On Wednesday, May 19, 2021 Costanoa Ventures’ Partner, Martina Lauchengco moderated our panel discussion of Sameer Dholakia, Former CEO @ SendGrid, Kerry Cooper, Former COO @ Rothy’s, Taurean Dyer, Technical Product Manager @ NVIDIA, Annette Felton, Senior Manager, Finance @ Charles Schwab as they shared how we can create workplaces with more intention and diversity.
Check out Martina’s reflections and their best advice in “Allyship is Contagious–Pass it On!”
Following is a transcript of the event
Good morning, and welcome everyone to Seat at the Table. My name is Martina Lauchengco, and I am your host. I am a partner at Costanoa Ventures. We’re an early stage venture firm; the investing companies that change how business gets done, which is exactly why we do Seat at the Table, because we think it’s really important to have more women have more seats at more tables at every level of management in tech. I’ll share with you a personal story of my own of how I experienced this. I was a young product manager at Netscape, and I was asked to interview and assess the incoming graduates from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and see who should join our team. The team interviewed a bunch of folks, and we picked out two great candidates. They happened to both be guys, but the surprise was when I looked at their offer letters and I saw that they were getting paid substantially more than what I was.
I stewed on it for a little bit and decided to ask for a meeting with my boss, Bob. I met with him and said, “Bob, it was really demotivating to interview and hire people into the same job with the same title, on the same team, with less direct experience and see them getting paid a lot more than I’m making.” And he said, “You’re right. I’m sorry, and I’m going to fix it right away.” And he did. I bring this up as an example of how most inequality and lack of diversity or lack of a feeling of inclusiveness happens by accident. It’s because we either lack awareness or the intention to make sure that it’s not happening. And so that’s what today’s conversation’s really going to be about. How do we build the workplaces we want with intention, and what are the tools and techniques we have at our disposal.
We’ve broken up today into three parts. Part one is where we’ll have the women in the workplace data, so we can understand the facts that are confronting us and what we can do about them. Part two is a panel with an amazing group of people who will be sharing their own career journeys and tips and techniques of what’s worked in their workplaces. And the third are individual breakouts that you can choose to be together with an expert and peers to deepen your learning on three different topics. Just to let you know, the panel portion is where all of this is live. Please take advantage of the fact that you can ask questions, and we’ll do our best to answer them during the live Q and A session during our panel. And with that, I’m going to turn things over to Rachel Thomas, who is going to be sharing with us, the women in the workplace data. Rachel Thomas is the CEO and co-founder of The Sheryl Sandberg & David Goldberg Family Foundation, which funds LeanIn. Rachel.
I am so happy to be here. So, hello everybody. I’m going to move through a lot of information quickly, but I know this is a really smart group. Most of the information I’m going to share is from our Women in the Workplace study. For those of you who are not familiar with it, is the largest study of its kind conducted every year in the US. We do it in partnership with our friends at McKinsey & Company.
We entered 2020 looking at the data on the representation of women at every level in the pipeline, and we were cautiously optimistic. The numbers still are not close to where we want them to be, but we were seeing steady progress year over year, particularly in the senior ranks in organizations. And then of course the pandemic hit. In June 2020, last year’s Women in The Workplace study had about 50,000 employees participating.
And one in four women were considering downshifting their career or leaving the workforce due to COVID-19; one in four! At the time, we said if we had a panic button, we would be hitting it. This was an alarming number.
And as we’ve all seen, many women have left the workplace. There’s been a lot of media coverage of this recession. I think we’re all very familiar with those numbers. But what I want to talk about quickly are some of the second-order effects. As I’ve been talking to heads of diversity and heads of HR, a lot of them are waiting, we don’t quite know how this is going to land.
Two things we’re thinking about. The first is the potential impact of burnout. We know a lot of employees of all genders are burnt out, but two groups of women in particular stand out in our data. The first that won’t surprise anyone is mothers. During the pandemic, mothers have been three times more likely than fathers to be responsible for all or most of their household work. And we know women with partners and children are more than actually twice as likely as men in the same situation to feel like they have more to do than they can possibly handle. The other group that really stands out when we think about burnout is senior level women.
And I think it’s really a story of being held to a lot of the same expectations as senior level men, but then having more responsibilities, more emotional work, more of what’s sometimes called office housework, as we’ve been moving through this crisis together, and then more at home. We know that 37% of senior level women feel pressured to work more on top of this, and that’s more than what men at the same level are feeling. And we know that senior level women are one and a half times more likely than senior level men to think about downshifting their career or leaving the workforce. And three quarters of those women cite burnout as the reason.
The big message here is, on top of women leaving the workforce–which is by the way a luxury for so many families that a woman would even be able to make that choice–we need to be worried about women feeling forced to downshift their careers. The women that have already done that throughout the pandemic and the women that still may do that going forward.
The other thing I want to talk about is the potential impact on career progression. For years, if you’ve been following The Women in The Workplace study, we’ve been talking about the broken rung. This is the gap at the first critical promotion to manager. There’s a big gender gap. Men are much more likely to be promoted into that first level of management than women are. And it’s not because women aren’t asking. Men and women are asking for promotions at the same rate. It’s not because of attrition; pre pandemic, women and men were leaving their organizations at the same rates too.
