Sheila Marcelo: Building the “Amazon of Care” By Jasmine Ako and Photo by Christopher Huang
Like all crises, the big one in Sheila Marcelo’s life happened when she could least afford it. At the time, Marcelo was juggling multiple roles – graduate student and working mother of two – when her father had a heart attack while carrying her baby up a flight of stairs. She suddenly faced a huge problem – not only did she need care for her father, but she also needed help for her mother, care for her two young children, and overall peace of mind as a young professional managing multiple responsibilities at work, school and home.
Although she eventually pieced together care for her family, this experience stuck with Marcelo, and later inspired her to found Care.com in 2006, an online service that matches families with caregivers. Headquartered in Boston, Care.com offers a breadth of care solutions, including childcare, special needs, senior care, pet care, tutoring, housekeeping, and benefits solutions for corporations.
“When it was time to start my own company, I knew that helping families find affordable, reliable, quality care was something that could truly make a difference,” says Marcelo.
Under Marcelo’s leadership, Care.com has garnered funding from Silicon Valley’s top venture capitalists, such as angel investor and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. However, the most important vote of confidence may be from the over 7 million members who consistently use its services.
Roots of Her Entrepreneurial Spirit
As a female and Filipino-American, Marcelo is not your usual CEO. Women make up less than 2% of top executive positions in corporate America, and Asian Americans make up less than 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs. What is Marcelo’s background and how did it prepare her to lead a fast-growing Internet company?
While Marcelo’s own personal emergency helped light the idea for Care.com, her entrepreneurial spirit can be traced back to her childhood in Asia. Growing up in the Philippines, she witnessed her parents’ determination to explore a variety of business paths to support her and her five siblings. Their entrepreneurial pursuits included real estate, trucking, rice mills, and even chicken and duck farms.
“Watching them then, I saw very Filipino traits: resourcefulness, strong work ethic, innovation, and care for others,” says Marcelo. “I took these lessons to heart and they are very much a part of me and Care.com.”
Although Marcelo initially gave in to her parents’ wishes for her to be a lawyer and went to Harvard Law School, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her true interests lied in business and entrepreneurship. Following her gut, she simultaneously attended Harvard Business School and became one of a select group of people receiving a joint JD/MBA degree.
Rather than work for an established company or law firm out of graduate school, Marcelo took a risk and joined a new Internet startup called UPromise, which helps families save money for college. She soon went on to work for another Internet company, TheLadders.com, a job-matching service for career-driven professionals.
“The two experiences solidified what I’d felt for a long time,” reflects Marcelo. “I wanted to use the power of technology to build a company focused on helping people.”
Building the ‘Amazon of Care’
With that vision in mind, Marcelo faced the immense task of constructing Care.com from the ground up. Pulling from her past experiences, she determined that building her company came down to two key, interwoven factors – people and values.
However, to Marcelo, the ‘right team’ was more than just skill sets. “For me, it is about people who share a value system, who have a common vision for what a team and a company should look and feel like. A team like that is self-motivating, because it has a unified purpose.”
For Care.com, only with everyone sharing the same values would the company be equipped to face the hard path ahead.
Opportunities, Not Hurdles
The road at first was tough-going for Care.com as both a new company and a young player in the incredibly dynamic Internet space. Yet, instead of shying away from challenges, Marcelo chose to embrace them.
“I don’t see things as hurdles,” shares Marcelo. “I see opportunities to test and iterate ideas. I believe it’s about evolutions not revolutions – both in work and in life.”
Following this philosophy of evolution, Marcelo and the team at Care.com painstakingly tested multiple hypotheses over the years. They adjusted their initial ideas, and took strategic risks to learn about what worked for them and what did not. The company’s attractive and user-friendly online platform, which allows caregivers and businesses to build profiles and users to easily customize their search for the right match, is testament to these changes.
Additionally, in order to make Care.com’s business model scalable, it had to be both realistic and ambitious. Using the company’s global expansion as an example, Marcelo explains that she and her colleagues had a lot to learn before even considering entering new markets. Different markets had different care challenges, and the company needed to evaluate the trade-offs of building from scratch or making acquisitions. Global expansion was certainly risky and ambitious, so waiting several years to evaluate the right options was vital.
“We’ve based our decisions on what we know it takes to build a successful operation, what the market challenges are – all things we didn’t know in 2006,” says Marcelo.
In this age of CEO private jets and golden parachutes, one special quality about Marcelo is her willingness to give back to the community. One issue that particularly struck a chord for her was women in entrepreneurship and empowering women in all fields to seize opportunities. She recognized the lack of female CEOs and leaders in the venture capital or technology space, let alone women CEOs in general.
Leveraging her resources and expertise, Marcelo channeled her energy into starting WomenUp.org, an organization that seeks to increase female entrepreneurship and opportunity worldwide by providing mentorship, access and knowledge through a collaborative community.
“We’re working to change how female leaders are perceived by others,” she says. “We also have to empower women and girls to see themselves as leaders. We need to instill in them that the characteristics labeled as ‘female’ – things like valuing relationships, process, and empowered teams over achieving tasks and winning – are leadership assets, not deficits.”
WomenUp.org seeks to achieve greater empowerment through forums, events, online resources, and developing a cohesive network for young women interested in business and entrepreneurship. By increasing opportunities for young women, WomenUp.org and likeminded organizations aim to provide women with the entrepreneurial skillsets they need to succeed.
Unfortunately, in the venture capital industry, women currently represent less than 10% of venture capitalists. Marcelo believes increasing that number is critical.
“Firms with at least one female partner are 70% more likely to lead investments in a woman-led company than firms with only male partners,” asserts Marcelo. “When you consider the tech-space – where only 8% of all venture capital investment currently goes to female-led companies – you can see what an impact changing the status quo would have.”
In addition to her work empowering young women with WomenUp.org, Marcelo is a frequent speaker and advisor on entrepreneurship and a strong advocate for education. She is also a board trustee for the Philippine Development Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes sustainable economic development, technology, and innovation in the Philippines. Clearly, the values that serve as the foundation for Care.com also permeate through her professional and personal endeavors.
So what’s next for the busy CEO, mother of two, entrepreneur, advocate, and mentor? Marcelo currently has her hands full guiding Care.com’s international expansion, as the company recently launched in the UK and Canada, acquired BesserBetreut–the largest online care portal in Europe–in mid-July, and garnered an impressive $50 million in funding last August.
“As much as Care.com has grown, there’s tremendous opportunity ahead for us both geographically and in the scope of services we offer our members,” says Marcelo.
By leading with insight, emphasizing the importance of values, and giving back to challenge the status quo, Marcelo is a great example for young women and Asian Americans seeking an inspiring figure. Not only is she a proven business executive, she is also putting her foot where her mouth is – and truly extending a hand to help other young women climb up the professional ladder.
“Giving back so that others can have opportunities similar to what I’ve experienced has been a very rewarding experience.”