Be ready to change directions- quickly. The original plan for our tech had to be abandoned as the world continued to change rapidly. Change is hard, and it is essential, so embrace it.
The telephone totally revolutionized the way we could communicate with people all over the world. But then came email and took it to the next level. And then came text messaging. And then came video calls. And so on…What’s next? What’s just around the corner?
In this interview series, called ‘The Future Of Communication Technology’ we are interviewing leaders of tech or telecom companies who are helping to develop emerging communication technologies and the next generation of how we communicate and connect with each other.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Natalie Ruiz.
Natalie Ruiz is the CEO of AnswerConnect. While she is a CEO now, she started her career with the company as a temporary employee — and she almost quit during her first week because she wasn’t sure the job or the company was the right fit.
Natalie often says that her path to success has been unconventional — and that’s one of the aspects that fuels her to continue to challenge assumptions about what work, success, and the concept of balance in life look like.
Natalie is an award-winning executive who has been recognized with awards for Female Executive of the Year and for Women Helping Women by the Stevie Award Association and a Woman of Influence by the Portland Business Journal.
Outside of her day job, she writes and publishes a series on Medium highlighting powerful women, is a mentor, a volunteer with PDXWIT and keynote speaker. In all that she does, Natalie aims to leave people and places better than she finds them.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve had quite an unconventional journey so far. I had a varied career before becoming CEO of a global technology company. When I first joined AnswerConnect in 2006, I had my own expectations of how it would go. In truth, I pictured it as another stepping stone in my career; I certainly would not have imagined I’d be working here 17 years and counting.
I’d found the job through a staffing agency and wasn’t prepared for how much of a startup it truly was. I joined as a salesperson but didn’t receive any formal training. I wasn’t even given an orientation period to speak of. There were no clear sales goals. In short, I didn’t see how I was going to succeed in this environment.
Fortunately, during my first week with the company, I had a chance encounter with the founder and then CEO. He asked me how things were going. For some reason, rather than give him the usual answer — “Everything is amazing! Thank you so much for the opportunity” — I was honest with him. I told him how I felt being thrown into the deep end without training and gave him some insights based on my first days.
To my surprise, he listened intently. He asked me if I would be willing to help work to improve the issues I mentioned. Right then, I recognized the power of using my voice to create positive change. It was amazing watching the company grow in the following years, and I know I developed a lot myself in that time too. In 2015, I was offered the position of CEO. It’s been one of my life’s greatest honors and adventures to lead the company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I can say, I have never had a boring day at work, so “most interesting” is a tough one.
One recent day that stands out to me came right before Memorial Day this year. It was Friday evening, heading into a holiday weekend, and my cell phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number. But when I answered, I knew the woman’s voice immediately. I had worked with her and her business more than a decade before while I was a salesperson. Hers was one of the first ‘big’ accounts I had ever brought in. We hadn’t talked in ages because she had sold her company and retired. Well, on our phone call, she told me that retirement was dull, and she was back — and she wanted to partner with AnswerConnect again. It was terrific to catch up with her, celebrate each of our growth and success stories, and be able to offer her a solution that would help her new business thrive. Real connections matter!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Beware of the soul-sucking force of ‘reasonableness’; otherwise you risk deflating your peaks. Speed bumps are reasonable. Mount Everest is not reasonable.” — The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.
This quote is meaningful when it comes to personal and professional life. We remember the unreasonable, the remarkable, the happenings that break the script of how things typically play out. If everything in life and business were to go precisely as planned, there would be no excitement.
In business, we should be ready to try things that do not scale and push ourselves out of our comfort zones. We learn through attempting to do the unreasonable — and big ideas are never reasonable.
In life, we should sometimes have dessert for dinner, let our kids stay up way too late, and take a spontaneous drive to the beach just to watch the sunset. Time is precious, and the moments matter. No one will look back with fond memories of life happening according to a schedule and without incident.
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’m thankful for everyone who has ever given me a chance, believed in me, and pushed me to stretch beyond where I thought my limits were.
After a year of distance learning with my daughter, I have started reflecting on some of the educators who made an impact in my life. The teachers who made me feel seen and valued helped me build resilience and dream bigger.
Growing up, I didn’t always recognize when someone was going the extra mile for me or doing something on their own time or their own dime. In hindsight, I see it now, and I wish I could thank everyone who did more than they had to for me. All of the kindnesses, the extra attention, the nudges to grow, and the belief in me were impactful. I had so many helpers who encouraged me to achieve bigger, and this acted like fuel in my tank, which helped me persevere when life got tough.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We try to make a positive change to our customers and our employees every day, and we’ve made a real effort to change things for the planet too. We plant a tree for every customer and every employee every month. We recently exceeded 800,000 trees planted, and I’m so grateful to all the clients and colleagues that have made that possible!
