Zuora’s Tien Tzuo and Alvina Antar on the Dynamics of Power and Diversity

By Aarthi Rayapura June 2, 2017

Christina Lesnick, IT Solutions Engineer at Zuora interviews CEO Tien Tzuo and CIO Alvina Antar

A CEO, CIO, and Engineer walk into a room and talk about diversity — sounds like the start of a bad joke, right? But what if we were readily able to have difficult conversations with powerful people?

As the Engineer in this situation, I sought to make my hypothetical situation a reality. Why did I seek this social experiment you ask? I figured if I was going to write about the dynamic between power and diversity I should challenge myself to reach outside the realm of my own perceived power. If I was going to do something that scared me, I wanted to go BIG.

That meant the interview had to be in person, no cowering behind an email alias. I had to interview people I held in high regard and thought would have a unique and genuine view on diversity. And, of course, people who intimidated me a little. I was going to ask questions that felt uncomfortable and might have messy answers but were undeniably relevant to the diversity conversation like boardroom diversity, the travel ban, and how to create a more diverse and equitable workplace.

And it was all worth it! Conducting this interview showed me that powerful people were willing participants and advocates of a common interest. I learned a lesson in how to harness the power to step out of my own way, and discuss topics I care greatly about: diversity, equality, and finding one’s purpose.

Alvina, can you talk about the Women’s breakfast panel at last year’s Subscribed conference and what we can look forward to this year at Subscribed 2017?

AA: Last year was the first year we held a breakfast panel focused on inspiring women in tech, and I was blown away. The audience and speakers were visibly moved after the conversation because these topics are personal, inspirational, and uplifting. We aimed for this to be different than other diversity panels that can be gloomy and focus on depressing statistics. Rather than dwell on the lack of progress, I wanted to provide an experience that made us hopeful.

All year, I’ve been thinking how can we top it? And I’m thrilled to have Magdalena Yesil, first investor and founding board member at Salesforce and founder of Broadway Angels lead this engaging discussion. Magdalena has just joined Zuora’s board of directors and her take on diversity is unique as an immigrant with over three decades as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor.

At the Subscribed Power Up breakfast, she’ll give us a sneak peek into her new book Power UP: How Women Succeed in the New Economy, which will be released in October 2017. We are so lucky to have her share insights and provide pragmatic advice.

We also have a powerhouse cast joining Magdalena: Jess Lee – who late last year joined Sequoia Capital as the first female US Investing Partner in its 44 year history, George Gallegos – the CEO of Jitterbit who just appointed his first female board member Kara Wilson through the Athena Alliance, a nonprofit focused on accelerating gender diversity in the boardroom, Steven Aldrich – Chief Product Officer at GoDaddy, and Dr. Caroline Simard – the Research Director at Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford. The breakfast promises to be a dynamic, memorable morning!

Tien, what’s your perspective on boardroom diversity? What are some qualities you are looking for in new board members?

TT: You see this percolating through Silicon Valley right now, the pressure from every company to add a female board member, and it’s good. The challenge in any situation is how do you balance that with finding the right person. If you wind up finding a person you compromised on, that won’t work. You have to find the intersection between fit and diversity, and that’s something we are actively seeking.

Alvina, can you talk about your relationship with the Athena Alliance and Girls In Tech and how these organizations are helping promote a more diverse world?

AA: I’ve been fortunate to be a founding member of the Athena Alliance with the goal of advancing gender diversity in the boardroom by making the connections that matter for qualified women and boards. Coco Brown, Founder & CEO Athena Alliance, has created a board journey and network of over 50+ women propelling each other to do things beyond their own expectations.

Last year, I was introduced to Adriana Gasciogne, Founder & CEO of Girls in Tech (GIT), a global nonprofit that aims to educate and empower girls around the world to pursue their passion for STEM. I was asked to speak at the Catalyst Conference and never thought sharing my personal story would be something I would tell beyond my family and friends. But it was deeply rewarding to share my personal story of passion and fearlessness in all you do!

I am also excited to establish a corporate sponsorship at Zuora with GIT. This is something that the global Zuora organization will greatly benefit from. We’ll have hackathons, pitch nights, and mentorship for young women. I’d like to see others use this opportunity to mentor, share stories of what inspired them to pursue STEM education, and what continues to fuel their journey today.

