It’s a Mom, Mom,
Bama Athreya C’88 fights for workers’ rights
|Class of ’86 | If you’ve had a baby recently, or if you’ve even been thinking of having one, your life has probably been touched, at least indirectly, by Tina Sharkey C’86, chair and global president of BabyCenter LLC. Since its launch in 1997, more than 100 million parents have logged into babycenter.com, which estimates that 78 percent of new and expectant mothers online in the United States are logging in for community, knowledge, and advice.
Though Sharkey is a parent as well, the expertise she brought to this Internet empire of motherhood was shaped at Penn, where she majored in international relations. She acted as her own intellectual architect, shaping her major to study the beginnings of a field that barely existed—the dynamics of online communities. Her senior thesis was “Videotext and Teletext: International Bond or Barrier?”
“Penn was very ahead of the game in technology in the 1980s,” says Sharkey from her San Francisco offices. “That stuff really inspired me. I always had a fascination with technology from a communications perspective—the idea that communication and technology were both integral to international relations, and how people interacted across borders, barriers, and cultures.”
A course in entrepreneurial management at Wharton gave her the opportunity to help a local tech-based media company write its business plan. During a job interview in New York, she noticed that one of her interviewers had that very business plan on his desk. He then revealed that he was what would now be called an “angel investor.” After that, she remembers, “we had a whole different conversation.”
That conversation led to a job in a high-definition television studio, exporting HDTV technology and equipment and figuring out how technology could build bridges into creative communities. She found herself lobbying Congress for an HDTV task force at the ripe old age of 22.
“There I was on the Hill, talking about tech and policy and all these things,” she says with barely-concealed delight. “It was an accidental opportunity to be involved in the confluence of technology, media, and policy [in] an emerging field.”
When a company that did work for entertainment-and-technology outfits like Time Warner and Adobe was looking for someone to lead the team in that sector, it hired Sharkey, who helped with branding and communication strategy and high-end marketing. One of her clients was Barry Diller, who had just taken over the shopping channel QVC and was entering the world of strategic electronic retailing.
“We had to bring a broader audience into virtual marketing and figure out what the strategy would be in terms of communicating to Wall Street, pre-Amazon,” explains Sharkey, who was then hired to run marketing and, later, programming for Q2, the division of QVC designed to open the company’s portfolio to lifestyle e-tailing. When Diller shut down Q2, Sharkey and another co-worker decided to start iVillage.
This was in the very early days of the Web.
“It was barely even a Web—mostly online services like Prodigy, CompuServ, and AOL rather than open Internet,” says Sharkey, who, as head of programming, wanted to design the largest community of women online and to make iVillage their go-to destination. Among iVillage’s first investors was AOL, which was looking for new content companies that their users could spend more time with—since, as Sharkey notes, “the longer you spent online, the more money they made.”
She then became president of Sesame Workshop’s new online division, where she formulated its digital media strategy. “It was exciting for me, because Sesame’s strength was using the media to teach kids through collaborative family entertainment.”
Having left Sesame to do consulting work after the birth of her first child, Sharkey then got a call from AOL to revamp its programming and take it from a private online service to a public Web portal. From there, she was recruited by Johnson & Johnson to head up BabyCenter.
Under her leadership, Sharkey has taken BabyCenter to 22 countries, with nearly 30 million moms a month around the world engaging with the website. Sharkey credits the acquisition of social-media platforms as driving much of the site’s growth, from blogging to social-information-sharing on Twitter and Facebook.
A year and a half ago, Sharkey saw mobile “coming very fast,” with the new frontier of adapting to smart-phone technology being communications’ next challenge.
“We pivoted our business and went hard into mobile, and now we are the largest Web and mobile destination in the world for new and existing moms,” Sharkey says, noting that BabyCenter also pays “great attention to birth and maternal journeys at the bottom of the pyramid” in developing countries like India.
Recently, BabyCenter forged the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action, a partnership with USAID and Johnson & Johnson announced by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Developed with the cooperation of the White House, MAMA serves women in low-resource settings from South Africa to Bangladesh and India. New and expectant mothers register their due date or their baby’s age via mobile phone to receive texts providing relevant developmental, health, and nutritional information.
“We’re looking at the maternal journey around the world, and how we can support moms wherever they live in their literacy and access to healthcare,” says Sharkey, noting that audio messages sometimes supplant text messaging in illiterate communities. “We try to do it site-specific and audience-specific.”
As a “fervent” believer in the power of mobile, Sharkey argues that mobile technology is particularly important to mothers.
“Moms are mobile power users—they love their smartphones, and finally feel as though they have a remote for their lives,” she says. “It’s the confidence to be the Chief Everything Officer she found herself in when she became a mom. No other moment in a woman’s life is as transformative as becoming a mother.
“You’re going to see moms leading the way,” she adds, “because the technology enables her to be all facets of herself: work mom, mealtime mom, social mom, shopping mom. It changes the pathways and allows for empowerment.”
Despite the specificity inherent in targeted efforts, Sharkey feels there is a “global tribe of motherhood.”
“When a baby is born, a mother is born,” Sharkey said. “That mother has goals and dreams and aspirations, whether she’s in a private room in Mount Sinai Hospital in New York or a low-resource setting in the developing world. Her hopes for her community are very similar.” So are sleep, feeding, and other childcare issues that are the bread and butter of BabyCenter.
“We really try to give moms a remarkable amount of information, based on where they are in their journey,” she says. “Moms want expert advice—they want answers, guidance, what’s coming up ahead, what’s normal.” They also want to share information. “Acquisition cycles of learning are fast. Tantrums, colic, food allergies, you name it—just when you’ve mastered it, you’re moving on to the next thing.”
—Jordana Horn C’95 L’99
| ©2011 The Pennsylvania
Last modified 8/26/11