not have. 
  1. Understand how sales tax works. Because sales tax rates are set independently by city and the threshold for sales that your company has to meet varies, sales tax is highly variable – many customers during the first hours did not get any sales tax charged at all. We saw this happening and honestly panicked that our platform was not working properly. As a small company – our cash runway is short – this could have literally sunk our company if we were losing money on every single sale. If we had known all this in advance, we would have saved time and stress for a “problem” that was not in fact a problem at all. The marketer in me also wished I had known this and we could have done a more emphatic call to action – sales tax free for the first orders!

Knowing all the things you have to focus on while building a company is hard. The ability to set the right priorities and follow through despite the many obstacles you will face is everything in a super fast-paced, always changing business climate. 

I hope that by sharing my experience, others can benefit. It has been a wild and incredibly gratifying ride. Super energized to keep building and to keep learning. There were many more milestone learnings and I am happy to share. Feel free to reach out to me directly at kstrenk@clevernoodle.com.

In gratitude,

Kimberly Strenk, Chief of Growth and Impact

About Clever Noodle. A woman-founded, women-led start-up company. We make games that are powerful tools for children, parents and educators to help learners of all abilities learn to read. We unleash the power behind evidence-based Science of Reading methodology into all of the games we develop. We know that leveraging the power of play using tabletop board games keeps learners delighted and engaged on their journey to becoming confident, fluent readers! As seen on Good Morning America, our first game, Kangaroo Cravings is available to purchase or to donate  at clevernoodle.com and via wholesale at Faire.com.


Bring it 2023. I am ready for you.

Being present and feeling gratitude got me through an incredibly tumultuous year. The simplest visual for what it feels like being a family of five with three teen daughters is a game of Whack a Mole – two down, one up, then three down and one up, one down and so on. Insert laughing and crying emoji here.

We started the year watching our daughter, Katharina being wheeled off into surgery to be treated for a rare kidney tumor that was discovered after a routine MRI for minor back pain. So, in January our then 16 year old daughter underwent a laparoscopic, radical nephrectomy aka removal of one of her kidneys. Luckily you can live a long healthy life with just one. There is no prep for something like this. While we were quite unlucky to be part of the less than 1% of kidney tumors, we were also incredibly lucky. The surgery seems to be all she needed, as the tumor was “mostly” non-cancerous and did not appear to have spread. For now, we live with quarterly scans and regular check-ins with her oncologist.

On a personal front, outside of my roles of wife and mother, I had a pretty 2x year. I continued to evolve as a runner, enjoying a PR (personal record) with an 8.30/pace running my 5th half marathon. Following the half, I ran my first full marathon, 26.2 miles in 4.32 hours. Outside of being pregnant and nursing three babies in five years, it was the single most challenging achievement of my life. As I hit mile 21, I said to myself, “Finish this race and I will not make you do this again.” But I find myself lately thinking, just one more. I have the awareness that I told myself much the same after I had my first child. Although experience and maybe muscle memory did in fact make each of the subsequent baby years easier.

I had an incredible run professionally, during this same timeframe. In January I started an exciting new role as the senior director of partnership development at a WOC-led social justice non-profit organization. On paper it was a dream job. The mission to dismantle racism within the institution of education so that all children can thrive was incredibly motivating. I was charged with building out the sales and marketing strategy and systems to accelerate the growth and triple the impact. I explored the full experience and my learnings in this blog post, Unapologetically Myself.

Returning to our game of Whack a Mole – while we were navigating Katha’s cancer scare, our firstborn, Elke, was enjoying a magical senior year of high school. The culmination of her college search ended with a surprise twist with her choosing the University of Washington over the Southern California schools as well as her hometown behemoth, UT. But once the decision was made, she never looked back. Just one quarter in, she is thriving in her new life in Seattle as a Husky! While the decision from an economic perspective makes zero sense, Marcus and I were united in wanting her to experience college in a big city with a more socially progressive culture. 

Our youngest daughter, Natascha, was having a very good sophomore year of high school. Strong academics, a great group of friends and overall, growing out of her role as the baby of the family. But we had an unexpected and abrupt end to her life as a soccer player. Not gonna lie, it was a shock to our girl and to her parents who have been cheering her on from the sidelines for as long as we can remember. Now that our emotions are a bit in the rear view, I can say that I am honestly proud of our girl for overcoming intense anxiety to play and compete for as long as she did. I am worried and hopeful that she will find a new path for herself. 

As I write this on the first day of the new year, our house is filled with the sounds made by our new puppy, Lola and her big brother, Ollie squeaking their toys and playing together. I hear the laughter and happy chatter of Elke and her friends all home from college and happily relieving their adventures from New Years Eve the night before. I count an additional nine or ten friends of Katha and Taschi respectively, sleeping on couches and beds throughout the house, having enjoyed various celebrations before but all ending up at our house in the end. Feels good that all the girls had friends with them to bring in this New Year. 

Bring it on 2023. I am ready for you.


Why I Won’t Be Celebrating Independence Day

This Independence Day feels like a thinly veiled joke. A wink wink among the Christian right and their ardent cronies. Their “pro-life” vision thinly wrapped in their convservative values around sex and marriage, deciding who has choice and agency and who does not.

It is only when I fill out those intake forms at the doctor’s office that I really ever think about the abortion I had in my early 20’s. How many pregnancies have you had? How many live births? For me the answer is four and three respectively. I was not the victim of incest, rape, or other catastrophic condition. I was simply a twenty something young woman, late to the game of romantic relationships, and in a moment of sexual exploration, a condom did not do its job.

I’m not implying that the decision to have an abortion was an easy one. It’s not and it wasn’t. But I didn’t have to cross state lines, furtively search for a provider (or these days hide my digital footprint) and spend inordinate sums of money and time that I did not have – in order to get abortion care.

