“Actions speak louder than words”, With Douglas Brown and Laura Ipsen

We need to stop perpetuating the stereotype that tech, coding, engineering and other STEM roles are more for men than for women. We can help by sharing success stories and nurturing programs that engage girls earlier in STEM, and by supporting future tech talent as they move through high school, college and their careers. I would […]

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We need to stop perpetuating the stereotype that tech, coding, engineering and other STEM roles are more for men than for women. We can help by sharing success stories and nurturing programs that engage girls earlier in STEM, and by supporting future tech talent as they move through high school, college and their careers.

I would encourage young women to seek out and pursue educational opportunities that prepare them for careers in a world where technology and digital transformation are reaching across all industries. There is more opportunity than ever for women to pursue tech jobs beyond Big Tech, but rather in companies focused on healthcare, education, the environment — the sky is the limit.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Ipsen. She has been Ellucian’s President and Chief Executive Officer and a member of the Board of Directors since December 2017. Prior to joining Ellucian, the leading provider of software and services built to power higher education, Ms. Ipsen was Corporate Vice President of Microsoft’s worldwide public sector organization and General Manager and Senior Vice President of the Oracle Marketing Cloud business unit. Ipsen spent more than 25 years in Silicon Valley including nearly seventeen years at Cisco Systems where she established the first government affairs organization and founded Cisco’s Connected Energy Business Unit, the precursor to Cisco’s IoT business. She currently sits on the Board of Directors of Verisk, a leading data analytics provider, and the Business-Higher Ed Forum (BHEF) based in Washington, DC. Ms. Ipsen holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and studied Arabic at Yarmouk University in Jordan.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I always thought I would be in a government or policy role when I started at PwC. Then, the opportunity came up for me to move to Silicon Valley for what I told my mother would be no more than one year…it turned out to be 25+ years.

For me, Silicon Valley was more of a meritocracy, where ideas and creativity were valued. In many ways it felt like a more open environment vs. the tenured traditional business environment in Washington, D.C., at that time.

I was smack dab in the middle of technology transforming the world and it was truly exciting. That’s why I stayed in the Valley.

The transformational power of technology — to transform anything — resonates with me.

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

A story that comes to mind for me is one that started off as a challenging customer situation for Bryant University. In my first few months, I received a letter explaining that they were disappointed in us. This turned out to be one of our most positive turnaround customer success stories of my tenure so far. In fact, after working with Bryant University to move its operations management to the cloud in 2019, they have already seen increased efficiencies, better security, and an improved experience for students, faculty and staff. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the university had its most successful registration in Spring 2020.

In working with this customer as a true partner, we together transformed their operations and moved them to cloud. And I personally built a strong relationship with the previous president and his wife.

Bryant University gave me an honorary Ph.D. and I delivered the commencement address in 2019. This led to the opportunity to keynote their 2020 Women’s Summit — something I am most proud of and consider a career highlight.

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?

The customer was the San Jose Flea Market, and in my role working in international trade, I was meeting the CEO/President to consult on seizing counterfeit bunny baskets for Easter. Someone was infringing on their design — in this case, copying the design where the bunny ears went around the handle.

I asked the CEO why it was so important the ears were that way.

Lesson learned? Things that I may not think of as important, may in fact be very important to the customer. The ears were very important.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

The biggest challenge for me was packing up my duffle bag and moving to California for a new job while not knowing anyone there.

My boss was not in my office location and I worked most of the day because I didn’t know anyone. For me, it was challenging to build a life outside of work and achieve balance.

I never thought of giving up because I was learning, and even though there was distance I had the support of the women I worked with/for. I leaned on new friends that I made in a women’s organization.

It was there that I found a place where business colleagues became friends and then family. Over time, the group became a larger commitment and I served as local chapter president and then global president.

Finding my place and my network provided a great way to give back to help women build their own networks and succeed professionally.

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?

Yes — John Chambers. John was my mentor and advocate at Cisco and he supported me and pushed me to do more in the company.

John knew me well enough to recognize when I was restless and wanted to do more. And it was John who supported me to become the General Manager (GM) of a newly formed business unit on smart grid technology.

On the eve of making the move, we were driving back from an event with then-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. I asked him what advice he had for my new role and he thought for a few minutes and then surprised me by saying: “Block twice as much time off as you think you’ll need because you have to give half back.” This was his way of saying that when you jump into something new you’ll work hard, but to be successful you can’t always run a sprint, you need to be there for the marathon.

