Imagine that it’s 1981, and you’re graduating from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville with a B.S. in electrical engineering. If you’re female, imagine what that experience was like. If you’re male, don’t even try. We probably couldn’t come close.
Nasrin Thierer, founder and CEO of Revenew, a distributed marketing automation platform provider in Chicago, doesn’t have to imagine it, because she lived it. In a recent interview, she told me she was one of only three women in a class of about 100 EE graduates. So I asked her what on Earth led her down such a challenging path. She said technology truly was her first passion:
I always excelled in the sciences, and didn’t do as well when it came to literature and the social sciences. When I was young, I used to take everything apart to make sure I knew exactly how it worked, and then put it back together—so my poor parents had to invest in a lot of electronics. I started out as an electrical engineer, and then I moved on to product and business management. But technology always remained the foundation for my career.
I asked Thierer what has been the biggest advantage, and the biggest disadvantage, she’s had in her career by virtue of being female. She said she never really experienced any disadvantages:
I would say the biggest advantage was that I always stood out. I had a lot of great relationships, and I was able to build teams and really work with everyone. I always really found everyone to be very open. From the disadvantage side, we think about stereotypes, and it’s hard to be a female in technology. But from the get-go, I made it my mission to look past it. Not looking at it turned into a strength—working through it brought out the best in me. I made sure I was ready for everything—I always prepared and made sure I had the answers. So I never really experienced any disadvantages, because I always worked hard to make sure everything was always on target.
I found it interesting that Thierer’s husband Mark is chairman and CEO of Catamaran Corp., a pharmacy benefit manager services provider that was recently acquired by UnitedHealth Group. I asked about differences in their leadership styles, and she said they are indeed different:
Having more of a technology background, I probably am a lot more detail-oriented. I would say Mark is a little bit more strategy-focused. For me, I have that, but also feel like I bring in more of a detailed, bottom-up view to focus on execution. [As for a difference I would attribute to gender,] in general I would say he’s probably more direct and to the point; I’m probably more about team and consensus.
I asked Thierer what impact she thinks the gender of the CEO has on the culture of a company. She said she can only speak for herself and how she leads:
I love teamwork. I love bringing in people I can trust and who can work together—that’s really important to me. And making sure we have consensus—that everybody is moving in the same direction. I love having personal connections with people—really understanding their needs and where they want to go. I love bringing them into the fold and making sure they’re part of the decision—keeping it really inclusive. That’s really my style, and what I appreciate, but I’ve seen a lot of guys doing the same thing, too.
I noted that there’s been a lot in the news lately about tech companies offering very generous maternity leave policies—Netflix, Adobe and Microsoft in particular. So I asked Thierer about her policy at Revenew, and how might that policy change in the future. She explained it this way:
We’re very supportive of all employees, and of providing them leave. Obviously we’re much, much smaller, and we don’t have the same means as the larger companies But we are supportive of the team to take the time off that they need to take care of their families—that is very important to me.
I mentioned that Republican presidential candidate and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina has come out in opposition to federally mandated paid maternity leave, and I asked Thierer for her thoughts on that. She sided with Fiorina:
I have two kids, and I was lucky enough to be able to take as many weeks as I needed. And I really support the team to be able to take the time off. I’m not so sure that it needs to be federally mandated. But I do believe that the companies need to provide the time that everyone needs to take care of the family—family should come first. I think the team members are always much more productive and deliver more when the family is taken care of, and everything is in a good place for them on the personal side.
I asked Thierer about the gender mix of Revenew’s board of directors, and her response was encouraging:
We have a very small board of directors. I am on the board, and we have three other board members [who are male], so a total of four. We are getting a new board member from another one of our VCs who is female, so it will be two female and three male. … I think it’s always good to have a mix—I think diversity brings better thinking. That diversity can come from gender, or coming from different backgrounds. But diversity, in general, is very good everywhere, including in the boardroom.
Finally, I asked Thierer what advice she has for young women who aspire to follow in her footsteps. Her response:
I think everyone should just set their dream and then go after it. My advice is, be persistent. Set your sights on where you want to go and just work through it—don’t let anything stop you. Work through what could be perceived as stereotypes—work hard, with determination, and you will succeed.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.