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How former CEO Shannon Miles solved the work-life balance equation
Shannon Miles
In 2010, Shannon Miles and her husband, Bryan (a fellow remote-worker at the time, actually), founded BELAY, a staffing company of virtual assistants. - photo by Ben Hendren

This article appears in the October issue of  400 Life Magazine

Shannon Miles was going to pick up right where she left off. She was going to jump back into her full-time job at McKesson Corporation selling million-dollar software systems around North Georgia after returning from maternity leave following the birth of her first child.

“That lasted for about three months,” Miles said.

So Miles talked with her bosses at McKesson and created what now, in the midst of a global pandemic, appears to even more closely resemble the future of work: a few days in the office, the rest at home; communicating with co-workers in Zoom meetings and Slack messages; coffee breaks in the kitchen; the end of interminable commutes every weekday.

For five years, Miles fulfilled the majority of her work duties remotely from home in Forsyth County, a near perfect set-up to balance career and family rather than choosing one option or the other. Here was a third option, and it ended up helping to inspire a wildly successful company, book (appropriately titled, “The Third Option”) and lifestyle.

In 2010, Miles and her husband, Bryan (a fellow remote-worker at the time, actually), founded BELAY, a staffing company of virtual assistants. Today, BELAY also offers bookkeepers, social media specialists and website specialists. The company’s 1,100 “team members” all work from home. In August, BELAY made the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the U.S. for the sixth year in a row.

And when Miles and Bryan strategized during BELAY’s infancy about who exactly would make a good team member, they used Miles’s experience as their guide.

“A lot of women have to make that choice when they start a family: What do I do? Do I continue accelerating my career? Or do I make a shift and pare things back?” Miles said. “I knew that that part-time work-from-home situation that I had for five years at McKesson could be something that a lot of women could craft for themselves too.”

Born in Ohio, Miles grew up around the Southeast. Her stepdad was in the military, so the family practiced the nomadic existence of those in the service during her childhood, going from North Carolina to Louisiana to South Carolina. Her family eventually settled back in Ohio when Miles’s stepdad left the military. After high school, Miles went to a small liberal arts college not far from home. She and Bryan met move-in weekend of her freshman year. Miles studied for an eventual career in law.

On trips to visit Miles’s brother in Atlanta, the couple was enticed by the area’s growth and moved to Alpharetta in 1999 after Miles graduated. She took a job at a firm in Midtown. When they decided it was time to buy their first house, they chose Forsyth County. They liked that it, too, was growing, the local school system was among the best in the state, and their church in Alpharetta, North Point Community Church, was just opening a new branch, what is now Browns Bridge Church.

But that meant an extra 20 minutes to Miles’s commute to the law firm downtown. “I just thought that’s a lot of life to be spending in the car,” Miles said. So Miles took a job in the legal department at McKesson Corporation. Later, she was promoted to assistant manager. 

After a few years, Miles decided to switch to sales. She took a junior position. “I always love putting myself in a place of being uncomfortable and seeing if I could rise to the occasion,” Miles said.

In 2005, she and Bryan had their first child, Rainey. Miles returned from maternity leave and was prepared to continue her new career trajectory. They even hired a nanny to help. Still, work was taking its toll. “We were like, OK, this is not for us,” Miles said. “It was just too taxing on our family to continue selling and traveling.”

It was at that point that Miles felt the pressure to make “the choice” women are disproportionately faced with: family or career. Miles rejected those limits. Instead, she went to her bosses at McKesson and worked out a new arrangement. Miles moved into a project management position, much of which she could accomplish from home and at the convenience of her schedule. No, Miles wasn’t racing up the corporate ladder anymore, but she was still using her skills and expertise to contribute to a company’s mission while also being present for her now-growing family. Work-life balance was restored.

The new role worked through 2008 and the birth of Miles and Bryan’s second child, Harper, until 2010. By then, both Miles and Bryan felt their careers were at an “inflection point.” 

“We started talking about what it would look like if we started something of our own,” Miles said. “We had enough business experience. It was varied experience, too. If we came together and did something together maybe we could build something really special for our family.”

Inspired by their own experiences with remote work, they came up with BELAY. Miles and Bryan quit their jobs on Oct. 1, cashed in their 401(k) plans, and got to work. 

The kids were 5 and 2. Their incomes were cut in half. “We were equal parts excited and terrified,” Miles said.

About nine months later, BELAY’s breakthrough came while the Miles family vacationed in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Their first-ever client messaged the couple: Michael Hyatt, an influential leadership personality, had just tweeted that he was looking for a virtual assistant. Bryan reached out to Hyatt. They connected, and a few days later Hyatt had signed up with one of BELAY’s virtual assistants.

Soon after, Hyatt posted on social media about BELAY. A flood of interest followed.

“It was our Oprah moment,” Miles said. “It really was. It was the moment that transformed the validation of our business.”

BELAY continued to grow, and as it did, Miles grew with it. “There were many points, in those first eight years even, of having to expand and grow myself and take the lid off my own leadership,” Miles said, “so that I could be the leader that the company needed me to be.”

She added, “I had to work through feelings of inadequacy, imposter syndrome, of ‘I’m not enough, I’m not worthy of all of this,’ to get to a place of saying, for me, having faith, knowing God called us to do this, that, ‘If not you, then who?’ That’s the phrase that just kept coming up for me over and over again: ‘If not you, then who?’”

In 2018, Miles distilled all of her experience to that point — of solving the work-life balance equation and co-founding a trendsetting company — in her book, “The Third Option: Why a Woman Doesn’t Have to Choose Between a Career and Family, but Can Actually Have Both and Succeed.”

Today, Miles and Bryan are co-chairs of BELAY’s board and have handed over the company to current CEO Tricia Sciortino (who happened to be the first virtual assistant BELAY hired). Miles and Bryan, meanwhile, have embarked on new ventures. They co-own NoFo Brew Co., which opened in North Forsyth in 2019. Most recently, they started Own Not Run, the couple’s vehicle to “help business owners experience the freedom of owning their companies, instead of running them.” 

A concept Miles now knows all about.