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“Have fun with it” With Douglas Brown & Nandini Easwar

Have fun with it — We often get deeply engrossed with building a business, creating technology and all that it takes to get your company off the ground, especially at startups. But it’s so important not forget to have fun with it while doing so. At Speakfully, right from hiring to daily operations to standups, we […]

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Have fun with it — We often get deeply engrossed with building a business, creating technology and all that it takes to get your company off the ground, especially at startups. But it’s so important not forget to have fun with it while doing so. At Speakfully, right from hiring to daily operations to standups, we have consciously created such an environment. And this has enabled everyone to thrive while doing so! When it stops being fun, it’s a fairly strong indicator that you’re likely on the wrong track and that you may have lost sight of the original mission. You might need some retrenchment strategy work to find a fun filled experience for yourself to manage a tech driven business!

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nandani Easwar, CTO and Co-Founder of Speakfully.

Nandini Easwar is responsible for the tech side of the organic and ever-evolving human-centric platform to address workplace mistreatment including retaliation, harassment, and microaggression. Known for humanizing tech solutions, Nandini is ensuring the success of the Speakfully mission by integrating social and emotional intelligence into the overall technical roadmap of the brand. Prior to joining Speakfully, Nandini headed the Esurance software engineering department and also served as a technical advisor to companies globally. A passionate proponent of women in STEM, Nandini supports access to diverse talents while enabling women to grow and learn to their fullest potential.

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?

My roots, where I come from and the environment I grew up in, played a big influential role in my choice of career. Some of this I realized only much later. My father is a judge by profession and he always had a very logical way of approaching things. Growing up in that environment, I was in many ways tuned to that logical, troubleshooting style and I found that trait very empowering and useful when I was introduced to programming at school. It was that combination of logic and the thrill of solving something through code that got me into the field of software tech. On the other hand, my mother is an excellent planner and had a very organized way of approaching things! Again, going back to my roots, once I went the coding route I was very attracted to organizing and piecing dependencies together. That led me to the tech management track. I’ve loved it all along!

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

Impacting people has been a very humbling experience for me. Knowing that what you’ve built is a usable, tangible piece of software product that can effectively improve someone’s life is tremendously rewarding. I’ve had a few experiences in my career where I was fortunate to be down on the floor, sitting with customers and watching the impact. One thing that stands out for me, particularly at Speakfully, is when we heard a product user talk about how her life was altered for the better when she used Speakfully as a platform to speak her truth about her difficult experiences with her manager in the workplace. It was particularly interesting because of how there were some nuances of what we had built into the product, and how it was presented to her played a big influential part in her ability to speak up. I had no idea that it would be such a huge factor! It was interesting for me in so many ways — a learning for sure to know how the smallest of design choices can trigger an empowering experience for someone. It taught me to take designing with Emotional Intelligence or EQ very seriously.

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 fun is always in the debate! How you pronounce “giphy,” the animated imaging service. Do you say “jif” with a “j” or do you say it with a “g?” We were at our Speakfully annual offsite retreat in Phoenix and were deep in discussions about finalizing our goals and objectives for the year, when I said something about gifs and pronounced it with a “g.” The entire group burst out laughing and we had this very intense, comical discussion for the next five minutes about the pronunciations. We never came to any conclusions, of course.

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?

Giving up was never an option for me. It still isn’t. It’s just how I’m wired! Of course, there were hurdles throughout my journey, but now that I introspect, I lived through those challenges knowing it was temporary and that it would pass. That gave me the strength to ride through it. I came to the US on an immigrant student visa and built my career within the limits that are part and parcel of the immigration process. There was a legal limit on the number of hours I could work on campus. That wasn’t very much to pay my expenses as an example. When I applied for jobs, I had to be mindful of applying only to companies that sponsored work visas. These are just a couple of small examples that I can think of early on in my career, but they aren’t real hardships — it was part of my growth and shaped me to be who I am! Honestly, I wasn’t the only one doing it, so it was easy to not feel isolated and that helped tremendously!

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?