We think a lot of this is rooted in bias, and we think it’s more likely that bias is going to come into play and is coming into play right now. Because what a lot of experts would tell you, when you have less visibility into your coworker’s day to day work, you’ve less visibility into the day-to-day workings of your organization, you’re more likely to rely on snap judgments to make assessments of people, and that’s where bias tends to come into play. The two types of bias I think that are critically important to think about right now are maternal bias, which is also called the motherhood penalty. Many of you probably know what this is, but motherhood often triggers a false assumption that mothers are more focused on their children and their job, and therefore less committed and productive.
And you can imagine that this might be in high relief right now with families and work getting slammed together as we’re all seeing each other on zoom. And we know that women, mothers in particular, are feeling this. Mothers are twice as likely as fathers to think their performance is being judged negatively because of their caregiving responsibilities. It’s so acute that one in three mothers are uncomfortable sharing their work-life challenges with coworkers. It’s hard for managers and coworkers to help alleviate challenges that mothers aren’t even comfortable communicating.
The other type of bias that many of you were also probably familiar with is performance bias. Research shows we–and when I say we, I mean all of us, regardless of our gender–often underestimate women’s performance and overestimate men’s.
I want to go slow here.
As a result, women have to accomplish more to prove they’re competent and tend to be blamed more for failure and get less credit for success. And you can imagine how that may be playing out in the workplace right now when there are so many demands on employees.
For those of you who are not as familiar with performance bias, I want to share two research studies just to get a better sense of the impact it can have. In 2014, it was a study of hundreds of performance reviews and women were 50% more likely than men to receive negative feedback. In another study that many of you probably know, well known study, replacing a woman’s name with a man’s name on a resume, to be clear, very same resume, improves the odds of getting hired by more than 60%. What we want everybody to be thinking about, and we’re thinking about a lot is we need to be particularly aware of the impact bias may have on hiring and promotions right now.
A couple of thoughts on what companies can do. Companies should more actively engage managers in supporting work-life balance. I just want to share that, before the pandemic, work-life flexibility was the number one issue raised when they talked about what their employers could do to better support them.
When we look at the data, what’s happening right now is companies are expecting managers to check in with employees, workload to make sure it’s manageable, to check in with employees regularly on their mental health and wellbeing. But when you ask employees, they don’t say their managers are showing up in this way. And I think this signals two things, signals that companies probably need to be more clearly communicating their expectation to managers, and then companies need to be giving managers the support and training, and where with all they need to actually be showing up for their teams.
The other thing is recommitting to hiring and promoting women and tracking outcomes to make sure these processes are equitable. Right now, a lot of companies are tracking hiring outcomes by gender, but far fewer are tracking promotions outcomes. We also want organizations to be conducting bias training and talking openly about the impact that bias may be having on women’s advancement. If you’re not aware of the problem, and it’s not part of your discussion as an organization, you’re less likely to be able to correct for it.
Who’s getting training now? Every year we ask, have you received bias training over the last year? And about a third of managers say they have and about 25% of employees.
The other thing I want to touch on that’s critically important is that we won’t reach gender equality without focusing explicitly on women of color. Every year in women in the workplace, we see the very same pattern. The workplace is worse for women than men, worse for women of color than white women, and particularly challenging for black women.
Women of color get less support for managers on average, have less access to senior leaders and are promoted more slowly than white women. We also know from our 2020 data, that there is a gap between intending to be an ally and showing up as an ally. A majority of employees see themselves as allies, but when you ask about very specific actions of allyship that experts will tell you are critical, far fewer employees are taking action.
Employees are internalizing this disconnect. Less than one in four employees think Latinas and black women have strong allies in their organization. A couple of thoughts on what companies can do here. In addition to explicitly focusing on supporting and advancing women of color and explaining to employees why it matters, companies need to be taking an intersectional approach to diversity. And I’ll just give you one example of what this might look like. We know that most companies track representation by gender. Most companies track representation by race, far fewer look at representation in their organization by looking at race and gender combined. And you see the same thing when you look at companies setting targets and how they set targets.What happens is inadvertently women of color are effectively overlooked in the data. They’re effectively left out.
Another thing is doubling down on anti-racism and allyship training. It’s equally as important to train employees on what not to do, as it is on really communicating what true diversity and inclusion looks like and how to show up as an ally. And yet again, we see a gap between what training should look like and what training looks like for most employees today. We’re working on a program right now called allyship at work, and one of the findings that really stuck out with me that I want to share with you because I think it really speaks to the power of allyship is research shows that allies don’t just influence one person at a time, they curate a culture of support. Allyship is actually contagious.
Couple other quick thoughts before I wrap when we’re thinking about the future of work. There’s some real good news, right? Remote work is here to stay and it’s going to lead to more employee flexibility, and that’s good. It’s good for all employees regardless of gender. And if all goes well, and I’m really bullish, it will foster diversity and companies think this.
