Kristen RH Wilson: “Finding a fit takes time”

Finding a fit takes time. Generally speaking, it will take a few different jobs, work environments and roles in order to understand where you fit best and what you want from your career. As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristen RH Wilson. Kristen is the Co-founder, […]

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Finding a fit takes time. Generally speaking, it will take a few different jobs, work environments and roles in order to understand where you fit best and what you want from your career.

As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristen RH Wilson. Kristen is the Co-founder, CMO and Head of Product Management for compromised credential screening provider Enzoic. Kristen has over 20 years of experience working with enterprise software organizations, focusing primarily on technology that streamlines business processes and enhances security for other organizations. Prior to Enzoic, Kristen held various positions with Black & Decker, Siebel Systems, Oracle, SSA Global, Rally Software and CA Technologies. She holds a B.A. in Psychology and a B.S. in Business from the University of Colorado and is a certified scrum product owner and scrum master.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

While attending the University of Colorado at Boulder, I was working on a psychology degree and realized:

Life Lesson #1- Money Matters. You don’t want it to, but it does. It is not just about following your passion. You simply need to be able to support yourself.

If I wanted to pay off the massive credit card debt I accumulated in college, I needed to get a job right after college. I could not afford to go on right away to get a masters or doctorate in psychology until I became more financially stable. With just a psychology degree, I was worried about my job prospects so I started taking business classes. I graduated in 4.5 years with a degree in business and a degree in psychology.

While in college, I actively sought out internships, which helped me land my first post-college job at Black and Decker in Portland, Oregon. I was in marketing for the Dewalt industrial tool product line and then I moved to Spokane, Washington for a position in sales. I have to admit, I loved working with the Dewalt products and to this day, I enjoy walking the power tool aisle at Lowes to see what new products are coming to market. Black and Decker/Dewalt was a good place to work, but at the time the construction industry was a bit challenging for a single woman in her early twenties traveling to small towns. That is when I learned:

Life Lesson #2- People have biases that you cannot always change. You can do your best to change them, but sometimes for your own well-being, you have to move on to better things.

With this in mind, when my brother told me about a role at the company he worked at, Siebel Systems, I jumped at it and moved down to San Francisco. When I joined Siebel Systems, we were growing fast and each new day brought new opportunities. The company was run like a tight ship and prioritized a professional culture. We had to keep clean desks and wear suits to work in the heart of Silicon Valley, but the people I worked with were bright; I learned so much from my coworkers every single day. My role expanded quickly and with the mentorship of an amazing manager, David Dahlberg, I grew my skill set in a number of different marketing disciplines. Oracle then acquired Siebel and after some time there, I moved on to work for SSA Global, which was then acquired by Infor. With these acquisitions, I started learning:

Life Lesson #3- Smaller companies frequently get acquired by big companies. After being acquired, do not expect it to be the same. Not necessarily worse, but it will definitely be different. You need to accept that change or move on to something else. Just don’t be the person that chooses to stay and complains about the change.

In 2007 I joined CA Technologies in a field marketing position and my role was ever-evolving as the company’s needs kept changing. I learned quite a bit from my enterprise sales partners and after about 7 years there, I needed a change. I moved to a smaller company called Rally that sold agile software and coaching services. Rally had a really unique culture that was very inclusive and leadership was always trying to drive employee empowerment and engagement. It had a culture that I did not fully appreciate until Rally was acquired by my old company, CA Technologies. Once again I learned another life lesson.

Life Lesson #4- Don’t burn bridges. I said some things on my way out of CA Technologies the first time that I regret. While sometimes you want to drop the mic and quit, it could come back to haunt you. Always be graceful when you exit and thank those that helped you along the way.

Now back as part of CA Technologies as a Senior Director of Marketing, I found the company was trying to digitally transform itself, in almost every department from product development to marketing. It was an exciting time because it was a large company trying to adopt the best practices of a small company. But after some time there, I realized I missed working in a smaller environment where you had more responsibility and hence, impact on the business.

Life Lesson #5- For most people, you have to try on different jobs in different environments to fully understand what you want and where you fit. This is all part of learning what you want from life.

