Carol Fitzgerald of buzzback: “Instilling hope is key”

Well, buzzback is a research company, and though we don’t publish studies on this there have been hundreds. Companies with diverse leadership, employees and cultures are more profitable. They grow faster, They’re more innovative. Women are more empathetic leaders, they nurture by nature…the list goes on and on. Diversity & inclusion is the mantra of most […]

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Well, buzzback is a research company, and though we don’t publish studies on this there have been hundreds. Companies with diverse leadership, employees and cultures are more profitable. They grow faster, They’re more innovative. Women are more empathetic leaders, they nurture by nature…the list goes on and on.

Diversity & inclusion is the mantra of most large corporations today, and they have people and teams dedicated to it. In fact, several large US corporations have committed to spending more with women-owned companies, or diverse suppliers. However, with or without these initiatives, women by nature are more empathetic and nurturing — they just need to embrace these qualities and apply them to be better leaders.

As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carol Fitzgerald.

As the founder and owner of buzzback, Carol Fitzgerald is an experienced senior-level executive with proven success in the management of both established and start-up companies. Buzzback just celebrated its 20th year, realizing a vision for changing how consumers interact with marketers online, and focusing on making the research experience fun, engaging and intuitive. Carol is a recipient of the Enterprising Women of the Year and International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge Foundation awards, both of which highlight her strong dedication to helping those in her community and female business owners through education, access and mentorship opportunities.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?

Serendipity really. I had a pretty traditional upbringing at a division of a Fortune 500 company (Kensington — part of Fortune Brands), and I learned the basic business principles and rose the ranks pretty young. It was my dream, as a Mac lover, I was dying to live in the Bay Area. The company moved to San Mateo — we were an Apple developer, so we constantly hopped down 280 to Infinity Loop.

It’s worth noting that I have an original Mac 128 that still works — inscribed by Steve Jobs. Dartmouth (my alma mater) was a beta site for Apple, and we all got Macs. It was super progressive for the time, and I did my thesis swapping floppy disks (remember that?) in MacWrite.

At Fortune Brands, I was one of the few women leaders under the age of 30, and I felt it. One impressionable experience — Kensington was a beta site for Microsoft Mail. It was liberating — no more faxes, memos, etc. I could work anywhere, anytime and I loved it. I was also a lover of the internet, even though adoption was sporadic back then.

In 1999, I jumped to a dotcom for a year — really fast-paced — but hectic as at that time I had 2 year-old-twins. A month after I quit from burnout, I connected with my two partners and we started innovation agency buzzback. So much for being a full-time mom! We each invested a bit of cash and got started. The vision was to make online research engaging, fun, visual and creative. Very few companies (if any) were doing it back then. Our first two clients were Coke and Unilever. I actually still talk to our first client; he runs insights at J&J now.

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

We were lucky to have some great clients and actually make money in the first six months of doing business. In the beginning, building buzzback was about building credibility as a no name. At that time, Nielsen, Ipsos and Millward Brown owned the insights sector. It was tough and clients were still asking about whether the internet was representative, as some didn’t even have web access at their desks! No joke.

The story I like to tell goes back to 2001, and this is not “just” because we landed our first big project from NCR Corporation. I love this because for the first time being a woman entrepreneur wasn’t a disadvantage. We were up against Harris (yes, the Harris poll) and they selected us because they wanted a new image — fresh, youthful, entrepreneurial — so they could elevate their brand from the stuffy image of the cash register company. The lead was female, and she loved that buzzback was woman owned. That became a key piece of business for us for many years and gave me the confidence to push forward and build buzzback to what it is today.

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?

I’m not sure how funny this is but back in 2001 (yes, a lot happened that year!) we were barely getting going and we didn’t anticipate some of the bumps that might occur. Estee Lauder was a big client, and we did a lot of product testing to help them migrate from Long Island drop-in visits to online recruiting. We literally mailed product to consumers who qualified.

We always used the post office — it was cheaper — and mailed out in those anonymous brown envelopes. One of the tests was in the middle of the Anthrax scare. So, after carrying endless USPS sacks of brown envelopes to the post office and mailing them, they all came back 2 days later labeled as ‘suspicious packages’! Lesson learned, from then on, we used FedEx so we could track.

It was pure naivety, and I learned to expect the unexpected. When you’re pioneering — building a company, innovating in an industry– there is no roadmap. You pave the roads as you drive them. Being attentive to cues is important because things will go wrong — guaranteed. You need to learn how to minimize negative impact and adapt quickly. And sometimes laugh at your mistakes — even if 20 years later!