But I do want to flag a watch out. There is the potential for two classes of employees, if we’re not thoughtful about how we move to more remote work; employees working in the office that have more access to information and people, they’re more likely to get noticed, they’re more likely to be seen as committed, and employees working remotely who may be left out, they may end up inadvertently being overlooked. They’re less likely to fit into ideal worker norms, and remote work may end up becoming stigmatized. And of course, given more women will probably take advantage of remote work, because women are more likely caregivers, that could have a detrimental effect on women.
And then the final piece of good news is we see signs in the data of a kind of a more empathetic workplace. I’m sharing two data points, but if you really look at a constellation of findings, you see that companies are making a bigger investment in employee mental health and wellbeing than they have in the past. Employees don’t feel more connected in some ways, but in other ways, they feel much more connected. They’re having different conversations. They have more awareness of each other’s lives and each other’s needs for flexibility.
And this really matters because a kinder, more empathetic workplace will actually lead to a more diverse and inclusive workplace as well. Really quick, a couple ways that we can help: Women in The Workplace 2021 will be out at the end of September with lots more data and lots more insights into what’s happening now hopefully to get more visibility into the second order effects. We have a program that’s out that’s called 50 Ways To Fight Bias. It’s become 100 situations of bias, very specific. And then we give very specific research-based recommendations for what employees can literally say and to do in the moment to challenge bias when they see it.
And we are working on an allyship program called allyship at work. We’re piloting it this summer, and that will also be available at the end of September. These are all free, available because our belief is we want all organizations, regardless of size, from a ground zero startup to a very big successful tech organization, have access to these tools. Thank you very much, and I hope this is a launching off point for a great panel discussion and a lot of great breakout sessions.
Rachel, I’m always so blown away by the data, but I think my favorite thing that you shared is how allyship is contagious. And so I hope if nothing else, that if everybody thinks of one thing they want to do, allyship is one of those actions that they take. Imagine the impact that just this group here today can have. Thank you, as always for sharing such magnificent data.
Thank you for having me.
I’m going to ask each panelist to just say a little bit about themselves, so you can hear and recognize their voices. So Sameer, since you’re the first, I’m going to ask you to start: tell us where you were born and how many siblings you have.
I was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and I am child two of two.
The youngest, the baby.
The youngest, the baby boy.
And Kerry, since you’re next, tell us where you were born and how many siblings you have.
I was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and I am the baby of two.
I guess I should share. I was born in Long Beach, California, and I am two of four. Taurean, where were you born and how many siblings do you have?
Well, I was born in Trinidad. It’s a small Island in the Caribbean, just off the coast of Venezuela, and I have three siblings; two brothers and one sister, and I’m the oldest.
Oldest. Setting the stage and setting the bar high. And Annette, tell us where you were born and how many siblings you have.
I was born in the Heartland in Indiana, and I am the little sister to one awesome big brother.
A lot of babies and one oldest and one middle child. Let’s see how that plays out. I want to start off just talking a little bit about how each of you arrived at where you are today. Kerry, we’re going to start with you. You actually got your degree in mechanical engineering, but your career has spent a lot of time in retail and in management leadership positions, even before you were at Rothy’s. You worked at Walmart and Levi’s. So how does that evolution happen?
I don’t think any kid when they’re 18 knows what they want to be when they grow up, or maybe one in a hundred does. But I wanted a job when I graduated from college. I was really poor growing up and I wanted a job. When you’re raised in New Mexico, we have The National Lab, so those of us with dorky, math, all of my peers, friends were PhD engineers. That’s what I thought everybody did. So I’m blessed to have grown up that way. And, honestly, I felt like, I was determined I wanted to figure out how to be a consumer person. Look, I love consumer. I did a whole bunch of supply chain work and enterprise work. And I was like, I want to figure out this consumer thing. So I had–not kidding, like 30 or 50 coffees in the Bay Area–where we have The Gap, Williams-Sonoma, Restoration Hardware, Levi’s. I just went, how do I pivot myself and become a retail person? And luckily, the CFO at Levi’s, I convinced him that all my high-tech supply chain work was apparel, because it was all high obsolescence. And I went into my first factory and it was not bad at all, but supply chain strategy at Levi’s and then through that, curiosity drives a lot. “oh, that’s interesting, I want to do more of that,” and how do I do more things I love doing and learn more?
I read this book, I think 2007, but it was “Why women don’t get the corner office.” And one of the things was they don’t ask. So I went in the next day and dockers.com was run as a marketing website. And I was like, I think Dockers should be an e-commerce website, and my boss said, I agree. And I said, “I want to do it.” And he said, “Okay.” And I was like one of those, “oh, what?” So, those little things sometimes just take a little push.
And so I launched dockers.com in ’07. I fell in love with what e-commerce could be. I ended up going to Walmart because I really loved the commerce side and the retail side more than the wholesale side. And with each of those steps, just kept learning and kept growing. And suddenly a mechanical engineer ends up running a women’s shoe company because they aren’t necessarily what you would expect.
But honestly, it’s a great undergrad to have. It teaches you how to be logical in your thinking. And at Rothy’s, we own our own supply chain. So, watching from off the knitting machine to a shoe coming off the line, it’s a really, incredibly hard process to build a shoe. And it’s nice to have that understanding of why things happen and how they happen. It gives you very structured thinking.
