Executive Suite: CaringBridge’s Sona Mehring On Being The One Woman In The Room

Every week The Grindstone interviews an influential woman in the world of business. We scour our brains and hearts to come up with strong, successful women who not only inspire us, but will also inspire you. No industry is off limits, no interview subject too controversial.

Sona Mehring had no intention of creating a new career for herself when she set up a simple website as a favor back in 1997. A close friend was going through a high-risk pregnancy, and Mehring, a consultant trained as a computer programmer, built a website to help family and friends to share information throughout the medical ordeal.

With the software architecture in place, the site grew to include other users. But it took five years for Mehring to admit that CaringBridge could become her career. In 2002, after five years of treating it like a side project to her consulting business — “the proverbial burning the candle at both ends” — she took the steps to turn the site into a nonprofit organization and devoted herself to it full-time.

CaringBridge allows people going through major medical events to create a web page where they or their friends and family can post updates, photos, and words of encouragement. It lifts a huge burden by allowing people undergoing, say, chemotherapy treatments, to stay connected with a wide circle of support without going through the exhausting process of calling or emailing everyone one by one. And the rise of Facebook has not made CaringBridge obsolete: Mehring’s site differentiates itself as a safe, advertising-free space where visitors won’t be turned off by medical details since they have come there specifically for that kind of news.

Nine years after taking her site full-time, Mehring’s Minneapolis-based organization has 70 employees, and CaringBridge has had about 43 million unique visitors within the past year. A half a million people visit each day, either to post medical updates or to check in on or post a message for a friend or family member who is suffering. While the site was designed for medical events, Mehring (who serves as CEO) says other uses have cropped up organically, including international adoptions and military deployments.

Mehring talked to The Grindstone about how she got started, where she sees the site headed, and her “frying-pan-over-the-head” moment.

What was your first job? I was a computer science major, and my very first job was as a programmer.

How did you choose computer science as a major? I started as a nursing major, but after biology and chemistry class and labs, I was sort of bored by it. So how do I choose a new major? I look up highest placement and highest starting salary: computer science. I decide to give it a try! I loved it and it came very easily to me.

What it was like to be a woman in computer programming, which is such a male-dominated field? I really did and do embrace it.  Growing up with two older brothers and no sisters, perhaps I was already used to it. Early in my career, I didn’t put a lot of thought into it – I just did my job and did it very well.  It wasn’t until maybe five years into my career when I thought, “Why aren’t more women going into this field?” The field needs more women in the mix.

Did you ever feel like being a woman either worked for or against you in the various phases of your career, from programmer to independent consultant to CEO? My education and my early career found me, many times, the only woman in the room. Early on, I did not find this to work against me. To the contrary, once everyone found out I knew what I was doing, it set me apart. I guess you could relate it to the only woman on a sports team holding her own. I never felt uncomfortable or out of my element. As I began to get more experience and had the desire to be in more leadership positions, there were a couple of times I felt overlooked. I was at a large company at the time. My solution was to strike out on my own and not get too caught up in a big “machine.” I left the large company behind and did very well.

CaringBridge really anticipated the social media revolution. Were there many other sites that offered that kind of experience back in 1997? In hindsight, it really was a pioneer of social networking before that phrase was around! That’s true for many aspects of the site: It includes blogs (which didn’t really exist then), user-generated context (didn’t exist), and social networking.

Why did you decide to make CaringBridge a non-profit, rather than a more traditional business model? Well, it has always been somewhat of a labor of love. I created it to respond to a personal need, so that was its genesis. The type of conversation happening on CaringBridge never felt like it should be overly monetized. I never wanted to be selling flowers, for example. People are in a certain situation when they’re using the site, so that needed to be protected.

The other thing is until 2002, the families that used it would often just send me money. So it was a frying-pan-over-the-head of a business model — that this could be a charitable organization.

How has the site changed since you launched? Well, we continue to update the technology. Every two years, the infrastructure needs to change. But the biggest impact in the last three to five to years has been the advent of other social-networking sites, and the explosion of personal devices. Things are off the desktop and in people’s hands now; social networking happens everywhere people are. So that’s been the biggest change in how we need to deliver the service. But the basic genesis is still there: connecting people when they’re going through a significant health journey.

Do you have advice for young women who might be interested in starting a business? It’s somewhat cliche, but doing something you love to do and following your passion, you can never really go wrong. One line that someone told me early on was: Jump and the net shall appear. … I combined my passion for technology with a passion for the health care field and helping people. Tech is seen as cold, hard, and impersonal, and I’m bringing that to a service that has an emotional feel.

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