Have enough capital to get where you need to go long term, don’t be afraid to take the investment that gets you to the fruition of your plan. When you plan your Everest climb, you have to make sure you have the supplies to get up to the summit and back.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jill Stelfox, Executive Chair and CEO of Panzura, the fabric that transforms cloud storage into a global file system, allowing enterprises to use the cloud as a high performance, globally available data center. Prior to joining Panzura, Jill founded and acted as Co-CEO of marketing consulting firm EDGY, where she helped companies from McAfee to Adobe to USAA to transform business and technology processes. Before this, Jill literally changed the game of football stats as Vice-President and General Manager of Location Solutions at Zebra Technologies. At Zebra, she created the sports vertical that delivered player-tracking technology the National Football League allowing them to capture the speed and acceleration of every player on every inch of the field. Jill’s background in tech started with creating three venture capital-backed enterprise software companies. She raised 50M dollars in venture and successfully exited these companies returning more than 1B dollars to investors and employees
As a technology leader Stelfox has managed to create intersections between industries that once may have been considered unthinkable and spotted opportunities hidden underneath established, legacy solutions. This includes a set of patents around how data is moved, shared, and computed across a cloud environment.
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 got a degree in accounting and became a CPA. My dad was a teacher and my mother worked for the Girl Scouts, so I grew up with the idea that you needed to start with a skill. I followed that path and worked for one of the big 4 accounting firms. But I wanted a seat at the board table, so I sought out jobs as CFO. At 29 I had a great mentor who sat me down and said you can be a CEO. That belief in me opened the door for me to believe in myself and I started to look for and create opportunities to lead. The counter-intuitive aspect of my career path is that externally I was recognized for my conventional skills and my ability to creatively put together a deal and think outside the box financially — that was my background. But my mentor at the time saw more than that, they saw my ability to truly listen to employees and customers and how that allowed me to correlate human needs to technology solutions. That was the sweet spot for me at the intersection of needs and solutions and I have been there ever since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
My current position is at California-based Panzura, a provider of hybrid cloud technology focused on user data management that offers a global file system, data consolidation, data security, and protection against ransomware
In May of 2020, Panzura was acquired by Profile Capital Management, a private wealth fund that invests in exceptional technology. At the height of the global pandemic, Panzura’s more than 200 employees and hundreds of customers around the world were already uncertain and fearful about the future. Although staff had been told the previous week that their CEO was leaving, they had no idea this was coming, and overnight an entirely new executive team took over and I was assuming the role of CEO.
Acquiring a company during a pandemic, when nobody can come into the office, is unlike any other acquisition experience. Instead of an in-person all-hands meeting to announce the news, staff logged on to a Zoom all-hands, where I told them, “Hi, I’m Jill and I’m your new CEO.”
Any acquisition brings with it an additional level of concern and insecurity. Ordinarily, I and my team would have been in the office daily, assessing everyone’s mood and working hard to ease any concerns. In this case, it followed a recent work from home order, so that just wasn’t possible. I knew that the only way to bring clarity to employees, partners, and customers would be through a strategy of radical transparency. So, we told them everything we could about the acquisition, we laid out the immediate plan for the company, and we introduced them to the audacious goals we had set.
I also knew we had at least one extremely aggressive competitor who could be relied on to take the opportunity to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt among our customers as well as partners and staff. I addressed that head-on by letting people know what to expect, and how to counter it.
I reminded management that each and every person was going through a lot as both employees and as individuals and that all of us would need to be open and clear about exactly what was happening and when. We knew there were frustrations in some areas of the business, affecting morale, and when there’s a problem with morale there are usually other problems as well. When we talked to customers, for instance, we realized there was a lot of work to be done.
At the heart of a crisis is an opportunity to change, and by far, the biggest factor in why a company falters involves a failure to embrace radical transparency. It’s become a permanent part of Panzura’s culture. Without it, we could have gotten everything right — the strategy, the planning, and the execution — but people will not change unless they feel valued and included.
So, managing an acquisition during a pandemic, that was pretty interesting!
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?
When I first came on board as CEO at Panzura we were in the thick of the pandemic and people working at home and I really wanted to find ways to bring people together and replicate the kind of spontaneous fun that comes from being together and meeting new people. We started having weekly happy hours where I would have craft cocktails and fun packages sent out to employees to join in virtually, but it quickly got unwieldy and we underestimated the video fatigue and emotional strain of the pandemic. We had to scale back and focus equally on mental health and support for our employees and fun activities. Happy hours are great, but I realized quickly that the most important thing was scaling to the needs and meeting employees where they are, not the other way around.