I love how important it was to you just to ask. A really great lesson there just by itself. And Taurean, you are on the opposite end of the spectrum. I love your LinkedIn lead line because it says, “my engineering utility belt would make Batman jealous,” You obviously were trained as an engineer and have stayed on the engineering track, being a technical product manager at Nvidia. How did you make that your path?
What can I say, us mechanical engineers, we’re a crazy bunch, and we get our hands into a little bit of everything. So, Kerry, awesome story. But what’s interesting about this is I didn’t choose technical product manager, nor do I do a classical role in that currently.
In fact, before I even got the job, just like the job I had before that, I didn’t even know it existed. I was a researcher at Accenture Labs, and I just knew that I liked to explore and do research on really cool stuff. When I was eight, my dad took me out networking and doing computer consulting. I was doing things with like fortune 500 companies. My mom, I had the privilege of watching her go from economics to business and then law and then work at these amazing places.
I got exposure to all the books she studied from for both her MBA and her JD. I also had passions across the board from nature to robotics and history and anthropology. Everything interconnected and became a foundation, and you just build upon that foundation as you just play. I had a company that I started just before and during college, so that I could fund my crazy research and zero powered microcontrollers to robotics and 3D printing, and human robotic interactions.
And then built high-performance workstations, and ended up doing military drones and super computers. And then Accenture Labs, they have this future facing research department. They brought me into their digital workforce group. And there I got to play with more robots, different kinds. They have different packages that are delivered. Then we did this interesting study on, how do you get these strangers to come together from around the world remotely and absolutely crush it on products?
We called it crowd garage teams. And they don’t just do the standard processes of handoffs, where you do one bit of… You bring in some work inputs, you refine it and you have to work output and hand it off to the other. We also did like highly interactive tasks with design thinking. We did this research with Stanford, where we basically got liquid workforces to actually exist in this real weight. We did many projects, and even with Accenture, it became a global effort where we created a liquid workforce, which in Accenture helped crush it on projects.
Some of my other activities within that got some notice and a person, and this is where the whole advocating comes in, they advocated for me. You talked about allies and networking and friends and throughout the whole process, we’ve had… I owe a lot to many people of all different backgrounds, all different walks of life. It’s kind of interesting, and they advocated for me. And then next thing I know, I’m a senior program manager and technical product manager of RAPIDS, which is an open source capability that does GPU accelerated data science as a technical product manager. And there I get to help others get the play and do all sorts of crazy stuff that I love to do. It’s really fun interacting with them and helping them through what they’re doing and pushing this new paradigm for the future of work.
Taurean, I’m going to just pull on a thread that you mentioned that I think is really important for people to hone in on, which is advocacy often comes from people not asking to have someone advocate on their behalf, but from someone taking the initiative to say, I see someone with great potential. “I see Taurean with incredible curiosity and drive. I believe that this person should do this other thing.” That’s particularly important for people of color and for people who haven’t done the job before, because they don’t know what they don’t know. So advocacy really sometimes means you stepping up and telling someone they should look where they haven’t.
Annette, I’m very curious about your path. You’ve stayed pretty finance bound, but what actually set you off on that path and especially as it led to your transition into your first management position, how did that happen?
Yeah, thank you so much, Martina. As you ask that question, I reflect on an article I read a couple of years ago that was in the journal that contains some key insight from the LeanIn.org, and highlighted women, kind of that first step into managements, and how these manager roles really serve as bridges to more senior roles, so definitely an important step.
After learning the fundamentals from peers and mentors and managers in a variety of analyst roles, the next critical step for me was really self acknowledgement. And what I mean by that is a lot of times folks tend to explain away their successes. And after being in my role for a couple of years, I felt like, okay, finally, in partnership with others, I have been generating value beyond my role as an individual contributor by harmonizing teams and processes and creating value for my direct leadership chain, parallel leadership chains.
I was finally at a place where I was educating others, helping others become really successful, celebrating those successes of others, helping others do cool things and not only proposing ideas, but actually leading them all the way through execution. And so I went on to articulate the value that I was generating and communicated my aspirations and the benefits of what a promotion would mean for me, but also for the broader group in the organization. I really kept my sponsors informed. The people who surround us, who believe in us, they do matter so much.
And so I did my best to keep them informed along the way. And then in terms of the business needs, so the opportunity has got to arise or be created in some way. And there was a business need when a team director left the company, and part of her work was a really critical function that needed to continue to be carried on without skipping a beat. And my director created and supported this opportunity for me to step in and fill a gap. And so I worked with a really inspirational contractor who, spoiler alert, I ended up hiring a little bit later and we filled that gap and I got promoted and it was pretty awesome.
A lot of great lessons, Annette. And I love how you talked about, sometimes you need to point out the value just to make it visible, because it’s taken for granted because like, “oh, of course, this person’s doing their job,” but then to highlight the impact that it’s had.
Sameer, you were most recently the CEO of SendGrid. But since I’ve known you a really long time, you didn’t pop up in the world saying,” I plan to be a CEO,” as some people do. So what was that path like for you?
