Originally aired on July 29, 2020 @ 12:30 PM - 1:00 PM EDT
A recurring series presented by Cloudflare co-founder and COO Michelle Zatlyn, featuring interviews with women entrepreneurs and tech leaders who clearly debunk the myth that there are no women in tech.
This week's guest: Nina Bilimoria Angelo. Nina Bilimoria Angelo is Vice President of Product Marketing and Strategy at Top Hat, an education technology scale-up that helps colleges and universities improve learning outcomes using the power of technology. Prior to joining Top Hat, Nina led teams at Pearson and HP and worked with Fortune 500 companies as a management consultant. A seasoned "intrapreneur," Nina specializes in strategy creation, product conceptualization, messaging and positioning, partnership development and change management.
Women in Tech
Hello everyone. Good morning and welcome to this week's segment of Yes We Can. I'm so excited to have Nina Bilimoria Angelo join me. Good morning, Nina. Morning, Michelle. How are you? Good. Thanks so much for having me today. Excited for our chat. Oh, me too. And I love that you're joining us from Canada, Toronto, Canada. How are things in Toronto going right now? They're lovely. We're entering our phase three of reopening on Friday, so finally a little bit more freedom, but everyone's cautiously optimistic, I think. Great. Good. Well, I'm really excited to chat with you today. You've had such an interesting career, and so we'll dive right in. And for the listeners, if you have any questions, you can email them to yeswecanatCloudflare.tv, and then Nina and I will be happy to get to them. So let's go way back to when you studied at university and college. You studied international relations and economics, and then you ended up joining A.T. Kearney in consulting. How did that happen, and what do consultants do? Right. So I graduated in 2004 from a university in Silicon Valley, and there were two things that you do when you graduate in 2004. You either go into professional services like consulting or investment banking, or you go work for Google, which was just starting to take off at that point. And I said, you know what, consulting looks really interesting. It's an opportunity to kind of get the applied side of the theoretical that I studied in undergrad, and really just get a broad set of skills. And I think what consulting really allows you to do is figure out how to break down a problem, and really analyze it from its constituent parts. Start to become more of a systems thinker, and if you can start to analyze problems in different industries, in different verticals, different aspects of a business, or different functions, you can really tackle anything. So it was an opportunity to develop that business skill set, and foundational aspect of business that I didn't have at that point in my career. That's great. So while you're working in consulting at Kearney, what kind of clients did you work with? Were they tech clients, or much more diverse industries? Yeah, so I was based out of the San Francisco office, so it happened to be that a number of tech companies that were still called high tech back then, but tech companies all throughout California was really my focus. But also worked in retail, worked in manufacturing, and it was interesting to learn what the commonalities were across verticals, as well as the very specifics that were specific to technology, which is where I really developed a passion. I'm just curious if you can think back to that your first job, what were some of the similarities, and what was different, or what stood out about the tech industry as you kind of got to see this purview across many industries? Yeah, I mean, you know, I would say looking back on it in hindsight, every industry is now a tech industry. But at that point, tech was having a moment, and really thinking about how you scale change, no matter the industry that you were. So, you know, thinking about some of the clients that I worked with, they were working with individual verticals themselves, individual industries. And it was really about how do you make change at scale? How do you grow exponentially in a business that you're working with? And that's different than sort of, you know, the brick and mortar retailers that I was working with, which had, you know, inventory challenges, and you know, like actual real estate challenges, and different types of growth dynamics. One of the clients I worked for was actually Blockbuster, for those of you who remember who Blockbuster was. You know, quite the moments they were having around about 2006, to really be able to understand how they thrive, how do they survive, in an environment that was really changing because of technology. And so, it was interesting to be able to contrast those two experiences. Well, yeah. Now, 14 years later, we kind of see how that ended, which was probably different than anyone probably could have predicted. Exactly. I mean, at the end of the day, technology was able to scale in a way that, you know, your typical VHS tapes, brick and mortar rental store couldn't. Yes. Yeah. Good. Okay. So, you got to work across all these different sectors, and after, you know, working in consulting for many years, you decided to join a technology company, a