But the stark choices facing me as a young twenty-something – motherhood or adoption – were not ones I was in any way, shape or form ready to take on. As an adoptee, I have very strong feelings on the topic, especially when it comes to transracial adoptions. And as a woman who has experienced three “live births” – it is not a trifling thing emotionally or physically to gestate a fertilized egg for nine months until it becomes a whole, human baby. 

Women’s bodies are not vessels to be objectified and treated as incubators. And unless you have had the experience – yes, you without a uterus – then you need to stand down, sir and shut the you-know-what up. You do not get a say here. Hard stop. Period. 

And for women who make a different choice? Good for you and I support your ability to make that decision, but your choice does not dictate for the rest of us.

I never told the guy that I was pregnant. He was not relevant. Not someone I wanted to seriously date, let alone someone to be tethered to for the rest of my life.

This happened during a time I was taking a break from the oral contraceptives I had been taking since I was a teenager – back in the day, “the pill” was regularly prescribed for girls like me with inordinately difficult cramping and menstrual issues. I wanted to let my body reset itself, naturally. It was during this brief break from the pill that I got pregnant. 

That’s it for my story. I haven’t given my experience a lot of thought outside the moments in the doctor’s office filling out those forms. Until now. 

All of my life, growing up in this country I enjoyed the fundamental right to decide if I wanted to have a child. To control my body. To enjoy the rights of personhood. In one fell swoop, a group of only five judges – erased the constitutional right to reproductive autonomy – for all women in this country. 

And now, my daughter’s personhood has been forsaken for that of a fertilized egg. 

Make no mistake. This is the embodiment of the objectification of women. Our bodies are now seen as mere vessels. The patriarchy has once again spoken and pronounced all women as less than men. 

I will not be waving the flag in celebration this fourth. I will instead rest. I will hug my daughters close. After this brief respite, I will be ready to fight again, this time with even more clarity and motivation to restore and perhaps this time to codify the rights of personhood for all women and girls. 

No more standing on the sidelines and hoping things will change. Here’s some actions we can take now – https://www.abisfreedom.com/. 


Unapologetically, Myself

We are all whole human beings with complex identities and none of us can be defined solely by the work that we do. Our identities and our roles intersect continuously. 

I am a feminist and social justice advocate. I like to create and build things. My tool kit is sales and marketing. I am an Asian American immigrant, mother of three. Wife to an incredible man who not only can handle being the father of three teen daughters, he is thriving and proud to do so. I believe in the inherent value and dignity of work. And all of these values, all of my identities have intersected throughout my life. 

In January I started an exciting new role despite the glaring fact that I did not have all of the requisite qualifications. Maybe you’ve seen this statistic, “Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them.” In my case this has been true as well. It wasn’t a lack of confidence that kept me from going for opportunities that seemed out of reach; rather, I assumed I would not be hired if I did not meet all of the criteria and I genuinely feared that if given the opportunity I might still fail at the job. 

But this new role, senior director of partnership development at a Women of Color (WOC)-led social justice organization was simply too appealing to pass up, despite my hesitations. 

As a woman who has successfully navigated a long and storied career while raising three wonderful humans, I relied on my methodical and careful approach to building my career – growing my skills and experiences largely by proving myself with each step up the proverbial ladder. Given my stay within the lines, rule abiding tendencies, it was truly unprecedented for me to apply for, let alone take on a role with a scope of duties beyond the areas in which I had fully ‘proven’ myself. But this is exactly what I did and I learned so many valuable insights from this experience that I want to share. 

The role I took on was a big one – running sales and marketing for a start-up nonprofit organization. While I had a deep track record of success in marketing primarily serving in a public relations function, and I had demonstrated success in many aspects of selling, I had not been charged with the wholesale creation of a sales and marketing strategy and infrastructure building at an organisation-wide level. 

As additional context, working in the nonprofit space, and specifically for a social justice organization is a world apart from traditional corporate sales and marketing work – resource scarcity is a thing but the bigger impact is the org mission itself. When you read about social justice fatigue and the need to rest – this is real. It’s a complex equation but for me and I saw among my colleagues that in the service of large, ambitious mission driven goals – dismantling racism – in this case, it’s very hard at the individual level to set healthy boundaries between work and self. And despite org-wide efforts to dismantle traditional cultural values and norms around power structures and endeavoring to work in ways that value each of us as whole human beings – this is hard, maybe impossible to do. I have yet to see or to experience it in a successful way. 

During this same timeframe, I was going through a situation as a parent that had no precedence for our family. One of my daughters was diagnosed with a tumor in her kidney, underwent surgery to remove it, and now lives under the shadow and uncertainty of quarterly scans. To say that I have a renewed life perspective is an understatement. On a personal front, after a decade of running for fun and the occasional half marathon, I successfully completed my first marathon in four hours and 32 minutes. While it seems like everyone has done a marathon – once you mention that you are training for one –  it is in fact, something less than 1% of all people accomplish in their lifetimes. All of this is to give a more complete and accurate accounting of my particular story. We are all whole human beings with complex identities and none of us can be defined solely by one aspect of who we are and what we do. Again, our identities and our roles intersect continuously. 