Yeah, I think it’s very much as Kerry mentioned earlier. No career path I’m familiar with is particularly linear in its I go do A and then B and then C and it’s all premeditated and then it lands you here. It’s very much an exploration, and I think it’s a reinvention as well. You just have curiosities, you want to learn more about different things, you want to try different things. And so in my case, I did, I started life, as Taurean did, as a product manager, as you did Martina, at a software company. And then I really enjoy that. The products we built started to take off and the next thing I knew I was managing a team there. And I was like, oh, but I really like this business development stuff.
And so then I got into bizdev and doing corporate deals and looking at M & A things and so on. And then, and I realized, gosh, I’ve been in software, I only know a little narrow slice of the business world. And so I wanted to go get an MBA, and that opened up the aperture a little bit more broadly. I really was interested in marketing. And I came back, and the job after my MBA, I said, I really need to carry a sales quota. I need to carry the bag and see what that’s like to have to hit a number every quarter. And I did that for two years. And so I just kept experimenting with things. And I think by the end of that, what ended up being about a 12, 15 year journey of every function you could imagine in software, I said, God, I really want to put all this together now and actually serve teams holistically.
And the best place to do that is either as a general manager, as a CEO. And I was very fortunate I had a couple mentors throughout my career that bet on me and gave me opportunities that I had no business stepping into at the time. But they believed in me and I did, and then it was my job to go run through walls to be successful, so. I would say that’s how I got there.
One of the things I’m hearing, what you just shared Sameer, is how important it was for others to have belief in your talent, not your depth of experience in what it was that you were trying to do. And I’ll just point out that I see this all the time in Silicon Valley. They’re like, oh, I want to hire this job. So you’re looking for someone with great experience doing that job, and we have that performance bias that we just talked about. I see it happen all the time when people are hiring. Just as a thought for everybody that is listening to this today, think about where you might be unconsciously looking and reinforcing some of that performance bias when you have rock stars in front of you, that might not be obvious, that you could be of great service to the company.
Taurean, I want to switch the conversation now a little bit more to all the “isms” that we were talking about. Ageism, racism, sexism that are present in the workplace, simply because of our biases. We can’t avoid them. I just want to put that out there. It’s not like there’s some perfect Nirvana where they will all go away. They will always be present. It’s more, how do we deal with it? How do we react to it? And can we have healthy workplaces where we can be resilient and bring them up?
Taurean, one of the things you’ve done at NVIDIA is you’ve really helped transform the hiring processes around how they express or look forward diversity. So can you share some of what you’ve seen that’s working particularly well there?
I was a part of a larger system that transformed and help transform these hiring process. And I’m going to start with a fun story back in 2016, back when I was at Accenture labs and doing the crowd research, the presidential innovation fellows had this hack the pay gap. And I participated with the team of these crowdworkers from all sorts of walks of life, diverse background through races, countries, genders, career levels and career focuses. And together we built, we taught, we actually got together and gutted the hiring practices that we have in traditional workforces and took what we understood about the crowd labor markets and pieced it back together in a way that would ensure that these labor markets and this gig economy would be handled fairly.
One of the things that might surprise some people is that if you want to do a study on the long-term effects of how we’ve treated each other in terms of fairness and equity in hiring, look at the gig economy where you literally priced yourself, and we found that women price themselves up to 31% less than men in technical roles that they actually say, this is how much I feel I’m worth. And it stays in the negative across most economic sectors until you get to administration where they price themselves about 8% more. And this is, we basically pulled from some labor markets and that’s the data that we got. So what we did was the solutions, it was to help shine a light and let people look in the mirror on how their company actually does hiring. Because I hired over a hundred people in less than a year and worked with them, did the projects, and then let them go and be free, which in gig, that’s how you’re supposed to do it.
But we kept people coming. So we created this set of solutions and only found out that, oh my goodness, this is a little bit radical for businesses today. They’re not going to accept this. And we put it out there and it always nagged on me, like why wasn’t the original set of solutions that literally spelled out for you and quantified for you, how your hiring process is hurting, or how is A, how are you tracking your people who are doing the hiring to make sure they’re doing fairly, and then B, allowing people to see how their value is affecting them by looking at the Bureau of labor statistics recommendations, because we do price ourselves at times lower than what is fair market value and livable wages, how that affects.
And it was interesting to see that these radical solutions weren’t always welcomed. So change really didn’t happen as quickly as we wanted it to. We basically got a characteristic bolted on and patchwork onto traditional hiring processes that had mixed success, as you see in some of the diversity numbers of the companies. So coming to NVIDIA, they didn’t just patch on, they did something quite similar where they basically gutted their hiring practice, their whole process, and they weren’t afraid to see what they would find and make the changes that necessarily needed to be changed in order for us to achieve the goals that we wanted to. This was led by Jensen in E-Staff and they listened to up and down from people who just joined the company to managers, as you mentioned, got everyone involved.
And it was a culture shift that yes, we had people who… every culture will have this, as you go through your bell curve, there were those who were like, okay, well, let’s see where this goes. And then there were people who were like all gung ho about it, and they were ready to do what was necessary. And as we iterated through in a very agile way, I think it was a very successful experience that I’m really proud of being a part of. The entire company was engaged, NVIDIA did what we were supposed to do. And it was an honest and genuine efforts. We even did potential based hiring where you didn’t have somebody who had all the right marks. We didn’t hire just the superstars, we hired the future superstars. –
I think that’s such an important thing, Taurean, is just hiring for potential, not just experience, especially as it relates to the problems that we’re trying to solve around creating more diverse workforces. You’re not going to have the people that have the experience. So where are you looking for and how are you assessing potential?
