Shruti Bhat of Rockset: “An executive’s biggest responsibility is to deliver value to the stakeholders of the company ”

An executive’s biggest responsibility is to deliver value to the stakeholders of the company — from the shareholders to the team members. It often means finding and hiring a team that is smarter than you, helping them do what they do best, and then getting out of their way. This really requires executives to put the company […]

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An executive’s biggest responsibility is to deliver value to the stakeholders of the company — from the shareholders to the team members. It often means finding and hiring a team that is smarter than you, helping them do what they do best, and then getting out of their way. This really requires executives to put the company first and make sure that they are always the enabler and never the bottleneck.

As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Shruti Bhat.

As Chief Product Officer and SVP of Marketing, Shruti Bhat leads product management and marketing at Rockset. Prior to Rockset, Shruti led product management for Oracle Cloud, with a focus on AI, IoT and Blockchain. Previously, Shruti was VP Marketing at Ravello Systems, where she drove the start-up’s rapid growth from pre-launch to hundreds of customers and a successful acquisition. Prior to that, she was responsible for launching VMware’s vSAN and has led engineering teams at HP and IBM. Shruti has a bachelor’s in computer science engineering and an MBA from UCLA Anderson.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

During my early years as a software developer, I really enjoyed my work, but found myself frustrated when I was solving a piece of the puzzle without the full picture. For someone who starts with the “why,” it is not easy to jump right into the “how.” Given this, I started to find ways to interact directly with our customers. And having that larger context is what allowed me to contribute a lot more in early design phases, so I quickly started leading larger development teams. (I also became that one engineer who everyone in sales loved to call on) But it still wasn’t enough. I was feeling stuck.

To get unstuck, I decided to stay in tech, but shifted gears from building the software to building the business. I went back to business school and moved from engineering to product and GTM strategy. I’m a builder at heart so I love building and scaling businesses, which naturally led me towards creating early stage products in big companies and eventually to building startups, creating new categories and launching new products.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

As a series A startup, we were in the middle of our product-market fit journey when the COVID 19 pandemic hit. Things escalated quickly and for a few weeks the world as we knew it was turned upside down. At the same time everyone on the team lost their extended support system — schools and daycares were closed, hiring help at home was unsafe, and families/friends couldn’t meet anymore. We went in not knowing how we would ride the storm, but the most interesting thing that happened is that the team pulled together like never before and our customers accelerated their digital journeys — so a few months later we emerged stronger than ever and raised our series B with incredible growth, right in the middle of the pandemic. It’s a story of true resilience in the face of adversity, one we could never have anticipated.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of the most valuable lessons I ever learned: always start with the endgame. In the early days of my career I was an engineer at HP, working on storage management software. Our office had a small datacenter in the basement but my team didn’t have any local servers or storage arrays for R&D. We relied on remote equipment and constantly found ourselves waiting for someone at the remote site to manually reboot things or pull a disk for us. I rallied the troops, made the business case, got millions of dollars in budget approved and successfully went through the procurement process. But until the equipment arrived it never occurred to me that none of us knew how to set it up or operate it, and we certainly did not have the headcount to hire a storage admin. So all that hardware just sat there unopened for a really long time.

Eventually I took it upon myself and spent many weekends freezing my butt off in the datacenter, learned how to setup a SAN from scratch and ended up doing both jobs for quite a while. Since then I’ve learned that it’s important to think more than five moves ahead. Now before I start any project, I stop and ask myself: what’s the endgame? And I work backwards from there.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

So many people have helped me in my journey so far. I wouldn’t be here without the kindness of strangers, and support from mentors. For example, when I interned at Cisco, then SVP, now angel investor, Dan Scheinman candidly shared his executive insights and challenges with me, and since then has continued to be a friend, mentor and guide. He was the first person to help me seriously consider embarking on a startup journey — and he even connected me to some of the founders he had invested in. Another leader who comes to mind is Bogomil Balkansky, ex-VMware leader, now a partner at Sequoia. I joined Bogomil’s team as a fresh MBA grad and not only did he invest heavily in coaching me and many others like me, he was also the one who eventually connected me to the team behind Rockset. I’m forever grateful to Dan, Bogomil and everyone else who helped me along the way. And the best I can do is to pay it forward, by helping the next generation of emerging leaders.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I once read somewhere that good executive are like swans: they appear calm and graceful on the surface but their webbed feet pedal hard under the surface. This is certainly true in my case. At a startup we often go from high level strategic decisions to extremely tactical activities in the same day. I have found that there is simply no substitute for hard work and attention to detail. On any given day, it may appear like I am casually hopping from one meeting to the next, but I typically prepare for every single meeting either the week before, the night before or the hour before — depending on how high the stakes are. If I haven’t done my homework, I’m stressed. But as long as I take the time to gather the facts and mentally process it from multiple angles, I can bring my A-game to any meeting and react to new information in the moment.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

