In Her Shoes
A married couple balances running a business and a family together.
Serafina Palandech and Jen Johnson aren’t your usual co-workers. For starters, they’ve been married to each other for nine years, and they have a 7-year-old daughter, Rubyrose. They’re also proud co-owners of six goats, five cats, three dogs, two horses, two donkeys, two pigs, one baby cow and countless chickens—and a fast-growing business, Hip Chick Farms. Serafina serves as CEO of the line of humanely raised chicken fingers and other kidfriendly foods (now in 5,000 stores), while Jen, a chef who trained under Alice Waters, creates the brand’s products and oversees a new restaurant—a chicken-finger tasting room, of course. If it seems a little too seamless, Serafina and Jen will be the first to assure you it’s not. Like all working parents, they struggle with finding enough time for work and family. But the couple’s biggest challenge is managing the guilt that comes along with that. Both worry they aren’t pulling their weight—Jen at work, and Serafina at home.
“Before we launched Hip Chick Farms, I worked as a personal chef for many years. I was used to being in charge and being the boss. And now Serafina is the boss. That was really hard for me to grapple with because I don’t particularly like being told what to do. At all. So it’s been challenging. I had to learn how to be a better listener. I had to learn how to respect her in this position, and I also had to figure out where I fit in this company.
“For some reason, I always felt like I was going to be the one to make all the money and support my family, and my wife would stay home and raise the children. But, as the days went on, it was really clear, in support of Serafina running this very large company for us, I needed to be the one who stayed at home to take care of Rubyrose as much as I could. I felt some resentment around that, but it just made the most sense for us. I absolutely am not qualified to run this company, and she is. She’s a total powerhouse CEO.
“I definitely feel guilty that I don’t have the same capacity and focus she has to run this thing—and the thick skin to deal with the crap she had to go through with fundraising. I would’ve failed years ago.
“Things aren’t fine the way they are. I think she wishes I was more of an equal partner in the business. I try to push myself, but she just ends up frustrated and does it herself. Which makes me feel horrible. Her fault is that she is über-confident and über-competent. And I end up relying on that. I try to do other things really well, like taking care of Rubyrose and the animals, to make up for the deficit.”
“I was home full time with
Rubyrose until she was 3 years old. When Jen and I switched roles, it was a whole new negotiation for our family. Now I focus on running the business operations—everything from sales and marketing to our factory operations, national distribution, growth plan, finances and staff management. I also do all of the extracurricular activity planning for our family, like signing up Rubyrose for Girl Scouts. I do 90 percent of the scheduling. I’m pretty much the decision-maker.
“Fortunately Jen and I have a real synchronicity of opinion, but we don’t envision things in the same way. I can hold a big picture and execute to that vision without a lot of forethought. I’m very literal, process-oriented and pragmatic. I’m more of a doer, and she’s more of a delegator. I could work 24 hours a day and be content.
“Here’s one example: I wake up at 4:30 a.m. By 7:00 a.m., when Jen wakes up, I’ve already been going full-steam ahead for the last three hours. So I will just tap at her with ideas, questions, strategies and plans. It’s completely overwhelming for Jen to wake up and be assaulted with a million ideas.
“As Rubyrose gets older, all my traveling is more difficult for her, which is heartbreaking but true. Jen has really stepped up in terms of her parenting while I’m gone for these extended periods of time. What Jen might not realize is that I do struggle with the typical conflicted feelings working moms face: When I’m working I want to be with my kid, and when I’m with my kid I want to be working. My internal conflict has only gotten worse as I’ve taken on more responsibility. And that can spill into resentment directed at my wife.”
Hearing Each Other
When Serafina learned that Jen feels she doesn’t contribute enough to the business, she wasn’t surprised—but she disagrees. “I think that’s not true at all. I think Jen is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. She might not see herself this way, but she’s a creative genius. We wouldn’t have this business if it weren’t for her vision.” And it’s not just Jen’s creative talents that have helped Serafina thrive in her role as CEO, she adds. It’s also the comfort of knowing Rubyrose is being cared for, and the emotional support that comes from having a supportive spouse. “It lessens the fear of failure because I know Jen is going to be there no matter what. I know my marriage and my daughter are the most important things, and that allows me to move through my fear in a way that makes me a calmer and better manager. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without having her as my foundation.”
Both said they would try to give each other the space to be themselves. “When we first started the business, I wanted Jen’s involvement and opinion in every decision we made,” Serafina says. “And I have to realize that I’m trying to make her be somebody she’s not. She’s not interested in running spreadsheets and deciding which font to use—just in the same way I couldn’t care less if we use garlic powder or onion powder.” Still, they also promised to conquer their own faults. Serafina said she will no longer pepper Jen with questions at 7 a.m., and Jen said she will take on more of the mental load, by learning how to use the calendar. “I have 30 years of remembering every recipe in the world in my head, and I thought I could do that with dates, but I can’t. I’m going to start writing everything down so Serafina doesn’t have to manage my life and my schedule.”
The key, they said, is to tap into their deep and abiding mutual respect for one another. “As a woman and a member of the LGBTQ community, I’m in a bunch of classes that are discriminated against,” Serafina points out. “And I think a lot of women do this—we take out those frustrations on ourselves or the people we love the most. I’m trying to be as conscious as possible not to do that to Jen.”
Most important, Serafina notes, they want to be good role models for Rubyrose—and that means ditching the working-mom guilt.
“I want her to grow up knowing she can have everything and do everything. I do think it’s possible. I think it’s about being present at whatever I’m doing at the time, instead of trying in my head to be somewhere else.”
So just how does she plan to do that? By squeezing in as much meditation and self-care as she can, Serafina says.
As Jen wisely adds: “It’s like they say when you’re getting on the plane. Put the mask on yourself first, and then put it on your kid.”
By Audrey Goodson Kingo SERAFINA AND JEN (right) are partners in all things: marriage, parenting and business—including a new kid-friendly restaurant.
FAMILY AFFAIR Rubyrose helps out too, feeding the animals and cleaning out their stalls.
SWINGING IT Both Serafina and Jen have been their daughter’s primary caretaker when needed.