Sometimes it seems as if we are all pioneers exploring the frontiers of our lives, but without a complete map and never fully knowing where the next bend in the road will take us. Michelle Ubben, newly appointed President of Sachs Media Group, is a pioneer familiar with unmapped terrains in the field of public relations and media, along with navigating a career, marriage, motherhood in a blended family and caring for an aging parent. This uncharted life is Michelle’s big adventure, and as she embarks on a new leadership role at Sachs Media, she shares her story for all of us to put into our backpacks (or purses, laptop or diaper bags) as fellow pioneers heading into our own frontiers.
Michelle Ubben grew up in New Jersey in a large, extended family. Her parents were first-generation Americans and remarried widowers with children from her father’s first marriage, so Michelle learned early on not to draw straight lines—or any lines at all in a family. “Step” or “half” are not words that her family uses. “One of the most beautiful things in my life was to grow up in and also help establish a family that loves each other beyond blood lines.”
After discovering an aptitude for journalism in high school, Michelle moved to Florida at age 17 with her recently retired parents and planned to attend the summer semester at the University of Florida. Sitting alone on her dorm bed, homesick, without a roommate and nursing a major head cold, she was overcome with a “life at a crossroads feeling.” She was either going to drive north to New Jersey or south to her parents’ home in Port St. Lucie, Florida. “I showed up at my parents’ house at 3 a.m. They were unhappy and told me I was going to have to find a job.” She applied to be a reporter at a local newspaper, but the editors did not take her seriously until she meticulously researched stories and turned in articles that the newspaper was happy to publish. They gave her a job over the summer, which turned into a full-time staff position.
A year later, she restarted her college career at the University of Central Florida as a journalism major and wrangled her professional journalism experience into a successful internship and job at the Orlando Sentinel (then the Sentinel Star.) After graduating, she moved to Tallahassee to begin a 14-year career in state government as communication director for four state agencies and started a family with her first husband while also completing a master’s in rhetoric from Florida State University.
Looking back on this time and her journey, Michelle seems to have found her life’s path by wayfinding—taking one step at a time and pausing to adjust her steps and find her way. This is echoed by Michelle when she talks about her oldest daughter (Caroline), who was adopted after spending her first four years in foster care. “I adopted her when I was 24 and she was 5. She had moved around a lot, and all I knew was that I wanted to give her a family where she could settle in and know that she wouldn’t be leaving anymore. I was scared at first, but step by step, we figured out how to be a mother and daughter together.”
Along with learning how to be a mother to an adopted daughter, giving birth to her son (Josh) was transformative. She says, “Carrying a child, giving birth, and falling in love with my son changed me. I actually considered changing careers to become a midwife and help other women navigate that territory.” After going through a divorce and finding herself a single mom, she had to find her way anew.
The unknown frontier of where Michelle’s life was headed was in her thoughts while awake, but also while she was asleep. She says she had a recurring dream about walking the halls of her home. “I would open a door and discover a whole new room, floor or part of the house that I didn’t know was there. It filled me with excitement and seemed to be a symbol of my life—that there were new frontiers I hadn’t discovered yet.” That dream took real form when she met and married Matt Ubben. To Michelle, their marriage represented one of the new rooms in her dream and opened up a door to her, adding “second mom” to her titles of adoptive mom and birth mom. “When I met Matt, who was widowed with a 4-year-old (also named Caroline) and a 2-year-old (Matthew, Jr.), I felt like everything about my birth family and my life so far had prepared me for this. I knew we could make a blended family work.” Their marriage was unexplored territory for both of them as they embarked on a fresh start. They were later blessed to add two more children to their blended family with the births of their fifth and sixth children, Grace and Jack.
Touchingly, when Michelle was helping Matt go through some of his things in storage, she found a notebook that his first wife, Mandy, kept by her hospital bed to write her part of conversations when she was too ill to speak. Michelle came across a page on which there were only four words written—“Who has the kids?” Michelle says, “It stopped me. In my heart, I answered her, ‘I do.’ I made a copy of that page and keep it in my Bible.”
