As part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Leila Modarres, Chief Marketing Officer at Infostretch, a digital engineering services company based in Santa Clara, California. Leila is an Iranian immigrant who, at 32 became one of Silicon Valley’s youngest female VP’s. Now, as Chief Marketing Officer, she runs all marketing efforts for Infostretch, a thriving digital engineering solutions and services company with more than 1,200 employees worldwide. With more than 20 years of experience in marketing and communications serving high-growth software companies and early-stage technology companies, she has helped three startups achieve their desired exits.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As the daughter of Iranian immigrants who fled Iran after the revolution in 1980, I was raised in Boston, where I attended elementary school and grew up hoping to make it as a top artist or performer. Of course, I felt like an outcast on occasion, being from a different background; but that wasn’t my claim to fame or why I am telling you this. I was always driven — and continue to be inspired — by female characters in the entertainment industry — such as movies or TV series. As a child, dancing and theatre were my passions. I was a performer at heart, and I’d sneak into movies like “Flashdance” — a movie where the main character “Alex” played by Jennifer Beals fascinated me — a girl with no training or education making it to top and getting accepted into a prestigious ballet academy. I danced all over the living room floor for months. My mother finally decided to do without furniture!
I was determined to make my way into a role on a screen, stage or in front of an audience. Later in my teens, I also found an appreciation for business… there was always an element of drama in business… and there still is. Inspired by shows like Dynasty and Dallas, I continued to imagine myself as an influential member of a thriving organization.
One day I saw “Working Girl” and that was it. Melanie Griffith sealed the deal for me — talk about a risk taker who rose to the top. I decided that my calling was in the land of business, where I not only needed to perform every day, but I could leverage my business acumen and help others — especially young women — grow and thrive in the business world. As I think back, I am wondering if I was just looking for ways to make thigs more difficult. Not only did I want to be a top performer, but switch to a competitive field like corporate business which was — and still is, to a great extent — a male-dominated industry.
Once I got started on this track, I had the fortune of working for many amazing organizations, such as the Harvard Business Review and Porter Novelli, where I had amazing female mentors. I also rolled up my sleeves and helped grow a number of startups that were flourishing in Silicon Valley. Regardless of where I work, I will always be driven by the need to perform and help other “Tess McGill’s” navigate their way to the top. Today my inspirational fictional characters include Tea Leoni as Madam Secretary and Julianna Margulies as the Good Wife.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
This isn’t necessarily one incident or episode, but is a limitation that my counterparts also face. As Chief Marketing Officer, I am constantly exposed to new concepts –ours, or our customers’ — months before they are introduced to the public, sometimes longer. We serve as a proving ground for software-based innovations in healthcare and financial services, as well as AI and IoT concepts. It is so tempting to tell the world what is coming down the pike before the news is ready to spread. In a way, this eagerness helps me focus on today’s mission, today’s message. Because our responsibility to the bottom line supersedes the sizzle of page-1 news.
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?
Two new hires. One name.
Cue…a case of mistaken identity.
Here’s what happened. On my first day of a new job, little did I know that another new starter, also called Leila, was joining the company the same day…as a software engineer. They took me into the lab, introduced me to the product managers and asked me about what programs I used. All the while I was thinking that something is not quite right here. Why don’t I have a proper desk? Where are those sales / marketing people who’d interviewed me? Why are they asking me these technical questions?
Finally, once everyone realized the huge mistake, it became a running joke between the departments. I must have put on a good show as an engineer, at least for a few hours. Despite the happy ending, the incident taught me to act on red flags as soon as they appear. I was lucky in this case that it ended on a comical note, but I made a determination to myself that I would speak up quickly in future instances whenever I felt confused or out of my depth.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I hinted at this earlier: Companies that are leading the way in healthcare, financial services, the Internet of Things, and other digital innovations rely on us to be a proving ground for their breakthroughs. We have a unique Infostretch Lab environment which provides ideation for “Out of the Box” solutions that support the digital initiatives of our customers — each of which needs to be highly customized.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I could tell you, but you know what would have to happen then! Seriously, extrapolating from our past work, you can imagine further pharmaceutical breakthroughs, after the first “smart pill,” which helps doctors monitor their patients’ use of the anti-psychotic drug Abilify. Or more personalized driving experiences that communicate with “smart billboards” for emergency notifications, or to promote retail specials geared to the driver’s interest…right there, in the moment. Our customers are working on advances that stand to change the way we live. Another example is wearable IoT technology that enhances athletes’ experience. New innovations in digital health is also a big focus area for us from pharmaceutical technologies in the PBM space that puts more cost control in the hands of patients to apps that allow patients to navigate their cancer treatments. Ultimately in any vertical digital is almost always putting more control in the hands of the consumer which is a good thing.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I learned very early in my career that the most important thing a manager can do is to lower the barriers to my team’s success. Don’t forget mentoring. All the best strategy in the world won’t save a company, or a career, if you aren’t creating a strong staff of people who want to step into your shoes.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Rely on Lieutenants
TRUST — a 5 letter word that is my mantra. If you don’t trust a person on your team, it makes no difference how talented or smart they are.
