Do What You Love Interview  – Alison Qualter Berna


Every week in our Big Interview we celebrate people who have dreams, drive and passion. And one lady who has all three in abundance is the amazing Alison Qualter Berna. Alison is a mum, a businesswoman and an adventurer who thrives on helping to bring out the best in others. She loves a challenge and recently guided the first blind runner across the Grand Canyon. She can also do a headstand on a paddle board and we think that’s pretty awesome! If ever you needed inspiration to get out there, do what you love and live life to the max, this is it…  – Rachel

profile pic for linked in

1. How are you doing what you love?

About eight years ago, I started a business in New York City called apple seeds with my husband Bobby Berna, and my close friends Allison and Craig Schlanger.

the four of us_may 2013Alison and Bobby (R) with close friends and business partners, Allison and  Craig Schlanger (L)

Apple seeds is an all-in-one play space focused on families with children newborn to five years old. We have an indoor playground that is open seven days a week, and we run over 100 children’s classes in music, art, movement, ballet, cooking, science, construction and more. We host birthday parties and events, we have a children’s retail store with toys and books, a snack bar, and a children’s hair salon.

While work is busy, it is also incredibly gratifying. I get to work with my husband, and my son Jack comes to apple seeds for classes a few days a week, and you know you’re doing what you love when “going to work” means spending time with your 4-year-old. My twin daughters Madeleine and Sydney, now 9 years old, came to work with me nearly every day as they were growing up, and I spent many hours playing with them and helping them learn – while at the same time observing apple seeds classes, writing curriculum and evaluating teachers. Bobby and I feel lucky and gave up a lot in our previous careers to have this advantage while raising our kids.

Berna Family photoAlison with husband Bobby, son Jack and twin daughters, Madeleine and Sydney

I have flexibility in my schedule each day, which is something I covet. Working for yourself means you get to make your own hours, and although I must devote a lot of energy to my work, I create each daily schedule around my kids’ school or activities, the needs of my family and friends, and my personal interests. I also don’t forget to make time for what is important to me outside of being a parent and business owner. I carve out time for my friends, and I block out time every single day to either practice yoga, run, or do some other form of exercise.

2. You’re an inspirational mompreneur… how do you manage running a flourishing business and being a mum-of-three?

I’d be lying if I said it was easy. I think when I accepted that true work-life balance is not necessarily an achievable goal but more of a daily aspiration, I started putting less pressure on myself. I decided that “mommy guilt” was neither productive for me nor beneficial to my kids, so I try my best to let it go. Some days, all of the pieces fall into place – I can drop my kids off at school, get in a great exercise workout, be productive in meetings at work, help my kids with their homework and still be social and see my friends. Other days, it feels like I’m running in a hamster wheel and I’m not sure I can keep up with my email inbox and my social life and the demands of running a business and household at the same time. But I just accept that it’s not easy. I see if I can make heavy things feel lighter, and most importantly, I focus on going to bed each day feeling satisfied.

3. What’s your philosophy on life?

This is a hard question because I hold on to several philosophies on how to live my life. First, I’d say that I often imagine myself in old age looking back asking this simple question, “What is the story I ultimately want to tell with my life?” It’s a useful exercise since it helps me keep things in perspective and guides my focus on what’s most important. It also allows me to live more fully in the present moment, recognizing the limited time we have on this planet.

Second, I am a “glass-is-half-full” person, so I tend to avoid negativity and aim to be with positive people who look through a similar lens that I have for life: finding beauty even in the mundane, seeking knowledge with honest curiosity, and living a more adventurous life. I try to surround myself with people who bring out my best self, and I thrive on helping to bring out the best in others.

Third, my dad has been a huge part of my overall philosophy on life and while he never lectured, he simply led by example (something I try to do in raising my kids). What I took from him are a few things: I talk to the doorman in the same way I talk to a CEO; I try to make a difference in everything I do, recognizing that to inspire or change even one person, can make a tremendous impact; and I focus on what he calls “the golf balls” – my kids, my family, my friends, my health and my happiness. The rest – work, money, life’s dramas – it all comes and goes. I hold on to what matters and I am guided by both empathy and love.