While we have mutually decided to part ways, I am proud of all I accomplished in a relatively short time frame. Notwithstanding the onboarding process of meeting and learning about your colleagues, the org structure and processes, systems and the like, following are a few key highlights of my accomplishments:

  • Development of Sales Marketing 12-Month Jumpstart Strategic Plan.
  • Created theme, Unapologetically Anti-Racist for annual event.
  • Creation of first ever, org-wide national partnership announcement
  • Conducted first ever competitor analysis of the primary competitors in their market space for anti-racism / diversity equity inclusion services. 
  • Drafted and delivered sales proposals for multiple business to business (B2B) engagements with initial results garnering over 50K in closed deals.
  • Development of a sales pipeline of opportunities to re-engage current clients to maintain their commitment to anti-racism work at the organization-level.
  • Conducted numerous internal marketing sessions resulting in clarity of telling the org story, including brand identity development, and mission clarity via written and visual storytelling vehicles.
  • Conducted numerous internal sales sessions resulting in clarity of identifying ideal target market and target customer resulting in realistic and targeted sales engagement activities.

Writing this blog post, naming these wins is in service of telling my story: be unapologetically who you are. No matter the actions of others that we cannot control – we control our actions, our responses, and we get to own our narrative. 

While I was driven by a mix of passionate idealism and an almost overwhelming sense that I was an imposter tasked with building and creating a sales marketing system – I still did it. I created a scalable and sustainable sales marketing roadmap that lives beyond me or any individual contributor – I created something that did not exist until I built it. Doing this against the backdrop of a resource starved ambitious start-up was one of the most satisfying and hardest things I have done.

The confidence that I gained from this experience is without measure. I remain unapologetically, myself.


Dear Firstborn


To say that we are proud of the person you have become is an understatement. You are a joy and such a bright light in our lives. Although we have been honored to guide you and parent you for 18 years, the time has gone by much too fast.

The sense of urgency to “fill you up” with as much advice and guidance as we can, is palpable. If you will indulge us a little longer, I hope this resonates someday. You are wonderful, a whole human being, a great daughter, sister, friend, and teammate to all who know you. You do not need to spend time and effort chasing perfectionism. You are loved and wonderful, just as you are.

Perfectionism is a false promise. It is not about striving, setting goals and working toward them. Perfectionism is other directed – focused on garnering the approval of others – something none of us can ever control and there is no end point. “Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way we adopted this belief system: I am what I accomplish,” from Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection. Your daddy and I hope this resonate for you, Boo, and can serve as a reminder that while we 100% applaud all that you achieved – you are more than the sum of your achievements.

While your graduation from high school is an expectation, you have made your high school journey your own and it is a tremendous accomplishment worthy of recognition. You did not sacrifice academic achievement over all else, you did not play the game. You worked hard so that you had the ability to have fun, to hang out with your friends, eat ice creme, watch the sunset, take your dog to the park, binge watch Grey’s Anatomy, bake cookies and throw surprise parties for your friends.

While we will never feel ready to let you go, we know you’ve got this.


Finding My People

When I made my big pivot to the nonprofit world back in 2019, I imagined that I would have to put in my time, garner enough experience and build a portfolio of wins to be able to choose the organizations and causes I worked for. I also wanted to still flex my public relations and marketing skills but in the service of development work.

My first official foray into the nonprofit world affirmed the need for a strong marketing lens. As a Major Gifts Officer, I saw first-hand the importance of telling the right stories at the right time for the right audience. In my mind, the relationship between fund development and marketing was key. I was surprised to find, however, that synergy between these two essential functions wasn’t always the norm.

Given this set of expectations – putting in my time, building up my portfolio and wanting to leverage my communications skills – it wasn’t easy to find the right fit. After countless conversations with friends and colleagues, so many interviews and oodles of applications submitted, I stumbled upon an intriguing opportunity with a nonprofit social justice organization working in the education space. The organization, Embracing Equity, was looking for a development professional to accelerate their growth on the partnership side. As a startup still building out systems and processes, they also wanted functional skills in marketing along with a demonstrated passion for equity. I found my unicorn!

After an incredible, immersive and collaborative three weeks of exploration and engagement with Embracing Equity, I was offered and have accepted the position of Senior Director of Partnership Development! I am beyond humbled, honored and excited to embark on this next journey.

Embracing Equity is a Women of Color (WOC) social justice nonprofit organization that understands the legacy of systemic racism in education and aims to address these inequities with a holistic approach that encompasses individual learning, interpersonal actions, and institutional-level transformation.

Since their founding in 2017, Embracing Equity has grown dramatically, working with over 2 thousand individuals, across 47 states, accelerating simply by word of mouth from the success of their early participants. In this new role, I hope to leverage and grow their success, helping them to identify and engage with even more institutional partners within the education ecosystem. Our shared goal is to accelerate growth and to impact over 1 million children by 2030!

Getting to this place has been, in many ways, such a perfect alignment of who I am, my values and my goals.

My Story of Why

People see us through the lens of our various identities. As a professional, an advocate, a wife, and mother – those who know me would likely describe me as strong, outspoken and, at times, brave. I believe I am those things on my best days, but I could not draw on these qualities when I was young and most in need of strength and courage.

Growing up in a predominantly white, upper-income community, I experienced endless incidents of being taunted and called out simply for being who I am, Asian. Or the many times I’ve been told, “Go back to your country.” As if I wasn’t already here.  This world that was reflected to me through my peers, my community, and the media, did not look like me and did not see me.

One memory from my high school days has stayed with me. l am in the locker room and a “popular” girl was next to me, talking to her friends. I don’t remember her exact words, but she was mimicking the facial features of a Korean girl (there were only two of us in our high school) by pressing her hand against her nose and then pulling up at the corners of her own eyes, exaggerating the traditional almond-shaped eyes of most Asians but in a mocking caricature of our faces. Laughing and giggling was the response from her friends. In that moment, I held my breath, silently hoping to simply vanish. By then she saw that I was also in the room. Momentarily startled, she smoothly recovered and stated, without a trace of embarrassment, “Oh, you’re fine. You’re more like us.”