Annette, I wanted to take it to you because ageism is something we don’t talk a lot about, but Silicon Valley suffers from tremendously. So you happen to have a very diverse team in terms of age. How did you get there?
Thanks, Martina. I aim to hire people with talent and a supportive nature. I find, talent helps us to get the job done, but that supportive nature is what allows us to get the job done productively and happily.
So a quick story. A few months ago I was dining with a lady and a gentleman and an authoritative figure, and some resources were being distributed between this lady and this gentleman, when the lady firmly puts her hand on the table and says, “I want more”. And the authoritative figure asked why, and the lady replied after looking beside her, “I want as much as he has”, with a really serious look on her face. And she absolutely meant business. And I learned what confidence and determination could really look like. That lady was my three-year-old niece. And the gentlemen mentioned was my five-year-old nephew and the authoritative figure who had regrettably misallocated the all important, golden resource known as goldfish crackers, was her dad.
And the moral of the story is, we can learn from spirited individuals at any age. Folks have strengths. And I find that folks with tenure and experience bring insights that I might not yet have amassed. And this is really special to me. Whereas folks with less tenure in the workforce have these beautiful inquiring minds that challenge and motivate us to pursue what hasn’t been done before. I just got chills. And this mix really harmonizes the team and contributes to the broader team success and getting great at strength stacking has been incredibly helpful for me. I find that it’s allowed me to keep an open mind without sacrificing any value or talent. And I absolutely believe it takes a village.
Annette, I don’t think I’ve actually heard that term before. So I’m so glad you brought it up, which is strength stacking, and a way of thinking about your team through that lens. Our EIR, Jeremy Hermann, just wrote a blog post about how important it is to sometimes hire for strength and not lack of weakness. Strength stacking as a way of seeing your team is a really interesting thing to talk about.
Kerry, thinking about you, you’ve been in a lot of really male dominated environments. And at the same time you had the privilege of working at Rothy’s as its president, where you had an all female executive team. When you think about what you’ve learned through the lens of both of those environments? How do you think people can build more diverse executive and leadership teams? And what do you think the explicit benefit is from that, since you’ve experienced both?
I’ve worked in all male environments. I’m really comfortable in them. And all I wanted to do was fit in and it took me a while to learn that I am different, right. I just want to be treated like one of the boys, just don’t treat me differently and then figuring out over time, I actually am different. And part of my strength comes from calling that out so that women behind me can see what life is like, right. Bringing my whole self to work and leaving to go read to my kids, in kindergarten, lunchtime. That mattered to me, or leaving early to go to a soccer game. And I think having that in a leadership role really matters for bringing up people behind us to show that it’s okay.
In hiring at Rothy’s, more than anything it’s how do you create a culture where everybody brings their whole self to work and it’s inclusive? And that is, it’s a very different path, and it could happen. I think we focus on gender or ethnicity but it’s also, about introverts and extroverts and how do you create a place where it’s all of the above and not just one thing. I actually really liked this question of intersectionality that Rachel had. It’s something that I think we should all think about more, but more than anything, it’s just creating a culture where people can bring their whole selves to work and feel like their voice is heard. I want everybody to have an opinion and to share it. And that creates a healthy culture. It turns out that with women in leadership roles, it changes the dynamic versus an all male team.
It’s interesting that you say that. We actually just had this conversation as a team, Kerry, and there’s someone on our team, who’s an introvert and there are a lot of more dominant personalities that are very extroverted. And so I think the default has been to try and encourage the person who doesn’t speak up much to speak up. And what we decided was it’s actually more comfortable for her to just write down what she thinks. And so just providing a venue where she can write what she feels as opposed to having to verbalize it. That’s creating space for her in a way that is more comfortable for her to interact with the team.
Sameer, I’m curious for you. You have pretty much the most pedigreed background that someone can have. Two degrees from Stanford and an MBA from Harvard, but you are also the only executive in Silicon Valley that I know of who hired someone on their executive team that hadn’t graduated from college. So I’m curious about that story. And how did you overcome the biases that most people with that pedigreed background have about looking for people who look like them and just hiring for potential?
Yeah. And I think it really does come down to that at the end, and particularly as you get later into a career when you’re hiring folks that have 15, 20 years of experience, what matters is what have they done? And early, very early in career, sometimes I think folks will look at undergraduate studies as a signal. But that’s all you’re looking for. At the end of the day for me as somebody who would be hiring somebody it’s, I’m looking for excellence. I’m looking for somebody who is, going to be incredibly bright and hardworking and run through walls and be successful and have a demonstrated track record of success. I just happened to be working with an incredible woman, very talented as a consultant to this small startup that I was leading my first startup back in 2007.
