Guest Post: Celebrating International Women’s Day with Jill Valenzuela Schapiro

My name is Jill Valenzuela Schapiro, and I’m the Chief People Officer at Awesome, the company behind SmugMug, Flickr, and This Week in Photo. I’ve been with the company for thirteen years, growing from Recruiting Director to a C-level executive who oversees our entire people program. It’s been an incredible journey, and I’ve grown an immense amount, but today I’m truly tackling something scary: my first blog. Don’t get me wrong, I love to write, and I have *so* many things to say about this amazing company, but my inner critic often stops me from putting my voice and ideas into the universe. So, in honor of this year’s celebration of International Women’s Day, I’m choosing to step far outside my comfort zone and share part of my story as a woman of Awesome.  

I grew up with a career-oriented mother and saw work as a core part of identity from an early age. Despite this, it took a *lot* of trial and error to discover my own passion and drive, and I found that in tech recruiting—specifically, when one routine cold call led me to a family-owned photography start-up named SmugMug. 

If you’re reading this, chances are you know and love this company just as much as I do today. But at the time, I didn’t know them from a sea of start-ups, and I had three amazing years of recruiting to understand just how special this company was. When they offered me a dream job as their in-house Director of Recruiting, needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity.

As the first member of what was dubbed the “People Team,” I was given the opportunity to grow into a leader overseeing all facets of the employee experience. This was simultaneously terrifying and thrilling. There was so much to do that the first few years felt like a blur, but I had established myself as a senior leader in the company, began building a people program from scratch, and for the first time in my life, I was passionate about my work. What I was doing felt important and challenging. I loved my job, and I had never been happier. Then I unexpectedly became pregnant. 

I need to be honest up front: Having kids was never something I planned for. In fact, I was terrified of being a mom. When I saw the positive pregnancy test, it felt like time froze, and I knew at that moment that, despite my fears and not feeling ready or equipped to be someone’s mother, I was going to have a baby. As my pregnancy progressed, I felt conflicted: While I was surrounded by people celebrating this momentous milestone in my life, I mostly felt anxious because, like many women, I wanted to have it all—a successful career *and* the ability to be a great mother. The societal pressure on women to achieve a perfect balance between work and family is immense, and, for me, it meant a lot of internal struggles and self-doubt. 

Although I knew the kind of company I worked for, and constantly boasted about our incredible work–life harmony and support systems, what I experienced as I entered this new phase of my life still amazes me. As a new parent I was able to take a generous parental leave that I even extended a bit when I realized I needed more time with my son. I created a flexible schedule that allowed me to have a productive work life and a present home life. I even pursued therapy to help me talk through my own conflicted feelings, all with the full and enthusiastic support of my company.

Importantly, it wasn’t just the policies in place, but the compassion I experienced in the day to day that blew me away. On one occasion, my son, dressed in full Batman attire, appeared behind me on camera during an executive Zoom call. Naturally, I felt flustered and panicked that I was disrupting our work—but just then, our CEO Don MacAskill exclaimed, “It’s Batman!” and encouraged my son to come closer so everyone could say hello to the caped crusader. He was greeted with genuine enthusiasm and laughter, and my fears were immediately calmed. These moments, and so many others like them, have allowed me to continue unapologetically prioritizing my family and well-being while pursuing my career. 

I recognize that not every company operates like Awesome. But that’s why I take my role here all the more seriously. As a woman and an executive, I carry an enormous amount of privilege, and I want to use that to ensure we’re creating equitable experiences for all the women who work here, today and into the future. Today, that looks like braving my fears and writing a blog—sharing my story and elevating the stories of other amazing women I work with. But in the big picture, it’s a team effort, every day.

I am fortunate to work with a world-class People Team. They are fiercely committed,  hard working, and deeply empathetic. Together, we have continued to raise the bar every year on what it means to be a people-first organization. As a team, we’ve worked hard to define career levels and promotion processes. We provide coaching for our managers to ensure career-growth opportunities are accessible throughout the entire organization. We’re focused on taking an already generous parental-leave policy and evolving it, to include structured planning before and after that leave so our newly returning parents can better manage this momentous time in their lives. And we’ve grown our employee benefits to encompass mental health, too, offering company-sponsored therapy and coaching sessions to our entire employee population. 

In celebration of this year’s International Women’s Day, I am so proud to represent this company as one of its leaders, and to share the stories of other amazing women I work with. I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude as I look around at the people I’m fortunate to work beside. Together, we support each other, challenge each other, and build an equitable, inclusive environment where women can thrive. I am humbled and honored to be on this journey and look forward to the future we continue building together.