I don’t think that girl thought of herself as a racist. Who does? But it was a callous and mean and, yes, racist remark, insidious for its easy perpetuation of the message that I had received many times before: We may grant you permission to be seen but only if you are “like us.”

I didn’t have the language to express what was happening and how this made me feel. I remember it as a general sense of disconnection, as I could not be “like them” in the most fundamental way. I could not change the color of my skin, nor the shape of my eyes. But being accepted relied on my putting up the façade. I was a teenage girl with no allies to support me, and I had not yet developed the resilience I needed to create a different path for myself, or others like me. I have often wondered where my life could have taken me if I had not wasted so much time and energy trying to pass undetected, pretending to blend in, to be something I could not be.

It wasn’t until I moved to a larger city to attend a big public university that I began to see that there were more people like me. But even then, as a transracial adoptee raised by a white family, my family, while well-intentioned, did not acknowledge my Korean birth culture in any meaningful way. This further compounded my feelings of disconnection and lack of belonging. It was only when I became a mother myself that I began to recognize and explore this multi-layered dissonance as part of my identity.

However, being a member of a marginalized group does not absolve us of responsibility to do the work or to keep us from finding ourselves on the wrong side of right. I’ve come to learn that not being racist is different than being anti-racist. To be anti-racist means moving from knowing and into action. I did not speak up that day for myself or for the one other Asian girl. I forever regret that I did not have the courage to act nor the understanding that my silence made me complicit.  

While this happened decades ago, and we have collectively begun to face this country’s systemic and historic racism, we still have not normalized talking about race. It’s uncomfortable and fraught with deeply rooted layers of unearthed traumas and denial. So, can we solve a problem that we can’t yet talk about?

Yes, I absolutely believe that we can. Despite of or even because of my past, I am an optimist who carries hope for progressive, meaningful change in my lifetime. All of us have the power within ourselves to make it happen. This is a core belief that I have often espoused, especially to my three mixed-race daughters.

Embracing Equity in partnership development is my way of showing up and being a part of making positive change happen. Education does indeed power our future.

Embracing Equity’s model for disruptive change in the education space has already proven transformative and successful. They envision a world in which all children can thrive, regardless of differences in race, gender, identity, or socio-economic status. Embracing Equity’s vision states it perfectly, ” A just society where all children are affirmed in their whole humanity and nurtured to their fullest potential.” We can do this.


Mindfulness Stacks

How does an intention become an action? For years, I’ve intended to start a meditation practice. Who doesn’t want to be more fully present in life’s moments and enjoy reduced stress while enjoying personal and spiritual growth? Yes, please. I read books and reached out to expert practitioners, but nothing helped me move from intention to action when it came to meditation.

However, like so many of us during this protracted, unprecedented global pandemic, I developed new modes of being and doing that I did not envision before Covid. While my running habit pre-dates the pandemic, I slipped into a habit of longer daily runs simply because I had more time in the day to do so—and the relative safety of being outdoors remained constant. In no time, I exhausted my music playlists. Too lazy to create new ones, I turned to audiobooks to power me through these longer runs. 

What happened next was a very organic evolution between running and “reading.” Listening to a book engaged my mind in such a completely different way. A great audio book is both immersive and relaxing, and listening while engaged in physical activity allowed my mind to let thoughts and ideas flow freely without judgement from my often-skeptical inner voice. The simple act of clicking on a headset created a separation between me and my external (and internal) distractions.

And this is how I landed on a type of meditation that worked for me. 

I call it my Mindfulness Stacks. It’s a bit of borrowed word play from one of my favorite self-development books, Atomic Habits by James Clear. Clear references “stacking” actions that we want to create into habits that last by combining two or more actions that naturally go together. In my case, running + audiobooks are my stack. 

I layer mindfulness into my stack by listening to a carefully chosen group of audiobooks back-to-back that teach me something new and helps me explore ways that our mind hears, processes, and uses information. Though I suspect that the books in my stacks will evolve to reflect where I am at that moment, I have been focusing on a specific set for the last year: books about the nonprofit sector and its role in serving the social good, paired with books about future trends and our overall human condition. 

By stacking these two types of audiobooks and listening to them every morning during my run, I can get myself into a state of mental calm and physical relaxation. This helps me start each day with a heightened mental state that feels open, clear, and focused. It may not look like typical meditation—I’m not sitting on a cushion in a quiet corner with my eyes closed—but I do reach the same goal: inner calm and enhanced well-being.  

These are my three favorite mindfulness stacks. Even if you have read some of these books, I encourage you to re-visit them with these combinations in mind. Let me know what you think and if it works for you. Happy meditations!

Stack #1: A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle, Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, What Happened to You, Dr. Bruce D. Perry and Oprah Winfrey, Know My Name, Chanel Miller, and I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou.

Stack #2: 2030, Mauro F. Guillen, New Power Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, Engine of Impact, William F. Meehan, and Kim Starkey, and The Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates.

Stack #3: The 5am Club, Robin Sharma, The 80/20 Principle, Richard Koch; The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle, Atomic Habits, James Clear, and How to Train Your Mind, Chris Bailey.


Thin-Slicing 20 Years

It’s easy to judge a decision right or wrong, good or bad after we know the result. On the surface, the story of our 20-year marriage seems no different. My husband, Marcus, and I have been together almost half our lives. We have three healthy and happy children, and our life together looks relatively seamless. But looking back I can’t help but wonder: Was it simply luck? Or could it have been thin-slicing at work all those years ago when we met?

Thin-slicing is our ability to make very quick decisions with minimal information. The concept was popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book about how we think without thinking. In the first few seconds of meeting someone, it seems that all we have is surface level information. Yet, it’s undeniable that we’re making many judgements and decisions under the surface within those short seconds – in other words, we’re thin-slicing. As Gladwell examines in Blink, some of those decisions prove to be remarkably prescient.