Even though she has the big family she had always dreamed of, literally and figuratively, she continues to rely on the wayfinding aspect of her faith to be her travel guide, especially when it comes to finding a life balance. “It’s not easy to balance work and home—every woman who has a foot in these worlds struggles to find her footing.” She described a time when she was heading into a church-sponsored women’s retreat weekend, right after being profiled as a master of balancing work and family. “The article made it sound like I was this guru of balance who had cracked the code on making all of this work. Yet, I didn’t feel like I was really very balanced at all.”
Since Michelle did not have much practice in reading scripture, the retreat leader suggested that one good way for her to get started was by reading one chapter in the book of Proverbs a day, since there are 31 chapters. Because it was the 11th day of month, Michelle opened up her Bible to Proverbs 11:1 and read, “A false balance is an abomination to the Lord, but a just weight in His delight.” She was stunned and says, “Talk about God speaking directly to me! It was then that I knew that the balance I needed to achieve was not just work and family, but prioritizing my spiritual life and time with God.”
Along with keeping her faith in the center of the balance see-saw, Michelle says, “Truly, Matt and I could not have raised six children, blended a family and managed demanding careers without my mom. Now, at 97, she lives with us and needs our help. That’s the full-circle nature of family.”
Michelle acknowledges that her journey hasn’t been a straight climb up the ladder of success, but more like finding her way up the switchback paths of the mountain of perspective. And, sometimes, that involves blind turns.
One such turn was leaving the safety net of her state government position to work with Ron Sachs on a new public relations and media venture 20 years ago. She came into it with the perspective of a working mother of six children, and because of this, she had an integral role in shaping the culture of a workplace into a family-friendly environment, while also helping to steer it toward projects with high-stakes challenges that make deeply impactful, positive changes for clients and communities around the state and nation.
With their journalism roots, Michelle and Ron became a dynamic storytelling team, and the firm grew from 3 employees to 30 and offices in 4 cities, with clients such as Pfizer, Lyft, the Florida League of Cities and the American Chemistry Council. “Many clients struggle with how to tell their stories. We listen and then help our clients craft a narrative that’s customized and compelling, that people can relate to and that moves them to action.” Many of those award-winning storytelling campaigns have the handprint of Michelle’s passion for children and families, including campaigns to rebrand Florida’s public adoption system and promote child abuse reporting.
The firm has flourished and expanded its expertise into crisis, social and digital strategy, research and Emmy Award-winning video production. Now, a new frontier approaches again as Michelle steps into the role of leading Sachs Media Group as its President in June. Ron will continue to serve as CEO, providing overall strategic counsel and taking the lead on business development and crisis management accounts. Ron says that Michelle’s greatest contribution has been finding and cultivating top communications talent in the state. “Our strength is our team, and Michelle has had the biggest role in building that team and creating a culture where success and credit are shared.”
Taking the helm of one of Florida’s top public relations firms at a time when the communications field is changing rapidly represents an exciting new frontier with almost unlimited possibilities for pioneers. “There’s never been a more exciting time to be a communicator—more ways to connect with audiences, less dependence on advertising, more authenticity, more room for creativity in developing original content, and a greater recognition of the power of storytelling. This is a time of tremendous innovation, the most exciting time of my career.”
The duality of Michelle’s affable personality and purposeful leadership style is rooted in the confidence and support she has found in her marriage, family life and faith, along with the mutual respect of Ron and her coworkers—her second family. “A stable society depends on strong families and thriving children, and employers play a big role in making that possible. As women, we need to believe in our own talents and skills and then negotiate terms that work for us in all the roles we play. It’s been gratifying for me to be part of creating a healthy work culture that makes a difference in the lives of the people we work with.”
Life’s Work Moments
It’s when Michelle pauses in her many roles and pursues another kind of work, working in her garden, that she will most often reflect on the moments that make up her life’s work—the seeds she has planted and helped to grow and the people in her life who have nurtured and sustained her on her own journey and helped her find her way. As she continues to lead others up the next mountain and to the next frontier, she knows that the view will be worth it. “I’m blessed beyond any understanding and so aware that my cup runneth over. No matter what your work is, it is a delight when you recognize and use the talents God has given you. Work is what we are created to do. If you wake up every day and are in awe of your life’s work, you will find direction and purpose and can be a blessing to others.”
By Heather Thomas
Originally published in Tallahassee Woman Magazine | May 31, 2017