When Publishing Executive named Michela O’Connor Abrams one of its top women in magazine publishing earlier this year — the first of what the magazine plans to make an annual honor — it acknowledged how O’Connor Abrams has led Dwell into a success story. As president and publisher, Michelle O’Connor Abrams has turned the nine-year-old magazine devoted to modern architecture and design into a mini-modern empire, Dwell Media, with a TV show, a design studio, a home-building partnership, an annual Dwell on Design conference, even a limited-edition $120 modern sneaker — all the while raising a daughter, Taylor, now 11.
A working mother almost from day 1, O’Connor Abrams says she owes a lot to her mother and grandmother, her role models, and her husband, Alan, president and founder of Alan’s Wine Cellar. She lives with her family in Mill Valley, CA.
How did you handle childcare in the early years?
I had a boss who let me bring Taylor to work. I was the chief operating officer and I had an assistant who was fantastic. Taylor was like the perfect diversion; she had 50 nannies! And then we hired a nanny and built an apartment onto the house. A year later, Alan and I both started working from home. Even though we had help, I was with her morning, noon and night; we were attached at the hip. She went everywhere with me, even meetings.
By the time she was 2, we took six months off. The dot-com bubble had burst, and we traveled and had a blast. When Taylor was 5, my parents sold their house in L.A., and moved a mile away. I could never have done it without my mom and dad.
It sounds like you had a lot of flexibility.
I did. I had understanding bosses who saw that I was getting my work done. And I remembered that when I was president or CEO, that it was not a privilege only I would get. I always had this policy that we are a better workforce if we understand that life happens and people have children and in order to have a productive workforce, we have to be flexible about it. I was so appreciative of bosses who understood, it made me super-conscientious.
How did you end up as a publisher?
I graduated with a degree in journalism in 1980. I wanted to follow Woodward and Bernstein, and work at a newspaper. That didn’t happen. When I started my career, I honestly didn’t have a plan … to be a publisher, but I kept finding myself in these positions. One day, I said, “OK, I’m a publisher, and now what?” I love what I do, building teams of people.
How did you get started at Dwell?
I’ve always been attracted to the underdog. I met Lara (Hedberg Deam, Dwell’s founder) almost eight years ago, and it was a chance to start something from the ground up. It had been going for about a year.
Dwell’s motto is “at home in the modern world.” How does modern design help families, especially dual-career families?
Modern is a philosophy of living. The basic tenets for us are sustainability and usability and aesthetics. It’s a very cool, simple, open way of living in the home. It doesn’t have the formality of the McMansions.
I imagine most people would think that your house must be magazine-perfect. Is it?
(Laughs) It’s not. Oh, I wish. We have plans to remodel. The house was built in 1990, and we probably have more room than we need.
What are the things about your home that you treasure?
The openness, and that it is such a great entertaining house. I love to cook, and Alan’s in the wine business. It’s such an inviting place.
You’ve helped take Dwell beyond just being a magazine to include a TV show, a home-building partnership, a design studio, even sneakers. How much of the spin-offs are influenced by your working-mom lifestyle?
Our stated mission is bringing modern design to everyone. What I brought to Dwell is that we’re really building a brand around a community of people; that’s how we’ve focused the business. We really know very well the audience we’re delivering to. I can’t point to being a woman or a mom that led me to do that differently. But I was able to focus so much on my career while having a family on a continuing basis rather than having to stop and step out and then come back. I’m not advocating that for everyone, but it was the right thing for me.
The publishing world has changed a lot since you started. How is Dwell changing to adapt to that?
There’s so much change happening that we had to have a much clearer vision of where companies were going to have to go. We have continued to grow in arguably the toughest year. If I approached it in the traditional way, I don’t know where we’d be today.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
It’s tough juggling all the responsibilities. It’s a blessing and a curse to be a small entrepreneurial business. The blessing is that you have incredible flexibility but the curse is that you’re a small company and have no economies of scale. I write way too many reports and it’s hard to split my time. It makes for very long days. But my husband works from home and that’s a huge help. Probably the most important thing is that from day 1, he’s not only been supportive, but my biggest fan. He’s just been an amazing partner, and with him home and having his office there, it’s not two people racing out the door to their jobs.
Who were your role models?
My grandmother got her master’s from Columbia in 1921, and helped found the Golden Gate Kindergarten Association, and then she married my grandfather after her first husband died. Because of her background in education, she encouraged me in a great way, without being pushy, to learn multiple instruments and to explore; she really fostered curiosity and a love of learning.
My mom had me very young, 19, but she went back to school and became a speech pathologist, which she still is. She always said to make learning a priority, discovering and encouraging exploring what you want to do.
Do you see yourself as a role model for your daughter?
I do, but it’s also true about women of my generation and me, women who work so hard, that it can be daunting. I remember going through the phase where it was all about me, and I want to be mindful that she has a right to have it all about her and to say so. They need you around more around age 10. Communication is important, and so is being very clear that’s she’s the center of my life right now. My mother and my grandmother taught me that I can do that.
Dwell publisher and working mother Michela O'Connor Abrams was interviewed by Vicki Larson, Around the Watercooler  contributor. She is a journalist and single mom. She also blogs at The OMG Chronicles .
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