I think back to my first chance encounter with Marcus in the spring of 1997. In those first few moments of meeting, I felt a sense of familiarity and comfort that could not be explained in any obvious or logical manner. Even if you had asked me, I could not have named it, but in fact I made a split decision that this was a person I could trust, and that changed my future in ways that I had never imagined for myself. 

A Chance Encounter

I was a fresh-faced transplant from Seattle, living in San Francisco’s Russian Hill neighborhood and working at Nordstrom San Francisco Centre as a PR specialist during the Bay Area dot-com era. It was a heady time to be a young person living in one of the most incredible, iconic American cities. I was young and happily unattached. Growing up without positive relationship models, I saw no appeal in tying my life to another’s. Cliché as it may sound, my possibilities felt truly endless.

It was one of those golden, late spring San Francisco evenings. I was meeting friends for happy hour at a trendy bar in San Francisco’s theater district but got lost on the way. Frustrated, I was on the verge of giving up and going home when my friends found me – walking in the opposite direction. It was at that happy hour that I met Marcus – who only decided to join his friends at the last minute. 

It seems almost old-fashioned in this era of online dating where everyone’s background is pre-screened, to say you met someone, not with a swipe or via text, but rather in-person, at a bar, over cocktails.

A Natural Evolution

From the very beginning, my first instinct about Marcus proved to be correct. He is a person to be trusted, especially in all the ways you can experience vulnerability in a relationship. At some point, Marcus wanted to let me know that if our future included marriage (as we were both thinking at the time), he knew that it was not his decision alone to “ask” me. In fact, either of us could ask the other. One night he said to me, “I know you don’t have to wait for me to ask you to marry me. But if you don’t mind letting me own this …” I liked that he acknowledged that I did not need to be asked, nor was I waiting. 

A year into our relationship, we went to Germany to meet his family. His dad still lived on Sylt, a tiny resort island in the North Sea where Marcus grew up. Our first morning there we wandered, hand in hand, visiting places that were meaningful to him – his family home with the in-law building where his Polish grandmother lived and often cooked traditional dishes such as cow liver (not one of his childhood favorites). We visited the school he attended and the Strenk family plot where his grandparents were buried, marked by a giant marble headstone from Marcus’s father, Anton’s, masonry business. 

I was feeling my jet lag as walked to an old vine-covered church near his boyhood home and it started to rain. But just as I began to get cranky, Marcus dropped to one knee near his Oma and Opa’s headstone. “When I was a boy,” he said solemnly, “I would walk by this church every day and think, someday I will get married here. The next best thing is to be here with you and ask you to marry me.” 

The Wedding

As most of our friends know, our wedding happened in the days following 9/11 on the tropical island of Kauai in Hanalei Bay. We had taken our very first couple’s vacation to this magical, somewhat hidden garden isle beach destination. It was during one of our return visits, we agreed that if we still felt the same way about each other in one year, as we did in that moment, we should get married. Given the unprecedented realities in the days following 9/11, we did not enjoy the destination wedding that had been a year in the making as we’d hoped. In the end, we understood that it was never about the ceremony, the party, or even our friends and family. It was just the two of us making a pledge to be together, no matter what. 

What I’ve Learned

Listen to each other. Marcus and I genuinely like each other – not every moment, but every day. Do we fight? Of course, we do! Thanks to years of fantastic therapy (mine) and Marcus’ genuinely optimistic perspective and naturally high EQ (emotional intelligence), we have become excellent communicators. It’s not that we don’t have issues and conflicts, but it has been our ability to continually learn about each other and to acknowledge that we can see each other without having to always agree that has held us together. We listen, we resolve, and we move forward.

Be in the moment. This is something I have learned to do because I was lucky to be with a person that seemingly was born knowing that life’s greatest moments are the ones you are experiencing as they happen. Before Marcus, I was always striving, with my check list of to-dos continuously top of mind. I was too busy looking ahead to really stop to enjoy what was right in front of me – the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, a perfect meal, and the sun rising over the ocean. After twenty plus years together, I have ceded to my partner’s ability to relish and to appreciate life’s beauty as it unfolds. 

Better together. We often joke that if we could combine the two of us, we would be near-perfect, blending Marcus’ intuitive intelligence and great communication skills with my disciplined focus and execution. Since stitching two brains together is not yet possible, what we have done instead is we have learned to leverage each other’s strengths to the point that it’s a nearly seamless process. When we’re aligned, the end results are always our very best ones. Life is hard and full of challenges large and small, no matter how pretty the picture. But we have never both been down, or both been wrong at the same time. One of us has always been there to lift the other when needed.

Team Strenk. When we made the decision to have kids, we agreed that we would share equally in the parenting and running of the household. We’ve made many course corrections along the way, but we own the duties and savor the joys, together. We can do this because we started with one simple belief: Neither of us would live for our careers. Our careers would be the fuel to allow us to live. Don’t misunderstand, we are ambitious and motivated but in an ultimate tradeoff between career and family, family would always come first.

Our first real test came when we had an “oops” pregnancy when our two kids were just three and one years old. At the time, Marcus was very much on the track at Microsoft as a senior sales manager and I was at this point a PR executive, managing a team at Williams-Sonoma. But our unplanned third child forced us to abruptly change plans. Given the lack of space, both mental and physical and the accelerating economic constraints raising kids in an incredibly expensive city, we quickly made the decision to make a drastic move to a family-friendly community with strong public education and attainable housing. During my second trimester, we moved across the country to access the wide-open spaces and family-friendly community that we wanted, in Austin, TX.

Now that our kids are all teenagers on the cusp of leaving home for college and the real world, I can say that one key to our success as a couple is our mindset of shared + equal versus any traditional gender roles dictating marriage and parenting. 

