Parlay House Founder Anne Devereux Mills

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Anne Devereux Mills is the founder of the Parlay House, a salon-style gathering of more than 500 women in the San Francisco Bay Area. Members of the group meet once a month to connect, learn and inspire. Each meeting features a discussion on an interesting topic. The goal of Parlay, Anne says, is to change the framework of reciprocity by putting women in a place to pull fellow women forward, rather than creating a setting where women have a more transaction-like “you help me, I help you” interaction.

A goal of Anne’s is to create a level playing field for all ages and professions, saying, “If you talk [to another person] about what you do, you miss the commonalities.” At a recent event, she shares that many women opened up about their eating disorders, depression, and other big topics.

Anne also serves as chair of the board of a public company and serves as chief strategy officer of Lantern, a San Francisco-based startup that uses technology to create mental wellness programs that reduce stigma and improve access to lower-cost mental health services. She’s also the executive producer of The Return, an Emmy-nominated film that focuses on our criminal justice system and the impact of the “Three Strikes” law. And as part of her passion for social justice issues, Anne worked as a key member of the team that helped pass California’s Proposition 36, which was a part of California’s “Three Strikes” reform.

And get this: As she was building up that career and working toward every one of these big accomplishments, Anne was also raising two daughters as a single mom in the New York area. That, ladies, is no small feat and speaks volumes to Anne’s inherent drive.

In episode 55 of I Want Her Job: The Podcast, Editor and Host Polina Selyutin talks to Anne about the practices that have led to her success, personal sacrifice, the life-changing events that led her from New York to San Francisco and, of course, the inspiration for Parlay House.

Topics Discussed In Today’s Show:

  • A Seat At The Table: In addition to her roles with Parlay House and Lantern, Anne serves as the chair of the board of a public company in Seattle. “Being a woman chairman of the board of a public company is still, unfortunately, too rare of a thing these days,” Anne says. “That’s a very different assignment, and trying to figure out how to speak authentically with a female voice and do it in a powerful way where you can be heard and find ways to inspire and lift other women through that is something that I do.”
  • Mentoring Moments: Naturally, Anne is a strong believer in mentoring. In addition to lending her time and advice to college students, the founders of Lantern and others, she mentors her daughters and sons, too.
  • Juggling Motherhood And Executive Roles: “For the first 20 years of my job, my career was very vertical—and by saying vertical, I mean that I worked my way up the corporate ladder,” Anne says. “I became a chairman and CEO of a number of different advertising agencies. But I was a single mom, commuting into the city from New Jersey into Manhattan, and I would get up at 4:45 in the morning, drive into the city, go to the gym, into the office at 7:30 [a.m.], run the company, be super diligent about leaving in time to go home and be an actively involved mom to my two growing daughters—and that was my life for a really long time.”
  • Shattering Shake-Up: In 2009, Anne had just sent her youngest child off to college. Facing an empty nest, she traveled to Uganda to visit a school she helped found. While there, she received a life-changing phone call. She was diagnosed with cancer. When she arrived back in New York City, she told her boss she’d need to take some time off for surgery, and her boss told her that they were hiring someone else to run the company. Anne was devastated. “In one week I lost my child, my job and my health,” she says.
  • Making A Move: Anne’s work in New York City did not leave her with a lot of time for herself and her relationships. It was “ …Kind of killing me; literally and figuratively,” she says. With a successful surgery and cancer behind her, she reassessed her life. So, she moved across the country to the West Coast, where her long-distance boyfriend at the time was living. She used it as an opportunity to search for clarity regarding what parts of her past were really meaningful and what mattered to her now.
  • That CEO Life: “When you’re a CEO, it’s a very lonely job,” Anne says. “You don’t have a lot of peers.” She decided that lifestyle was the opposite of the new one she wanted to lead in San Francisco.
  • Moment Of Inspiration: As a Fellow of the Aspen Institute, Anne was inspired. It was there where she came up with the idea for Parlay House, a way for her to provide the kind of environment and experience the Institute provides, but for those who weren’t a CEO or corporate leader.
  • Building Character: “I was born a feisty, independent woman,” Anne says. She credits her parents with giving her enough free reign growing up to help her make her own choices.
  • The Dark Side Of Success: With intense ambition and work ethic can come some tradeoffs, Anne says. “People like me tend to never think we’re good enough, tend to be driven super hard to prove things, tend to be driven to never be satisfied with whatever is in front of us,” she shares. “That’s what drives us to be involved and engaged and successful, but it also can be very dark.”
  • The Importance Of Vulnerability: “I don’t know how you gain the confidence to show your vulnerabilities, but I believe that when you test it out in little amounts, not only do you disarm the person that you’re talking to, but it’s quite likely that he or she will identify in some similar ways that then all of a sudden creates openness, trust and comfort,” Anne says. She recalls one time seeing Brené Brown speak at a conference, and it inspired her to become more vulnerable. “Brené had a vulnerability and authenticity … a willingness to talk about her failures and imperfections as much as her successes,” she says. “That really resonated with me.”
  • On Dealing With Fear: Anne says she has a philosophy that helps her survive through, and thrive after, difficult times. “I separate what I can control from what I can’t control,” she says. She also shares that she aims to deal with her fear by knowing what she’s good at and by applying those strengths to the situation at hand.
  • Learning Lesson: “A willingness to listen—and that drive to do whatever it takes—is what [I believe] led me to the top,” Anne says. “But I had to make a lot of sacrifices and ignore a lot of things to be successful.”
  • Making An Impact: Anne, together with her husband, an attorney and social justice activist who also serves as the chair of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, were both sponsors of California Proposition 36, an initiative to change the Three Strikes Law. Almost 4,000 individuals were in prison for life as young minorities for doing simple, “dumb” mistakes, Anne shares, like stealing a piece of pizza or having a small amount of marijuana on them. The law successfully passed, with 75% of voters—both Democrat and Republican.
  • Making The Return: “When we had such great success [passing the bill] we thought, ‘There’s more to this story,’ especially when we started talking to people in the prisons who were hoping to be released and hearing about the impact of their incarceration on their families and their communities. In the documentary, which Anne helped produce and finance, formerly incarcerated individuals were followed for a few years as they re-entered society and shared their stories about the transition.
  • Her Mission: “My goal is to empower women to believe that they can effect change for themselves and for other people much more than they ever thought, and to start forming their own versions of safe communities where together we’re stronger, and start trying things we might never have tried that help us grow as individuals and communities,” Anne says.
  • Connect: Follow Anne on Twitter and Instagram and Parlay House on Twitter.

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