So employee mental health is no laughing matter, but my desire to just hang out in a bar with all my new employees initially superseded bigger issues. We all had to make some big pivots in the last year and I have to look back with fondness and laugh at those mistakes early on.
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 first time I was in a position to raise money for a business was in 2001. I was raising 7.5 million for a series A and I had two venture funds who were interested in investing and we were very far along in the process. I was waiting for them to call and expected them both to approve the deal. One of the VC’s called and gave me some unexpected news. He said that the fund had never invested in a woman and they were not prepared to do it now. At that moment it was devastating. Thankfully the other VC I was working with was not deterred. He was so determined to keep going he helped to find another VC to take the slot, and we funded the deal a month later.
My drive to forge ahead at that moment came from the belief in the VC who was willing to dig in and move forward with me and the network of really good people around me, many of whom are still with me today. It has taken time to realize how important it is to be authentic about what happened and honest with myself about the impact. That one person’s lack of vision gave me a deep purpose and a drive to make a difference and allowed me to focus on the people that mattered.
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 love collecting people and they help me and I help them. Dan Waldschmidt, currently the Chief Revenue Officer at Panzura has been an indefatigable partner, we have been together for 18 years, through multiple ventures. I like to have people around me that egg me on and call me out — it keeps me focused on the North star we are all working towards. Dan is one of those people.
Also, 25 years ago Paul Opalack encouraged me to “use my superpowers” and become a leader. He really encouraged me to use my curiosity to explore technology. One important thing he taught me is that a leader does not need to be the smartest person in the room and in fact it is better not to be.
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?
Panzura is an intelligent hybrid-cloud solution that transforms cloud storage into a global file system. Allowing enterprises to use the cloud as a high performance, globally available data center. We move data around so fast that it feels to users like it’s sitting there on their desktop, even though it’s stored in the cloud, or even in a data center, thousands of miles away. Companies all around the world in the sports, healthcare, financial services, media and entertainment, gaming, and architectural, engineering and construction industries, as well as government agencies, use Panzura to manage hundreds of petabytes of data in the cloud.
Already recognized as the fastest cloud file system available, Panzura helps the enterprise work together at the same time in the cloud, without the risk of losing data or wasting time, regardless of location. Military-grade security and the most comprehensive cloud management dashboard in the industry make it easy to search, audit, monitor and analyze an entire global cloud network at once.
Our product has become even more critical over the last year as companies have moved to a work from home workforce when suddenly data and files had to be accessed from far-flung offices and homes. Remote work, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic pushed firms to move to new cloud services as they look to maintain communications and collaboration. Hackers and cybercriminals have recognized the opportunity this represents. Maximizing data protection, even for organizations that are not necessarily held to the strictest data protection, retention, and security regulations is now front-and-center in the “new normal”.
Multi-cloud services platforms like Panzura, allow users to collaborate on projects with ease, no matter where they are located inside or outside network boundaries. Handled right, they can help organizations manage the data explosion, and with it the shift to remote workforces, by transitioning the complex and costly traditional storage model to the cloud.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Panzura was acquired in May of 2020 amid the uncertainty and fear of the pandemic. Morale was low. We knew success depended on a transformation in thousands of conscious and unconscious daily acts across the company.
Behaviors and patterns were embedded deeply, so we convened an authentic discussion about the priorities that really matter. That’s how we came up with a new set of values which are: Relentless about impact, Bring your weird, Throw me the ball, Clear the road, Unbelievable is possible. We see them as sticky ideas that help us make sense of everything that goes on at Panzura, and that help us think in new ways.
Using these values, we have sent Panzura rocketing to number one in our market. In fact, we just won Best Hybrid Cloud Solution in the 2020–21 Cloud Awards. We’ve also had a massive jump in employee engagement and satisfaction. We work hard to keep our values alive, despite having more than 200 employees across 6 continents.
We also look out for one another. We demand that people treat time off and fun in life as seriously as they treat their jobs. We care about personal aspirations and want to help everyone achieve them. For instance, we’ve co-signed on home loans for employees looking to make their dreams a reality.
Our values extend to our customers, and we’ve had a revolution in customer service. We’re no longer rigid about rules or processes, doing whatever it takes to help customers succeed. As a result, we’ve flipped marquee customers from our competitors, and existing customers have taken notice too.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I have a strong focus right now on building a world-class team with a focus on diversity and inclusion, streamlining our products for innovation and customer demand and ensuring that we are providing our customers with the best service possible.