large one, HP. And so, how did you make that decision, and what did you do for HP when you first joined them? Yeah. So, between my first and second year of business school, I had the opportunity to intern with HP in a really unique format, which was this concept of testing a corporate strategy unit out in the regions. So, a manager that I had actually worked with at AT Kearney was now running corporate strategy at HP and invited me to come join him as a, for my internship in Singapore. And so, that was a great opportunity to bring together my budding interests in technology, but then also my interest to get back to international, right, which is what I had studied in undergrad. So, great experience, got to work on sales strategy, growth strategy, got to travel to China and Australia, and really loved that experience, and it was kind of a stepping stone out of consulting to still being part of almost like an internal consulting team, but really being able to focus on one client, HP at the time, and its challenges, and still provided a variety of opportunities and projects to work on, which I love and thrive on, but really allowed me to be able to create some depth in my experience with one company that was huge, right, HP is 120,000 people, multiple business lines, right, multiple geographies, so it kept things interesting, that's for sure. It's amazing, 120,000 people, I mean, that's more than some people, some people's cities or towns that they live in, it is an institution. Yeah, and we felt that, for sure, right, you know, it was challenging being able to, you know, coordinate amongst business units, mature the processes within one unit, and then scale them to, you know, the rest of the business, make sure everyone is aligned, and as I've kind of moved along in my career, no matter the company size, big or small, it's that alignment piece that is really critical to bring everyone along and make sure everyone's swimming in the same direction. That really is a word close to my heart, Nina, I talk about all the same, I mean, I, you know, many times when you're building something, especially in technology companies, you're often building things that otherwise wouldn't create, it's all about getting everyone aligned and rowing in the same direction, and to me, that's, at the end of the day, what sets the great companies apart from the good companies. It's easier said than done. For sure, for sure, we spend a lot of time at that, on that, even at Top Hat, which is, you know, 400 people now, so much smaller, but it's still a challenge as a company grows. Yep, definitely, so when you were at HP, you're talking about this big company, lots of different business units, global, there was a lot of leadership changes while you were there, there were three different CEOs in the three years that you were there, and I think you said about, thank you, love it, we're live on TV if you want to say hi to everybody, but yes, yeah, there we go, okay, there we go, that was not planned, anyhow, who doesn't love a morning hug from their, from their kids, anyway, so you're there, there are three different CEOs in your time, kind of over three years at HP, I even think the first, one of your first days that you joined, there was an announcement of a leadership change, I mean, that's hard, like, what was that like, and I guess, in retrospect, what have you learned, what did you learn during that time? Yeah, I mean, it was challenging, but it was also kind of exciting, I'm a little bit of an adrenaline junkie, so that was, like, really exciting, and, you know, change is sometimes fun, right, especially in a really large corporation, I think what you learn is to be able to adapt and, and really suss out where, where focus lies, right, so Mark Hurd was the CEO when I joined HP, he was actually responsible for starting the corporate strategy function, right, and we were really essentially his henchmen, right, running around working on special projects and being able to help lift up the business, and, you know, the next CEO came in and had a totally different perspective, and it's that adaptability, that flexibility, and that active listening that you exercise as someone new comes into that kind of a position, and really trying to understand where they think the opportunity for change, for growth, for optimization is coming from, so I think it's that flexibility and adaptability that you learn under, under different regimes, if you will, and, and that continued at Pearson as well, in terms of, you know, multiple sort of leadership shifts. I wonder if some of your consulting, this, you know, when you're working in consulting, you have to get up to speed on projects so quickly, so you have a really high rate of learning, and I, in a way, a leadership change is just like a new rate of learning, you're like, okay, adaptable, gotta flex to the way where the leader goes, so there's some, there's something about the rate at which you, I think, you, you learn to learn, Nina, that, that probably has served you well under that. Yeah, and I was really surrounded by people who had that same appetite for, for learning and sort of that growth mindset, especially within the corporate strategy team. I remember the day that, that Mark Heard announced