I know you have both read the article by Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg titled Are you Solving the Right Problems? The article talks about how reframing a problem can lead to more creative, effective solutions. Thus, embracing diverse teams and diverse thought can have tremendous and unexpected results. How would you frame the diversity problem?

TT: Digging deeper into the example of gender equality in the workplace, I would classify it into two buckets. First, there are a set of environmental things that are creating challenges for women in the workplace like unconscious bias. The question for us as leaders is how to be sensitive to those issues, and how to create systemic solutions that create more of an even playing field.

Second, how much of the glass ceiling is self-imposed because you grow up with certain expectations that can hold you back without you realizing it? Once you tune into it, you can see there are things our society does that causes many women to lack self-confidence. So, how can you give them the awareness and tools to overcome that?

We need to focus on how to self-empower while also tackling how to remove some of the structural issues that create biases and an uneven playing field.

AA: Diversity is a critical component to foster unique growth and ingenuity. One of the things that I get excited about in our company is the ZEO concept, which celebrates self-empowerment. At all levels of the organization, employees are empowered to drive change and find opportunities to solve problems both inside and outside their direct role. By making everyone feel like they have the power to drive change, you remove bureaucratic handcuffs and stop pointing fingers.

Our ZEO culture is defined by stories that showcase empowered individuals and teams creating great impact. There’s something special about a founder-led company with a truly visionary founder and CEO. I feel compelled to set an example as a ZEO and create teams to solve complex problems that span our organization and embrace diverse perspectives.

In the theme of employee empowerment, I know that in the past, Tien, you have talked about borrowing some of the ideas of holacracy to empower the individual. To what extent is holacracy at play at Zuora?

TT: We all grow up with some respect for hierarchy You have to respect your school teachers, the police, and others in authority And it makes sense because that is how society is run. But then you enter the workplace and you have org structures which serve a purpose but can also get in the way. So, how do you give people tools to transcend the org chart?

When we look at holacracy, going all the way can freak people out. To move fast, we need some aspect of structure, accountability, and authority. But the attraction of holacracy is the idea of self-empowerment, the idea that org structures are ephemeral, and how ultimately it’s about the ability to form high-performance teams that can tackle interesting challenges. We want to give people a language to reach across the org chart and work together. The challenge is embedding that into the day-to-day.

For example, we utilize the V2MOM process as an equalizer. During meetings, we level the playing field by gathering everyone’s written thoughts and consolidate them into one list. The person with the loudest voice may look at the list and realize it is a lone voice. We go around the room instead of putting people on the spot so everyone can chime in.

People have a natural tendency to want to go to their comfort zone and interact with people who are familiar. I’ve also noticed in conferences where people are strangers, the women cluster and men cluster don’t interact. Why is that? It seems men are uncomfortable walking up to a cluster of women — I call it the ‘bar syndrome’. How do you create a reason for men and women to mingle? At dinner events, I like to go for assigned seating to break down structural barriers and facilitate more interaction.

AA: I spent the first 17 years of my career at Dell inspired by Michael Dell’s build-to-order model, another founder-led visionary company. While leading Dell IT’s mergers and acquisitions, I was met with resounding resistance to not get sucked into the mammoth. People did not want the pace of innovation and decision making taken away and were fearful of any disruption in their acquired business. That is one of the main reasons critical acquired talent exit post-acquisition or they are left alone to ensure the IP and talent remain intact.

My initial reaction to holacracy was relief as I had seen first hand how dwelling on hierarchy crippled decision-making, speed and agility. I was really surprised when I joined Zuora at how unimportant the org chart is here. We must encourage open dialogue and sharing of perspectives without pulling rank. This must be infused across the organization early-on so that no matter how large we get, it’s just a part of our DNA.

I recently read an interesting article on Medium about Chemistry not Culture. It explores the idea that culture embraces similarities in values, while chemistry celebrates our differences bonding people together. What are your thoughts on building a company culture that embraces diversity?

TT: Culture is something that is shared. Having gone through multiple value discussions, I find that people go into them suspicious that we are divergent, and they leave realizing we have a lot more in common. You have to go through the conversation to realize that.

If you start at a company and are shown five values that you need to buy into, the process doesn’t feel participatory. You look at the best cultures, and they are told through a set of stories. Culture is not something that is set in stone, nor can it be enforced top down as ‘this is it’. It must be told through stories and have people explore what that means.

