Unfiltered: #ChooseToChallenge with Shanaz Hemmati
Womenflare is celebrating International Women's Day, a global day commemorating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women, by kicking off Women's Empowerment Month in March!
Join us to hear the insights and experiences of women in all stages on their journey, as they share with us how they #choosetochallenge and help create an inclusive and equitable world.
Guest: Shanaz Hemmati, COO and Founder, ZenBusiness
Shanaz is the Co-Founder & Chief Operating Officer at ZenBusiness, where she keeps the company moving forward and running smoothly, by leading everything from facilities, to human resources, to finance, to Product and Technology.
She has more than 30 years of experience in technology and was previously the Global VP of Technology at HomeAway (NASDAQ:AWAY), where she led a global team responsible for data infrastructure and engineering, data tools and products, data science, analytics, CRM and ERP systems. She was at HomeAway during the early days, through the IPO, and then the acquisition by Expedia (NASDAQ:EXPE).
Shanaz loves solving problems using technology. She also loves to travel, try new restaurants and good wines, and has a passion for fashion!
Hello, Cloudflare TV and happy Women's Empowerment Month. My name is Tracye Shaw and I am Cloudflare's Austin sales leader.
We are excited about this special Choose to Challenge edition of Unfiltered.
It's brought to you by Womenflare, Cloudflare's employee resource group, the mission of which is to inspire and elevate all who identify as women.
In celebrating this month, Womenflare is hosting episodes of Unfiltered throughout March, where we'll be chatting with inspirational women about their insights and experiences and sharing how they forge a more inclusive and equitable world.
So without further ado, I'd like to introduce my guest, Shanaz Hamadi, co-founder and chief operating officer at Zen Business.
Shanaz, can you tell everyone more about yourself and what you do?
Of course. Hello, everyone. Hi, Tracye.
And thank you so much again for having me here. It's a great pleasure to see you again, Tracye, after a few years.
I'm really excited to have you. Thank you. You already introduced me.
I'm Shanaz Hamadi. I have over 30 years of experience in technology.
I've lived in Austin for over 40 years. So I'm an Austinite and maybe like a Texan.
I graduated from UT. As soon after I graduated, I realized that how much I love problem solving through technology and software development.
And that's where I started my career.
And at some point during my career, I decided to start enjoying the dot-com, during the dot -com boom, actually.
And that was one of the greatest decisions I made because I totally love the culture and what you can accomplish in a short period of time.
And that you get to wear many hats. You know everybody at the company.
So making a long story short, at some point during my career, I met my colleague and my friend and our CEO at Zen Business, Ross Berdorf at the company.
That was over 20 years ago. And the great thing about this relationship was that anytime Ross went and joined any company, he called me up and he asked me to go join him.
And, you know, I did in most cases. And one of those cases, of course, was HomeAway, where I had the best part of my journey, you know, as far as my career is concerned.
You know, when I first joined HomeAway, it was before the one year anniversary where there were only maybe 30 to 40 people at the company.
And I got to start kind of the data side, a piece of the technology.
And then through the 11 years of my life there, you know, I had the opportunity and the pleasure of building an organization and supporting many different teams at the company.
And, you know, the whole experience of going through IPO, you know, and then getting acquired by Expedia, acquiring more than like 25 companies, you know, while we were growing HomeAway, all of that gave me a lot of learnings and great experience.
And of course, in that journey, I met such an amazing group of people.
So all of that, you know, helped me with what I'm doing today, you know, which I started about four years ago with a few other colleagues, companies called Zen Business.
We are here to support and enable anybody that has an idea and wants to start their own company and their business.
We know by the service we've done, people look at that as they're changing their lives by doing so.
So we're here to help everyone change their lives. And there is a great enjoyment in that for me.
So we are a platform, you know, not only we help you to start your company, by all the steps, everything that states require you to do when you're creating your LLC or corporation, and providing all the compliance and support that needed throughout time in keeping your company in a good standing.
