Author Archives: Kira Makagon

About Kira Makagon

Kira Makagon is a successful serial entrepreneur and tech industry leader. A graduate of UC Berkeley with both an undergraduate degree in computer science and an MBA, she enjoys sharing her lessons learned from being a veteran “only woman in the room.”

From Start-up to Scale-up: Think

Oftentimes when I speak, when it comes time for Q&A, people ask how I made my own multiple start-ups successful. While I have no “secret sauce” or recipe for assured success, I have been in high tech for long enough to get a sense for what is needed most. If I could sum it all up in one word, that word would be “think.”

Too many early-stage companies fall into the pitfall of believing that they have the next big idea without yet considering how to build the right founding team, how to bring their idea to market and where, and what will happen next when their idea has “made it.” It’s one thing to see your product in a box on a shelf. It’s another thing to be all the way on the other side of the world and in an unexpected place where you see your product being used in a way that’s mission-critical to someone else’s business success. Maybe your ideas and your product are that big, and maybe they’re not. But coming out of the gate with some Big Think is necessary while you figure that out. In this piece, I’ve sketched a rough outline of four “thinks” that I feel start-ups need to consider.

First, think up a big idea, and, once you have it, think about a big market that needs your big idea right now. Look for that idea and that place with a combination of vision, humbleness, and timing. If you start too early or too late, you miss the mark; either buyers won’t be ready for your solution, or the customers won’t be there yet. Is now the time for your solution — and where?

Second, you have to bring the right thinkers together to compose the founding team very early on, which can feel a bit like getting married without an extensive dating period. On that founding team, each member has to have appropriate roles. Right away in today’s world, that team needs to think about how things are so advanced and so fast that as you build your product, you have to think about UE, design, and security, especially, with so much being totally open and in the cloud. Importantly, your team has to think about the right foundation and architecture for scalability — otherwise, you may have a great product-market fit, but you won’t be able to grow. Strong people are needed to lead product as well as deployment earlier than you may think you need them; for a big idea, those are founding team roles. Things move that fast.

One mistake I’ve seen too many CEOs and founders make is in trying to do everything themselves. This is not a good idea at all. Wearing too many hats means that you’re thinking too broadly in places where detail may be needed, not to mention wearing yourself down — and we all know how hard it is to think creatively when there’s too much on our plate. When you bring together enough smart, thinking people in proper roles on a founding team, you end up moving your idea into being both faster and smarter.

Third, remember: product-market fit matters. Think of how everyone is using videoconferencing during this Covid-19 pandemic. A lot of companies relied on their existing solutions to be seamlessly scaled to accommodate shifting work needs. Others knew what they needed, and they knew how to find it, even if it was a new solution for their company. It may seem like a tall order for your founding team to have to create a leveraged model that is discoverable and will have virality right away, all in a time when all products are supposed to engage the user while having a low cost of customer acquisition. But, think about it: during the early spring, you witnessed the speed at which that happens.

Fourth, now, let’s assume for a moment that your company has gotten there. You have your product. You have your fit, and it’s in a big market. You have some virality building, too. Are you done? (Never!) Now is the time to think about measurement: measure, measure, and measure more, and measure all of the results in all parts of your company. How you scale is by understanding your customer, their adaption, and what your virality factors are. At my company, RingCentral, executives still gather at the beginning of every week to slice and dice customer acquisition reports that came in daily. It’s practically a religion for us in terms of how we measure adoption, churn, cost, use predictive analytics to manage our pipeline, analyze various ratios and so on.

Innovation, in a nutshell, is a Big Think task. It starts with your idea, grows with your team, fits into the market — and then, if you’ve done your job, it goes back to your team to think of measurements and scale. From day one, things will accelerate more and more, and there is no escaping that tornado. If you aren’t feeling like you’re amid a tornado, you’re probably not growing fast enough or even may be stagnating. You can’t just sell more products to get back into the game; you have to drive innovation to stay relevant. And you do that by continuing to think and to measure, never getting complacent, and surely, by keeping up.

This post also appeared on LinkedIn.

On the International Day of the Girl Child, A Hat-Tip to Inventor Hedy Lamarr

Did you know that every single day, we hold a piece of women’s history in our hands? It’s true! Believe it or not, you have iconic film star Hedy Lamarr to thank for today’s modern cellular phones.