On the flip side, if you do trust someone and they have less experience or are eager and willing to learn, then invest the time. It will be worth it.
Manage Up! Ensure team members manage up regularly — avoid the tendency across the entire team to ask for a status — managing up and transparency are essential to running an effective marketing machine.
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 first boss was Suzy Welch (then Suzy Wetlaufer), a Senior Editor at the Harvard Business Review, and later became Editor In Chief. She is a brilliant woman, and a force to be reckoned with, which are two qualities I admired most about her. Suzy took me under her wing and wrote my first recommendation letter. I owe my next three jobs to that letter. Next came Laura Beck, my boss and mentor at the PR firm Porter Novelli. Brilliant. And again … a force to be reckoned with (see a trend here?). An amazing manager with more energy and brain power than anyone I know. I continue to rely on her counsel and friendship to this day. My experience at Porter Novelli taught me discipline, multitasking, how to present, attention to detail and how to manage — all in one.
Perhaps most importantly, I could not be where I am today if it weren’t for the support of my stepfather Mohammed Fotouhi — a successful entrepreneur and highly experienced CEO and engineer. He continues to be on my speed-dial, and is the first person I reach out to for advice or to better understand the complexities of business and tech. I can also always count on family to give me the occasional “reality check” commentary — e.g.,: “Leila you’re being ridiculous” — which will always put my feet right back on the ground! I may get that sort of feedback from colleagues, of course; but with family, there is no other agenda than honest input.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I mentor other women and recent grads to help them polish their resumes and find jobs. I am a member of groups such as Persian Women in Tech, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to celebrating and empowering Persian, Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers globally. I refer many of my mentees to such organizations to help them find careers. I have been leading team called “InfoBust” at Cycle For Survival a nationwide indoor team of cycling events dedicated to raising funds for lifesaving research into rare forms of cancer.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why.
Here are 7 ideas or lessons; chances are readers will be able to relate to 5 of them, the other two are a bonus. When in doubt, I consult these for inspiration:
- Male-dominated industries don’t change fast (at least not without pain). Fortunately, I am working in a place where this is not an issue, but I see examples of either harassment or the glass ceiling all around me…even here in Silicon Valley, which is a revelation. I don’t scare easily, though; so this warning signal wouldn’t have steered me to a different field.
- “Build a better mousetrap” is nonsense…success takes marketing. Examples abound of good products that failed because of poor marketing (remember BETA, unarguably the superior VCR technology?);
- Even the best ideas have a shelf life. Remember “downtown renewal”? Shopping malls on the outskirts of mid-sized cities and towns?;
- The Paul Principle, a corollary to the Peter Principle. A computer scientist and educator named Paul Armer coined “The Paul Principle,” which says that (paraphrasing here) advancing technology renders people incompetent at the level where they once excelled. It is important to recognize this in yourself as well as your colleagues up and down the organization chart.
- Don’t be afraid to take risks. Insist on creativity and accept that some ideas will not succeed; welcome that fact, it means your team is thinking.
- In what may seem to be the dry world of B2b tech, don’t be afraid to spice things up. Use best practices from b2C and advertising and media to draw attention to your “widget.” A case in point: our company produced a technology map of a new and important software concept called DevOps. In order to hold attention while translating the concepts, our map was based on an overlay of Game of Thrones; two years after presenting it at a trade show, we are still getting requests for it.
- As I mentioned earlier, managers in this era need to be inspiring and fun: after all, you are only as good as your team. But to keep the team thriving you need trust, especially in small and midsized companies. This is not to be confused with being on the same page and agreeing. I respect and even prefer it when people on my team have different opinions and can back-up those opinions with data. This means they have done their homework. But if you can’t trust the person you work with — or for — or who works for you, then it’s time to raise a flag, as mistrust and uncertainty can be toxic.
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.
I am not of great influence but if I were, I would enforce new guidelines on how to manage the homeless crisis in the Bay Area. As a resident of this beautiful part of the nation for more than 10 years, it’s painful to watch the numbers rise, with people moving out in hordes. It’s impacting hiring and retention. It’s also a controversial issue without easy answers. So, while I can’t get into the nitty gritty, I do think there needs to be more distinction amongst the types of homeless people, and recognition that one solution doesn’t fit all.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Life Lesson Quote — “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” — Rumi
This is about compromise and how arbitrary the notion of right and wrong is. It took me a long time to realize this and not spend time trying to be “right” but to understand and listen to others. It’s still hard sometimes but remembering the wise words from Rumi is always helpful.
Some of the biggest 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 🙂
My unfiltered answer? Donald Trump. I would like to understand the motivation behind many of the things that he says and does. After All — knowledge is half the battle.
Filtered answer — Nancy Pelosi — I would like to understand: How does she maintain her composure and sanity in such a turbulent industry where one is often on the receiving end of the firing line while managing to get things accomplished?