that he was leaving, we all took the day off, went to the bar, and just talked about what was going to change, right, and everyone was just so excited to be a futurist about what was going to happen at HP, and it was great to just be surrounded by people who were soaking it up and were excited to be able to figure out what direction can we head in and how can we support that direction, so surrounding yourself with folks with a growth mindset has definitely been my, my number one when I'm looking at new opportunities. That's great, that's great, so when you think back to your time at HP, what are one or two projects or initiatives that stands out that you're really proud of that you can share with the audience today? Yeah, so I think there's one that really sticks with me because it kind of set me on my journey to work in educational technology, so while I was in the corporate strategy team, we actually decided to start what was called the Emerging Markets Organization, and this wasn't focused on, you know, the brick countries, Brazil, Russia, India, China, it wasn't even the next tier of countries like Mexico, it was this small tranche of 60 countries, small countries where GDP looked like this, but our growth as a company looked like this, and that was because our strategy in those markets didn't really exist, it was fairly opportunistic, and so the idea was to create this organization that really created a structure of people, of processes, a strategy in each of these markets that allowed us to be able to capitalize on the macroeconomic growth, and as we worked on that project and got the Emerging Markets Organization up and off the ground, what was really great was then I was able to move into that organization and serve on the strategic planning team, and we just got to run all over the world, right? We went to the Philippines, and Indonesia, and Dubai, and Chile, and Colombia, just learning about where the opportunities for growth were in those markets, and one of those markets happened to be education, where ministries of education, both at the K-12 and the post-secondary level, were pouring billions of dollars into improving their infrastructure for schools and universities, both on the hardware and the software side, so the challenge at HP was education was a vertical on the side, it wasn't really a huge focus, and so we didn't have a coherent strategy, and you know, we kind of needed someone to pull that together, and I said, well education sounds cool, I'll put my hand up and try to work on this, and as I started to work on it doing strategy, and sales support, and business development, I realized I had a problem, which was that I really liked education, but I wasn't working at a company that has actually focused on education, so that actually led me to making the difficult decision to leave, but I'm very grateful to HP for giving me that opportunity to test out what ultimately ended up being the industry in which I focused my career. Yeah, no, I love this, so you know, at HP you were able to discover this sector that you love so much of, education, and then you went to an education company, Pearson, what was that like? What was that like going from a large technology company, and Pearson's large too, it's 40,000 people, but certainly more of an education company, how technical, how did technology play a role, and what was surprising to you when you joined Pearson? Yeah, I mean my biggest struggle was when I left HP, I was an expert on emerging markets education, but I didn't actually really understand our domestic market in the U.S. really well, so I had about 35 different conversations over the course of the summer just to get to know the industry better and understand where I wanted to play, and there were so many opportunities to play at the unit level, say at a school, like a charter school or something like that, or at a systems level, and I decided that, you know, I really wanted to be able to have scaled impact, so through a connection from business school, I was able to land an opportunity in the teacher education division at Pearson, which is the group that focuses on training teacher candidates for their first day in class as teachers, and there was no digital strategy to speak of. If you go into a typical, you know, teacher's college today, you won't necessarily see tons of technology driving the learning experience the way you may start to see in, say, STEM disciplines or in business disciplines, so there was a huge opportunity, right? Lots of low-hanging fruit to be able to say, how do we support the learning experience for teacher candidates? I'd say overall, Pearson, you know, was really going through a transformation, and many of the publishers, traditional publishers, continue to go through that transformation as the market accelerates its transformation from print to digital, you know, analog to really using technology in the... And so, it was pretty cool to be part of an organization that was really leading the charge in terms of the number of users they had on their technology, but obviously going through a transformation of a publisher that now played in the technology space. It's almost one of those things where, are you a technology company? Are you a publisher trying to use technology to make your business better? And those are different, whereas HP was a technology company. 