Coming off the strongest year in the company’s history, Panzura has announced six additions to its leadership team. Joining the company are Judy Kopa, CFO; James Seay, Chief Services Officer; Joseph Hopkins, Chief People Officer; Thomas Arlington,Director Solutions Architects; Jim Choumas, vice president Commercial Sales and Pablo Schneider, Business and Corporate Development, each of whom will bolster core initiatives. The appointments reflect Panzura’s continued focus on putting customers first, simplifying channel partner programs, strengthening financial growth, and driving greater employee engagement.
According to a recent report by research firm DCIG, as software-defined storage (SDS) continues to accelerate enterprise adoption for data storage management, organizations are concurrently adopting hybrid cloud. The hybrid cloud market is expected to grow 20 percent incrementally by 67.62 billion dollars through 2024. We are really primed to meet this market demand and have the products that companies are seeking, especially as they examine what the future of work looks like in the coming years.
We couldn’t be more proud of the diversity and world-class expertise represented by our team. The project of growing Panzura, together with these senior leaders bring tremendous advantage to our customers, and as true trailblazers in their fields, they offer finely honed strategic and technical acumen that will help us play the game at the highest level.
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?
One of the things I am most proud of is being one of the OG founders of Women in Sports Tech, a non-profit organization aimed at changing the ratio of women in tech roles in the sports space. Through my work there we have raised significant donations from the likes of IBM, Nike, and the NBA. We have been able to place dozens of women in key roles within sports tech and are making a huge impact.
That said, my goals for women in sports tech are a reflection of the deficiencies I see in the tech industry as a whole in supporting and nurturing careers for women. The status quo only changes when everyone is invested in the change and I work to surround myself with women and men who are invested in creating systemic change and believe that change can only come when everyone in the industry is creating it. In many instances, it has been the men who have stepped up as allies and mentors that have helped create new pathways for that change.
A very tangible aspect of the status quo is the continuing state of inequity in salaries and this is prolific in tech. One of the first stakes I put in the ground when I was named Chairwoman and CEO of Panzura, after its acquisition in May was to look at the differential in salaries between men and women in the company. Finding the inequity I suspected, salaries were adjusted immediately to remedy the injustice. Every company should be doing this.
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?
When we started the Women in Sports Tech organization we did a survey of women in tech and the number one response was that they did not have a mentor and there were not enough mentors for them to reach out to if they wanted one. Mentorship comes in two key ways, one is female leaders in tech in their organization working with them directly and another is women in technology speaking and in prominent visible roles. We need to see women to reinforce the idea of “ if I can see it, I can be it.” Five years ago I set a personal goal to give women the ability to see it, meaning I had to put myself out there and be visible even when it made me uncomfortable.
As a component of Women in Sports Tech, we created programs for women in college and high school, paid internships, and opened the door at organizations that normally would not have recruited women. Women need to mentor more, show up more, be more visible. One of the things that hurts us is that we think our actions speak louder than words but our words are powerful and we need to be more public.
Another thing that we need to overcome is the fear that has been ingrained into women that they cannot use some of their superpowers, for example, women are so good at using curiosity to solve problems and asking questions that open new possibilities. Too often in tech, there is a tendency to feel the need to be the smartest person in the room and there is power in letting this go and not being afraid to use our skills in empathy and curiosity to ask questions and get to the bottom of problems and create solutions. We need to get better at using rather than hiding that ability.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Honestly, when we came into Panzura after the acquisition there was a deeply demoralized sales force who had become accustomed to holding information as a weapon, finger-pointing, and passive aggression. It always makes me sad when a team has lost sight of their own power as a team and the value they can bring to an organization. There are three qualities that I cultivate with the help of my leadership team and CRO and they are the magic that builds high performance. Case in point — Panzura has had its best year ever in the midst of a pandemic, signing some of the largest accounts in the history of the company.
These qualities are what we use to hire, they guide our discussions and they are the gauge by which we sometimes have to let people go. Number one is Craftsmanship, paying attention to how something is done, not just that it is done. This starts with a willingness to learn and ends with a deep understanding and appreciation for the ability of our actions to have a large impact on how we surprise and delight our customers with each interaction. I like to say, “it is not about whether or not you made the call, but what you said, it is not about whether or not you sent the email, but what was written.” This is craftsmanship.