We also have other products and services that help you along the way as you're trying to manage and grow your company.
And those services are, you know, anything from like creating a bank account.
And these are all like, we apply a lot of technology everywhere.
And our goal is to always make things really easy and simple and keep it cost effective because we know these people are just starting, you know, their business.
So again, we wanna be helping them growing and being successful.
And as a part of the services, again, like creating your website, getting your domain name, you know, getting a business license report, getting a business document library.
You know, we constantly do surveys with our customers and we rank what they like to see next as a part of the platform.
And that's how we decide what to go build and keep on adding to our platform.
Yeah, I think that's awesome because, you know, that type of company ends up empowering women just as much as anything else could because you are basically lowering barriers that would prevent a lot of women from going into business for themselves.
I think that's great.
Correct, and that's a big factor in what we do too because there is a huge percentage of our customers that fall into, you know, the more diverse group of people.
Yeah, that's awesome. So talk to me more about the skills that you needed to be successful as an executive, for example, at HomeAway and then shift to being a founder.
What do you think are the skills that allowed you to move back and forth like that?
I would say, it's a great question. I would say, you know, being resourcefulness, right?
And, you know, getting stuff done. Like I've always been, you know, a big thing for me is like, let's get stuff done.
You know, we can't wait forever.
And that's what's helpful in growing a company, especially when you're just starting and it's pretty small.
You need to be able to get things done very quickly.
Being able to wear many hats at the same time. I actually enjoy that at times.
Like, you know, that gives me the challenge that I love and it gives me, it makes it interesting for me.
Does that play into why you became COO? Because as a COO, you do everything.
Yes, I think so, definitely. And then I think willing to learn and have the ability to learn, right?
I don't know everything. Nobody knows everything, but I think a big factor is that you're always willing to learn.
And as long as you're doing that, you know, you'll be able to do it.
The one thing that I sometimes like give myself a pat on the back is I feel like I'm very skillful at hiring amazing people that are smarter than me and can help me and can help the company to get to the next level.
And that's been a big factor for me. And the other thing to me, which is super important is passion.
You know, having that passion, you know, it's, and in this case with, for example, Zen Business, I am super passionate about small businesses and I have a lot of admiration for people who have an idea and who want to go try it out and test it out and change their life.
All of that I think is what has helped me.
That's fantastic. So what are kind of the principles you've used to guide your career?
You've talked a little bit about the, you've talked about the skills, but what are the principles you live by with your career and that you've, maybe they've changed over the years, maybe they're the same, but what are those principles that you live by?
That's one thing that has never changed for me.
And that's my, always my advice to, especially like younger generations is loving what you do.
To me, it is super important to truly enjoy and love what you do.
It makes you happy, right? And that is a big factor in your career and in your success.
That, you know, my other thing is like, I can do anything if I put my mind to it.
You know? Yeah, yeah, determination. Yeah, I love it.
Yes, yes. And like having high standards in whatever task that I work on, you know, the goal should be like, how can I produce the best result, right?
Because I value what I do and I have high standards and I have high expectations of myself.
So, I mean, that basically, and the other thing is always taking like inconveniences and maybe what we call failures as learning experiences.
Yeah, opportunity, right?
Yeah. Applied in the future, you know, just big learnings and you can always use that in the future.
I couldn't agree more. I think every failure I've had has made me better or has actually created an opportunity somewhere else that I wouldn't have seen if I hadn't had that mistake.
So, speaking of that, so have you managed or taken risk in your career?
I guess we're taking risks every day, right?
True. As in life overall, not only in career. I would say one of my biggest risks that have actually worked out for the best for me is when I left my, you know, seven year or like, over seven years of being in a position with the state, right?
Which, you know, is a very secure job right? And, you know, you get a lot of benefits and then at that time during the dot-com boom, moving into startups.