Which brings me to Enzoic. We came up with the idea after helping others troubleshoot computer issues and witnessing a number of people using the same password across multiple accounts — and subsequently having their accounts taken over by bad actors because of data breaches. We asked ourselves why companies were not just screening for these exposed passwords and then preventing their users and employees from using those passwords. This was the scenario that blossomed PasswordPing, now known as Enzoic.

We started building the product and slowly started marketing it. Then we realized we needed help to grow the business and that some functions were not our area of expertise. Our main shortcoming was sales, so we brought in Josh Horwitz as COO, as he had built and sold a successful start up, Boulder Logic, in recent years. We also brought on our CEO, Michael Greene, who was the CEO of IDWatchdog that had just sold to Equifax. From there, we grew the business, expanded the team and we are 100% funded off operating revenue.

What is it about the position of executive/ co-founder that most attracted you to it?

It has been a career highlight for me to work on a product from conception to implementation at major, well-known brands throughout North America. Being one of the leaders of Enzoic is a sincere pleasure because there is a sense of ownership and commitment to the product and team that is above and beyond other roles I have had before. Being in this position, our greatest responsibility is to deliver value and security for our customers and serve our dedicated employees.

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

There is a lot more at stake, so you have to be decisive and yet humble. You are responsible for far more than middle management, so you also have to be more accountable and more honest about your shortcomings for the good of the business and the employees. You also have to have confidence in your own decision making because you don’t have someone telling you what to do. Many decisions are your call, so you have to depend on your own expertise.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

Hearing from our customers that our product is helping protect their business. Information security is such a chaotic industry and it evolves so fast. It means so much to all of us when we hear that our customers are lowering risks from attacks because of our products. As an executive you get more exposure to that type of customer feedback and it makes you feel good about what you do for a living.

What are the downsides of being an executive and cofounder of a company?

Work-life balance is a struggle. When you are an owner of the company, you become acutely aware that your efforts equal revenue. It is hard to pump the brakes when you are experiencing high growth but burnout can be a real issue.

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

That you just get to sit back and tell everyone else what to do. Maybe some jobs are like that but not mine. I want our employees to know that I am working just as hard as they are to make our business thrive. No one works hard for someone who is lazy. Hard work is contagious, laziness is also contagious.

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

You are judged by your appearance by many of your counterparts, including other women. I think this is getting better over time but we still have a long way to go. When I was only three years out of college, I had a very experienced and powerful female executive advise me that I needed to wear makeup and 4–5 inch heels to work every day. This was not malicious advice; she was honestly sharing what she thought would help me from her own experiences on Wall Street. From her point of view, makeup made me look more attractive, which would help open new doors in my career and wearing high heels would help me look eye-to-eye with my male counterparts. It makes me sad to think what she must have experienced within her career to be giving that advice to other women.

At another job, a woman came into the office to interview for a sales position. After she left the building, my male colleagues kept commenting on her attractiveness and the shape of her body. I didn’t hear anyone mention her intelligence, her expertise or her skillset. Women deal with a conundrum where outside of work, our society values a youthful appearance. The proof of that is seen in magazines touting “how to look 10 years younger” and similar statements on their covers. Meanwhile in business, if you look too young, you may not get taken seriously and you can be called “kiddo” by your male counterparts who are the same age as you. Yes, this has happened to me and many other female executives I know across various industries: tech, pharma, etc. “Kiddo” is often meant as a term of endearment, but it can make you feel that your peers view you as an inferior. Conversely, I worked with another woman who was called “Grandma” in the office by her coworkers because she was older, even though she was not a grandmother.

No matter what you look like, in some job environments, you end up having to “prove yourself” — your intelligence, your expertise, and your commitment to the job- to change the perception that someone else may have just based on your appearance. And this is not just a female executive issue. I think a lot of different groups have the same challenge in being judged on their appearance. But I do sincerely think this is getting better with each passing year.

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

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 misspelled my COO’s last name in the title of a press release I issued. It was a press release announcing his joining the company. Ugh. Still makes me sick to my stomach when I think about it. He thankfully was very kind about it. We hired ClearComms Consultancy to help out with PR going forward and I try to make sure I triple check my writing!

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

It is a small company, so we are nimble yet responsible with our spending. The work is actually very similar to other management jobs I have had in the past, but it is moving a lot faster and is much more exciting because you see an immediate impact of your efforts due to our company size.

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?