In 1942, in-tandem with her work as an actress, Hedy Lamarr, along with her friend and science-experiment partner, composer George Antheil, patented an invention that became part of the foundation for the modern cellular phone: a frequency-hopping device that enabled the constant changing of frequencies for radio signals transmitting from ships or airplanes to torpedos. Such frequency-skipping allowed radio signals to be inviolable and aided greatly in improving the accuracy of torpedos. Born from this was today’s spread-spectrum technology that we enjoy each time we use our mobile devices.

It’s hard to believe that the U.S. Navy, to which Lamarr and Antheil had presented their design, initially refused to use this critical technology; it never saw action in World War II. However, unknown to Lamarr and Antheil, the military classified their patent application as top-secret and began using the technology in the 1950s. The patent expired long before the 1990s, when Lamarr began to receive recognition for her invention — something that is reported to have mattered to her far more than any accolades she received for her acting.

I learned about Lamarr’s role in this critical invention in the novel “The Only Woman in the Room” by Marie Benedict. Based on the incredible true story of Hedy Lamarr, Benedict’s novel highlights Lamarr’s work as a scientist whose groundbreaking invention revolutionized modern communication.

This great novel highlights something else, too, though — the manner in which Lamarr’s contribution to modern science largely was ignored for decades due to the fact that she was a woman. Time and time again, when Lamarr pressed to be heard, she was told outright that she was out of place, solely because of her gender. We know that the accomplishments of other great women were treated and obscured similarly, like NASA’s “Hidden Figures,” Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, the women who performed the calculations enabling America’s first man to launch into space. I’m left to wonder: to how many other women did this happen? What else don’t we know about the foundation on which our world has been built?

As Benedict writes in the author’s note to her book, “unless we begin to view historical women through a broader, more inclusive lens — and rewrite them back into the narrative — we will continue to view the past more restrictively than it likely was, and we risk carrying those perspectives over into the present.” As more and more historical women’s contributions to the modern age are brought to light, I couldn’t agree more.

Like Lamarr, I know what it’s like to be “the only woman in the room.” Today, on the International Day of the Girl Child, that’s far from the case. Now, women aren’t only in the room; we hold seats at the table at every S&P 500 company. And that is something worth celebrating!

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Is Working From Home the Great Equalizer for Women?

As many high-tech companies enter our sixth month of altered work arrangements due to the coronavirus pandemic, some trends have started to emerge with regard to how employees are faring with remote work. With decades of in-office experience under my belt in comparison to just half a year of work from home (WFH), the comparisons that have emerged already surprise me in some ways.

Oftentimes, I speak and write from my position of formerly being a “veteran only woman in the room” in high tech. As such, I feel particularly attuned to the plight of women in a field that continues to be rather male-dominated. I believe it is not only important to hire women but also to mentor them, retain them and promote them to positions of leadership, such that when young women debate whether or not to pursue STEM careers, they can point to women in positions of power in high tech and say, “I want to be that woman someday.”

My belief is that the playing field has become more level but that, in a world where every Fortune 500 now has a woman on its board, we’re still far from equal, as that’s still a far cry from true gender parity at the table.

It’s no secret that where a lot of career trajectories fall apart, disproportionally for women but also for many men, is when there’s too much pull between work and family. Commuting itself takes something away from both work time and family time. As well, depending on the flexibility that a company offers, face-time in-office may mean less face-time for things like kids’ activities like sporting events or arts performances.

Naturally, some have embraced WFH, especially now due to the pandemic, as an optimal solution, in part for its zero-commute time and for the flexibility and mobility it offers us to do what it takes to care for our families during this unprecedented time. My company builds tools that enable business communication and collaboration to take place seamlessly from wherever our clients or our employees work — so whether in-office, at home or beside that soccer field, the tools needed for work are in-hand on any mobile device. We’re seeing that now is the ultimate test of whether or not some companies can work in mobile, flexible ways like this going forward. Some high-tech companies, like Twitter, have declared success and have shared that employees now never need to return to in-office work if they so choose.

Given that a lot of the work we do is fully transportable via our smart devices these days such that some companies are going fully “virtual” like this, one would think that this transition to full-time, in-home work would mean a lot less stress for employees, and also, perhaps, a more level playing field.