But again, that was one of the best risks that I took because I realized how much I love the smaller company cultures and then what you can accomplish in a shorter period of time, you know, in a smaller company compared to bigger entities.
I think at times, like maybe like other risks that I can think about are like signing up for more responsibilities and ownerships, even in cases that I didn't know much about that area and what I was gonna be owning.
And it's also like always, I personally always believe in, or I've always practiced this, like asking questions and voicing my opinions, right?
So to me, people would say, it's so important to be able to voice your opinions.
And I had taken many, at many times, I've taken the risk of questioning and voicing my opinions.
And, you know, and that always has to do with who you are in a conversation with because not everybody welcomes that or not everybody will like it, especially if it comes from people that are in lower rankings, right?
Because sometimes like people in leadership just wanna hear a yes ma'am or a yes sir, right?
Rather than any disagreement or any other opinions.
Luckily, I never got fired over doing that, so.
Yeah, but you know, I think that curiosity and that confidence in your abilities is important because, you know, I can see in some of the people that I manage that they aren't necessarily comfortable voicing an opinion or agreeing with me necessarily.
And I actually want that in the leaders that work for me because I want them to challenge the idea, challenge whether or not this is the right thing to do because I think that kind of combustion of ideas and thoughts is what creates the best way forward.
So I think- Oh yeah, I can't agree more. Yeah, yeah, I wish actually they would probably challenge me more, you know, to make sure I'm thinking about things in a way that, you know, makes sense and is best for the company or for the team.
So let me ask you this, have you had to make any trade-offs in order to be successful in your career?
I would, on trade-offs, I would say I've had to work very hard, right?
And in my case also, it's for different reasons, right?
Part of it is like, I am very detail-oriented person, you know, as I mentioned before, too always wanting to produce like the best result.
So that like many times ended up spending more time at work.
You know, so, you know, the trade -off for me always being, oh, kind of a taking away from like my personal time off and applying it to work.
Also, you know, for the longest time, like I didn't know how to say no and I wanted to keep like everybody happy.
So, which forced me to then again, spend like longer hours.
So I would say, you know, that's been kind of what I consider like what I had to trade off.
Yeah, I don't think there's ever a work-life balance.
I think it's more like work-life harmony where you figure out what works for you and it may not be the same as someone else.
That's true. So on the opposite end of that spectrum, what are the things that you feel like are non -negotiable for you?
Those are the things that you absolutely will not give up or will not change.
Yeah, that's a great question. One thing that's always been kind of at the top of my list is commute time, right?
One of my kind of my personal like rules always was I never wanna take on a job that takes more than 30 minutes for me to commute to the office because I always felt like spending too much time just on the commute side is almost like I'm wasting so much time.
Lost time. Yeah, even though like at times, like I probably use that extra time to work, but I preferred that because I felt like I'm accomplishing something rather than trying to spend it in commuting.
Of course, like to me, any family or health issues takes priority and takes over everything at the moment and when it happens.
And the other thing that basically keeps me energized and going at all times, I am a kind of very social person.
So my social life is important and I try to fit it in as much as possible at any time during even my career, regardless of how busy I was or how much time I was spending working, I always built in the social activities that really got me going.
Yeah, to energize you. Yeah. Yeah. So, looking back at your career so far, what is the most powerful leadership moment you've experienced?
So one of those moments that was meant a lot to me, because as a leader, sometimes you don't know if you're doing the right thing or making the right decision, right?
So this had to do with at a previous job, with one of my direct reports that of course, like my goal always is to help with the success of others.
But in this case, through my observations and through what was happening, I decided that this person would be a much better fit at a different role and position, which was still within the same company, same organization, right?
But it was very different.
So he was not really keen about it at the beginning, but very shortly, in a matter of just a couple of months, he actually walked into my office one day and he was showing me so much gratitude and appreciation because he was super happy with what he was doing.
And he was really at that point, as much as like maybe two months before that, he was thinking that maybe I'm not positioning him correctly that he thought that I had actually positioned him really well to be successful.