Historically I think it was a combination of drive, risk taking, sacrifice, ego and ability to be aggressive. What was typical was the hard driving, rather arrogant, somewhat abusive CEO that dominated the room. Think about how uncommon a CEO like Richard Branson was in the past.

Now, because of millenials, those traits are changing. They love agile ways of working and want empowering environments. That generation won’t put up with a boss that treats them poorly and right now, the market is strong enough that they cast their vote on management with their feet. They simply walk out if the environment is bad. As a Gen Xer, I appreciate that specific change the millennial generation has brought about in the workplace.

What is more valuable as an executive now is emotional intelligence, listening, risk taking and drive. I think emotional intelligence will be a driving factor for CEOs. The emotionally intelligent management styles of leaders like former PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, Simon Sinek, and Arianna Huffington will fill CEO offices.

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

Treat everyone with respect and kindness, even in harsh work environments where you may not be treated with respect and kindness yourself. No one ever regretted taking the high road. There have been times I have been harsher than I intended in companies that valued command/control environments. Those situations have been my biggest career regrets and I am working on being better about it.

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?

As I mentioned earlier, David Dahlberg was a great manager and mentor early in my tech career. He taught me quite a bit about metrics, process and ROI. My brother, Eric Ranta, helped me land my first job in tech and helped me learn about the industry and the workplace in general. There have been so many other great mentors and leaders along the way at CA Technologies and Rally. Rally was one of the most unique places I have ever worked- it was heavily focused on growth, humanity and empowerment. I feel very lucky to have been a part of Rally under the inspiring leadership of Angela Tucci.

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

I try to make the world a better place by treating my coworkers and employees with respect and kindness. We are working long and hard hours right now, so there is not much time outside of work, but I look forward to volunteering again.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

I mentioned earlier some of the key lessons I’ve learned along the way, but to summarize them again:

  1. Money matters. It’s a sentiment none of us want to be true, but if you need to pay your bills then you can’t focus solely on following your passion if you cannot support yourself from it. Unless you have a trust fund or win the lottery, in which case — go for it!
  2. Beware of inherent biases. If you encounter people with biased opinions do your best to change them, but recognize that you may ultimately need to move on for your own well-being.
  3. M&A can change things. Particularly in the tech sector, M&A activity is something you are likely to experience at some point in your career. After an acquisition, you will notice a different culture — not necessarily worse but definitely not the way it used to be.
  4. Don’t burn bridges. Business can be an incredibly small world and it’s best to always be cognizant of that and handle yourself with grace. As I said above, much as you may want to just drop the mic and quit — don’t!
  5. Finding a fit takes time. Generally speaking, it will take a few different jobs, work environments and roles in order to understand where you fit best and what you want from your career.

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.

I believe kindness and respect are communicable. If you treat other people with kindness in your heart and the kind of respect that you would want to receive, it spreads. The more you do it, the more it multiplies and it improves your work environment.

Conversely, if you have a bad day and you take it out on other people, it is infectious and it transmits like a virus. So treat everyone with dignity and empathy because you don’t know what they are going through. If everyone took this approach, the workplace and the world in general would be a much better place.

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

You can’t change everything but you can change your reaction. You define your own happiness and happiness is a choice. Good and bad things will happen in your life and life will not always go as you have planned. It is part of the human experience and if you don’t experience the bad things that happen, you will not fully appreciate the good things that happen. I lost my late husband to a very rare Thymic Carcinoid cancer when I was 36 years old. We were planning to have a family but then he got sick and fought it bravely for 18 months. I took some time off work after he passed away. My coworkers at CA Technologies were such an amazing support system for me, I actually went back to work early to try to feel as normal as possible again. It was such a blessing to have such supportive coworkers and it was a relief to focus my energy on positive things again. And with the support of my friends, family, coworkers and a wonderful therapist, I chose to live a full and rich life again. I chose to find happiness in what remained of my life after he was gone. I have found happiness and my life is whole again. There are a lot of things you cannot change in life, but you choose how you react. Happiness is a choice.

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

Melinda and Bill Gates. They have transformed their personal wealth into a charity that improves millions of lives. Their work has had a tremendous impact on so many lives, often the people that need it the most. Their efforts to eradicate polio is especially meaningful to me as my mom had polio as a small child.

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