We need to create a space for that type of dialogue, and at Zuora we attempted to do that with the Z-Awesome awards, which recognizes people and teams that embody the ZEO culture. We have a discussion as to how this person or team is embodying the culture. Then we evaluate how well do these stories stick, and who remembers the stories, and which ones are persistent and stand the test of time?

The current political events are inextricably tied to the power and diversity dynamic. We are seeing at play what happens when people in power use their influence to threaten diversity like the recent travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries. Do you avoid talking about politics or other ‘touchy’ topics?

TT: As an organization, we wrestled with what to do when people were signing the petitions regarding Trump. We thought about if it made sense to get involved or not. Where we landed was that we have more trust and faith in the political system than the press gives it credit. For example, if federal laws aren’t sufficient, California will step in.

The tone in politics is getting too polarized and the way out is to start reversing the polarization. I worry that contributing to the polarization won’t help. If you really embrace diversity, you have to respect that there are people in the company that are pro this administration. We have to respect those views as well. And for us to come out as a company and take a stance might alienate parts of the organization. It made more sense for us to stay out of the political arena. We are looking for the political system to work itself out and employees to exercise their rights to participate in the political process.

Media is an important model for diversity and sets our expectations of societal norms. Has the media has been a good example of diversity? What media do you allow your children to digest?

TT: It’s a lot better than it was. Overall, Hollywood is on the leading edge of this to help promote diversity and address civil rights issues. We can give Hollywood some credit, but we have to keep the pressure on. Media is a reflection of ourselves, our desires, and perceptions over time.

With my daughter, I am pretty permissive of what media she consumes. You can’t stop it these days, it’s everywhere.

AA: My twin boys are now 8, and they hear and see all kinds of things. Rather than trying to shield them from the media, I want them to know right from wrong, and be able to make that judgement on their own. Shielding is creating ignorance around reality. Times have changed and children are exposed to so much more at such an early age. And you have to make them stronger, inherently confident and aware early on.

All three of my children speak three languages fluently – Assyrian, English, and Spanish. Diversity is an intrinsic part of their daily life as they are in a Spanish immersion program. Their education incorporates the benefits of learning a new language and the cultural exposure that comes with it. That’s been huge in helping them experience diversity in the classroom. They don’t specifically point out anyone’s differences, instead they embrace every single culture and religion around us.

Alvina, can you talk about your experiences re-entering the workplace after having children?

AA: I didn’t really re-enter, I just took a short pause and rushed back to work because I genuinely love what I do! Work is an integral part of my life and I’m happier and healthier balancing my family and my career. I wanted to be an example that you can have it all and shouldn’t have to ever settle and think you have to give up one to have the other. We have to know ourselves, our passions, and let that navigate our lives.

I also got lucky marrying someone that challenges me and has confidence in me. My husband is my biggest advocate and pushes me to take risks and follow my passion. We all need that support system to help us address the challenges we face in life. It’s difficult to sustain family life without the right partner and shared values.

I hope to be an example to my kids to follow their heart and pursue their dreams with infectious energy.

What’s your advice for others who are in a similar position of power? And for those on the other side of the power equation?

TT: People with power have a natural, human desire to help others – you want to mentor and sponsor others. But the danger is that people tend to stay within their comfort zone. So, if you leave things to their own devices, people in positions of power wind up sponsoring people more like themselves, and that’s what allows for a system of inherent bias. The first step is to be sensitive to that. Be more open minded and make decisions with that sensitivity in mind.

I’d like to see people in power sponsor or mentor a range of different people, and especially create a connection where that would not have naturally happened.

On the other end of the power spectrum, I encourage others to transcend a stereotype of themselves or a stereotype they are perpetuating of their leaders. When we make that human connection with someone, the stereotypes are stripped down. The narrative of that person replaces any preconceived ideas. Spend time with people.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, do something that makes you feel powerful. Find the courage to talk to someone you respect like I did, or tackle a project that isn’t an easy win. As you gain more confidence and power, use it to give back and empower others on their journey of discovery and purpose.

Lastly, know that to power up, you need to know when to power down. Share power with and NOT power over. Power pose to find the confidence in times of doubt. Open yourself up to the power of diversity and you’ll surely find ways to feel powerful.

Please join at this year’s Subscribed 2017 Power Up Networking Breakfast and hear our powerhouse panel of speakers!