4. Your latest passion project took the form of an immense challenge: a 28-hour nonstop trek across the Grand Canyon. Tell us about it…

When I turned 40, I made my bucket list of goals and hopeful ideas, knowing that the second half of my life was approaching and I didn’t want to wait. I decided I would take on one personal adventure a year – something new, something challenging, some exercise/fitness related. I met my friend Charles around that same time and together we took on the first challenge: doing 15 yoga classes in 5 days.

paddleboard headstand Headstand on a paddleboard!

IMG_3844Doing yoga with Charles

Next we did a half-ironman race and then Charles inspired me to take on the Grand Canyon challenge. Called “rim to rim to rim,” the 46-mile run includes 22,000 feet of elevation change over rugged terrain on narrow trails. Our journey started at the South Rim, went down across the canyon floor, up to the less visited North Rim and back again. We invited our friends Dan and Brad to run it with us… in one day. Dan, one of my inspirations, went blind in his 30s due to a degenerative eye disease called cone-rod dystrophy, and then he became a runner. We guided Dan throughout the 28 hour non-stop journey and he made history as the first blind athlete to complete such a feat.

the five of us at phatom ranch in the canyon

5. With so many other demands on your time, how and when did you find the time to train for such a huge adventure?

In order to guide Dan across the Grand Canyon, I needed to train. A lot. As a working mother of three, I share the daily struggle of thousands of woman trying to achieve an elusive work-life balance. I constantly toil between wanting to be involved in my kids’ school and never missing one of their activities, with managing apple seeds, alongside my husband Bobby and my partners Allison and Craig. We are currently in the midst of launching our national franchise program, and I felt as if I never had enough time for work, or enough time to train adequately for this intimidating endurance challenge. I would sometimes feel guilty even squeezing in an hour-long exercise class, let alone the hours and hours of trail running I needed to do to get my body ready to take on 46 rugged miles in the Grand Canyon.

But I did it. I simply made the time. I often felt torn about missing work. And yes, I sometimes felt guilty about not being with my kids. But I also realized that I was a better mother and a better business owner and probably a better person when I made time to run outside on trails or practice my beloved yoga. At first, I felt selfish forcing in time to train, but I had no choice. Dan was counting on me to be in shape and to guide him. And over time, I realized that it wasn’t healthy always to put myself last. As I made time to train, I began to feel happier and healthier.

yoga on walden pond 5Practicing yoga on Walden Pond

The best way to get in shape for this kind of feat is by cross training. In the months prior to the run, I would take off at least one full day from work and dedicate it to running trails with elevation on Bear Mountain, just outside of New York City. I ran a couple of times per week, practiced yoga a couple of times per week, and went to spin or ‘barre’ class, (similar to a total body conditioning class) at least once a week. To avoid injury (and to fight off a brutal periformis/hamstring tear), I went to acupuncture or sports massage therapy as often as I could squeeze it in, and I made sure I had days to rest.

training on bear mountain Training on Bear Mountain 

6. What was going through your head when you arrived at the Grand Canyon knowing you were about to scale dizzy heights with someone else’s life in your hands?

I felt excited. I felt ready. I felt intimidated. I felt lucky. I felt nervous to guide Dan safely, as I had never guided a blind athlete in a race before, let alone on such rugged terrain and with no guidebooks. Dan’s patience and his ability to adjust to each of our verbal cues was what allowed us to succeed. He never got frustrated, he adapted to each of our unique ways of guiding, and we all supported each other. The four of us developed a camaraderie and a bonding that we still maintain today.

Having fun on the north rim Having fun on the north rim

7. Was there ever a point where you questioned if you could do it? How did you get through it? 

I think I was always questioning if I could do it, from the day I began training, until we began running at 5:20 am. When I finally let this feeling go was at the North Rim, the halfway point on the other side of the Grand Canyon. Scaling up its side was the most treacherous part of the journey, including miles of sections with one thousand foot drop offs that, with one missed step, would lead to certain death. This was also the section where I was Dan’s primary guide, so I felt the added pressure to also keep him safe.

nearing the thousand foot drops_north rimNearing one of the thousand foot drops at North Rim

When we got to the top, I felt a deep sense of relief. My fear of the unknown was now behind me. I now knew what the journey looked like, I had passed through the scariest parts and came out fine, and I guided Dan safely. Now all I needed to do was repeat it.

guiding dan across the streamGuiding Dan across the stream

I had my point of lowest energy at about 3:30 am. at Phantom Ranch, a midway point on the canyon floor where we stopped for 20 minutes to refuel, fill our water supplies and appreciate a full lunar eclipse. My friends reminded me that my two 9-year-old daughters wrote me letters and had hid them in my Camelbak. I pulled them out at the most perfect moment and their words carried me through to the end with phrases like: “Don’t stop now Mommy, you can do it!” and “You’ve worked so hard to get here, I’m so proud of you!” and “You inspire me Mommy, I can’t wait to see you at the end, keep going, I love you!” It was all I needed. All that time I took to train and the guilt I sometimes felt, it was as if it dissipated into the cool air of the canyon in that very moment. I had a revelation that all my kids truly want is my happiness, and what they need is a role model.

