Manage your team with high devotion AND high expectations. I love this mantra for leadership (and parenting!). Set the highest bar for your team but never leave them without the support they need to meet those expectations.
As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Tala Akhavan.
Tala Akhavan is the COO at Pietra, the platform that is powering the Creator Economy and bringing creators’ ideas to life. Akhavan is responsible for helping Pietra continue to scale, grow its global footprint and further cultivate the platform’s internal culture while also streamlining day-to-day operations. Formerly at Uber, Tala held several roles over her five years in Operations, most recently serving as an Executive Chief of Staff, where she helped define the customer strategy across Uber’s consumer verticals. In her earlier roles, she focused on strategic operations and launches for Uber’s largest product categories, including UberPool, UberX, and UberXL for the US and Canada market.Tala holds a BA from Columbia and majored in Mathematics, Sustainable Development and Business Management. A true personal passion that she will continue championing during her time at Pietra is democratizing access for female entrepreneurship via the platform’s capabilities towards lowering barriers of entry for all creators.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
A math junkie at heart, I’ve always had an interest in solving problems, particularly ones that were tied to a mission about which I cared deeply. Earlier in my career, after studying both mathematics and sustainable development in undergrad and spending a few years in management consulting, I decided to join a fast-growing tech company whose mission was to transform the way people moved around cities: Uber. Over my five years there, I held several roles and was drawn to hard, mission-driven problems, most notably in the UberPool space, where our mission was to provide an affordable and environmentally sustainable rideshare option for everyday consumers. It was at Uber that I met two good friends, now my CEO and CTO counterparts, who would eventually convince me to join them in trying to solve their super-hard problem of choice: democratizing and digitizing the global supply chain with Pietra. Their pitch?: female entrepreneurs — a rapidly growing but uniquely challenged cohort that makes up 80% of Pietra’s customers. As a technical, career-driven female who entered motherhood in the middle of the pandemic, the mission had me hooked. I joined within two months. At Pietra, we’re building a platform to empower any and every entrepreneur to create the next best-selling product line with the click of a button. As COO, my job is to build and manage a team of talented problem-solvers to bring this vision to life through every step of the supply chain, from product ideation all the way to package delivery. It’s a lofty problem but a fun one that, if solved, will forever change the way retail businesses are built.
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?
Success is such a loaded word, especially for women. I feel successful not because of my title but because I genuinely feel I’m able (and privileged) to fully dedicate myself to a company and team I care deeply about, while fully dedicating myself to raising my 1-year-old daughter, Mila. To use a very tired term, I feel like I’ve somehow managed to “have it all” as a working mom and, ironically, that’s been made possible by two men in my life: my husband, Andrew, and my partner and CEO, Ronak. For two guys who are dealing with a new mom for the first time in their lives, they’ve both been incredibly supportive, and without hesitation. I have Ronak’s full support when I need to reschedule an important meeting around Mila’s Monday swim lesson and Andrew’s full support when I need to travel for three days for a board meeting. This type of backing makes all the difference to new mothers (and fathers) in the workforce.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
This may be an undesirable answer, but my preparation trick is actually to not prepare at all! I find that rehearsing or over-preparing for a meeting actually throws me off kilter and gets in the way of my ability to think on my feet. Trusting my gut and reminding myself that I know my stuff actually boosts my confidence and gives me calm. A recent example is actually my first board meeting as COO at Pietra. I was on the hook to deliver results from my first 60 days at the company, during which I restructured the team and invested in a few bets, and share an operational plan to hit our year-end goals. Meeting our lead investor for the first time, a well-known veteran of Silicon Valley, and presenting my early contributions to the company felt pretty high stakes. Instead of rehearsing that morning, I ignored the slide deck and treated the day like any other: I joined meetings with my team, worked through plans for the next week and cleared my inbox. The meeting went very well and I actually ended up connecting with the investor over baby gear, as he had also just become a parent. Who knew that my elaborate (and embarrassingly type-A) baby product spreadsheets that I’d made during maternity leave would serve me well in my first high stakes board meeting? Funny how life sometimes works out in that way.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
There’s nothing especially new about this answer but, particularly for a DTC company, it’s incredibly important that your leadership reflects your end consumers. Particularly for Pietra, where our customers are predominantly women and include creators who don’t have access to large sums of capital, we believe it’s critical to understand and, most importantly, represent our customers deeply as we build for them.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