So that I can never forget just that conversation because that was like the greatest joy I could get from like doing so.
I understand that. I think the best leaders I've had have been the folks who have really gone out of their way to make sure that my skills were able to develop and that they were developing me and that they were investing in me.
And I think that's a good example of that. Because really our job as leaders is to make other people better, in a way that puts in place.
So I think I can see why he would be grateful. That would be life -changing to switch a role like that and have that kind of success.
So, you've been in a variety of different environments, but what are you doing at Zim Business to foster a culture of inclusivity?
What does that look like? Yeah, that's very dear and near to my heart.
And as one of the founders of the company and it's great to be in that position too, because then you can drive, you can drive certain goals and get everybody to participate and work on what's important, like what's important to the company and to the people.
So from the very beginning, one of our goals was like to build a diverse culture and hire people with different background and experiences.
And as you mentioned already, like that is what makes a company successful, right?
That is what is it just...
And we're realizing, everybody's seeing and realizing the difference when they actually take such a path.
So we actually have like a DEI diversity, equity and inclusion committee at the company.
Oh, that's awesome.
Like really early last, yes. So that's like having and doing those things puts just more emphasis of how much I care about this and business.
Also, we take employees feedback very seriously.
We think that that is super important and there are different ways that we do that.
One of the ways we actually track our employee net promoter score, we send a survey out once a month, you know, we don't even like wait for a quarter or for a year, we do it once a month.
We have one of our KPIs is our goal around what we want our employee net promoter score to be.
And yes, and as also as a part of, and it's an anonymous survey, it's actually done by a third party.
So, you know, we keep it so that people feel comfortable about, you know, providing their feedback.
And we always have like an open end comment field where they can provide, you know, any feedback that they have, any questions, any issues that might exist that they need to pay attention to.
So I think that's one of the big things that have truly helped us a lot, you know, especially like with pandemic, everybody's working remotely, one way that you can learn more about, you know, how everybody's feeling, right?
And we take those like comments very seriously.
We do kind of a review and we'll just take away what we need to go pay attention to or maybe dig into a little bit more, right?
There are cases that it could be a little vague.
So then in the next survey, we send additional questions to learn more.
Also like transparency, I think is pretty important.
We are very transparent. It's in business. We actually have a company meeting once a week and it's 30 minutes.
We do not want it to be more than 30 minutes because we want everybody to make the time to attend.
And that is where we share the latest updates from across the company with the whole company, whether it's financials, whether it's, you know, about our products, you know, customer support and services, human resources, that just gives us a platform to do that.
And everybody loves, like anybody that I ever talked to, they just love, love that meeting.
They feel like they take, they get a lot from that meeting. The other things we do is like engagement, right?
Employee engagement is really important. One of the ways we do that, actually we're talking before this about like kind of being remote and stuff.
We do it through an app in Slack. It's actually called Donut Coffee.
I don't know if you're familiar with it. I have, I used that once.
Oh, cool. It's here, but I love it. And it's the one that randomly matches you with people around the company.
I love it, yes. Yes, I think, especially as we grew a lot, you know, since last year and with all of us remote, you know, we don't have that like one-on-one meetings, like you can't schedule, but this kind of, it gives randomly, you know, pairs people together.
And then it makes sure that it doesn't schedule you with the same person.
And it does it across like company or across different organizations and teams.
So people get to learn what others do and build relationships because, you know, building relationships, you know, across the company is an important factor too.
Yeah, you know, it's funny, because I was going to ask you about that because y'all have gone, I think a year and a half or so ago, it was like maybe 20 people and now you're way over a hundred, aren't you?
Like it's grown a lot.
Yes, we have in a short period of time. So I am just so humbled with the team at Zen Business that has done, it's been a big growth over a short period of time.
And through that growth, we've hired such an amazing group of people and it's just so great to be in this position to be able to get people joining us and doing the right thing for our customers, of course.
