You don’t need to be an extrovert to be a leader. Some of my most reflective staff members are introverts. You don’t always have to be the loudest in the room to get your voice heard; conviction and passion will speak louder. I learned early on that my quiet voice was no indication of my bold thoughts, opinions and direction that needed to be heard.
As a part of our series about powerful women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Neeta Jain. Neeta is the Chief Technology Officer of a digital health technology company, Vibrent Health, where she commands the technology, product development and cloud operations teams of history’s largest and most ambitious digital health research program, the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) All of Us Research Program. Within her first two years as CTO, Neeta spearheaded all research and development efforts to build a market-leading technology platform and helped Vibrent achieve critical cloud security certifications including FISMA, ISO 13485, ISO 9001 and SOC II. In addition, the company received an initial award of 75 million dollars in funding from NIH for All of Us and earned global recognition as the technology backbone of All of Us, holding the prestigious role of Participant Technology Systems Center for the program that will span at least 10 years long. She has been a big contributor to the company’s rapid domestic and international growth, increasing Vibrent’s workforce by 380% under her leadership.
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?
I have always had a keen interest in science and math. As a young woman, I loved studying logic and solving problems, and I mastered several languages including English, Hindi, Marathi and French. My family expected me to pursue a traditionally female-centric career path, such as running a clothing boutique. I wanted a different career though, something that would satisfy my analytical mind. My mother saw this in me as well.
My mother was a huge force and inspiration in driving me towards my career in technology. Upon moving to the United States, I devoured courses in technology. I found coding and software development fascinating and stimulating. As I advanced in my technology career, I applied myself to writing code and developing technology applications. I used my expertise in dot.net, Java and web development for companies including Honeywell and the IRS, and eventually I worked my way up to architecting large and mission critical systems. Beyond the technical work though, passion and purpose led me to seek out opportunities that aligned with my goals. This led me to Vibrent Health.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
About three years ago, when we first won the award from the National Institutes of Health for the All of Us Research Program, it hit me hard that things would be changing. Our small startup would be expanding, and I would be working alongside many brilliant, renowned experts in the fields of technology, health sciences, research and academia. It was a very exciting time, but I also felt apprehensive.
My daughter had just started a new job in Seattle so I was traveling back from visiting her and heading straight to a meeting in Boston. On the flight to Boston, I was reading a book by social psychologist Amy Cuddy. I started highlighting passages about focusing on your own strengths versus the strengths of others and reminding yourself of your capabilities.
This meeting was our first as the Participant Technology Systems Center for the All of Us Research Program — our first precision medicine meeting with all of the big names in the program. When I read the attendees’ names and bios, I started to become very nervous. I was forgetting my own strengths and abilities and letting intimidation take over. I made it through the meeting and headed home.
On the way home, I revisited some of the passages I had highlighted from Amy Cuddy’s book. There is no reason to compare yourself or be overwhelmed by someone else’s success. It was very therapeutic to take this in after the meeting. It was almost instantaneous that I overcame my concerns and realized what a strong contributor I was and how well the meeting went. I continue to look back on those passages when I am about to embark on meetings or new endeavors that bring new challenges.
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 have always been a contributor in meetings, sharing ideas and asking questions. Early in my career as CTO, I remember asking a question in a team meeting about colors on an application. I wanted to understand why the colors were chosen, not necessarily prompt a change. Soon after the meeting, I learned the team was scrambling for a new palette, which was presented to me with explanations and new colors. While I appreciated the work, I actually preferred the initial colors. I learned early on that my comments might come off as directives versus suggestions open for discussion. I quickly met with my staff to clarify this. One of our guiding principles at Vibrent is “Ideas Over Hierarchy.” We want our staff, no matter what level, to be a contributor, to share ideas and be a part of the team. As a leader, it’s always important to choose your words wisely and think about the ramifications.
OK, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CTO that most attracted you to it?
I love being able to build systems and as a CTO, I get to be involved in every aspect of creating, developing and managing our systems. In previous roles, I was engrossed in one part of the system. Whereas now, I get to be involved in all aspects and lead the direction. I love architecture and building a reliable system to scale. As a CTO, you get to work alongside incredibly smart people from all departments who will help execute your vision.
Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CTO does. But in just a few words can you explain what a CTO does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Each C-level executive guides and represents their division, with the CEO guiding and representing the overall company with input from the C-suite. In my role as CTO, I run a division of 160 engineers, product managers, research scientists, data engineers, and experts in cyber-security, cloud operations and other technical areas, to develop the technology platforms that drive the mission behind Vibrent Health. As a mid-sized company, I also take on the role of CIO, overseeing internal operations as well.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
There are a lot of things I enjoy about being the CTO of Vibrent. It’s been extremely rewarding to lead the development of the Participant Technology Systems Center that is assisting in human health research through the All of Us Research Program. I’m grateful to put my skills to work in a position that is very rewarding and challenging. It’s important to feel passion and purpose in your career.
I like being a collaborative leader. I, alone don’t have all the answers. As the company grows and the system grows, I rely on people around me — the experts in each area — to create solutions. As the CTO, I have to know everything involving the company’s technology, but it’s impossible to be an expert in every technical field. I’m thankful for my talented team.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
Being in a management position can take you away from detailed, hands-on work, and I do miss that. I love working with computers. As a CTO, it becomes more about people — managing them, their time, their needs. I need to ensure they are being fulfilled and challenged but also delivering the best product and working towards the company goals.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CTO. Can you explain what you mean?
Technical leadership involves a lot of problem solving versus knowing the finite details of writing code or architecting systems. As the CTO, you need to be the person that any of your team members can approach to help connect the dots. You use your experience and logic, and their expertise, to walk through a process to unveil a solution. I think there is a misunderstanding in how the role is perceived and how technical CTOs are. Unfortunately, we don’t get to be too hands-on at the C-level, but we do need to be excellent problem solvers and understand the work that is happening.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The challenges that women face certainly vary by company and by each woman’s situation — does she have children? Is she a single parent? Every situation has its own challenges. In some environments, women have to work harder to prove their abilities and skills, even if the background knowledge and education is the same as their male counterparts.
I have been fortunate to work in a supportive environment for female leadership. Over 30% of Vibrent’s supervisory staff is female. We are seeing more women take on technical leadership roles but it’s still a low overall percentage in the workforce compared to men. According to a recent Korn Ferry study, only 10 percent of chief technology officer positions at technology companies belong to women. That’s something I’d like to see change.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
My role evolved to a combination CTO/CIO role. Whereas some companies have these roles as two separate positions, I take on both and oversee the internal operations as well. I like having this connection to all systems. It helps me understand the company’s challenges from its internal structure to external output.
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?
To be a successful executive you need patience and the ability to shift gears quickly. You will work with a lot of different personalities and opinions, and you need to be able to listen, learn and determine the best solution together. Be patient and understanding and give everyone a chance to speak their mind. One of our guiding principles at Vibrent is “Be Bold.” We encourage everyone to be open and share their opinions.
You also need to be able to shift gears into new topics on a moment’s notice. My day is a series of blocks of various topics and decisions, many of them intense, to arrive at decisions that are far reaching and long lasting. Many times, this is daunting, and the pressure and responsibility can be overwhelming. I have to quickly brief myself on what I am walking into and be ready to make smart choices. As a CTO, I am constantly educating myself on the latest technology, trends, launches, customer issues and industry news.
If someone is not inspired to listen, learn and grow with their staff or does not have the ability to be in intense discussions at any given moment on a series of different topics, a C-level position may not be for them.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
This applies to all leaders, male or female: Understand your staff. If you want them to thrive, understand that they have other demands on their time. Treat your staff with the respect that you want in return. At a job I had many years ago, when my children were young, I would have to leave work early to pick them up. Often times, meetings would be held after I would leave the office and decisions were made without my contribution. This was before Slack, Zoom and other types of remote communication and meeting tools existed. To help women who are mothers — or men who are fathers — succeed in their careers, work with them to keep them included and not have to choose every night between family or work.
Listen to your staff. Listen to their ideas and concerns. When staff know they are a valued team member, they will want to give you more and show you their best.