My husband, Anand, is the first person that comes to mind. He has been a solid foundation and through the years he has stood by me while I dream and follow my passions. A few years ago, when we were having our second child, I went through a rough patch emotionally for various reasons. Our lives were moving at a fast pace with both of us working in high stress leadership roles. One fine day, out of the blue, I had an epiphany that through all the craziness around us, I had completely lost the moments of watching our first child grow from a baby to a toddler. The classic mom guilt and impostor syndrome kicked in for me. Anand was my biggest sense of support through all that, he stood by me while I made a decision to pause my professional journey to spend more time with the children. It was not easy, giving up the pace and growth, although I had wanted it at a very deep level. I just hadn’t recognized it! Since then, rediscovering myself was a whole other journey, but all through, Anand has been the constant. Silently prodding, supporting and helping me in ways so I could stay grounded and yet see the big picture.

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

This is a hard one for me because I’ve never really lived by life lesson quotes. I’ve found relevance in basic value systems like being able to help others when possible, however small or large.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

At Speakfully, we are creating a world where workplace mistreatment is a thing of the past, by ensuring no one feels alone, even when they feel they’re being treated unjustly. We think of misbehavior as an unfortunate journey that’s clouded with a lot of grey areas to navigate. In corporate leadership, we know that very progressive thinkers and influencers are looking for ways to take action and create a culture of mutual respect, but they can’t without knowing facts and what’s actually going on at the grass root levels. Our solution is a humanized, data-driven technology platform to help people navigate all that.

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

Speakfully stands out because of our roots. We were founded because of a very negative experience that our CEO and Co-founder, Jana Morrin, had at her workplace. It was that unfortunate, yet real experience that drives us all to think about what one needs when they are experiencing resistance and hurdles, that prevents them from feeling safe or heard in a work setting (or even a personal setting for that matter). We are well aware that while mistreatment could sometimes be just a single occurrence, most times it’s not. It can repeat, it can be bumpy, it can demoralize one over a period of time and it can cause a person a lot of emotional trauma. We take a holistic approach by offering support resources in addition to therapeutic ways for people to report issues. For the leaders who are looking to change the status quo, we approach it with a data-driven proactive insight into people’s experiences, yet with sensitivity and transparency. It’s a humanized, tech solution for what, unfortunately, is a very common scenario. This, I know, is what differentiates us from your standard reporting platforms or anonymous hotlines.

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

Yes! We are always innovating various ways to bridge the unspoken gap that exists between employees and their HR and People Leadership teams. Sometimes it’s a trust issue, other times it may be a lack of details, especially in a timely manner. One way of looking at it is that it’s just about empowering people leading with the right ammunition so they can understand their employees’ experiences and be able to take constructive, visible action.

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?

The fundamental issue that a lot of women experience is that they are not given the same open, fair shake that males are given. I’ve had situations when I’ve met someone professionally for the first time or I’ve walked into a situation or a meeting where I know I’ve been pre-judged even before I’ve uttered a single word. I’ve even had people who would rather not talk with me directly or look at me, and instead talk to a male colleague who is next to me! This is especially true as women rise through the tech leadership ladder and hold positions of authority. Very often, you’re the “only” in the room — the only woman, or the only tech woman, or the only person of color. Such situations put a lot of unfair pressure on women because we are forced to break down predetermined judgements, often not in our favor. And the parameters used to judge a woman aren’t the same for other genders. Confidence or authority in women is judged as aggression or bitchy! It is a systemic challenge that every woman rising through corporate leadership has to overcome. These are also derailers for some and can actually impact confidence and one’s ability to be assertive in a position of power.

At the end of the day, a fair opportunity to overcome age old prejudices is what’s needed to change the status quo. Corporate America in 2020 has been given a large responsibility by the masses to change the narrative at the workplace. I’d like to now see it in action!

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?

Tech is a broad field. We’re very fortunate for initiatives like Reshma Saujani’s Girls Who Code and the various local curriculums for introducing young girls to the world of coding. These efforts are paying off and we’re seeing a nice uptick in women entering the programming fields. The challenge is still around technical management and growth into what we call the “ladder.” Men are easily able to walk into those roles, but women hit the glass ceiling sooner. Some of this can be attributed to the reasons I mentioned above, about being fit into a “mold.” If you fit, all is well, but if you are different then it becomes head winds for a woman’s career. Companies need to embrace the differences and invest in women’s advancements systemically. Men need to be part of the solution and a change in their perspective about growth and allyship are key elements to shift the challenges women face. It has to be genuine and deep-rooted, not just reactive. Sharing posts on social media about a single woman’s appointment in the C-suite, as a result of a call to action by society, is just about checking a box. And that feels lame and short-lived.