It’s nice to be married to your best friend. I did not know how compatible we would become all those years ago when we first met. Luckily for us, thin-slicing skills told me that I could trust this person and that decision opened the possibility that has made these twenty years married feel like a satisfying romantic comedy, featuring two main characters that despite their flaws and missteps, you root for them, you love them together, and you can’t imagine either of them ending up with anyone else.

Happy 20th, Schatz.

Austin, TX August 2020 Photos John Conroy


Finding Joy in the Tumult

I spent the last year of my life helping people find their joy – in fact, it was part of my job description. Now, in the face of an unanticipated setback, the profound sense of joy I found in helping others is grounding me in gratitude in the face of tumult and change.

Throughout my career, I’ve worked on behalf of traditionally marginalized people and groups, whether as a volunteer for numerous food and shelter organizations or as a board member leading fund development effort for YWCA Greater Austin. But I’ve found that working to enable philanthropic giving as a MGO (Major Gifts Officer) for a disabilities non-profit has given me a sense of purpose and motivation that has superseded traditional metrics of job satisfaction. If you’re a disciple of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle, fund development is clearly the “how” to my “why.” Philanthropy is the ideal and fund development is the fuel for philanthropic work.

At its root, philanthropy means “a love of humankind.” I saw this time and again in my work with a range of caring donors who aligned their values with their philanthropic giving. Having the opportunity to shine a light on the diversity, talents, and individuality of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities has been an honor. 

Yet, I will not be able to continue this work – at least not with this particular organization. The once robust national development team was reduced by 40% as a result of a new strategic vision and post-covid realities. In other words, I’ve been riffed.

Despite the uncertainty and sadness this unanticipated change brings, I can’t help feeling an overwhelming sense of mission, gratitude, and, yes, joy. This sense of positivity has been enhanced by the wonderful words of thanks from colleagues, business partners, and donors for the work I have been privileged to do.

I am so grateful to know the impact I’ve made on this organization. And it has had just as much on me. These are some of the lessons I’ll be taking with me:

Relationships Above All
As an MGO, you are charged with identifying and building authentic and meaningful relationships with donors who have the capacity and the heart to give to your organization. I‘ll never forget feeling unsure and nervous before my first call with a major donor, afraid I would come across as too salesy. By the end of the call, I was elated. Because what we had was an easy and deeply satisfying conversation about a shared vision for a better future where all people deserve to be treated with dignity and care. The global pandemic had created so much isolation for all of us that I found most of my calls were often a welcome opportunity for connection and a sense of shared humanity. 

Be Audacious
I appropriate this wisdom from others, but it’s a good one for anyone in this field. Although I was a new MGO with limited development experience, I wrote my first proposal to a major donor within my first five months on the job. The ask? One million dollars to create ABA support services as a branded extension of a current behavioral supports service that had limited reach. Although this donor did not ultimately make the million-dollar gift, I believe that my bravery in making that request created a deeper connection to the org for him and a more meaningful relationship for me, which ultimately led to a major year-end gift.

Don’t Be Silo 
At a non-profit organization, fundraising is not the sole responsibility of the development team. Everyone plays a critical role, beginning each day with that same sense of mission fulfillment that the MGO or other fundraising folks do. We are all stakeholders in the success of fundraising. No money. No mission. This mantra remains relevant for good reason. As fundraisers we are focused on external audiences – donors, foundations, partners – we also need to build relationships across all levels and functions of the org, especially on the program delivery side. In my case, to understand the operational side of the business, I had to know the employees providing the services – the front-line service workers, or in our case, the DSP (Direct Service People). Working with them, learning from them, and understanding their world was integral to my ability to successfully tell the “Why we exist” and “How we change lives” part of our story.

Change is Constant 
I love my family, but my daily runs while listening to audiobooks became the needed break from 24/7 family time during this pandemic. In a normal year, I go through two pairs of running shoes with a half marathon every January. Covid year and no group runs or races? I cycled through six pairs of running shoes. I have over 30 books in my Audiobooks library. I have listened to them all. Some more than once. In my current listen, Great By Choice, by Jim Collins of Good To Great fame, Collins posits that chaos and uncertainty are the conditions in which we live rather than aberrations to the norm. They are the norm. In my own varied career, this aligns with my personal journey, starting in retail at Nordstrom headquarters in Seattle, WA as a newly minted college graduate, to the heady start-up days in San Francisco in the late 90’s as a single person to an executive position at Williams-Sonoma Inc., married with children. Today, I’m living in Austin, TX having made the transition from corporate PR and marketing to the non-profit world as a fund development professional against the backdrop of a global pandemic. I feel confident that my ability to adopt to and anticipate change has been the key to my enduring and always challenging career opportunities.

As my last day passed on this first non-profit job in development, I am uncertain what the next opportunity will look like. What I do know is that my vision and my values remain intact, more so now than ever. I will find that next right fit non-profit organization whose mission aligns with my values. I can’t wait to be a part of helping to drive the engine that enables their philanthropic vision to become realized. 

Spreading joy and receiving joy in the name of working toward a world that reflects our shared love of humankind? Yes, please.


Synchronicity 3.0

After a truly wonderful career in public relations, I am about to embark on a completely new path. I can now employ all the skills and knowledge I have honed from over two decades in one field and start anew.  As daunting as this is, it also feels like a transition that makes perfect sense. It has been the  moments of synchronicity that have punctuated the very best parts of my career journey. Originally coined by psychologist Carl Jung, synchronicity refers to “the meaningful coincidences that occur in your life.”  