As leaders, we need to explicitly and proactively set the culture and policies that reflect our personal values. I don’t believe in separating work and life. In the age of mobile phones and remote work, work is life and life is work. Bringing our “life policies” — our beliefs about how humans should treat one another — into the workplace is critical. An example: I feel strongly that new parents should be afforded the time and space they personally need to devote themselves to raising their newborns without the looming pressure or anxiety of returning to work on some arbitrary date. Too many women, in particular, return to work before they’re physically or emotionally ready because they fear the financial, social or reputational repercussions of not returning to work. Now that I’m in a position to define the parental leave policy at Pietra, I’ve set one that offers new parents the financial support and flexibility to return to work when they are ready and in a way that makes them feel comfortable. It was important to me to build a set of rules for the company that I would live by in my personal life, and I’m proud of our leadership team for supporting that.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is that executives know all the answers — they don’t. Building a new company from scratch and doing something that hasn’t been done before means the problems are also new, and they’re hard. Leaders aren’t leaders because they know the answers but because (hopefully) they have the experience, skills and talented teams to be able to iterate to get to the right answers.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
I think one of the biggest challenges is a pretty obvious one: balancing parenthood. Moms will often tell you that, at the end of the day, you can have the most present, supportive, and involved co-parent but some days your child just wants you. The physical and emotional tax on all parents, but statistically women, in balancing work and parenthood is nontrivial. Be it the time that your kid is so sick that you have to hold her upright in a chair all night for five nights in a row (meaning you got no sleep for a week) but you’re still expected to perform at work; or the days when your childcare falls through and you’re spoon-feeding your kid oatmeal while you present to a client via zoom (video off!); or the many, many mornings you watch your kid cry for you as you leave for the office. These are non-life-threatening challenges, for sure, but are nonetheless taxing moments that happen constantly. The cognitive load-balancing is ever-present. Great support systems make this balance possible and, for many, enjoyable, but it’s a challenge that warrants acknowledgement.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Before I took on this role, a mentor of mine gave me the advice: “be the leader today that you envision yourself being in five years.” I try to take this advice to heart in everything I do and every decision I make. Women are too often victims of the imposter syndrome — we somehow feel we don’t deserve to be where we are. I think leading with confidence and conviction is the best thing you can do for your team.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Everything we do at Pietra is to empower aspiring entrepreneurs to build sustainable businesses and better their lives. Lowering the barrier to entry for creators in every corner of the world is what gets me up every day. I would like to think this is making the world a better place, in some small way, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It will take 2 months for you to be operating at your normal capacity. The first two months are like drinking from a fire hose, spinning ten plates, and riding a unicycle all at once! You’ll make assumptions, form hypotheses, and expect too much of yourself prematurely.
- You will not know all the answers. (See above).
- Done is better than perfect. Remember that at an early-stage company, striving for perfection is a waste of time.
- Manage your team with high devotion AND high expectations. I love this mantra for leadership (and parenting!). Set the highest bar for your team but never leave them without the support they need to meet those expectations.
- Take care of yourself! Something has to give when you’re balancing a stressful job and managing your family and that something can’t be your wellbeing.
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.
We need to be doing more to serve the financially excluded in America. Access to financial services and support is critical to socioeconomic equality in this country, yet far too many families are structurally excluded from our financial ecosystem. This is silently crippling families and only exacerbating issues like food insecurity for children and widening education gaps. Private sector financial services organizations need to do more to include this large population of disadvantaged consumers by providing them the proper access to financial tools and resources that can help them improve their quality of life.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was a management consultant early in my career, a female partner gave me this advice when I was debating whether or not to leave a promising trajectory at the firm to join Uber in 2015: “you never regret the things you did, you regret the things you didn’t do.” As the type-A, typically risk-averse person that I am, I’ve leaned on this advice in almost every big decision I’ve made in my life since. I have almost no regrets.
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
Probably Gwynne Shotwell. She’s a fellow math girl, COO, parent and all-around incredible operator. Whatever advice she’s offering, I’m taking.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.