100%, right? And that shift was hard for certain parts of the organization that had... I mean, what was amazing about Pearson was really learning from industry veterans, right? These were people who had been in the education space for multiple decades, really understood the nuances of the market, and that was the best part of working at a company like Pearson, was just soaking up that knowledge and really being able to analyze what's going on from a market perspective, competitor perspective, landscape perspective, in a way that you just can't learn if you're not learning it from people who've been in the space for so long. And I'm so grateful for having that experience with such experienced leaders at Pearson. That's great. Okay, so you went from this large education publisher, no name, industry experts, and then you went to a scale company. When you joined Top Hat, there was 200 people. Now you're 400. I mean, A, how'd you even find this company? What does Top Hat do? And what's the vision for the company? Yeah, so Top Hat is based here in Toronto. And I moved to Toronto with my Canadian husband, and now my Canadian children. About five years ago, I transferred with Pearson. And I moved here thinking I would be with Pearson for quite a while, but always had my eye on Top Hat. It was the one big ed tech success story so far, still growing, right? And so I had my eye on it. But at the time, the product portfolio was a little bit simple compared to, you know, it was one little piece of the broad portfolio that we had at Pearson. So I was at Pearson for about another year. Once I moved to Canada, went on mat leave for my second child. And it was like the day after he was born, the CMO from Top Hat reached out to me and wanted to have coffee. I said, I can't think about this right now. I just had a baby. So I just ignored him. Yeah, I have a few things on my plate. But about three weeks later, he reached out again. He was fairly persistent. And at that point, I was ready to have a conversation with any adult that I could. I said, okay, I'm just going to go chat with this gentleman. And started to learn a little bit more about how Top Hat's business model was evolving and how the product portfolio was expanding. At that time, you know, really moving from focus on in-class polling solution to really thinking about holistic digital courseware for inside and outside the classroom, getting into the space of interactive textbooks, different types of assessment and really growing in new and different ways. And at Pearson, everyone wants to work with the largest education company in the world. So what you do is actually hone your radar around what's a really good business model and what's not. And so I was fairly skeptical, but felt that Top Hat had something very unique in the model that they were running after. And so, you know, I hadn't worked at a startup before. I hadn't worked with Canadians before. And I'd never worked in marketing before. And so that was all new. And I'm grateful to the CMO for giving me a chance and allowing me to start the product marketing function at Top Hat. That's amazing. So at this point, you had spent so many years, 10 years of your career in strategy at all these different types of companies, mostly large companies. And then you find yourself running product marketing at a 200 person company. I mean, what was that like? And what is product marketing for our audience who maybe isn't quite aware what that means? Yeah, it was definitely an adjustment, right? You start to change the way that you look at the world and you look at your role within a company. The way I think about product marketing, and it's a little bit different depending on the company that you're working at, but product marketing is about being able to understand the intersection of the market, your products and your customers. And so it's really being able to create a feedback loop of insights and intelligence from the market, feed it into the company, to the revenue teams, to the marketing teams, to the product teams, to be able to inform where we play and how we win, really informing our strategy and our choices. And then messaging out to the world our story and our vision and our value proposition. And if you squint a little bit, product marketing is kind of the nerdy side, I'd say, of marketing, which is why I love it. It's much more analytical, you're connecting a lot of dots, trying to figure out where the competition is going, how you want to be able to position yourself amongst that competition. So it's a little bit strategy and a little bit marketing, which is what I really figured out. And I've enjoyed growing a team that's a team of people who are essentially evangelists for the company. That's what you end up being as a product marketer. And that's a really hard job to do unless you believe in the product. And every day I just saw some new features and functionality this morning and it's just salivating, right? So excited to be able to tell the world about what we can offer them and how we can impact higher education. It's amazing to be able to have a job or work at a company where you really