Do What You Love Interview  – Alison Qualter Berna IMG 2367 e1418840002645


Do What You Love Interview  – Alison Qualter Berna IMG 2365 e1418845587740Do What You Love Interview  – Alison Qualter Berna IMG 2446 e1418845662334

Deep down, we all knew that Dan’s completion would inspire countless athletes and children affected by blindness. With that as our unspoken guiding light, in 28 hours, we never really broke down. Each of us had different moments of frustration and despair, and when one of us would get too cold or seem lower on energy, another one of us would become the cheerleader and move us along.

IT band injuryHaving physio

We did a lot of ‘present moment’ appreciation, which allowed us to enjoy our magnificent surroundings. But Dan’s fortitude to keep going is, what I believe, carried all of us. Dan describes his blindness as “an inconvenience rather than a disability.” Instead of focusing on what he cannot do, he explores what he can do. And so we did too.

8. How did it feel when you all reached the end? What had you learned? 

As we edged closer to the final ascent up the South Rim, I saw the shapes of my three kids and my husband and several of my friends who came out to the Grand Canyon to cheer us on… I felt complete and utter joy.

the final ascent up the South Rim 2The final ascent up the South Rim

I felt relief that we got Dan across and back safely and I felt victorious. I actually started thinking about what our next adventure would be, right in that moment, before we even finished.

with family at the end! 2Reunited with her family at the end of the challenge

When I look back on the entire journey, I think I learned five valuable life lessons that are now infused in my being.

First, I learned that I need more confidence in myself. In the months leading up to this adventure, I relied on my friend and training partner Charles to remind me (on a daily basis) that I could do this crazy thing. Looking back, I think I knew I could do it all along, but fear and lack of confidence stopped me from fully believing it.

Second, I learned that I enjoy setting goals. My post-40 promise to take on “one adventure a year,” was now alive. I embraced my obvious preference to be outdoors and take on athletic endurance challenges to not only feel strong, but also allow me to explore the world. Running the width of the Grand Canyon and back in one day exceeded my expectations, and as I reached the final few steps, I felt a deep sense of accomplishment. That feeling won’t leave my mind or heart too soon, and I would never know that feeling if I had not tried.

Third, I learned that my kids want a lot of things from me as a mother, but ultimately, they simply want me to be happy. What they need is my unconditional love and my unfettered support in their schooling, activities, hopes and dreams. Through this past year of training, I grew even closer to my children, as I began to realize some of my own dreams. I’ve watched as they’ve absorbed my journey into their little minds, and I hear them setting their own goals, believing they can do anything… if they put their mind to it. I think they already realize that trying something is more important than thinking about something, and they understand that a working mother is also a woman with her own hopes and dreams. This is a powerful message.

Do What You Love Interview  – Alison Qualter Berna IMG 30021 e1418849464174

Fourth, I learned that I deeply need the loving friendship and support I have around me. My husband Bobby, my business partner and closest friend Allison, the many women I am so fortunate to call my friends, and my friend and training partner Charles. Without each of them, quietly reminding me to keep going, never judging me when I broke down after spinning my feet in the hamster wheel, and devotedly holding my hand along the way… I learned that love and friendship are the guideposts in my survival guide, the most fundamental part of my ability to be resilient and keep going.

A&A headshot togetherWith business partner and closest friend, Allison

Finally, I learned how lucky I am to be able to do this crazy run. Throughout the sometimes hilarious, sometimes grueling 28 hours, I felt, above all else, gratitude. I was overwhelmed with gratitude simply for having my eyesight. Guiding Dan was a way for me to help another person, sharing something extraordinarily powerful with someone who needed me. But it was also somewhat selfish. Guiding Dan enabled me to shift my mind from my own fear of possibly taking a wrong step to certain death, or transfer any pain I may have felt from swollen, blistered feet. As I’d run or hike, I would sometimes close my eyes for a few seconds and try to feel what it was like for Dan. As we ran through the night, and I could see only a few feet of light in front of me, shining from my headlamp. But looking up at Dan, I did not feel frustrated but rather grateful for those few feet of comfort. I knew that the sun would rise, the trails would become clear again and I would once again see the beauty of the canyon. Dan would never be able to see its glorious paths, its varied ecosystems and the magnificent colours reflecting off its walls.