However, a recent article from the Harvard Business Review (registration required) suggests that, among other things, when women and men have families, a recurring finding is that a disproportionate share of domestic and child-rearing responsibilities fall on women — and that a company having flexibility and allowing mobile work doesn’t mean that women are faring better.

The article suggests, “historically, company practices that increase flexibility with the aim of facilitating a better work/life balance have not necessarily resulted in increased advancement of women to senior levels. The benefit has simply been better retention of women at lower management levels.”

Whether virtual or in-office, face-time seems to continue to matter to many companies. An article in the Wall Street Journal (paywall) has suggested that women’s careers could take a heavy hit due to working from home during the pandemic.

Whether in-person or in a meeting room, it still feels to me like women have to work harder to make their voices heard and to be forceful — sometimes more forceful than men — to drive an agenda. Valuing a diverse workforce, and making intentional space for a broad array of diverse voices around that table, is critical to a company’s success. Companies have to work hard to fight unconscious biases, whether in hiring or in-office — and now they have to learn to do so in a different space, the virtual office, while somehow accounting for all of the inequity that may be going on behind the scenes to boot.

Numerous studies have shown that not only are women not on a level playing field in the office, they’re also not on a level playing field at home. How does a company account for that in a way that promotes women — equally to men — to positions of greater success, whether they’re working from home or not?

At the end of the day, the “great equalizer” in the workplace still should come down to what it always should come down to: education, skills, the time put in and the effort made, all whether someone works in-office or from home. It’s the work product that matters most.

It’s my belief that where some companies are falling apart when it comes to supporting women in virtual work is in trying to mimic an in-office culture that disproportionately rewards those with the loudest voices and biggest presence without focusing more on their specific work outputs. A culture of inclusion must be fostered.

Now, we don’t know what or who is tugging on our employees during their “normal” workdays during this time that’s about as far from “normal” as we can get. To get to a level playing field, one question needs to be in focus, whether in-office or at home: What is the quality of this employee’s work product?

If our focus remains on that, then I believe women’s careers won’t be impacted as greatly as some suggest by the pandemic’s forced work/life shift — and WFH indeed can be the “great equalizer” that many feel it can be.

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

Building Your Career Curriculum

Commitment to lifelong learning is one of the critical building blocks of a good career. To reach new levels in your working life, it may help to look at your career in the same way as you approached your school career. Our early years are like elementary school, the years in which we leverage the basics. Mid-career is a key time to seek out opportunities for growth, and movement is often both lateral and upward. Our later-career years are when we can look back and know that we have learned and grown a lot and can share our experiences for the benefit of others.

Have you considered how to build your own career curriculum? For my advice on how to achieve your goals in the early years, mid-career, and in the later years, please check out the following three posts on my LinkedIn:

Building Your Career Curriculum: The Early Years

Building Your Career Curriculum: Mid-Career

Building Your Career Curriculum: The Later-Career Years

Celebrating International Women’s Day with Reflections on My Journey into Technology

Today’s workplaces have grown in many positive directions when it comes to women’s places within them — which, of course, ought to be no different than men’s places within them. When I started working, that wasn’t the case. Often, I was the only woman in a meeting full of male executives. Although I was as much of a participant as anyone else around the table, once, some visiting executives pretended that I did not exist until the moment that one of them turned to me and asked me for some coffee. They wrongly assumed that the only woman in the room was an assistant, not a stakeholder.

Fortunately, it’s hard to imagine such a “woman, get me coffee” request being made today. Especially as workplaces are significantly more gender-balanced, it’s important that we shift from thinking in terms of “male employee” or ”female employee” and move toward a gender neutral approach.

“Gender neutral” doesn’t mean that we disregard the importance of diversity. Rather, a gender-neutral approach is a mindset acknowledging how genders complement each other in order to create a sustainable working environment where all can thrive.

Interacting, speaking, and addressing your teams and peers in a neutral way reaps benefits of inclusion. A simple example is when introducing new staff. Consider replacing statements like “we’re thrilled to have a new man on our team” with “we’re thrilled to have a new team member.” That’s a subtle shift toward greater inclusivity.