believe in what they're doing. Like, I do think that it's a huge luxury that obviously you've created for yourself, but it does make it less of a job and more like, I really want to see this succeed. Yeah, absolutely. And there are different ways, obviously, that all of us as humans make an impact in the world. And I remember a friend saying, just donate money, right? Like make a bunch of money and just donate it. And I was like, I think that what I want to be able to do, that is certainly one way to be able to make a huge impact in the world. I think the other way is to spend your waking hours thinking about a pressing problem that gets you out of bed. And now as a mother, right? Thinking about the education system that my kids are gonna experience. What can I do? What small part can I play in improving that educational experience? That's what gets top hatters out of bed every morning. Amazing. Well, we all want you to be super successful for everybody's sake. I think that's great. So if there are people listening to this interview and they're like, wow, I'm really inspired to also get involved in helping change the education system and find ways to make it more digital forward, tech forward. What advice, like what's some trends that you've seen? Or what advice would you have people who wanna learn more about this industry? Where would be good places for them to start? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the good news is that many folks have gone through the higher educational experience or they've gone through the K-12 experience, right? So we all have sort of firsthand experience about how we would actually improve it. I went to a wonderful university, but looking at all the technology that's available that you'd be able to improve that experience makes me want to be able to contribute. You know, I think that ed tech is definitely having a moment, right? Many industries are thanks to COVID and coronavirus which has really led to a lot of upheaval. And what we're seeing is that there are a number of trends that were already taking place, but what we see is that change is slow until it's not, right? And COVID was really an accelerant in being able to force universities and colleges to think about technology differently, encouraging professors who maybe once wouldn't use technology to actually now try it out, to be able to engage their students in what otherwise feels like a lecture on Zoom, right? And really allowing students to think about what does it mean for me to take an active role in my learning? And so I think, you know, we're gonna see a lot of response. We're gonna see, you know, different colleges and universities react in different ways. And the opportunity that we have is to be able to meet them where they are, but then show them the power of actually engaging students in a new way that maybe they wouldn't have thought of had we not been going through this pandemic. That's great. Yeah, no, I do feel like COVID has really, like you said, accelerated trends that were already happening. They just, right, things that were already happening, they just sped them up in both the positive sense in this case, but also the negative sense for if you're on the other side of that. But I definitely, we are seeing something very similar. You know, as you, you know, we've been talking about so much today, which has been great. And we have about five minutes left. I do wanna talk a little bit about, you know, as a woman in technology, you spend about 14 years of your career, you kind of fell into technology, fell in love with it, and now education. And again, you're at a technology company that is helping improve education, which is amazing. Where is the industry? And I asked this to everyone who comes on yes weekend, because I really wanna hear your own words. Where is the industry, like the technology industry kind of lived up to your expectations? And maybe where has it fallen short? Yeah, I mean, I think the reason I was attracted to technology as an industry is number one, the people that I found around me that lifted my game, that allowed me to be able to think differently, the amount of innovation that's going on in the space. No matter where you are, Toronto, San Francisco, New York, Austin, right? There's just pockets of innovation that just makes you feel like you're on the cutting edge. And that technology has certainly lived up to as an industry. And I think that tech gets a bad rap from women in particular, because it's such a male dominated industry. But I would say, many of the challenges we have from a gender imbalance perspective, exist in a number of other industries. And at the same time, there are bright spots in the technology industry as well. There are still little things that happen on a daily basis that I'm sure are not unique to the tech industry. Have I noticed that sometimes I get introduced with my first name only, but my male colleagues get introduced with both their first name and last name? Or as an economics major, is it a little bit insulting when someone tells you, no, we shouldn't do that because of the opportunity cost, and then proceeds to explain the concept of opportunity cost to you for five minutes, right? And do I look at our executive team and see two