Avalara SVP Liz Armbruester: “It is a myth that STEM or Tech isn’t feminine” With Penny Bauder

STEM or Tech isn’t feminine. I believe this is a myth that pervades many industries, not only STEM or tech. The expectation that you need to act and dress as men do to get ahead is outdated. In today’s day and age, it’s more important to put your skills and abilities to work than to focus […]

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STEM or Tech isn’t feminine. I believe this is a myth that pervades many industries, not only STEM or tech. The expectation that you need to act and dress as men do to get ahead is outdated. In today’s day and age, it’s more important to put your skills and abilities to work than to focus on what you wear. With such a tremendous focus on diversity and inclusion, showing up as your authentic self and finding space to do what you do best is what companies value. That could look like jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie or a dress, with lipstick and a touch of perfume. Be you, take your seat at the table and do great work!

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing with Liz Armbruester, senior vice president of global compliance operations at Avalara.

Liz oversees global compliance operations at Avalara. Liz brings more than 20 years of leadership experience from a variety of technology sectors including software, media and services and is known for her strong track record of innovative problem solving, process optimization and ability to deliver automation for efficiency and scale. Her strong commitment to operational excellence and aptitude for partnering cross-functionally helped her drive value in her prior roles with Vubiquity, a provider of content monetization technology, and Zilog, a computing microcontroller manufacturer.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In the mid-90s, I was working in the medical field but continually found my way to the front office. Everything was being done on paper…the financials, patient charting, account records, etc. I knew that there had to be a more efficient and cost-effective way to manage all this information using software. So, I became the person responsible for finding the right software and implementing it in several medical practices, which helped them to be more efficient and set them up for scale.

This experience early in my career set the tone for all the operational roles I would take on in the future. Being able to understand how work gets done, document it, and figure out an automated and scalable way to increase efficiency is where I excel. It takes smart, capable, creative thinkers to solve big problems and I enjoy finding those people, creating teams, building relationships, and ultimately delivering great solutions with them.

Avalara is a tax technology company and fits right into my sweet spot because we solve hard problems for businesses of all shapes and sizes around the globe. Tax compliance is incredibly complicated due to the massive amount of tax rates, rules, and boundaries that every single business in the world must navigate. At Avalara, we take on that burden for businesses by giving them the opportunity to get tax right, every time they sell a product.

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

My career has been full of challenges and crazy experiences so it’s hard to identify the most interesting story. However, I think the time I hosted a hiring event in the middle of a snowstorm in North Carolina may be the most interesting.

On the day of the hiring event in Durham, NC, we were surprisingly met with 10 inches of snow the morning of the event. Over twenty candidates that we had scheduled interviews with couldn’t reach the office. Needless to say, our candidates and our staff were able to demonstrate creativity, adaptability, and perseverance to complete the interview process remotely. There were even a few candidates that braved the storm and came to our location to interview in person!

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?

Honestly, this is a hard question for me because I’ve struggled with perfectionism my whole life. My frame of success has always been ridiculously high — so high that I used to feel a degree of shame after I made a mistake.

What I’ve finally realized over the years is that failure or making mistakes is how we as humans learn. Additionally, sharing the stories from your mistakes not only helps you but helps others too. The ironic thing is that I’m an athlete, my kids are athletes and at our core, having the guts to continually try and improve at the risk of failure is ultimately what makes us successful. We talk about the importance of having a short-term memory — especially when in competition.

Reflection is important but sometimes it can’t be in the moment while you are “in the game.” You must have enough focus to dump the error, the mishap, or the moment it didn’t go exactly to plan and focus your mind on the next pitch, play or project. Give the right amount of attention to learning from the mistake at the right time and then move on!

All that said, I have made several mistakes that have led to practices I still employ today. For example, early in my career I sent an email with some less than favorable comments about someone’s presentation. The email went to the wrong person and I definitely had some explaining to do. From that mistake I learned not to write anything that I wasn’t willing to say to someone directly and to double check the recipient’s email address before hitting send!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At Avalara, we strike an interesting balance of operating in a highly regulated compliance industry juxtaposed with a core success trait of fun. We take on the tax compliance challenge for thousands of businesses every day and aim to make it significantly easier for them. Obviously, tax is a serious business that has its complexities with local tax laws and product definitions changing frequently, but we like to keep things exciting at our offices. We know our success hinges on our people, so we celebrate and encourage diversity. Our culture is rooted in 9 traits for success: optimism, passion, adaptability, humility, fun, ownership, curiosity, urgency, and simplicity.

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

We are automating the manual world of tax compliance. Specifically, my teams are focused on the automation of preparing and filing returns and other obligatory reporting. One really exciting project involves robotic process automation (RPA). We’ve implemented several “bots” in production workflows in our operations that have already eliminated errors and saved us time. My teams are reliant on partnerships with our product and development teams for automating the technology that impacts our own destiny. This concept of automation has challenged my group to consider which processes are appropriate for RPA and they have played a significant role in drafting process steps and testing before we put a new bot into production. We are enabling humans to do more challenging work and they thoroughly enjoy this opportunity. It isn’t about automating to reduce jobs — rather, it is a way to drive our employees to do the work that only humans can do.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

We need more women in tech — period. Much of the outreach today is to girls who are already in high school, but we need to make contact with these girls earlier in their academic journey. We would have a more profound effect on young girls if we provided them with more mentors, role models, and messages that make a career in STEM more attainable to them. We should be creating confidence, interest, and avenues for girls to pursue STEM and consider technology as a career option at a young age so they can create a path that navigates them to their goal.

