Rejoice! Things are looking up for female leaders. In a 2020 article, CNBC reported that women were promoted to 12% of CEO positions in America’s top 500 companies. We know what you’re thinking, that’s still a minority, right? But the truth is, it’s doubled from the 6% of promotions that were made in 2018! 🙌

But the battle is not over. In the same article, it was reported that female CEOs are 45% more likely to be fired than their male counterparts.

That’s why it’s more important than ever to find strong allyship between female SaaS leaders. Joe Venuti, Vice President, Sales Development at UpKeep, led this empowering discussion at the Women in SaaS summit 2021 between some of the industry’s leading female voices. Speakers included:

  • Harini Gokul, Customer Success Leader at Amazon Web Services
  • Joanie Wang, Director of Marketing Expensify
  • Denise Garth, Chief Strategy Officer at Majesco

Main talking points include:

While the full, unfiltered panel discussion is available OnDemand for Future of SaaS members, we've picked out some of the best bits for you below. Enjoy!

How important do you think it is to have a mentor?

Denise Garth: I think the importance of a mentor is tremendous. It’s equally important to find both someone internally within your organization, as well as externally, outside your organization. These two factors are of equal importance.

Early on in my career, I found people inside the organization that could be a mentor. But the fact is, as you’re progressing through your career, you're always meeting individuals who could be potential mentors, both men and women. These are people that you can potentially even have long-term relationships with.

As I've gone through different jobs or different career choices, I’ve had a very close set of probably five to seven individuals that I trust tremendously.

They're all in different companies and industries, but apart from anything else, they’ve provided a really good sounding board for me, and they’ve provided solid advice where needed. Just having a core set of individuals that you can bounce ideas off throughout your career can be so valuable!

Harini Gokul: The best mentors are the ones that you don’t even notice are mentors to you. More seriously, I think mentorship is such a multi-dimensional topic.

I've found that having that personal ‘board of directors,’ people that you consult with time and time again, is just so important. And they don’t all have to come from one source, you can source them from across many different walks of your own life.

I have my board of directors in my personal life, and I have others in my professional life. It's important to be thoughtful about who's in your life, what skills they can offer you, and how you can invest in that relationship long-term.

I get approached to be a mentor a lot, and often it's positioned as a one-way street. It's all take and no give. A good thing to look at when selecting mentors is, what can I offer this person, not just what can they offer me?

Because if we’re talking about building a long-term relationship, it has to be give and take. It can’t all be a one-way street.

Joanie Wang: I was also lucky enough to have a mentor early on. One thing that I really appreciated was that they were always looking out for me, and helping me to better myself through honest, detailed feedback. I think when thinking about women’s leadership it’s more important than ever to think of mentorship. In the end, it’s really about allyship, right?

It hasn’t been an easy fight for women, and that’s why it’s so important for those at the bottom to pull others up. We can’t do it alone!

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Rebecca Nerad: I’d just like to reinforce the reciprocal value of a mentor/mentee relationship. Also, you don't necessarily need a formalized program.

If you think someone is really cool, if you value what they do, just reach out to them on LinkedIn, and even after 15 minutes of conversation, you could be looking at potentially a long-term partnership.

We're just so lucky in modern times to have LinkedIn at our fingertips. You have access to such inspiring people, so reach out to them and you’ll be surprised at how many people are willing to give you their time.

How did you set yourself up to be potential female leaders in the future?

Rebecca Nerad: I would say that it’s a byproduct of my network. I was fortunate that my company was willing to take a chance on me as a new leader. And this was partly because of the relationships that I built in my previous role.

These were people in leadership positions that moved on, and I was then able to take over their position. I was able to secure their old roles because of the faith that they had in me. It was all because of the reputation I had built up for myself. T

The most important thing is to make relationships within your current company, thinking about what that could eventually do for you in the future.

This idea of ownership is key. I don’t think a lot of people take enough ownership over their careers as individuals.
What that means is, don’t just assume that you’re going to naturally float up to positions above you. Be abundantly clear about what your career aspirations are, make them clear to those around you, and go for it!

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Joannie Wang: One of the things that really helped me progress in my career was having a mentor who advocated for me behind the scenes. We had a real give and take relationship, and it meant developing trust with each other.

I got comfortable telling him about what my ambitions were and what my dreams were. Some of them were bold and it would be really embarrassing to tell someone that I didn’t have great trust in them.