Hiring plays an important role in diversity as well as in gender-neutral approaches, of course.By recognizing talent first, both in yourself and in others, you focus on something that everyone, regardless of gender, possesses. Whether you’re a seasoned executive or a prospective employee, lead with what you bring to the table, and watch and evaluate how every person operates in your business as neutrally as possible. When you get to know each other at this level first, the focus on skills and talents strengthens. This is especially important for women. We don’t want to be known as “the best female programmer I’ve ever seen.” We want to be known as the best programmer, period. When, collectively, we focus on what we do in the workplace, old stereotypes will die faster. As a child, I remember being told I ice skate pretty fast “for a girl.” I proudly replied, “I skate faster than all of the boys, actually.”

Today, on International Women’s Day, I’m reflective particularly of my journey as a female immigrant who proudly skated faster than boys and played ice hockey when that’s something girls didn’t do. I credit my parents’ gender-neutral child-rearing approach to that choice and to a lot of subsequent choices that I made, like studying computer science in college when that’s something that very few women did. I never thought that I didn’t belong around the table or in the room or that my voice didn’t have a place. If there’s a gift that I could give to women everywhere, it would be that sense of knowing that wherever you are, you belong there, and your talents and your voices matter a great deal. With women at the table of every major corporate board now, and with women in leadership positions steadily on the rise, it’s a different world than when I began my career — and thank goodness for that.

A version of this article first appeared on Information Age.

On Creating Opportunities for Other Women as a C-Suite Leader

It was an honor to be interviewed for fairygodboss on how leaders can advance gender equality and on how I work this priority into my everyday routine. We also discussed my leadership style and what women should know about working at or applying to my company, RingCentral.

This interview originally appeared on fairygodboss. Here are the highlights:

Describe what you do in one sentence.

In my current role as Chief Innovation Officer, I lead product strategy, product management, design, research and development, engineering and operations. I’m also a regular public speaker and writer.

How do you prioritize and deal with your to-do list each day?

To prioritize my to-do list, I place the most urgent issues at the top, of course. Urgent issues can range from customer escalations to personnel issues and more. Once I’ve given any urgent matters my attention, I turn to any requests that require timely handling, either from the previous day or matters that arose overnight. What follows is often scheduled meetings. I can’t say enough good things about how Glip, our collaboration software, helps me to stay on top of all of my to-do list, meetings, messaging and updates such as industry news. If I need to join an online meeting or place a call, it’s all right there in one app.

How would you describe your leadership style? 

My leadership style is goal-driven and prizes diversity. Good leaders know how to set good goals and how to manage them so that their companies stay on-track. Setting common goals and working toward them brings a company into alignment and measuring on those common goals gives clear indicators when things are falling out of alignment.

It is also critical for good leaders to focus on diversity in all of its forms. Combating unconscious bias in hiring, ensuring pay equality and composing teams made up of a variety of voices are ways for leaders to show that valuing diversity is at the center of the company’s culture and mission. As well, I consider myself a gender-neutral leader who values my staff through a lens focused on their talent, experience and value.

What’s one thing you think young job seekers should know about your company? 

There are five key things that young job seekers should know about RingCentral:

  1. We care about the people who work for us. We show this by investing in them, aiming to help them be highly successful and to advance their careers.
  2. We are a customer-first company.
  3. We operate like a startup.
  4. We focus relentlessly on execution and results.
  5. FITE are our core values: Focus, Innovation, Trust and Empowerment.

What about those who are in a more advanced career stage? 

For job seekers who are in a more advanced career stage, RingCentral would want them to know all of the above, plus they would be among an A-team of highly dedicated senior management. Also important, RingCentral prides itself on its ethics. We execute our business with minimal politics or political wrangling. The key to success at our company is straightforward: strong skills, hard work, a good attitude and the ability to be an effective team player.

How have you used your role to help bring up other women behind you? How do you build time into your schedule for this kind of work? 

In my position of leadership now, I make sure that my company considers and combats unconscious bias in its hiring practices so that all of our potential hires are competing fairly on their merits.

In my writing and speaking engagements, I discuss topics like how women can take on sexist comments in the workplace and how to make their voices heard. I also write to point out, for both women and men, the vast value of increased diversity in all of its forms, as well as taking on the “bro” culture that sometimes doesn’t make space for women in its locker rooms. (I also encourage women to make their own locker rooms!)

