For Lisa Smith, the decision to move to New York from Sydney and start from scratch after a successful career in PR and online retail was not without its challenges, but one that has proven to be fruitful in so many ways…
After a flourishing career in PR that ranged from running her own agency to launching an online store and writing a book (Bondi Style), some would say moving across the globe was a crazy move, but the itch to discover more in another part of the world was too big to ignore.
“I’d always planned to live in either New York or London and it was during a holiday to New York in 2009, that the deal was sealed in my mind – I wanted to relocate to New York (whatever the consequences). I of course wasn’t aware of all the ramifications this move would have and the extreme learning curve it would present. I left my PR agency running and attempted to oversee it remotely for the first year or two, as well as the e-comm business I had, to literally start a new life and my career pretty much from scratch… It was one of those life-defining moves that more than 9 years on has borne fruit, but I still yearn a little for the relaxed and easier way of life in Australia.”
Since her fateful move, The PR Net, her New York-based members-only networking business which helps connect media, brands, influencers and publicists, has gone from strength to strength, while her family has also expanded, with the addition of two small children, Oscar and Lucia.
We caught up with Lisa to find out how life in New York differs from home in Australia, how she juggles the demands of a small family with a growing business, and what PR actually means in 2019, and it gave us invaluable insight into the expat life and all that it entails for work and home. Read on for more.
Can you tell us what prompted you to start The PR Net?
I was consulting at a PR agency here in late 2012 and was tasked to connect with brands and venues for some of their clients’ NYFW events. I couldn’t find a resource or directory for communications pro’s where you could find out who represented which brands, so I started reaching out directly to brands and agencies. I really enjoyed the way we were able to cross-pollinate our clients for mutual benefit and it got me thinking about creating a platform for marketers, communicators and media across different industries to come together.
I met with many industry people I knew and found out what resources they’d like, then built the PR Net site – which we launched in September 2014 with a networking breakfast event at a newly-opened luxury hotel. The magic of bringing likeminded people from complementary fields together and the interest in connecting IRL was evident. Thus spun off the events piece of what we do. When I think about the caliber of members we have within the network now and the venues and brands we host with, I’m floored. It’s super rewarding to bring people together, especially the dynamic type of people who gravitate to our industry.
You had your own PR agency in Sydney for a number of years before you moved to New York. What sparked the move and career shift?
After having spent several years living and working in Sydney, I felt like I had plateaued and perhaps stagnated a little in terms of my personal and career growth. I felt there was more to discover, learn, see and do and that holidays to international destinations weren’t going to suffice – it was living and working in another country that was the challenge I wanted. I’d always planned to live in either New York or London and it was during a holiday to New York in 2009, that the deal was sealed in my mind – I wanted to relocate to New York (whatever the consequences). I of course wasn’t aware of all the ramifications this move would have and the extreme learning curve it would present. I left my PR agency running and attempted to oversee it remotely for the first year or two, as well as the e-comm business I had, to literally start a new life and my career pretty much from scratch. I eventually decided to sell and move on from my Sydney-based activities and put everything into things going on over here. It was one of those life-defining moves that more than 9 years on has borne fruit, but I still yearn a little for the relaxed and easier way of life in Australia.
How do you think the PR industry is different to when you first started?
When I started out, a publicist’s role was mainly to get placements in printed magazines and newspapers. Cut to 2019, the scope of work has now broadened to encompass a holistic 360degree approach to PR, which still includes media relations to a degree, but also influencer engagement, social media, content-driven events and experiential, VIP and celebrity relations and even general counsel about branding, business development and more. It’s probably more demanding now, but much more interesting.
You moved to New York with your husband and now have two small children, can you tell us what the juggle is like now balancing your own business with the demands of motherhood?
Having a business is a challenge in itself, but if you layer on the parenting piece, it can feel quite unrelenting. You’re working in some capacity almost every waking hour. I know this isn’t unique to New York City, but the pace and intensity of this city tends to ratchet it up a lot. Hence the need to escape town as frequently as possible for some peace and perspective.
Was the plan always to establish your career ahead of starting a family?