tiers and the top tier is really men, and then the next tier of vice presidents is women, and not get a little frustrated, sure. But I don't think that that's specific to technology. And I think the opportunity we have in particular as women is to continue to lift each other up. And I see that happening on a regular basis all the time. Again, whether we're talking about Toronto or Austin or New York or what have you, I think that technology as an industry is starting to wake up the way that a number of other industries are going to start to in the coming years. And so I hesitate to paint with the same brush the entire technology industry, knowing that there are some bright spots and some amazing mentors that I've had in the industry that are kind of guiding me on my own path. And that's what it's about is finding your own path. Mm-hmm, yeah, no, and obviously you've done an amazing job of that. So congratulations on all your success. And Nita, I will say that, I don't know if it's your strategy background or spending time in product marketing, but that was very poetic. Poetic, yeah, well, I think that strategy is all about choices, right? And that's not me, that's Roger Martin, the father of modern strategy, saying it's about what you're going to do and what you're not going to do. And that's choice, right? And that's difficult at an individual level, it's difficult at a company level, it's difficult at an industry level, as a societal level, as we're seeing right now in terms of everything that's going on related to the pandemic. So it's all about choices we make every single day and what we choose to do and what we don't choose to do, you know? Mm-hmm, and that also is easier said than done, but very well said, yes, yeah. I'm sure you've had many conversations at Top Hat and other companies where you're like, let's do all of it. I want to do all of it, I think, and you're just like, but really, we've got to make a choice here, and I think that that also leads to good success when you can do that. Yeah, I think so. And sometimes it's about what are we going to focus on right now and what are we going to put on the back burner right now? And, you know, for example, the pandemic changed that for us. We had a list of things literally written in our strategy statement about what we're not going to do, where we're not going to play, how we're not going to win. And we look back at that list, and it changed quite a bit after the pandemic in terms of needing to enter into new markets or feeling a pull from other parts of the market or industry. And so sometimes it's about time bounding your decisions and your choices as well. Definitely, that's great. It's kind of back to where your career all started about being adaptable, right? You want to make choices, but you have to revisit things too when there's new information. All right, great. We have time for one more question. And so, you know, you're one of those folks that works at a really large company. I mean, again, HP and then Pearson, and now you're at a scale company, 200 people. There are a lot of people who work at a big tech company who are thinking, should I join an earlier stage company? And you're uniquely well positioned to share your thoughts on that. So I'd love to end by just saying what's been refreshing about that and maybe what's been harder than you expected or different than you expected that you can share with the audience. Yeah, absolutely. I think the best part about working at a somewhat smaller company is the, and it may seem cliched and obvious, but it's the agility with which you can move. Working at Pearson, for good reason, we released product twice a year to a risk-averse market that didn't want their courses messed with in the middle of a semester. But we figured out a way at Top Hat to be able to release every day, right? And it's that speed to market, that agility. We had four big product launches over like two months in the lead up after COVID. That would not have been possible at some of the larger corporations that I've worked at. And so it's that speed and pace of progress that I've really enjoyed. The one difference I'd say that I had to really work on and continue to work on is that in large companies, typically direction comes from above. And at a company like Top Hat, you are encouraged to have your own direction come from within. And so that self-motivation and that self-direction is really encouraged and sometimes creates some of the chaos, which is what makes things fun. But at the end of the day, you have to be willing to kind of make that switch and potentially roll your sleeves up a little bit more and take on a little bit more of the scope when you see a challenge or an opportunity or a gap. But if that's what excites you and if you have that self-motivation, certainly working at a company that's going through an immense amount of growth and scale gets you out of bed in the morning for sure. Definitely. Nina, this was amazing. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us today. It's so inspiring and this was really fun. So thank you to everyone for tuning in. Yes, we can at Cloudflare.tv and we'll be sharing the recording of this afterwards, Nina. So thanks so much. Thanks so much, Michelle. Appreciate it.