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How the Owners of a Richmond Tech Startup Juggle Work and Family 

click to enlarge MATTHEW THORSEN
  • matthew thorsen

Dad: Ben Kinnaman, robotics engineer, cofounder Greensea Systems
Mom: Jo Strong Kinnaman, clinical psychologist, cofounder Greensea Systems
Kids: sons Britton, 6, and Graeme, 3

It's been a wild decade for Ben Kinnaman and Jo Strong Kinnaman: Move to Vermont. Start a robotics company. Have two sons.

"We have this awesome history of making two big decisions at a time," says Ben. "Let's build a house and start a company. Great! Let's grow a family and grow the company. Perfect!"

The couple, both now 39, spent their twenties studying and working up and down the eastern seaboard. Ben worked offshore doing marine salvage operations and as a manager for an engineering contractor in Washington, D.C., then got a graduate degree in robotics from Johns Hopkins University. Jo earned a PhD in clinical psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and consulted with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and later with the University of Vermont. Since the couple's two sons, Britton and Graeme, were born, she's also been the primary caregiver.

The couple had vacationed in Vermont and decided they wanted to start a family here. So, in 2006, Ben and Jo left Baltimore and built a house in Bolton while they developed Greensea Systems in their Shelburne rental. The company provides integrated technology and equipment for deep-sea unmanned vehicles using software Ben began building and testing more than 10 years ago.

In the early days, Jo helped out with office management and designed the company's logo. "At the beginning," says Ben, "it was just me and Jo and one other engineer."

Today, Greensea has a staff of 15 and is growing fast. In 2014, the company won the Vermont Tech Jam Innovator Award, presented to a business with the most innovative new project, application of technology or way of doing business. It doubled its staff in 2015 and is projected to double again in 2016.

During the last few years, Jo chose to opt out of professional life to stay home with the couple's boys. She recently started consulting again on a part-time basis. Ben and Jo are committed to supporting each other in business and family. And when it's the family business, there's a lot of crossover.

On the risks of starting a robotics business:

Ben: It's an extremely risk-intolerant industry. I knew the tech we were developing would change the industry, and I knew we had exactly one chance.

Jo: I'm risk averse.

Ben: I'm traditionally pretty risk averse, and I'm just wired as a provider. The thought of going into several years of not providing, and not knowing what was next, and knowing that we were gonna cash out all of our chips — it was terrifying.

Jo: Then add a couple chicks to the nest. This may sound hokey, but it's the truth — I wouldn't have done this with any other person. My faith in Ben has never wavered because of his passion and his drive and the fact that the man has come up with this technology that impresses impressive people.

Ben: Well, I couldn't have done it without that faith. You don't have faith in yourself some days. Years and years of technology developments, trying to put brick and mortar into this dream — I don't care who you are, if anybody who has done this says they got out of bed and there weren't days they didn't have faith, they are liars. But when you have a partner who believes in you, that's what it takes to get through those days.

On mixing business and family:

Jo: For me, there was this period of time trying to resist how much the business was a part of our lives. I had this image in my mind of what a balanced life looked like. You shut the door, and the business stays out. But when I came to embrace the idea that the business is a family member who sits down and has dinner with us, life got a lot easier for me.

Ben: Sometimes it's the benevolent uncle, and sometimes it's the drunk aunt!

Jo: When I started to embrace that, things felt different. I had this whole other level of investment in the company. I always had it in Ben, but now in the company.

Ben: Before then, there was resentment, actually, because you were home with a newborn.

Jo: Ben had to travel when Britt was 11 days old. It was our only source of income. So he had to go, and I had to stay.

Ben: Our savings were all in the business at that point. Britt was just over a week old, and I had to get on an airplane. That was tough.

On the traditional marriage they never thought they'd have:

Jo: My main focus and my main job is to be the best mom that I can be. The career aspect is important to me, and I want to do a good job with it, but my time is focused on the boys.

Ben: I think that's how we're able to provide balance for the boys. Jo's so dedicated to the guys that we have the flexibility for me to absorb the bumps and surges with the business. By keeping it sane and logical for the kids —

Jo: And consistent. And I truly believe every woman has got to figure out what is best for her.

Ben: It's not just the moms, though. I think we had to figure out what worked best for our family. Because when we were first together and envisioning what family looked like for us, we never, ever envisioned this very traditional setup for us.

Jo: My parents had an extremely traditional marriage, and I never thought we'd be in a traditional place. You start out with this picture in your mind, and then life happens and you have to have the flexibility to accept that changes will happen. And the end picture may not be what you started with, but it can still be good. It can be great.

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