What’s something you’re especially good at, at work?

I’m especially good at motivating people and getting things done. I manage not through fear, but, rather, through instilling in my employees a desire to excel and build great products. I encourage them to be their best, to focus on the customer, to want to come in first and to beat our competition. As a result, they aim to create delightful user experience and long-lasting value for our customers, something in which they can take great pride.

What are the top three qualities you look for when you’re interviewing a candidate? 

I look for a clarity of thinking and communicating, energy and honesty in being able to present their skills and experience.

Why do you think your company is a particularly supportive work environment for women?

There are three key ways in which I feel RingCentral is a particularly supportive work environment for women. First, we educate all of our staff on diversity awareness, including factors like unconscious bias. Second, we have programs and groups specifically designed to support women. Third, it is an executive focus and priority to make sure that RingCentral aims to hire, retain and promote women. We also pay great attention to diversity in all of its forms, as we know the direct benefit to our company that diversity offers.

2020: The Increasingly Human Face of High Tech

Over the past couple of years, technologists have given a lot of thought to how technology communicates with its users as well as to how users communicate with technology. Communication was but the first step in a long journey of “humanizing” technology, though.

Looking ahead, I believe 2020 will be the year in which technology will evolve to craft more experiences around the way humans want to behave on specific channels, which is in contrast to how technology traditionally has expected its users to fit into predefined experiences. Some technology will show such great advancements that more human lives will be saved by its use, as in the case of robots assisting doctors in attaining greater precision during medical surgeries now.

And finally, the actual face of technology — the people using it — will become increasingly diverse and representative of society. Technology, in general, will become more human-focused.

This shift in terminology from “user” to “human” reflects the increasing personalization of the high-tech experience from the generic user to the specific (and customizable) needs of human beings. For decades, we’ve associated high tech with increasing automation.

Think of the steel industry: Where human workers once faced hazards, robots have stepped in to take on the most dangerous tasks. The same is happening in medicine, with the precision of robots aiding the precision of trained surgeons. Mazor Robotics, for example, offers technology to plan for and facilitate minimally invasive surgeries. And AI-assisted diagnostics for CT scans and X-rays are commonplace now.

The next step in the evolution of implementing high tech is to consider the human beings who are directing the robots, and other technologies, and the experiences that those employees are having. Data shows that employees are happiest when their companies transition to integrated digital solutions that offer them tools to do their jobs more efficiently.

In fact, having the right workplace technology in place will become an asset used by human resources departments to attract and retain talent, and such workplace optimization will continue to increase in importance. Whereas traditional human resources “perks” included things like free lunches and on-site gyms, the benefits realized from implementing streamlined tech solutions impact the experiences of employees far more.

As I noted in an article for HR Technologist, with features like team messaging, an integrated “home base” platform to communicate through, AI-integrated tools, integrated phone systems, and options for video interactions with co-workers and customers, the face of today’s workplace technology is becoming more human and more important.

In fact, 83% of employees our company surveyed indicated that a seamless communication platform would boost retention and encourage them to stay longer with a company. I believe HR departments increasingly will recruit around the full experience employees will have at a company — especially in regard to how humanized tech will help them to have feel-good, constructive, efficient experiences with their work.

In addition to the increased humanization of technology, more attention will be paid to what kinds of humans are making up the workplace as well. Specifically, the increasing democratization of technology will spur broad-scale social change regarding diversity and inclusion.

It’s time to ask: Is the glass ceiling finally broken for good? With every S&P 500 company now having at least one woman on the board, more and more women will emerge in leadership positions throughout industry. The Fortune 500 now has 33 female CEOs — a number that is still far too small at 6.6%, but that represents a jump from 24, or 4.8%, from 2018. I expect that number will rise more rapidly than ever in the coming years.

2020 will be an incredible year to be a human using increasingly customized technology, and it will also be an exciting time to be a human working in high tech, with more and more technology needs being anticipated and met. The coming decade will bring remarkable shifts in just how responsive and customized technology will become in response to our personal needs both at home and at work. As well, for those who historically haven’t been as represented in positions of leadership in high tech, barriers will continue to break down, and diversity, in general, will increase rapidly and markedly.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.