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October 3, 2012

Who's the Boss?

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amy guggenheim shenkan

Photo Credit: Emily Shur

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Amy Guggenheim Shenkan President & COO, Common Sense Media

Las year, Amy Guggenheim Shenkan found herself on the hot seat. Less than two months into her job as president and chief operating officer of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco — based nonprofit that advises parents and kids on how best to use media and technology and which boasts board members like Chelsea Clinton and TV producer Marcy Carsey, she testified at a contentious Senate hearing on privacy issues and mobile devices alongside top execs from Facebook, Apple, and Google. "I felt like I was cramming for a final exam," jokes Shenkan, 47. You'd never have guessed it, though — Shenkan was the picture of cool, blending right in with tech's top dogs. Having spent years as a swashbuckling Web entrepreneur before transitioning to her current role as an influential children's advocate, she's always been drawn to big personalities with big ideas. As a senior at the University of Michigan, she won a coveted slot in General Electric's prestigious financial management training program, a position she decided she wanted only after reading up on its legendary ball-busting CEO, Jack Welch.

Shenkan later attended Harvard Business School before moving to San Francisco for a consulting gig with McKinsey & Co. The Bay Area was teeming with up-and-coming tech revolutionaries, and Shenkan got caught up in the fervor. "I saw the Internet transforming industries, and I wanted to be a part of it," she says. "My feeling is, no pain, no gain."

There'd be plenty of both.

She took a job as a product manager for 3DO, a video game startup founded by Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins. Ten months later, the company's bad business model caught up to it — it was trying to sell an $800 video game machine when its competitors' went for $100, she says — and she lost her job. The takeaway? "Do your homework," she says wryly.

She fared far better at Preview Travel, then the third-largest online travel agency. As senior vice president of business development, she helped lead a merger with Travelocity, after which bookings more than doubled to $1.2 billion a year. "I was in my early 30s, and we had taken this industry that didn't exist five years earlier and put it on the map. It still feels exciting to me to this day."

When Travelocity's headquarters moved to Dallas, Shenkan, flush with cash from the merger — "Let's say that I did well and feel very fortunate" — decided to take some time off, tech-mogul-style, jetting off to Africa and Belize, then returning for "playdates" around a friend's pool, where she sipped cocktails and hired masseuses. The downtime gave her the chance to contemplate a personal goal: getting married and having a family. "Work had consumed me. When I left [Travelocity], I said, 'This is a huge priority for me, and I need to carve out time to make it happen.'" So, with her usual type A aplomb, she set out to find romance, organizing outings, like the Jewish singles event where she met her future husband, Ed Shenkan, who runs a medical technology investment advisory firm.

Last year, Shenkan was recruited to help run Common Sense Media. Shifting to the nonprofit world was a decidedly different career move for a woman used to advising high-stakes deals and powerful figures — never mind the pay cut. "Clearly I'm not in it for the money," she says, laughing. "It's a fabulous challenge to grow this organization's impact and get a lot more people knowing about it. I mean, I'm working harder now than I did at McKinsey."

Shenkan manages the group's family-minded reviews of video games, apps, and movies; an education group that oversees curricula in more than 30,000 grade schools; and advocacy and research. The job was a natural evolution of her interest in the Internet, only this time, she says, it's become a mission. "I'm a huge believer in the power of technology, but kids' lives intersect with it very differently than adults'," she says, noting her own 7-year-old daughter, Madeline. "Instead of building a business and turning a profit, I'm focused on raising a generation of healthy kids," she says. — Roberta Bernstein

CAREER ADVICE FROM AMY GUGGENHEIM SHENKAN

1 GO WHERE THE ACTION IS. Shenkan moved to San Francisco for a consulting job. But when she saw the nascent tech boom firsthand, she knew she wanted to be a part of it, despite the risks. "My feeling is, no pain, no gain," she says.

2 TAKE CALCULATED RISKS. Shenkan took a job at a Silicon Valley startup founded by a well-known tech entrepreneur. Still, its business model was lousy and the company tanked. The takeaway: "Do your homework," she advises.

3 CLARITY COMES WHEN YOU'RE OFF THE CLOCK. It was only after Shenkan took a break from working that she realized what was missing from her life: a family. "Work had consumed me," she confesses.


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