An incredible achievementAn incredible achievement

9. You created such a buzz around Blindness Awareness Month back in October. How much did you raise for the Foundation Fighting Blindness and the Blind Institute of Technology? 

We raised a lot of awareness in the U.S. media about this cause getting coverage from CBS Evening News, FOX, Outside Magazine and many other media outlets. We also raised over $10,000 in one month for two organizations, each with a unique focus. Foundation Fighting Blindness is an international organization working on scientific research for treatments, and aims to find a cure. The Blind Institute of Technology is a Colorado-based nonprofit that focuses on the 20 million Americans who are blind and aspires to support the working age set find meaningful employment. They also work to educate employers.

We are now raising money and seeking corporate sponsorship for a short film series that will highlight our continuing adventures as a way to inspire children who are blind, athletes who are disabled, and really all people who face an obstacle to their dreams. I believe we all have something that holds us back – be it big things or little things. Our hope is to inspire people to stop thinking, and just act to do what they love.

10. It’s your mission to do an adventure a year, what’s in the pipeline for 2015?

In the fall of 2015, Dan, Charles Brad and I (our same Grand Canyon team) plan to run a non-stop ascent of the Inca Trail to the Peruvian Historical Sanctuary and UNESCO World Heritage Site Machu Picchu. The trek from the town of Cusco on the Urubamba River and ascends from approximately 9,000 feet above sea level to over 13,000 feet above sea level. Hikers typically make the trek in four days, but we will attempt to complete the ascent nonstop. If we are successful, Dan will again make history as the first blind athlete to complete this feat.

We are also gathering sponsors and plan to produce a film series focused on overcoming obstacles, realizing the potential to inspire others after the amazing media coverage post-Grand Canyon. We hope to raise even more awareness about blindness and disability in sports specifically, but also about overcoming obstacles more generally. Each one of us faces our own type of adversity – from the more common ‘not enough time’ or ‘not enough confidence’ or ‘fear of the unknown’ to the more debilitating disability or disease. Our hope is to inspire others to create more adventure, set goals and then reach those goals with resiliency, tenacity, positivity and confidence.

Alison’s snapshot…

Happiest place: When I am with my three children, Madeleine, Sydney and Jack – either when we are lazy at home and reading, or when we have our daily family sunset moment on our favorite beach in Costa Rica, where we spend every summer. I’m always happy on my yoga mat, and when I carve out time to spend with my closest friends.

Quickest way to relax: By breathing into the moment which gives me perspective and reminds me of the challenge in mastering the art of letting go. Practicing yoga, running on trails and hiking are also my favorite ways to truly relax.

Trickiest yoga position you’ve ever mastered: I have three! A one arm handstand, holding steady in a full straddle split handstand, and doing a handstand on my friend’s hands (a pose from acroyoga). I’m now working on exploring more acroyoga poses, and also pressing up to handstand from crow pose.

handstand at the grand canyonIMG_1687

Best way to stay focused: Desire.

Mantra of the moment: Listen to and look for the signs from the universe, they are usually pointing the way.

Most inspiring book you’ve read: This one is really hard for me as I’m usually reading three or four books at a time, depending on my mood… If I had to choose, I’d say Meditations from the Mat and any poetry compilation by Pablo Neruda.Describe yourself in three words: Empathetic, Curious, Ambitious. And passionate. I can’t leave that one out.


Quote you live by:  There are too many to choose from! (Incidentally, I collect quotes). At this moment, these are my top three:

1) “As we let our own positive light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.” – Marianne Williamson,

2) “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning how to dance in the rain.” – Vivianne Greene.

3) “I remembered that the real world was wide, and that a varied field of hopes and fears, of sensations and excitements, awaited those who had courage to go forth into its expanse…” – Charlotte Bronte, from Jane Eyre

Wish for the world: Less negativity, less narcissism, more tolerance, more smiling (it’s contagious!)