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

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people assume the woman is not the one in charge. Everybody should be working to stop this behavior in its tracks, along with any other instances of sexism and harassment they witness in the workplace. Women should especially support other women and hold men accountable by calling it out when they see these encounters taking place.

I’ve also heard that women are being encouraged to mirror the style of their male counterparts. Men are typically known for being more vocal, quick thinkers, and generally more dominant. I’ve even heard speakers at women’s leadership conferences encouraging other women to be more like their male counterparts rather than valuing and promoting a style that is more reserved, contemplative, or considerate of multiple potential outcomes.

It’s time that we stop this narrative and shift to a different way of thinking that honors the diverse skills and knowledge that women bring to STEM. It’s also important to address that women are not one homogenous group of people that think the same way. We need to celebrate our differences and recognize the value of the diversity of our styles.

Lastly, there is this idea that women’s failures are more than their own and that if you don’t succeed, you’ve somehow failed all women everywhere. Men do not have to experience this at work. If a male peer messes up, he’s just struggling. If I mess up, it’s concluded that all women are bad leaders. To improve this type of thinking it requires us to reframe failure and create a narrative we can control for ourselves. We need failure because it enables us to grow and learn from our mistakes.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

1. Women aren’t interested in tech. This statement is completely false. Technology at its core is fascinating and there are hundreds of thousands of women out there who are interested in exploring this field. While the number of women professionals in tech is lower than the number of their male counterparts, it doesn’t mean that women aren’t interested. Often even if interested in STEM, some women disregard STEM as a possibility for their careers due to a perceived lack of support from the industry or pressure to conform to gender roles. This is something that I and others in the industry are actively trying to change.

2. The tech industry doesn’t need more women. Multiple studies have shown that companies that encourage diversity of race, background, and gender perform better. According to a 2018 study by the financial planning firm MSCI, having three or more women on a company’s board of directors helps companies perform better financially.

Additionally, some women in STEM outperform their male counterparts in certain areas, which is proven by a study from Google showing that female-led tech companies achieve a 35 percent higher return on investment and bring in 12 percent more revenue than male-led companies.

Women are more than capable of thriving in the tech field, but many lack the support necessary to pursue the career they want. With a combination of activism, mentoring, and support we should see more women and girls being encouraged to seek STEM careers and improve the tech industry.

3. STEM or Tech isn’t feminine. I believe this is a myth that pervades many industries, not only STEM or tech. The expectation that you need to act and dress as men do to get ahead is outdated. In today’s day and age, it’s more important to put your skills and abilities to work than to focus on what you wear. With such a tremendous focus on diversity and inclusion, showing up as your authentic self and finding space to do what you do best is what companies value. That could look like jeans, a t-shirt, and a hoodie or a dress, with lipstick and a touch of perfume. Be you, take your seat at the table and do great work!

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

I’ve learned a lot throughout my career in tech and believe that those lessons can apply to everyone — not just women. With that being said, the 5 leadership lessons I’ve learned as a woman in tech include:

  1. The importance of being a strong decision-maker. In the tech industry, things are moving too quickly to be indecisive. As a leader, you must be able to make tough decisions quickly and efficiently, which means you need to first learn how to delegate. You can’t be a strong decision-maker or leader unless you have a strong team working with you that can take ownership of projects and tasks. Creating and maintaining a strong team comes from having a diverse set of individuals that can bring different expertise and knowledge to help support and inform your decisions. At Avalara, we work in a world that is constantly changing — through the needs of our customers and partners, due to the legislative tax authorities around the globe and the globalization of e-commerce. If we can’t be decisive in an ever-changing environment we’d never be successful.
  2. Collaborate. In a global business world, collaboration skills are essential. Collaboration is most effective when each team member feels accountable and interdependent with other teammates. Nothing is more destructive for a team than a leader who is unwilling to collaborate. This is especially true in a field like tech that is dominated by men. Collaborating with other leaders and teammates can help you boost your self-confidence because it allows you to learn from others that have experience in other areas or different perspectives on an issue. Increasing your knowledge will also allow you to be more confident in your decisions and strategies.
  3. Be a good coach, especially for women. A good leader must invest in their team, which includes being an advocate, coach, or mentor to the members of your team to ensure that they are growing and thriving in their role. Leaders tend to forget how important their feedback is to the members of their team, which can impact morale and productivity. Since women are underrepresented in the tech industry, it’s even more important to make sure you are capitalizing on every opportunity to provide encouragement and mentorship.
  4. Make sure you have a clear vision and strategy for your team. Have a “North Star” because, without it, employees create their own visions and narratives. Once you have your vision set for your team, you need to communicate it to your team over and over. Even when you feel like you’re talking until you’re blue in the face — it’s never enough. Your team wants to hear from you more frequently and understand the role that they play in the company’s success. This is how you keep your employees engaged and committed to the work that they are doing. I just recently completed a 360 feedback cycle, and the feedback indicated that although I’m a great communicator, people still want more communication from me.
  5. Resist the “fixer” mentality. It’s easy for those of us in tech to want to solve every problem on our own. This is because most of us are hard-wired to identify problems and find solutions — it’s in our DNA. However, as a leader, it’s important that you work with your team to develop the right solution instead of taking on every problem on your own. Your role is to be a facilitator, not a fixer. Your role is to plan the right people in positions and equip them with the right resources to identify the right solutions.