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?

I have two actually — my parents. They taught me two things primarily — how to treat people and how to have a strong sense of urgency. It’s a lethal combination.

My father was President of a Fortune 100 company for 39 years. He had time for everyone. He knew the names of the lower staff and always treated people well, even in fierce conversations. And he always had time for me, even during his busy CEO day when I was having some personal crisis.

Maybe you’ve heard of the Stanford Business School Professor who poses this question on his exams to grad students: what is the name of the cleaning woman who cleans this room? Most students fail. You get the point. I know the name of every doorperson of the offices we ever occupied.

My mother impressed me with a sense of urgency — nothing can wait. My personality is type A, so operating at a more urgent pace is embedded in my way of working. Pushing forward is really important when you’re building. Sometimes it’s hard, especially when there are barriers, but I believe that you can get what you want if you are creative in overcoming hurdles. I’ll never forget one of my early hires told me the one thing she learned from me was to never accept no for an answer.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I am not the best book person — I devour articles from McKinsey, Bain, and other publications that talk about leaders and how to improve. There are lots of lessons to absorb. However, one of my favorite ‘light reads’ is Tony Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness. What I’ve learned is that customer service was front and center to building Zappos’ — which he sold for 1B dollars to Amazon. Serving the customer is paramount (and still is). I remember the anecdote where he talks about one customer who called and tried to get directions for a local pizza place, although Zappos was selling shoes! The Zappos customer service agent still helped them find the restaurant by Googling their location and giving the pizza-seeker the right directions. That was a “oh, wow!” moment for me, and I wanted to bring that “above-and-beyond” mentality into my company.

At buzzback, we live and breathe our clients — and have built a reputation as trusted partner. Exceed expectations. It’s one of our KPIs, and in 2020, we were recognized in the industry for supplier-client collaboration with Verizon.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Hard work will get you everywhere.

In 9th grade we moved to a new town and I tried out for the cheerleading team. I got cut (no surprise), and I was really disappointed. So, I decided to go for basketball even though I hadn’t played much. I did layups in my driveway every day until tryouts and practiced, practiced, practiced. I made the team — one of only three fresh -women on JV and then became captain and ultimately captain of Varsity. I am not a basketball star, just worked my tail off. Making the team after trying hard was way more rewarding than if I had made cheerleading at the first try.

Someone once asked me which of the 3 following things was most difficult — running a marathon, raising our twins, or starting a business. Two were at the same time. Let’s just say hard work provides rewards if you’re determined.

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

Making the world a better place is a lofty goal and even more difficult task. In the tough days of building buzzback I used to get frustrated with our slow growth — we weren’t growing at the pace I wanted to, and I got depressed. Then my father said to me: ‘you may not be growing at the pace you want but you are providing jobs, income, and a passionate award-winning environment to more than 40 people’. Hardly making the world a better place.

That taught me to reframe my thinking — one small goal at a time in making the world better for 40 employees back then [and their families] — now more than 50 people in 2 countries. It has nothing to do with success, it has everything to do with gratitude and building a team you can appreciate and leverage their creativity for growth. And we’re growing now, even during COVID.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

Balance — there is a general lack of balance and COVID has made that worse. Brenda Barnes, the former CEO of Pepsi, cited ‘missed birthday parties’ as one of the reasons she resigned before Indira came on board. Many women believe ‘you can never have it all’ and so they pick work or family and a lot of times their careers suffer.

And today, the day doesn’t end. With COVID and women challenged by workloads, endless email, homeschooling, etc., everything blends together. And it’s not just women. All of us need to find some sense of balance and people today are craving that.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

Foster flexibility. If women (all your employees really) feel comfortable, safe and supported in a flexible environment they become engaged. And engaged employees do more, give more and take your organization to new levels you could never achieve on your own. Recent McKinsey articles say instilling safety and comfort (both physically and emotionally) is the number one thing workers want today.

But flexibility is not easy — it has been a cornerstone of our culture, but we are constantly challenged to raise the bar.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Well, buzzback is a research company, and though we don’t publish studies on this there have been hundreds. Companies with diverse leadership, employees and cultures are more profitable. They grow faster, They’re more innovative. Women are more empathetic leaders, they nurture by nature…the list goes on and on.