I have accepted a position as a Major Grants Officer (MGO) at Bethesda, a national non-profit organization that elevates the lives of the IDD (Intellectually and Developmentally Disabled) community with innovative programming, services, and an authentic corporate culture focused on service. While it may sound like an incongruous transition – Public Relations to Fund Development, viewed from the lens of synchronicity, it has all the hallmarks of meaningful intention.

 My decision to transition to a career in fund development is something I explored in a recent blog post, “Show Me The Money.” After many successful years helping companies sell (mostly) wonderful products and services, I found myself feeling ready to create impact in a more personal and meaningful way. The rush of big wins marked by market share gains no longer felt as satisfying. Once I made the decision, I immersed myself in the hands-on work of fund development. As synchronicity would have it, as a board member at the YWCA Greater Austin for the last two years, I had numerous opportunities to gain valuable insights into the tremendous value of strategic and sustainable fundraising. 

Another “meaningful coincidence” not as direct but just as potent: this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) signed into law in July of 1990. A recent series of stories in the New York Times, “Beyond the Law’s Promise” presents a comprehensive overview of the myriad ways in which this piece of landmark legislation has changed the landscape for Americans with disabilities. 

When it was introduced, the ADA was called “the most sweeping anti-discrimination measure since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The majority of my non-profit volunteerism and engagement for the last decade has focused on giving voice to the disenfranchised and marginalized as exemplified by the mission of the YWCA mission to empower women and girls and anti-racism work within the mantel of social justice. 

Today, with this new opportunity to become a Major Grants Officer, I get to continue working in the social justice space – still as an advocate  – but my bottom line will be to successfully bring big vision and major funding together in a mutually beneficial relationship. Matching the aspirations of major donors to the promise and the vision of Bethesda’s mission and work will become my new measurement of success. Being a part of a team of seriously smart, dedicated, mission driven people working together to fight for the dignity and quality of life for a marginalized group of individuals? Synchronicity has struck once again and for that I am deeply grateful. 

To learn about Bethesda and their vision for the future, check out this video: https://youtu.be/wf4yb0TcYgs.


Managing Non-Profits Through Pandemic Times

I’ve had the honor to serve on several non-profit boards for causes I care deeply about, but it has been during this pandemic that I have found myself more deeply connected to the cause of the YWCA. I’ve been a board member of YWCA Greater Austin since 2018. At our board planning retreat last year, my colleagues elected me to chair the Fund Development Committee. Not so sure anyone else wanted it – but I was genuinely honored and up for accepting the challenge. The timing felt right as I had wanted to amplify my non-profit work with hands on fund development experience. 

Who could have foreseen that in less than three months we would be here? Fund development during a global pandemic? As the saying goes, timing is everything… 

Three months into flatten the curve, shelter in place, here’s what I am seeing so far. Because of the volatility, our priority path has been to take a short-term view of the organization’s funding needs and to focus on best case outcome opportunities. Fund development for a non-profit entity in normal times is critical to the livelihood of any organization. We are responsible for ensuring the organization has the financial resources to realize the mission and enact the vision. Layer on a global pandemic, even for someone hardwired to take on challenges, it has been a continuum of exhilarating highs and exhausting lows. 

The challenges have forced me to jump in and to problem solve in creative ways that have somewhat upended what I considered traditional lines between staff and board member roles. Not to mislead, ours has always been a working board – no posturing, no VIP lane – we have always been a working board, but this pandemic has forced all of us out of our comfort. Board work during pandemic times is not for everyone.  

However, it has not been all stress and panic. The surprising, positive outcome?  Bearing witness to the quite literal heroic efforts of the staff making sure Austin’s longest and inarguably most impactful social services agency, continues to deliver on its mission to empower women and girls and to fight for equal rights and social justice. In a perverse way Covid-19 has validated the very existence of social services organizations such as the YWCA by laying bare and exposing even more clearly the social and economic inequities in our system that have always existed. “Covid-19 represents a new and additional disparity that sits atop the already existing mental health and social justice issues that have been at the heart of our (YWCA) organizational mission for over 100 years,” stated CEO, Executive Director YWCA Greater Austin, Naya Diaz. See the full story behind this quote at the organization’s official Covid-19 response, “An Update From Your Greater Austin YWCA.”

When we talk about “additional disparity” we are looking at a complex web of societal and institutional inequities that are so baked into our institutions and societal norms that many of us may not even question their very existence. Shortly after doing the fact finding needed to communicate the agency’s initial Covid-19 response, I came upon this New York Times article, “A Terrible Price: The Deadly Racial Disparities of Covid-19 in America.” When I read this comment from the current president of the United States, “Why is it that the African American community is so much, you know, numerous times more than everybody else?” I paused. Well, at least he asked the question. 

According to this story, the reasons are complex and deeply multi-faceted: “The conditions in the social and physical environment where people live, work, attend school, play and pray have an outsize influence on health outcomes. Those in the public-health field call these conditions social determinants of health.” This is exactly why non-profits exist – to meet the tremendous gaps in our social construct wherein the private sector cannot adequately address these disparities. 

Social determinants are not a new concept for the team at the YWCA. Deploying culturally and linguistically sensitive therapies and trainings is the hallmark of the YWCA Greater Austin’s approach to healing the most vulnerable in our community. In fact, they have been recognized nationally by YWCA USA as leaders in the field.  According to YWCA Director of Clinical Services,  Laura Gomez-Horton, LCSW, “We view all of the women and families we serve through a lens of oppression.  What does that mean? Rather than seeing the person as the problem, we ask: What have they experienced?  What social determinants need to be considered with regards to this person’s mental health?”