On a personal note, I volunteer with PDXWIT; a nonprofit devoted to building a better tech industry by creating access, dismantling inequities, and fueling belonging. I’m passionate about using the platform and privilege I have to help others.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the cutting-edge communication tech that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
We’re constantly developing new ways to help people connect. We take quite a simple approach to the initial development; we look at our own pain points. Where are we experiencing bottle-necks? Where are we encountering obstacles to effective collaboration?
From that point, we look at viable solutions. We have some key requirements for any new technology- the solutions need to be accessible for everyone, intuitive, and scalable.
How do you think this might change the world?
No one really wants to return to an office full time, if they don’t have to. Above all, they want flexibility. Our services and tools allow businesses and their employees to work from Anywhere without sacrificing connection or results. As a 24/7/365 service, we ensure that our clients never lose customers to voicemail and can effectively run their business from their office, home, or Anywhere.
In 2007, when we began moving to a remote-first model, this idea was new. Today, after making it through 2020, most of us are more familiar with work from home and connecting with our family, friends, and clients over a video call.
We hope to provide quality service and tools that help businesses continue to reimagine work, the office, and what balance can look like — while trusting that their customers will always be taken care of.
AnswerConnect’s ability to deliver on this can change the world by untethering business owners to the notion that they have to maintain a brick and mortar or that they need to employ everyone who works to help their business thrive. Above all, it’s about offering flexibility; the freedom to choose how and where you work.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
I’ve heard it said at AnswerConnect, “Tech can empower us. But it will never replace us.” We recognize the power technology has to bring us together, but it will never be a suitable substitute for real people.
The danger comes in people trying to replicate those innately human moments with AI. We’ve seen what can happen when AI is influenced by external factors (I’m thinking of Microsoft’s Tay chatbot, among others). Of course, people can be rude, selfish, and cruel. But people can also be incredibly kind, selfless, and unrelentingly innovative. When we place all our trust in automated solutions designed for one purpose, we risk sanding down the edges of the human experience.
Part of the value of real human connection is in where it could lead. A chatbot is designed to respond to questions, but it can’t adapt as a human can. The real value of humans connecting with each other is that it can be unpredictable. It can lead down unexplored avenues and create connections that simply wouldn’t be possible between a human and AI.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
We realized way back in 2007 that our fixed-office way of working was limiting our ability to grow. We embraced a work from home policy just as reliable, secure internet became widespread. That, in turn, led to the concept of ‘working anywhere’ — providing you have internet access.
But we also noticed a gap in how people were connecting. We recognized that, in order for people to collaborate effectively from anywhere, they needed the same level of access as two people sitting next to each other in an office.
We began developing our own software to solve this problem. Today, we have several tools to enable us to enjoy all the benefits of in-office communication, without the burden of actually having to be there.
That’s why we’re so enthusiastic about flexibility today; we know first-hand that businesses need the ability to scale exponentially. That’s simply not possible with the fixed-location, everything in-house model.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
Connection and accessibility are key. After navigating work and life during a global pandemic, I think the world has realized how valuable the right technology is.
The pandemic offered a taste of change, but it wasn’t flexible. Most people had to work from home. Our business model is built on offering people the flexibility to choose based on what works best for them. There is no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to life; there shouldn’t be a uniform way of working. When we’re able to work according to our own choices, great things happen!
The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic?
Our service responds directly to the needs of businesses looking to gain flexibility in their day-to-day. The pandemic exacerbated this, but it’s always been there. The old fixed-location way of working is rapidly becoming a relic. It hindered inspiration, work-life balance, and hiring.
With the freedom to work anywhere, we can decentralize business from the urban hubs, create more equitable hiring practices (hire the best, not just the closest!) and decrease the massive carbon footprint tied to the daily commute.
We want to keep human connection at the forefront of everything we do, but that connection can take many forms.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Getting it right > Being right. Creating cutting-edge technology isn’t easy, and there will be many mistakes.
- User testing is essential. I cannot overstate the importance of user testing, feedback, and iteration.
- Be ready to change directions- quickly. The original plan for our tech had to be abandoned as the world continued to change rapidly. Change is hard, and it is essential, so embrace it.
- Most people won’t get it- at first. There are countless examples of great ideas and incredible innovations that no one believed in or thought would work.
- I wish someone in 2018 or 2019 could have whispered in my ear that in 2020, there would be a massive move to WFH and therefore a surge in understanding, interest, and adoption of our products and services.
You are a person of great 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. 🙂
Put flexibility at the heart of everything you do. That means being flexible enough to work your own way, but it also means allowing others to work their way. Just because someone doesn’t think/work/act the same way as you, doesn’t mean they can’t make a valuable contribution to your team.
I’ve learned a lot in the past decade, but one of the most powerful revelations I’ve had is that everyone works to different strengths. And actually, that variety of opinions, cultures, identities, and working styles is a real strength.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
- Website: https://www.answerconnect.com/
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/company/answerconnect
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AnswerConnect/
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nataliesruiz/
- Medium: https://its-natalieruiz.medium.com/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/its_natalieruiz/
Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.