Parent In Profile: Gymboree Founder Joan Barnes Inspires With “Play It Forward”

joanUpon mention of the 40-year-old international franchise Gymboree, parents everywhere may think of their firstborn’s favorite onesie or their first tumbling class. Hidden behind the brand’s famous children’s wear and classes is the story of an entrepreneur who left a piece of herself with the company she built.

“My story isn’t mine personally,” says Joan Barnes, founder of Gymboree and author of Play it Forward: From Gymboree to the Yoga Mat and Beyond (which she co-wrote with Michael Coffino). “It’s the story of every woman who picks up the book and sees herself in it.”

Barnes’ memoir tells a story many women are afraid to: The road to success that was interrupted by an unforeseen crash-and-burn. In Barnes’ case, the entrepreneurial climb of birthing and nursing Gymboree became a lifestyle rather than a career. Ensuring her business’ wellbeing didn’t leave time to ensure the well-being of her marriage, her children, or herself.

“I couldn’t figure my own life out, I couldn’t fight my way out of it and I needed help,” Barnes says, reflecting on the decision to check herself into a treatment center to address her chronic bulimia in 1990, which she discusses in her book.

The billion-dollar brand that Barnes built didn’t leave her with the stereotypical luxuries of a successful entrepreneur, but rather stripped her of the simple pleasures she once loved. It took a toll on her marriage and on her health.

Nonetheless, after treatment, which resulted in three years away from home, and continued self-growth each day since, Barnes is able to say: “I don’t regret. I probably wouldn’t have done anything differently.”

Barnes explains one of the most important lessons she’s learned since her Gymboree days is this: “If success isn’t on your own terms, there’s no success at all.” Not maintaining this motto was the source of her downfall, she says. She sacrificed her values for the success of the company, but she doesn’t see it as a self-betrayal. At that point in her life, she hadn’t yet defined her personal values with a firm enough strength to hold true to them, she says.

“Yes, I am a go-getter and I am an entrepreneur, but not at the risk of everything else,” she says of what she learned about herself during and after treatment.

She explains that while it’s easy to define your values, the hard part is actually acting upon them. Barnes, as she says, taught herself to “listen in, line up and act out.”

By “listen in,” she’s referring to hearing out all of the voices at our “inner round table.” Barnes explains that the reason we often confuse our values is because we spend too much time asking others what they would do rather than listening to the voices inside of us.

“We’re like Russian dolls, she says. “All of the experiences we’ve had are all still alive inside of us and we need to listen to them and pull lessons from them.”

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Barnes believes we all have the resources inside of us to make any decision we’re faced with. And that is exactly what Barnes did post-treatment. She bought YogaStudios, a business that helped her get more in touch with herself. Under her management, the business grew to multiple locations, and Barnes was back doing what she did best. Although, when she sensed the business was interfering with her values, she pulled out. She sold the company to the national chain YogaWorks and held onto what was important to her.

“It was really new for me to vote for myself over other people,” she says, thankful she was able to listen to her own philosophy.

That moment, the moment Barnes walked away from YogaStudios, was a confirmation for her of all of the work she had put into recovery and self-awareness. Since then, she’s been able to let her values guide her through life.

“As Oprah says: ‘My gut is my GPS,’” Barnes notes about how she lives her life today. “I know myself and I know what I can tolerate.”

Between all of Barnes’ experiences, she says one of the greatest joys of all has been seeing other women relate to her book. For some, it’s the validation needed to share their own story, which is more than she ever could have hoped for.

“We all want to be seen, respected, and validated,” she says. “Seeing the book be that source of validation for some women has been one of the biggest joys of my life.”

To learn more about Joan Barnes, visit!