Intensity is the second quality and it is not about being a bulldog or being stubborn or aggressive. It is taking the reins and doing what you might do tomorrow today, right now. I don’t want my team to feel like they have to go over and over a situation, don’t talk a lot if you have not done a lot. There has to be a bias for action and deep caring for goals in each moment that pushes the team to make things happen right now.
Last but not least is Accountability. First and foremost I want everyone in sales to have a sense of ownership and responsibility for delivering on the promises made to their team and their customers. Everyone has to be responsible to follow through, to hit their numbers, make the call and do the thing that moves progress forward. This is not punitive but empowering.
These are the guiding principles that I believe build the strongest, highest performing and happiest sales teams.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
If I could bring it down to one thing, it’s that core values MATTER. The way we treat people, the way we behave, whether we tell the truth — have integrity, whether we behave fairly or not — all make an outsized difference to the results we get.
When we win, it’s because we’ve boosted and empowered an entire team of talented, gutsy people who do what they do, better than anyone else. When a customer chooses to work with us, being accountable to their success is our obligation.
Look, as a company you can choose to have a slimy culture — or you can choose to do the right thing by your team, your customers, and the market. It’s certainly not easy to do — but it’s how you consistently build products that customers really care about. I have set some standards for how we operate at Panzura that we live by and come from a deep values-based philosophy for running a company.
We have a customer-first ethos. We encourage employees to always work to break down barriers, take personal responsibility, and avoid being trapped by processes and rules when it comes to serving our customers. Our values of “clear the road” and “relentless about impact,” extend beyond the corporate boundaries of Panzura to our customers and partners, and we see customer service as the true test of our competency. If there is a way to make things better, even when it means breaking with convention, we will do whatever it takes to generate loyalty and satisfaction.
When I first started at Panzura there were some unhappy customers and what they needed more than anything was just to have someone get on the phone with them and acknowledge that their issues with the company were real. They needed to hear that their concerns were valid and we could work together to solve them. We have come a long way since then, in just the last several months, and even just hired a Chief Services Officer because customer service needs to be in the C-suite.
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.
Becoming a unicorn is not magic, it takes a systematic approach that balances financial drive and a focus on people. I have built and sold multiple technology and cloud-focused companies and see my role as a leader through the lens of a comprehensive Playbook that sets the rules for how to grow a company from top to bottom.
I often liken the experience to planning an expedition to Everest where planning and teamwork are the most essential aspects of whether or not you get to the summit AND return safely, it’s not a one-way trip. Here are my ‘plays’ for creating a successful tech company:
Play 1: Fast revenue growth and a focus on a great sales organization. Don’t hold anyone back, let salespeople make the calls and run free to do their job.
Play 2: Build a culture focused on the customer at all costs
- Do what they need
- Do what is right
- Be accountable
Play 3: Infrastructure that can scale, focus on the nuts and bolts, internal automation, and systems that work to support everything else you need to accomplish.
Play 4: Have enough capital to get where you need to go long term, don’t be afraid to take the investment that gets you to the fruition of your plan. When you plan your Everest climb, you have to make sure you have the supplies to get up to the summit and back.
Play 5: Your product needs to surprise and delight the customer. Never build technology for the sake of technology, it must have a purpose generated from a customer need. “I don’t want to build calculators into a TV just because I can.”
This is the fourth company where I have used the playbook. My background in tech started with three venture capital-backed enterprise software companies in succession. I raised 50M dollars in venture and successfully exited these companies returning more than 1B dollars to investors and employees.
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. 🙂
The pandemic has been a terrible hit for many small businesses and has demanded many creative interventions. I live in a small university community called San Luis Obispo in California. So many of the lovely shops and restaurants in this small town did not have online presences and were really hit hard when everything shut down.
I jumped into action when I saw so many struggling and donated time and talent to keep these stores alive. I helped to save businesses mostly by moving them online and suggesting ways they could change their business models to adapt. Two examples are my favorite bar in my neighborhood SideCar SLO, I helped them move their business online and ship out pre-packaged craft cocktails for virtual happy hours, I was, of course, a customer. Another small business Humankind is a small boutique that sells sustainable goods and they needed some support going online and setting up infrastructure.
So the movement I want to encourage at this moment is to see where your skills can help someone in your community and keep small businesses alive that are the heart and soul of our neighborhoods and the livelihood for so many.
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 🙂
I would love to have lunch with Michelle Obama, her poise, and what she accomplishes while managing work-life stress all while being supportive of someone you love. I would love to talk about how she stays so poised through the drama of it all.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!