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”?

Hiring passionate sales experts who can be true advocates for your customers can go a long way! Additionally, building partnerships and collaborations in your ecosystem can be advantageous.

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

Having an understanding of the sales channels and knowing that sales (especially B2B) is a multi-step process requiring many different skills from lead generation, to curation, to closure, to ensuring post-sales satisfaction, can truly help. A high performing sales team needs to have individuals who can address all these phases.

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?

At Speakfully, we work very hard to remain authentic and communicate integrity as the basis of our platform. By natural process, we are working with sensitive issues and it’s important to express a feeling of safety. Customers are naturally attracted to our platform based on our color, mood and tone as well as the natural comfort they feel in our presentation of services.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Customers need to remember that they have a very powerful tool at their fingertips. Documenting uncomfortable work experiences may provide a hidden map to more flagrant forms of abuse that need to be addressed within the workplace. We’ve received very helpful feedback from customers which has led to new developments for the platform making the technology even more human-centric.

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?

At Speakfully, we are very authentic regarding what customer experience entails, the benefits and the positive outcomes of those who have implemented our tools. We offer creative ways to help customers right from on-boarding to providing support and expertise through their journey. We don’t just sign them up and let them figure it out. We offer a sturdy platform of support. And when they need more, we address those needs fully.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Build a product that solves a real-world problem for society — People are often very focused on creating a business to achieve an outcome for a problem, but not necessarily a true solution to the problem, which should have a net positive impact on society. Achieving that is the definition of success in my book. I look for an answer about how a piece of technology has altered peoples’ lives. Speakfully, as an example, is mission driven and we celebrate people speaking their truth and being fearless, be it at the workplace or elsewhere. We envision a world where organizations celebrate diversity of opinions as much as being inclusive of differences in them. Speakfully’s success is directly related to how an organization is able to achieve that.

2. Be the differentiator in creating the solution — Being tech innovators, it’s important to know what and how your product interacts with your customers. Read and analyze those insights, they could point you to a gap that you may not have seen during design or otherwise. That may very well be your opportunity to change customer interaction points to build a differentiating tech product. Don’t be afraid to take some huge risks, thinking outside the box. Those risks could possibly just be what sets you apart.

3. Build for scale — This is something I’ve learnt the hard way, working in organizations that have struggled to scale tech wise. When good commercial and business traction comes along, it’s an event that’s going to rely heavily on your basic framework — both operationally and technically. This means you work harder in the early stages performing the due diligence to lay the company’s foundation for that nice upward trend that we all plan and hope for! Be ready for that but do your initial homework!

4. Be flexible — Times change, needs change, world events occur, pandemics happen! Sometimes they all happen in the same year (yes, 2020, I’m talking about you!) If a course adjustment is needed, then so be it. The past two years have been a huge learning experience for me — 2019 for a personal reason and 2020 for well, everything! I’ve had to adjust, reprioritize, make some sacrifices and sometimes even compromise. But every decision made as a result of just that flexibility worked itself out!

5. Have fun with it — We often get deeply engrossed with building a business, creating technology and all that it takes to get your company off the ground, especially at startups. But it’s so important not forget to have fun with it while doing so. At Speakfully, right from hiring to daily operations to standups, we have consciously created such an environment. And this has enabled everyone to thrive while doing so! When it stops being fun, it’s a fairly strong indicator that you’re likely on the wrong track and that you may have lost sight of the original mission. You might need some retrenchment strategy work to find a fun filled experience for yourself to manage a tech driven business!

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. 🙂

Company management (C-suite, VPs, Directors, front line managers) and HR teams can sometimes bury their heads in sand, refusing to see the imminent dangers associated with misbehavior at the workplace, under the false pretense that since nothing is being reported to them, nothing actually happens. So, I’d love to see a movement calling corporate leaders to get real and get their heads out of the sand 🙂 #getheadoutofsand to open your eyes to workplace mistreatment.

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 🙂

Alyssa Milano — for being grit, courage and confidence.

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

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