And she had forgotten more than I will ever know about running a sales operations, and building an inside sales team. She had done it at scale. She had been an inside rep herself when she didn’t go to college and decided I’m just going to start working. And had grown her way all the way up to running multi-hundred million dollar inside sales organizations at multi-billion dollar software companies. And she was wicked smart and hugely talented, incredibly charismatic and knew her stuff cold. Was deeply analytical, knew all the numbers. And I was this at the time I was the 30 something year old kid trying to run this software company for his first time and was terrified and I didn’t know all the things. I didn’t even know at that point. And frankly, she was the far more capable of the two of us in our respective jobs.
And so for me, it was just a non-event. It wasn’t even really a consideration. I was desperate to have her join our team and gratefully she did. And by the way, she became our head of sales and revenue at SendGrid later. So we’ve done now two companies together and she’s a bad-ass. It didn’t matter at the end of the day, because she had such an extraordinary track record of success. And I would just say to everybody that’s listening, you just remember that we all have our insecurities, whatever they may be. And just remember that when you share them, actually, it usually turns out the other person has some too, and you get to a better understanding of one another if you’re willing to be a little more vulnerable and you can make better decisions, too.
Sameer, I think that is so important. I would have called it out if you hadn’t, about the fact that you were the CEO, but you were terrified. And that for everybody who’s on this call, you have a boss that has a blind spot or is scared. And you might not even know it because they’re hiding behind the shield of performance and competence, which is of course, a natural reflex for all of us. But by being vulnerable as a leader, to Kerry’s point, you provide an invitation to do the same for others. And that winds up being a wonderful thing that creates really healthy culture, which is what Taurean was talking about.
To get to that new place, you have to be willing to revisit or look very closely at the culture that you’ve created and how that enables the world that you want. And I know both Kerry and Sameer, you guys have led companies where culture has been very far forward. I think Sameer, you told me culture eats strategy for breakfast. So tell us a little bit about how do you engender cultures that are that strong that can lead or provide that template that helps everyone act in the spirit and intention of the company?
Yeah, I really do believe that, particularly in industries like in technology and software where it’s literally your assets are the people coming in and out of the virtual building now. I think it’s just how humans come together to accomplish great things, how do you foster that? And if you can build a unified and cohesive culture that says, how we do what we do, matters as much as what we do, how we do it. And I think is really critical. I think the team has to see, the leader does have to exemplify and embody the values that you aspire to. And that does put a high bar for those of us that are in leadership positions. And so I would say, never join a company as a leader if you don’t believe you can authentically live the values of the company or the culture of the company, because you can’t fake that.
It’s impossible to fake that you have a set of values that you don’t. Ultimately that becomes clear. So I think A, you have to have that. The other thing as a leader, though, that you can do is really set in place a set of processes and practices that make your culture, it becomes embedded systemically in everything you do with people in particular. And so in our case, at SendGrid, there’s a video on our website with me describing this is the importance of our culture. These are our values. Here’s how they manifest themselves. Please come here if those sound good to you, please don’t come here if they don’t sound good to you.
And it would start literally at that early stage, we had, we call them our four Hs, where our values, happy, hungry, humble and honest. And those four Hs are super simple. They’re easy to remember. We describe what we meant by them, but during the interview loop, there was each interview candidate, or each candidate and the interviewers each had an H. And we had standardized questions.
How do you interview for humble while you say, well, tell me about the accomplishment of which you are most proud in your career. And then you just sit back and do a pronoun count, how often do they say, I, how often do they say we. If you’re looking for humble, hire the people that say, we. And so you can do things that just systematically embed your culture in everything the company does.
We would have four H awards that are all quarterly employee meetings in the promotion documents, the recommendation forms, there’s a whole section around culture, examples that the manager and their subordinates had to provide that demonstrated that they embodied our values. And so you make it structural because it’s one thing to talk about it, or put it up on a wall. But if it’s literally built into everything you do in your employee’s life cycle, it’s really clear to employees they really care about this.
So much wisdom in that. And Sameer, I especially want to call out how you make it systematic so that it is embodied in all the different processes in the company. And Kerry, since you’ve led multiple organizations and you’re on many boards, anything to add? Especially at that board level, because you’re a part of the governance whether or not a company is going to be in good shape? What else can people do to make evident that the culture is healthy and working?
Yeah, I think I wholeheartedly agree with everything you had to say, Sameer. I think, it is not what’s written on a wall. It’s what you live every day, and it’s also how you reinforce it. It’s how you hire, it’s how you reinforce, by what you recognize and what you stop when it’s off culture also, which I think is also important. And being brave to call that out, right. If this isn’t fit with the culture that we have here, this is off. And sometimes those are the hardest ones, right? And the worst thing you can have in a culture is the talking in the background. Like, this is what we say, but then this is the chitter-chatter at the coffee station. And so I think, to that everything you said, Sameer, I wholeheartedly agree with. I think from a board perspective, it’s harder to know what culture can be, right, because you are by definition one step removed.
And so in the world of COVID, it’s been more challenging because you don’t have the chance to actually meet the leadership team. And like on the walk from the meeting to dinner or at lunch together where I feel like those are the places where you actually get to know people and see what’s real. But I do think they are from a people leadership perspective, it’s important to ask the questions, right? Let’s talk about what’s living, what’s not, in the culture. How do we think about where we are from a diversity perspective? I was at a board meeting yesterday where we went through all of the numbers and I asked a couple of questions of like, what matters gets measured and what is measured matters. And until you push some of that thinking and questioning it may not actually happen.