I have had many other mentors, as well, including Sue Bostrom, our CMO at Cisco, who was my top female role model.

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

My best life quotes come from my mom — “don’t sweat the small stuff” and “actions speak louder than words”.

I apply those to my life and business.

We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Today’s higher education institutions are facing tremendous pressure to improve retention rates, achieve greater degree completion and attain stronger financial health — all while also facing the need to innovate and adapt to improve learning. At Ellucian, we provide technology solutions and services that help higher education institutions be more agile, scalable and efficient to achieve student success.

As important as the technology we deliver, we partner with our customers to enable student well-being. We are using data to create better opportunities for all students before, during and after their time in college because learning is for life. More and more, our customers are realizing that digital transformation will be a critical element of success and we have the technology to help them be more flexible, resilient and nimble in their operations.

What do you think makes your company stand out?

The Ellucian difference is in our commitment to higher education. Since our founding 50+ years ago, it has been our sole focus — it is all we do and we do it well. Our average customer retention is 17 years because institutions count on us to support them as their needs evolve. As the leading software and services company for higher education, we enable more than 2,700 institutions and 20 million students globally.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes — we believe that the digital future of higher education is one that brings people, processes, and systems closer together.

Consider that the average higher education institution relies on upwards of 100 individual solutions to deliver key services, covering everything from recruitment to financial aid, alumni relations to installment systems. Over time, this has led to siloed, disjointed decision-making and complex tech maintenance efforts.

Through our Ellucian Ethos Platform, there is now a data model that enables information to be standardized, packaged, and shared across the institution — and that’s true whether the underlying data comes from an Ellucian application or not. This is exciting because it presents endless opportunity. For example, workflows that involve multiple departments and offices can now become more seamless. Analytics that were once trapped in siloes can now pull all the relevant data needed to inform smarter decisions. Administrative tasks that once forced students to access multiple systems are now easily performed. And not only can individual campuses become more connected through the Ellucian Ethos Platform, entire state systems can share data, standardize business practices, and boost performance and efficiency as a result.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No, in fact, one of the reasons I took the opportunity to be CEO at Ellucian is that there are so few females running software companies today. Being visible to more women helps to pave the way for others to realize their potential. We must embrace a culture that encourages women to be leaders and empower them with the support and resources they need to excel.

Industry research predicts technology employers have the potential to double the number of women working in tech over the next decade, but many will need to address their lack of an inclusive organizational culture to do so. (joint report published Sept. 29 by Accenture and the nonprofit Girls Who Code)

At Ellucian, we strive to be inclusive at all levels and have programs to help women feel a sense of belonging. This begins with including women in our internship programs and extends to our Women in Technology ERG (employee resource group), created to bring together women and their allies, to support the advancement of technical and non-technical women. As another example, modeled after Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In Circles, Ellucian Lean In Circles focus on structured development by bolstering networks and providing support to cultivate potential and strengthen females as leaders.

In addition to structured support networks, I also believe that mentors are extremely powerful for career development. I encourage all women, and particularly those forging their way in tech, to seek out mentors and role models who you can learn from — and who, in turn, will learn from you. Investing in other women and building community is one of the elements of my career that has been the most meaningful. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing the success of those you have mentored.

In the spirit of passing the torch to the next generation of tech leaders, Ellucian is creating new opportunities for our women in tech to serve as role models for others. We recently rolled out a webinar series for the career services office of one of our higher education customers. Not only were we able to provide inspiration to female college students seeking tech careers, our female employees had a unique opportunity to step up and share their passion.

Simply put, supporting women in tech can’t be an afterthought. From education to recruiting, connecting women to tech jobs must be a persistent effort.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

We need to stop perpetuating the stereotype that tech, coding, engineering and other STEM roles are more for men than for women. We can help by sharing success stories and nurturing programs that engage girls earlier in STEM, and by supporting future tech talent as they move through high school, college and their careers.

I would encourage young women to seek out and pursue educational opportunities that prepare them for careers in a world where technology and digital transformation are reaching across all industries. There is more opportunity than ever for women to pursue tech jobs beyond Big Tech, but rather in companies focused on healthcare, education, the environment — the sky is the limit.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

  • Ask yourself one question — am I providing the solutions that my customers want and need with excellence?
  • Finding new growth is often about stepping away, looking at your markets differently, digging in deep to customer feedback, and being brave enough to disrupt your traditional business to do new things that build on the core success of your company.
  • Also, make sure you have the best team — one that is aligned to your vision/strategy and can execute.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

High performing teams start with two ingredients — strong leaders and rigor around metrics. These leaders should motivate and inspire, making sure the team believes in the product and enjoys engaging with customers.