It’s been proven time and time again that diverse teams make better decisions and better investments. But building a diverse team is easier said than done. Most diversity and inclusion initiatives at big companies fail because they are an after thought. Having a diverse executive team helps ensure that it is embedded deeply into the company culture

Tech startups are overwhelmingly (72 percent) founded by men and they mostly recruit from within their own network so they end up hiring more men who look just like them. The key to changing the company dynamic starts at the top; you need to bring on women leaders early — within the first five hires. Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t be an afterthought that’s addressed after your company has a dedicated HR team — it must be deeply embedded in your company culture from day one.

I was the first female hire at Rockset. I led all business functions and I was the 5th hire. Soon after, I did coffee chats with more women in our recruiting pipeline and we had our first female engineer join us. Together we played an active role in crafting our company policies and shaping the culture — and we made darn sure it was friendly. When women see other women in senior roles, especially in the early stages, it is a clear signal that this startup values diversity and there’s a seat for them at the table. Many women have told me they research the diversity of a company’s executive team before they even agree to an interview.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

Companies can start by establishing parental leave policies, not just maternity leave. When we recognize that babies are born into families and see both new moms and new dads through the same lens, it is the greatest cultural equalizer. We did this at Rockset and its been amazing to see new dads step into their role as an equal caregiver in their family. For a more equitable society we need to empower both men and women to find the new balance.

Moreover, women are statistically less likely than men to self-promote their accomplishments or negotiate for themselves- mainly because the double bind is very real. You’re damned if you do, and doomed if you don’t. Startups must counter this by fostering a culture that routinely celebrates achievements in all-hands meetings and company slack channels. Shoutouts from managers and fellow team members allow everyone to be seen and recognized, not just those who toot their own horn.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

An executive’s biggest responsibility is to deliver value to the stakeholders of the company — from the shareholders to the team members. It often means finding and hiring a team that is smarter than you, helping them do what they do best, and then getting out of their way. This really requires executives to put the company first and make sure that they are always the enabler and never the bottleneck.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

There is this myth that good executives have a certain type of outgoing, charismatic personality — but the reality is that great executives come in all shapes, sizes, colors and personalities! They each have their own unique leadership styles, but what’s common is they have to earn the respect of their team through their actions and not just words.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

There are many challenges, but by far the greatest is that by the time someone is ready for an executive role, they also have growing families and more personal obligations. Women still bear a lot of the invisible workload of motherhood and it becomes an impossible choice — be there for their families or lean into their careers.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I hate surprises. Good news or bad news, I’d rather go in with my eyes wide open. So I am grateful that there have been surprises in terms of what I thought it would be and what it actually is. In part this is because I’ve had the good fortune of working closely with and learning from some of the best leaders at big companies and startups alike.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

I don’t know if there are specific traits or a certain personality. But among the leaders I do look up to, I have seen incredible resilience, very high integrity and a level of commitment that is hard to describe. It’s all about grit.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Like most women, I’ve had to navigate subtle and not-so-subtle biases at different points in my own career. Along the way, I’ve come to realize that terms like “imposter syndrome” unfairly place the burden to adapt squarely on women. I’ve been working with the leadership team at Rockset to make sure that our culture is wholesome — a place where we put families first and invest in the well being of our team. I’ve found that women in the team tend to be mentored a lot — they are told how to adapt — but instead as women leaders who have experienced the challenges of working in a male-dominated culture, it is up to us to make it a better place for the next generation of women in the workforce.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Over half of the women working in tech report experiencing gender inequality in the workplace. Tech giants like Google (no, I never worked there) and Oracle (yes, I once worked there) have come under fire for sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination. Sidelining, mansplaining, patronizing and pay gaps. A career in tech is still hard for women. Life in a startup is seemingly even harder. I have been a mentor and sponsor for young women entering the tech industry, but more importantly I have been a strong advocate for reshaping the culture in Silicon Valley, so women can win.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Start at the startup stage. The onus is on startups to create a culture where women can thrive. By fixing gender inequality early in the startup stage, we can transform the next generation of tech giants, eventually turning the entire industry into a place where women can win. Startups who don’t make this a top priority are missing out: it’s been proven time and time again that diverse teams make better decisions and better investments.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson is that “Your career is a marathon not a sprint.” When you go through a rough patch, remind yourself that it is just a phase and play the long game.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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