There’s a really important question that came in from the audience that I actually want to take to Annette and Taurean since you guys are on the front lines of hiring a lot of different folks. And this is a challenging one where that whole point about ‘I’ versus ‘we.’ Women will naturally have a tendency to say we, and so there’s counter advice to women specifically to stand up and say, I, more so that you can be recognized for your contribution. How should women square that? What’s the right balance or it’s people who have hired many? Annette and Taurean, how have you seen people thread that needle well? Annette we’ll start with you.
I love to hear about ownership. At the same time, I love to draw out that supportive nature if they’ve got it. And, asking just really taking a moment to listen to what folks are saying and, listening to whether or not they’re advocating for their managers or their leaders, or the people who helped them along the way. But still being really comfortable, owning the solution or owning some of the key contributions I find very important. And through listening and inquiry, the power of inquiry is really awesome in terms of interviewing. And so I think just listening to what they have to say and what their precise, specific contributions are, and simultaneously listening to how they elevate others while telling their story.
Yeah. I think that’s important. It’s not that it’s only one versus the other, it’s the combination. And Taurean, you’ve hired hundreds, as you said. Is there a quick example you can give people of like, this person just nailed it within their answer?
I think it goes more from just one person saying and exuding from themselves. It also has to do with what is the philosophy that you approach what they’re answering, right? I can give the best answer and if it went to the wrong crowd, it will fall on deaf ears or not even be taken the way that we want it to be taken. It’s a tricky one because it is a conversation. A conversation definitely needs two sides. I’ve seen women, there’s this quiet strength that I’ve seen some women exhibit where they just keep doing and keep showing how good they are at things and at their jobs. And eventually somebody else advocates for them, I’ve seen where some people are more open about how they are performing and saying, this is absolutely unacceptable.
And then watching certain… hoping that somebody will listen to them until yeah, you know what? They do just leave. My best answer to that is just to be really honest and open with your superiors, your bosses, and those in charge, but also with those under you. So that way, there’s this picture of a person. There’s this whole human that we keep forgetting that is behind the person, and if we don’t take that into account, their answers, their experiences, what they’re trying to say doesn’t really get heard. There’s just so many variables that I don’t think I can give a great answer to that.
Well, it’s interesting someone just put in the chat, I’ll call out in case people aren’t seeing it, the federal government, senior executive service qualifications, it’s explicitly recommended to explain your narratives with I and my, and to drop the we, which is very interesting. And what I’ll say is, I wind up interviewing many people at various levels every week. I would say, if you get really good at listening, you can actually hear when it’s a, we, that is diminutive in the sense that the person is saying like, Oh, I just don’t want to take too much credit. And an I, that is motivated about personal inflation. ‘I think this much of myself. It fed me and my ego,’ as opposed to, ‘I’m so proud of this accomplishment using the I word because it made the team look so good.’
So you’re using both things there, promoting the fact that it was you, but also elevating what it was inside of you that made it such a great accomplishment. Was it just about you and your ego, or was it about a larger team? And so you can find ways to phrase answers that promote your role without making it all about the we. I’ll also say that’s a flag I have when I noticed sexism being present in interview feedback. When people say like, ‘Oh, this person probably wasn’t as strong a leader, simply because they didn’t take self credit.’ So that’s a flag always for me. So always good to have your documentation. So yes, someone saying, “it is such a balance,” It really is. One last piece of advice for anyone when you’re doing interviews, practice it out loud. Just have one person do a mock interview with you. And then just tell me what you observed based on what you heard, because it’s always easier for someone else to notice what you might not be aware of.
I know we’re winding down our time with our panelists. I just want to say, thank you guys so much for sharing your life stories, your wisdom, your insights. We will all benefit so much from those. And I also want to thank some people who are behind the scenes quietly, not visible here, which is Rachel Quon, who’s been my partner in crime and establishing Seat at the Table since the beginning. Pamela Magie, who is the wizard behind the curtain, making sure this all goes really smoothly. Everyone at Costanoa but especially, my advocate for years and boss, the founder of Costanoa, Greg Sands. Without his support, we couldn’t have this really important conversation.
And that leads us to where we might go. I know it’s going to be frustrating feeling like, “change happens so slowly. Can we really make a difference?”
Just in the span of time in which we’ve had Seat at the Table, here’s some changes that we have observed.
- Analyst firms like Forrester are asking of their six assessment areas, one of them is DEI practices.
- TechCrunch, which is one of the largest technical publications, has asked all of their reporters to ask every company they interview about their DEI practices and to write about them.
- Financial institutions before they give loans, before they give money to others to manage, they now ask what are your DEI practices, actual things that you’re doing and how diverse is your firm?
These are all changes that have happened inside of four years. So imagine what can happen if all of us collectively take just those extra little steps in our worlds to bring about better workplaces with the intentions, the culture, the aspirations, all of us have to create diverse and inclusive workplaces.
With that, I say, thank you. And whatever change you want to bring about, just do it.