But I was being clear about my ambitions, as Rebecca said. It’s so important to have a vision for what you want to accomplish and what you want to do

If all you want to do is have someone else above you giving directions then that’s fine as well, but if you’re not content with that you have to make that clear. You should also look to others as potential models for your career. A kind of template, if you will.

If you could give advice to your 21 year old self, what would it be and why?

Harini Gokul: Firstly, act like the leader you want to be at all times, regardless of where you sit at the table. I think in a way we have to live our future life as if we’re already there. You have to maintain a  really deep understanding of who you are. Know yourself and act accordingly.

I would also say to my 21 year old self, find yourself a coalition of sponsors that can amplify your perspective. Find those that are going to advocate for you and fight in your corner.

Be a mentor right from the beginning. Give generously to others and you’ll find you’ll get a lot back in return. Finally, walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Talk is cheap, but the walk is hard. Make it clear what you want to be, yes, but also, take practical steps to get there.

Denise Garth: First and foremost, you have the power. You make the decisions on where you want to be, and you need to take control of your own career. No one else is going to do it for you. Don't

just stay in a job just because it's a good job

If it’s not where you want to be in your career, switch it up. Who you work for, the people you interact with, that all influences your own reputation. You've got to own your brand. Take control of the way you appear to the world. That’s your brand.  

If you’re happy to stay in your company, if that’s part of your plan, then that’s fine, but don’t just stay there out of habit. If it’s not fitting into your career plan, start looking elsewhere.

Joannie Wang: First, pay attention to the environment and the culture around you. You might be a totally badass individual contributor or leader, but if you’re not in an environment that fosters that kind of development, then it's really hard to move up. You have to make sure you’re in an environment that wants you to thrive and really has your best interests at heart. You can’t do it alone.

How can you take your learnings gained from mentorships and think about how to use them to leverage your career.

But also, be sure to give that back. Be a mentor and a leader to others. Whatever you're getting, make sure to give it back to the people below you.  

We wouldn't have gotten where we are without support from others, and we must  always be ensuring that other people, particularly women, can get that boost they need.

When working for a startup,  what should you expect?

Denise Garth: Expect that you may not have the same kind of salary and benefits, but you can get some benefits that you wouldn’t expect in a more established organization, such as stock ownership. Ask for some of the ownership or some of the stock, or the capital relative to that.

The most valuable thing is that you get to have the experience of watching something grow from the ground up. Take ownership of that, both in terms of your role and in terms of what you ask for.

Rebecca Garber : I think it's really just a question of weighing up the costs and benefits. or example, if having very clearly established hours is important to you at the core, if you have other ambitions, then maybe working for a startup isn’t really for you.

On the other hand, if you’re really invested in this thing on a personal level. If you want to actively contribute to the company you’re with, then maybe being with a startup is a good fit for you.

But you just might have to expect that some of those ‘normal things’ might be sacrificed in favor of helping the startup to thrive. In the end, it’s a trade-off. What’s really important to you?

Joannie Wang: I would like to add just one more thing. Weigh the pros and cons. One thing to establish clearly is, what's the thing that would make you exit the company? Once you’ve established your limitations in this way, it can be much easier to make these important, career-defining decisions.

The thing is, startups are inherently risky, and there are going to be pitfalls, and there’s going to be uncertainty along the way. But establish clearly, what is the thing that you absolutely cannot tolerate? Then make your decision accordingly.

How did you deal with people questioning your authority as leaders?

Rebecca Garber: I think it’s really easy for people who haven’t been in positions of leadership to judge leaders.  They just have no idea of what it's about.

The trick is to not let that get under your skin. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to pursue that and be able to maintain that professional front against all the adversity. The thing is, it isn’t for everyone, and there’s no shame in finding out that it’s not for you.

But try it out and see if it’s for you. Just because you might decide that leadership isn’t for you, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a valuable part of your organization elsewhere.

Denise Garth: You’ve got to have strength and resilience, that’s for sure. I was put into a position of leading a corporate project. In this instance, a lot of these C-level executives were avoiding making a decision. They were actually avoiding showing up to meetings!

I ended up writing a memo to the CEO that said, “This isn’t good enough. Things have to change.” The next day someone in the C-suite followed me to work, and I thought they were going to fire me. But they actually praised me for having written that memo. They respected me for taking that initiative.

The lesson? Be bold. If things aren’t right, take action.

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