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

Every team is made up of a variety of personality types and varying levels of work ethic. That’s why it’s beyond important to identify the ‘utility players’ on your team and make sure that you are leveraging all of the skills that they have to offer.

For example, on your average adult league softball team, there’s a position called the ‘rover’ that has the ability to come in and play a defensive position that looks like an infielder or play the outfield if necessary. In a business setting, your utility players are the rovers.

As a leader, identifying who can play multiple positions is critical because the needs of the team can shift at any moment and you need to know who on your team you can lean on to take on added or new responsibilities. Understanding who these players are on your team is of utmost importance because oftentimes utility players never get the opportunity to showcase their additional skills because they are never asked to use them. Once you identify these people, you can expand their roles on your team to increase productivity and empower the people on your team to do more.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Managing a large team comes with its own set of opportunities and challenges. The larger the team, the more personalities, and skill sets you have to manage. For any female leaders currently managing or preparing to manage a large team, my advice is to have the confidence and a sense of ownership that will enable you to create an inclusive environment that values each team member’s career and development.

To support individual development, leaders need to make sure that they are doing everything in their power to advocate, mentor and engage with the members of your team. Be the best coach that you can be for your team, which comes in many different forms. For some team members, coaching can come in the form of giving positive and critical feedback when discussing their performance.

You should also remember that being a great coach doesn’t end with your team, but it also involves frequent collaboration with other teams. As a female leader within your organization, you’re not only a role model and influence for women on your team but women on other teams that might not have a female leader to look up to. Being a leader means learning how to collaborate with other teams for the benefit of the business, as well as the benefit of women across the company. Through collaboration, you also have the opportunity to produce better ideas, gain valuable feedback, increase efficiency, and view projects through the lens of diverse perspectives.

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?

There are numerous people — way too many to list. I wouldn’t be anywhere without the constant support of my family. My family has held up a mirror for me to allow me to self-reflect and help direct me to become the person I want to be. I’ve had a variety of support in my personal and professional life that has come in all forms — peers, managers, CEOs and board members. They feel like my own personal “team” that has filled a variety of roles in my development throughout my career. My team of advocates have given me opportunities on new projects that helped me grow my skills, encouraged me to try different things, helped me reframe my definition of success, and even told me things that I didn’t want to hear but needed to hear. I’m so grateful to have acquired these influential people around as I’ve advanced in my career.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Impact comes in many shapes and sizes. I consider my investment into my family, my community, my employees and my co-workers the avenues through which I funnel my influence for good. As a woman leader in technology, I’m thrilled to be a sponsor of our Women of Avalara employee resource group to shine a light on often under-represented groups and help advocate for a better state of being.

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. 🙂

I was raised to believe that success was wrapped in independence and proving that you could do things on your own. While this mindset gave me a lot of confidence, I sometimes feel I missed out on the power of community and ultimately the power of strength in numbers. It’s hard for me to ask for help and doing so makes me feel defeated before I even start. But here’s the truth: As humans, it doesn’t matter how strong or independent you are, at the end of the day we are stronger together. If I could inspire any movement, it would be one that encourages us all to help each other, be kind to one another, and respect each other. Our strength is truly in our connections and we are stronger together.

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

My favorite quote of all time is not a single one-liner. It’s from a speech that Theodore Roosevelt gave….

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

This quote is relevant in my life because I’ve found that the road — no matter which one you take — is often riddled with scoffers and those who want to cast their opinions on your decisions and success. As we navigate the world and the track we’ve each been put on, it’s important to remember that just by putting in the effort and giving life your all — regardless of the outcome — is an achievement itself.

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 🙂

There are infinite options for selecting smart, talented, amazing, inspiring people in the world. With that being said, I’d select a human being who unfortunately has passed. People who have faced and overcome great adversity in their lives are highly motivational and inspiring to me. Jackie Robinson brings this interest of mine together with my passion for baseball. He embodies my belief that everyone has fear and that those of us who have courage — and he had buckets of it — can stare down our fear and be all that we are meant to be. Not only did he change the game by actually being in it as the first black man in the MLB, but he also changed it by how he played the game. His game-ready toughness, approach, commitment and willingness to dare to be different are admirable but coupled with the necessary mental state of combating racism each and every day while trying to perform at an elite level are nearly impossible to comprehend. Truly a man of greatness.

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