I wasn’t someone who had a fixed plan about the trajectory my life was to take – I always loved to work so that was what I did. I started my agency at 25 and at that point having children was an abstract idea that I figured I’d get to sometime down the track. When I moved to New York it slightly postponed any baby aspirations as we were just contending with survival and re-establishing ourselves – as well as enjoying all the city had to offer a childfree couple! Once I was pregnant with my first baby, I didn’t have an exact plan around how I’d navigate that with work, I just knew I’d have to continue with my business with a period where I’d work remotely. We hired a nanny to start when the baby was 3 months old and we did everything for the first 3 months solo. That involved many emailing-with-one-hand-while-breastfeeding moments, but luckily my husband and I could both work remotely, so we made it work. I gradually phased in full-time out-of-the-house hours at around 6-7 months. My second baby arrived last May and I did the same, but that time it was with much more confidence, as I knew it had worked the first time around (like so many things with your second!).
What’s it like raising a young family in New York right now?
For the most part, it’s wonderful. The only issues are a general lack of space and a harsher climate in the fall and winter than I was used to. The cultural and recreational activities the kids have access to are incredible and world-class. They also benefit from the diverse range of ethnicities, cultures and family styles that abound. One thing I also love is that we can walk around our neighborhood – we don’t need to pack the kids into a car – and nearly all the amenities we need are within a few blocks.
How do you divide and conquer the daily demands of parenthood with your husband - are your roles clearly defined or do you mix and match responsibilities each week?
We like to strike a very equitable balance in all realms of our lives together, including parenting. I think naturally any couple picks things they like more or have a better ability at – one person may like cooking more, one may like decorating more or be handier around the house, but what’s important is that it’s fairly divided and that all contributions are acknowledged, whether you work out of the house all day or at home with the children. We just look at both our schedules, which change a bit week-to-week and arrange childcare accordingly. One week, my husband might have more on after hours and the next week, I might. We just try to make it work in the fairest and best way we can.
What are some tools and resources you swear by for navigating both business and home life smoothly right now?
On the work front, as we’re planning about four PR Net members’ events a month, event planning app zkipster helps immensely. On a personal level, we don’t have any family in town (or even close to!) so our full-time nanny is our most valued human resource to enable us to work. She’s an absolute godsend and critical in keeping all the ‘balls in the air’.
Do you have any mum-hacks you rely on each day/week?
I live by our family whiteboard (one of the only analog tools that I use!) which has everything from the kids’ classes, to things to buy, to info for our nanny. We also have a digital family calendar so my husband and I can juggle our schedules and obligations. Without these things, there’s no way we could stay on top of all that needs to happen!
You work with many women in various roles within media, how do you think mothers are generally supported in the workplace in the US compared to Australia?
There are positive signs of change, but it varies massively company to company. Some companies give a few months of paid leave to both parents, irrespective of gender or family-style, but this is too rare. Generally, it’s back to work almost immediately for the non-birthing parent and for the women who gave birth, often back full-time within 6-12 weeks. I don’t think parents would choose to go back to an office full-time, but financial realities and expectations from their places of work mean they’re forced to. I believe that employers, especially in this era of the mobile office, must give their employees more flexibility so they can work in-office hours that are more conducive to having a family. They also need to support all parents, not just women, so fathers are able to equally participate in the baby’s first few months. The rigid 9-6 schedule isn’t necessary anymore – if a parent wants to leave the office early to spend time with their kids before they go to bed, but then finishes their work later in the evening, for example, they should be able to. Companies need to look at employees’ output and results versus hours spent at their desks.
I think what Australia does in terms of mandating that mothers’ jobs are held while they can take up to a year off, is pretty amazing. I don’t foresee this happening in the US anytime soon.
What do you love about living and working in New York?
I love the global scale that things take place on; the palpable energy that motivates and inspires; the way that so many people here are connectors and help others achieve their goals. The diversity of experiences you can have in one day here sometimes blows my mind. I also love its proximity to places I like to travel to Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe; with so much to discover in the US too.
If you could give one piece of advice to other women navigating their own business with motherhood, what would it be?
I think this applies to anyone and in all kinds of situations – surround yourself with the best people possible: Your staff, clients, vendors, your childcare professional/s, your friends-as-family… They’re going to be the support network you need to enable your success on the work and home front.