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 mom has been a driving force and inspiration, helping me reach my goals. I can remember one night when I was bone tired from working, studying and upgrading my technical skills. She told me to push through and kept saying, “Neeta, you will get over being tired. You have to take the exams and get the diploma. I know you can do it. You were meant to do big things in life.” She was an amazing support and foundation to push me through some of the tougher nights when I wanted to give up.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
As the CTO of Vibrent Health, with my team of engineers, product managers, research scientists and experts in cybersecurity, cloud operations and other technical areas, we built the technology platform being used by participants for the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us Research Program. We are part of a historic effort to gather health data from at least one million people living in the United States over the course of 10 or more years. The goal is to collect and analyze the data and make it available to vetted researchers to accelerate discoveries and advance precision medicine. This is an exciting time for us as we help pave the way towards healthcare that fits individual needs. Already more than 260,000 people are enrolled since the national launch in May 2018.
I also contribute my time and finances to the FIDA Foundation, Friends for India’s Development and Assistance. FIDA raises funds and awareness to help rural development in parts of India through access to quality education, healthcare and employment opportunities. As I speak English, Hindi, Marathi and French, I often take on mentorships with children seeking education and career advice. It’s very rewarding to help these children who grew up with so little and have so much to offer to the world.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I have learned so much and continue to keep growing and learning in this role. Five things that come to mind are:
- Follow your gut. When I first started and I would be in meetings surrounded by technical experts, scientists and researchers, I would find myself swayed in the direction of the most confident or vocal speakers. Even if I didn’t fully agree, I thought, this person sounds like they might know something that I don’t, and being new to the space, I would opt to listen to that direction and not challenge it. As I would see mistakes happen around things my gut told me would not work, I knew I had to stop presuming and go with my instinct — even if it was the least popular idea in the room. I had to continue to stand up for my ideas. I found on many occasions the fight was well worth it.
- It’s OK to show your vulnerability. It’s impossible to build a strong team without showing them you are human, too. My team has seen me succeed and fail. I adapted this early on as I learned from my previous leaders that seeing them in a relatable way, made me more comfortable communicating with them. The more open the communication, the stronger the team will be.
- You won’t always have the answer right away. In the evolving world of technology. I am constantly educating myself on changes, trends, launches and industry news. There were times I would be in a meeting and be put on the spot for a quick solution. I would fumble for an answer, but after further research, I would want to take a different direction. I quickly learned to give my initial reaction and allow for a follow up time to get data and support my direction.
- You will not be able to give 100% to everyone every day. I struggled accepting this, but I learned to forgive myself on days when I wasn’t able to keep up with every need. I made up for it on the days I could, and I strived to find a good balance in my overall health and well-being. Don’t beat yourself up on the days you are overwhelmed, overtired or just too consumed in one block of your functions that you can’t give more to the others. You find the strength each day to give what you can and prioritize.
- You don’t need to be an extrovert to be a leader. Some of my most reflective staff members are introverts. You don’t always have to be the loudest in the room to get your voice heard; conviction and passion will speak louder. I learned early on that my quiet voice was no indication of my bold thoughts, opinions and direction that needed to be heard.
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.
As an animal rights advocate, I would like to see a larger movement on living healthier without the use of animals or animal by-products. I grew up vegetarian and became vegan in my adult years — for health reasons but also to contribute to a better environment and promote animal life.
I was diagnosed with lupus in my late 30s. It took time to figure out the different things I could change in my daily habits to cope. It was when I moved to a full, plant-based diet that I started feeling a big difference. The process has improved my overall health — mentally and physically. I don’t need to take medications and even though lupus is something that I will always live with, I feel freed from it.
I’ve seen great benefits in my health since I transitioned to a vegan lifestyle. While one type of diet is not the right fit for all, I do believe less animal and animal by-products will help facilitate healthier living to some degree in all humans.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I find a lot of inspiration listening to speakers such as Amy Cuddy and reading books, such as Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” I’ve highlighted and collected so many great quotes from both and more. One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Jane Goodall.
“What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” — Jane Goodall
I live by this daily, in my work and my personal life. I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world when I came to Vibrent. I wanted to contribute to the well-being and betterment of healthcare. There are many types of technology companies out there. I knew I wanted to work for one that had the passion and purpose that aligned with the type of difference I want to make.
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.
I would love to sit down with Michelle Obama. She is a true inspiration. She was raised in a modest household with a very clear value system. It was no surprise that she resonated with so many Americans — she understands the challenges and real-world problems that majority of Americans face. When she was first lady, she used her power for good. She rose above any negativity, and rather than lashing back and using her power in a negative way, she focused her energies on the good she could contribute. I admire that no matter what the obstacle, she always took the high road.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.