Most of all, I think it is so important that the team celebrates their wins together.

In your specific industry, what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

We serve 50% of higher education institutions in the US and 20M students globally.

For Ellucian — its less about finding the right customers but more about showing how we can solve their toughest challenges.

For example, when COVID hit, our first action was to reach out to all of our customers to see how we could help. In some cases we gave away time and resources — no strings attached. For others, optimizing software helped with recruiting, enrollment and online learning at a time they needed it most. Bryant University used Ellucian solutions to develop a CARES Grant Application form for students to submit requests for financial assistance. We worked with Victor Valley College to negotiate a deal with T-Mobile and OmniPro to provide 500 laptops and data service to students at no cost to the students, and a minimum cost to the college.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service? As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

Rather than approaching this from a tactical standpoint or looking at specific initiatives, I really prefer to look at the customer strategy from the perspective of the entire customer journey — that is, how we engage customers from the cradle to the grave (and yes, sometimes there is a grave, but if you manage well through the grave, you’ll find that these customers often come back). When a company has made the decision to invest in customer success, there are three levels of maturity to consider as you work to drive value and create ‘stickiness’: Retention, Use and Adoption, and Advocacy.

Beginning with a focus on retention, you need to look at protecting your existing customer base to ensure they are renewing year after year. Your customer success team should be reaching out and engaging with the customers in a consistent way. Using metrics including indicators such as Net Promoter Scores and really using the data to understand gaps and potential trouble areas, teams should constantly be working to improve the customer experience.

Next in the customer journey is the Use and Adoption stage. This is when you need to be upskilling your team to understand what your customer owns, how well are they using the features to drive their ROI or meet their goals, and helping them to get the most value out of their funding. In doing this, you are working to make the renewal a non-event — in other words, you become so integral into their success that there is no question about whether or not they will renew with you.

The final level of customer success maturity is Advocacy. At this point you are building deeper relationships through targeted programs for those at the highest level of a company or institution, through advisory councils and executive sponsorship programs. At this point in a customer relationship, you have a customer that has become a true advocate for you and your solutions.

We look to our customers as true partners and strive to work with them together to find solutions to meet their unique needs. If well-managed, the customer relationship and service you provide supersedes any solution. We have a 97% retention rate at Ellucian with the average customer being with us for 14 years or more.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are some of the keys to create a successful tech company?

Ellucian believes in being people first, customer first, and cloud first — which touches on our commitment to people and culture, customers and innovation.

People — In my experience, the people are what really make a company successful or not. One of my first priorities when joining Ellucian was to assess and make changes to my leadership team in order to execute against our strategy. We have a great mix of deep higher ed experience, technology experts and a shared commitment to our customers.

Culture — A tech company needs a hybrid culture that reflects both technology and the market you serve and unifies employees around a common goal. For us, we’ve developed a people-first culture with attributes of both a higher ED culture and that of a tech company. This combination strikes a balance that will help us to reimagine the future of education with our customers.

Customer first mindset — I believe to be successful there needs to be commitment across the organization so that no matter what a person’s role is, all are contributing to creating a “customer for life” experience.

Innovation — Silicon Valley taught me about the power of innovation to “change the world,” a mantra I heard often from my mentor and then Cisco CEO John Chambers. At Ellucian we’re working to deliver the next generation of innovation for colleges and universities, and we are committed to partnering with our customers to reimagine the future of higher ed.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Lowering the barriers to access quality education to support lifelong learning.

Data shows that for the last two decades 36 million Americans took courses but never got a degree — they dropped out. How do we use technology to better serve people? It’s not about the technology, but the ability to enable more opportunities. Particularly now, at a time when more of our underserved communities are at risk, we all need to play our part to make opportunities.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Oprah Winfrey — Oprah is an inspiration for so many reasons, but I admire most her commitment to empowering women and her profound belief in the power of education to change lives. From Oprah’s Angel Network philanthropy and scholarships for HBCU students to launching a school in South Africa, she has used her platforms, her financial support and her time to improve the quality of education and advance opportunities for those who need it most. In her own words: “I value nothing more in the world than education… It is an open door to freedom.”

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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