Diversity & inclusion is the mantra of most large corporations today, and they have people and teams dedicated to it. In fact, several large US corporations have committed to spending more with women-owned companies, or diverse suppliers. However, with or without these initiatives, women by nature are more empathetic and nurturing — they just need to embrace these qualities and apply them to be better leaders.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

My 5 things focus on what we need to think about emerging out of the pandemic to empower women (and frankly all leaders and our team).

  1. Figure out how to change your leadership behavior.

Everyone has changed. At buzzback, we’ve reported many of the seemingly obvious stats — snacking is up 25%, mental health needs are exploding (50%+ consumers), and health/wellness is central to daily lives. However, we’ve all changed and are doing things differently. As leaders, we need to identify what those changes are to accommodate people’s new needs.

2. Instilling hope is key.

We’ve been doing the same every day for over a year. And over again. Somehow, we adapt to new technology, shift our cooking routine, and zoom all day. The reality is we are all tired. But the good news is in all of our buzzback COVID studies (over a year and 24,000 consumers later), consumers are hopeful. They aspire to the future — hugging again, getting back to something that resembled normal before. You’ve seen the rainbows, right?

3. Be creative.

Here’s where you need to look for the cues. Remember that empowered and engaged culture? What are they signaling? What are the creative ideas, big and small?

Some are more obvious than others. One of my favorite examples is how one of our employees loved working at buzzback so much, she put together a pitch deck and ‘pitched me’ on how we could make buzzback even better — create a Happiness committee, include social and fun activities in our ‘work’ days, and even apply for awards. Prompted by her, not only did we apply for Crain’s 100 Best Places to Work in New York City, we won 3 years in a row. It was a ‘small’ idea with big impact — our whole company participated and was on board. It’s a great example of how engagement can trigger innovation.

4. Invest in innovation.

In the chaos and change, new ideas and whitespace are emerging. It’s happening across all areas. Many businesses have changed models, pivoted to new areas, etc. For example, QSRs [quick serve restaurants] and casual dining shifted to curbside. Telehealth took off for doctor visits.

In our industry, face to face research essentially got ‘put on hold’ during COVID. A lot of businesses declined. We were already doing virtual research, so we accelerated our ideas and approaches and shifted clients to these. They embraced it to better understand changing consumer behavior. Many women intuit these kinds of opportunities, that’s where we should go with our intuition and embrace change.

5. Embrace empathy.

All of the above begs one thing: empathy. Everyone has experienced COVID. Everyone is changed. But how they experience it is something to be mindful of. Get in tune with what they are feeling.

When I first shifted from 3 days of travel every week, hundreds of company visits, and thousands of frequent flyers to 5 days at home, my husband noticed I began every call with my team with ‘how are you doing? What’s the latest for you personally?’. I guess I never noticed that, but it became critical to balancing my sense of urgency with patience for why some tasks took longer than I expected. Empathy builds empowerment and engagement. Employees feel like you’re on their side, they’re more comfortable, and feel safe. So, they give more. I’m a broken record on this.

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.

Share gratitude. Gratitude is one of the most obvious and overlooked expressions among leaders today and it’s probably the most important team motivator — even more than money. Recognition. One culture expert taught me to set a weekly recognition reminder for yourself and your leadership team. For me that evolved to a weekly company newsletter covering company events of the week, but more importantly acknowledging, praising and RECOGNIZING individuals and teamwork. I’ve been at it every Friday night over a beer for years — Carol’s weekly — and ‘making my weekly’ has a stigma associated with it and people want to be included.

Recognition is also one of our buzzback KPIs — win awards for our team, our technology and our approaches. And we do just that and share the recognition and engagement with our clients and partners.

The funny thing is COVID has taught people all over the world to appreciate nature, family, friends — all those things we have been unable to do. You’ve seen the sappy videos — To be grateful. Imagine that — a gratitude movement.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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.

Jeff Bezos? LOL — Andy Jasse, now stepping in for Jeff, went to high school with my brother. I don’t have one specific person in mind. I try to follow inspirational, creative leaders and mimic the best of their styles. What are the best cues I can find among the outstanding leaders today? Those are the ones I want to have for inspiration.

I guess if I were forced to pick one person, it might not be a business leader but an inspirational leader — someone who has had impact. For me that’s Mother Theresa. And she’s female. I am pretty religious when I can be and more inspired by how she connects emotionally with so many different types of people and on different levels. She didn’t have the same upbringing or context many successful leaders developed, yet she is still iconic in her acceptance globally and a role model for empathy.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can check our website or follow us on social media.

Twitter: @buzzback


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

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