Startup Power Couples: Shirley & Eric Paley Met at a Dartmouth Dorm 22 Years Ago

Adam Fraser

This is the fifth story in our Startup Power Couples series. We'll be highlighting couples who both have a heavy hand in our local tech and venture ecosystem. Check out the one from last week

Coming off a long holiday weekend can prompt a painful return to reality. We're hoping to take the edge off for you by moving onward with our Startup Power Couples series. This time, we're talking to Shirley and Eric Paley, a husband-wife duo who has their hands in the VC and legal fronts of startupdom.

Eric is a managing partner at Founder Collective, a seed-stage venture capital fund based in Boston. Shirley recently became general counsel at Catalant Technologies (formerly HourlyNerd). Previously, she served as assistant general counsel and director of IP at Demandware.

So while you're still shaking off that turkey-induced coma, check out what the Paleys had to say to us.

Olivia Vanni: When did the two of you meet?

Eric & Shirley Paley: Scarily enough we met 22 years ago during our freshman year at Dartmouth College. Sadly, neither of us actually remember the first time we met. We were in adjoining dorms and had lots of events together that helped us become really close friends. The summer after freshman year, Shirley's parents had just moved to the U.S. and we had the challenge of navigating via the Throgs Neck Bridge through the treacherous Cross Bronx Expressway and the stagnant George Washington Bridge to see each other. It cost us $11 every time, which at $6/hour summer jobs, felt really expensive. Nonetheless, we endured that trek and started dating that summer. We've been married for 14 years, but our friends would say that we were married that first summer and ever since.

OV: How do you support one another professionally?

EP: The joke at Brontes Technologies was that Shirley ran the company, although she didn't work there a single day. I was so obsessive about the company and so bad at compartmentalizing, that it was pretty much all I talked about at home. Instead of resisting, Shirley just figured that if she couldn't stop me, she should engage and pretty much was my sounding board for every important decision that was ever made at the company. When I'd come to work during a tough moment, my co-founder and now business partner Micah Rosenbloom would often ask what Shirley thought we should do.

SP: Eric is a very smart risk taker and I don't know many lawyers who are comfortable taking just about any risks at all. That's the training of being a lawyer. Always trying to understand and avoid risk. But it's really hard to do anything meaningful or significant without taking risks. Eric encouraged me to take on more risk in my career, first going in-house and more recently joining an earlier stage company. I've found great intellectual excitement in less safe choices than the typical lawyer might make. In my job as a general counsel, the easiest and most risk averse action is to always say no. That's one of the reasons that lawyers get known for being obstacles inside of companies. Eric has always pushed me to consider the business importance of these risks and to always look for more creative solutions: is there a way to get the business objective done while mitigating risk?

OV: How do you handle household chores?

EP & SP: We've been together for more than half of our time on this planet. As a result, we often assume we share the same brain with exactly the same preferences. It's actually really frustrating when we disagree on something that we'd totally assume that we'd have the same view on. It can also be awesome when it comes to disagreeing on what household chores are fun and which are lousy. As a two-career family, we try to share everything as much as possible, but over time we've found that the best allocation of time and effort is for each of us to focus on what we like most and hopefully offload to the other person what we like least. For example, Shirley loves to food shop but hates putting away the groceries (she's already dealt with them once, why does she need to get involved with them again?). Eric hates shopping, but loves putting away groceries as if he's unwrapping little gifts. He pretty much views it as exploring newly found treasure.

OV: Anything you've learned to cope with while being with one another?

SP: I feel like I'm totally a startup guinea pig. Eric pretty much forces me to constantly try new things. Many of them really don't work at all and he spends absurd amounts of time trying to get them to work and explaining away what he considers only temporary flaws. If I had a dollar for every time Eric said, "It's only a beta. Just imagine how awesome it will be" ... I've even considered starting a blog or twitter handle for @startupguineapig but I think that may be too many letters.

EP: I used to consider myself a really good debater and won many of our arguments during the first six years of our relationship. I haven't won a single argument for the last fifteen years since Shirley graduated from NYU Law. Out of pity she sometimes just gives in on something when she knows that she'd inevitably win, just because she doesn't want to hurt my self-esteem.

OV: What do you admire most about the other?

EP: Shirley is more efficient than any person that I've ever met. I don't understand how she does it, but when it comes to making our family work, I'm very grateful. It's such a superpower. From the time we were in college, she could write an A paper in half the time that it would take me to get an A-. Every person she's ever worked for is pretty much blown away by how much she's able to get done in a really thoughtful way.

SP: Eric's passion and his honesty. He gets so obsessed with anything he puts his energy and time into. I can see that every day when he talks about startups and building great businesses.

In terms of honesty, I joke with people that Eric must have taken truth serum at birth. He thinks it's much more important to be candid with people than almost anyone else I know. Sometimes I can't believe what he says to people, because I worry they might not take the feedback well, but it's amazing that he can do it with empathy and people seem to really value his frank approach. I don't think I could pull that off the same way.

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