Very few organizations can claim the deep historical footprint of progressive social change of the YWCA, an organization  with over 200 affiliates deeply embedded in communities all over the country. This model makes their reach and impact possibly unparalleled in the world of economic empowerment for women and girls, social justice and elimination of racism. Here in the Southwest region alone there are nine (9) YWCA affiliates which includes Greater Austin. All affiliates share the same mission – empowering women and eliminating racism – with each location developing their programmatic strategies and priorities based on the needs of their community. 

YWCA Greater Austin has been an integral part of the fabric of Austin’s community, leading at the forefront of the most pressing societal issues since the early 1900’s. Being ready and able to address the many impacts in our community from this global pandemic is why this organization exists.

When the city wide shelter in place mandate was instituted in early March 2020, YWCA very quickly made the difficult transition to all-remote work. Easy enough for a high-tech company, but for a social service agency that serves the community primarily via face to face counseling, care coordination and training services? The logistical and operational challenges were intense, while at same time having to “answer the phones” to ensure they remained responsive to the many needs of the community they have always served. 

While the agency has been on the front lines of this pandemic, providing mental health services and support to already marginalized communities throughout the eight (8) counties in and around Austin, their financial health has been at times in jeopardy as they are largely reliant on Travis County, City of Austin and Office of the Governor contracts. Technically these are termed awarded “grants” but they are in essence contracts for services with very specific guidelines and benchmarks to meet. As the state and the city have struggled to enact emergency measures, agencies with contracts have been living a day to day game of Whack-A-Mole securing one essential source of grant funding then learning another grant renewal is in jeopardy.

During the past three months I have become more integrated with the agency’s day to day operations in addition to the short and long-term finances and fund development pipeline.  Working alongside our incredible CEO, Executive Director, Naya Diaz and key members of her staff that oversee fund development, government contracts, and the clinical team. I have learned the importance of really listening, asking the right questions and conducting timely next steps with the right subject matter experts. I have loved learning the language of equity, justice and equal rights from these incredible women with deep expertise in social justice work. 

Over a recent Zoom, I asked Naya Diaz to take a moment to share her experience as the executive director overseeing the organization’s transition.

When did you know this crisis was real? “Within a week of shutting down our physical office and everyone working from home we saw a dramatic spike in calls from our current clients as well as lots of new people seeking help. We began hearing from families and their children about what was happening to them.”

What was one of the first needs that you identified as a result of the coronavirus? “We learned that several agencies here in town had shuttered their services completely and / or eliminated their help/crisis lines. As a result, many of those calls started coming into us. Because of the dramatic increase in calls and the broader range of needs of those callers, I quickly saw the need for us to develop a centralized warm line. A warm line is an alternative to a crisis line that is run by trained and experienced peersUnlike a crisis line, a warm line operator is there to hold space for those going through a crisis such as suicidal or self-harming thoughts or behaviors. Trained peer support specialists can get them to someone who can handle this level of crisis.”

What is one surprising and positive impact as a result of this? “Even though I had to focus very quickly on the operational challenges of getting our telemedicine and training services running at full capacity, the one thing that stood out was that everyone on our staff just understood that we all had to step up and be problem solvers in a way that we had never had to be. Our team already worked very well together – but this situation made me really see everyone’s strengths very quickly. Each person took on an even higher level of ownership and accountability. As mental health providers, we don’t have the Hippocratic oath, but we don’t need one. We instinctively understand what we signed up for. Many of us are women, women of color. We are the lived experience of women supporting women.”

As the mother of three teenage daughters, I am feeling right at home living this language of inclusion and empowerment. It’s a scary time thinking about the world my children will inherit. But knowing that there are incredibly smart, dedicated and passionate women working together to make our communities stronger and more inclusive, gives me hope. As a member of a non-profit working board, we get to do more than just hope. I know that collectively, we are all making a difference.

Goodbye 16. You Won’t Be Missed.

Our daughter’s birthdays have always been occasion for an excess of enthusiasm and sentimentality as we enjoyed each “first” and “last” over these past eighteen years we have been parents. With three kids so close in age – less than four years separating our oldest and our youngest  – we have truly done that and been there when it comes to birthdays.

However it is our middle kiddo turning 17 that has inspired more-than-usual enthusiasm and sentimentality.

Why the extra enthusiasm for this birthday? Sixteen was an unprecedented and jarring year for our family. We are ready for a reset and will enjoy looking at the past year from the rear view. 

Just months into her 16th year, our middle kiddo was diagnosed with and treated for a renal carcinoma. In January, she underwent a radical laparoscopic nephrectomy, an operation to remove her (left) kidney. We have two kidneys and as long as the remaining kidney is healthy  – a person can live a full and complete life with just one. However, there is almost no precedence for someone her age to develop a kidney tumor. Less than 200 cases recorded  – ever. In attempting to gather data and to understand potential outcomes, we asked both her pediatric oncologist and her surgeon – what are the chances? Neither of them could give us an answer because so little case data exists. 

This is a disease of the very old or in rare instances newborns can be born with a kidney tumor, but it’s not something that happens to teenagers. The best analysis was that our kiddo was special – she was that rare 1 in 500,000 cases.

The follow-up pathology showed mostly benign – this I have come to learn is medical speak. There are no absolutes – we are mostly benign and that is a very good thing. She is young and the recovery was relatively fast and issue free. 

In advance of the first postoperative scan at the beginning of the summer, we were anxious but assumed this would be a perfunctory nod to an abundance of caution. Not so fast. The liver scan was clean but an alarming “nodule” showed up on her thyroid. What?? How can this happen, again? More worry. What does the thyroid do and do we need one? Another specialist. More appointments. Another scan. But this time, “it’s all great news”. Benign. Literal, tears of joy as multiple layers of worry are instantaneously released.

So, here we are. Ready for a fresh start. Happy 17th birthday to our resilient, beautiful daughter. We are very happy to be looking at 16 from the rear view.