Like we require more customers every day, you know, we really care about providing the best support to our customers.
So having this opportunity of the growth it's been really amazing and great for us.
That's awesome. So I have just a couple more questions for you.
And this one is really more related to Women's Empowerment Month. You know, what does gender equity or gender equality look like for you?
Yeah. So to me, it's the fair treatment of everyone.
You know, when it comes to the rights, benefits, opportunities, right?
Again, I mentioned this before is that everyone can express their opinion and they're being heard.
Yes. You know, I love this quote that I read somewhere was, you know, it's not just about inviting someone to a party it's also inviting them to dance.
Yes. And because I love party and dancing so much, I love that quote.
Yeah, that's a great way to think of it. You know, it just truly makes so much sense is like, it's not just a matter of meeting a quota or a number.
It's a matter of truly leveraging those opinions that come from different background and experiences.
Yeah. I wholeheartedly agree with you. We were talking earlier.
That was one of the issues sometimes that I have with saying, you know, underrepresented group.
I don't feel like we're underrepresented so much as traditionally excluded.
So for me, it is also about inclusion and not just inviting someone to have dinner but inviting them into the conversation and sharing your meal and sharing your culture and your thoughts and them being able to do the same.
Yeah, so last question. This month is all about choosing to challenge. What is the ways you're thinking about challenging either yourself, your environment or maybe even just the status quo?
What does your challenge look like? That's a great question.
I would say like you just mentioned the two challenging the status quo, right?
I think with my goal, like when it comes, for example to expanding the company and the hiring, it's challenging the same way that people maybe always go about it, right?
Asking questions to making sure that they have thought about things differently, right?
Or they're thinking about it differently rather than thinking about it the same as they have always had.
It's just kind of a things that maybe we've understood or learned as being the norm.
Maybe it's really not the norm.
So let's like think about them and let's ask questions and let's challenge again what we think is the norm or we always thought is the right thing to do because it might not be the right thing to do.
Oh yeah, I can still relate to that.
I'm relatively new to Cloudflare, but I think part of my job is really to just ask questions about what we do because sometimes you'll uncover something we're doing that maybe isn't quite right, but we're just doing it because no one bothered to ask why we're doing it or why we're doing it a specific way.
I think for me this month and going forward really cause I don't want it to just be about this month but I'm really trying to challenge myself to look outside of my work world to influence more because if I honestly look at myself, I know that most of the influence I have has been through my work, but I don't reach out to that broader community and I don't make myself uncomfortable.
So doing things like this where I'm reaching out to people I know and really trying to connect I think is part of the way that I'm trying to challenge myself, but it's a work in progress for me.
Right. That's awesome. I love that. Yeah. So, you know, if you had one last thing you really wanted to say about Women's Empowerment Month or one idea that you want people to take away, what do you, what would that be for you?
Oh yeah. Yeah. As a woman, especially, you know, be fearless and know that again, like if you put your mind to it and if you want to do it, you can do it and ask questions, right?
Challenge, you said it, like challenge, challenges. Yeah, no, I love that.
Be fearless is great. I don't think you can ever really go wrong with that.
You know, yeah. I don't have a single thing to add to that. I think that stands on its own, right?
Thank you. That's good, yeah. Yeah. Well, Shanaz, thank you so much.
My pleasure. For coming and chatting with me today. I really enjoyed it.
I hadn't seen you in a while and I had the pleasure of knowing you at HomeAway.
So I've seen your work up close and I really hope everything with Zim Business is going well.
Give my regards to Ross and to Christian. I think he's over there too now.
I am rooting for you guys. It's a phenomenal business and I think the work you're doing for entrepreneurs is really important.
Thank you. Thank you, Tracy, so much.
Thanks again for having me. Pleasure was all mine and best wishes with what you're doing and everything that Cloudflare is doing.
Say hi to Serisha and everybody else that I know at Cloudflare.