Gender diversity (or lack thereof) in the corporate world has and continues to be a concern spanning decades and cutting across geographies and cultures.
Chargebee, right from the early days has been making the right moves in this regard with the founders placing a lot of emphasis on diverse representation. They recognized early on that having an equal representation of men and women brings fresher perspectives to the table and helps maintain a balanced dynamic at the workplace.
It was April 2018. All was going well. We hit a record quarter! Except when Shelley Perry, an independent board member of Chargebee and previously a Venture Partner at Insight Venture Partners looked around the office and realized there were very few women at the workplace and even fewer at the leadership table.
Although the founders had their hearts in the right place somewhere along the trajectory for growth, ideals like gender balance had gradually taken a back seat with women making up only 28% of the workforce and less than 5% of them in managerial positions. This coupled with the number of women applicants being so low with a rough 10:1 ratio, was posing to be a serious concern. There were fewer women in tech and that was a fact.
The leadership quickly regrouped and came up with some initiatives that might help increase the pool of women applicants. We needed to get women excited about Chargebee to feel motivated to apply.
First and foremost the team assessed how well the organization was positioned in terms of physical and cultural infrastructure to make it conducive for women employees. This included a back-to-work support group, flexible working hours, and training the middle and senior management on issues women may face at the workplace (Sexual Harassment Training, Unconscious Bias, etc). The team also incentivized people within the organization to refer more women.
From here on it was a Snowball effect. The team organized a women-led and women-focused hackathon in mid-2018. The goal of this hackathon was to encourage more women to come out and showcase their work, collaborate, and share ideas.
All these small but significant steps mounted to our first big win. Chargebee’s first woman leader – Arundhati Balachandran became the Director of Customer Success.
“Being the only woman at leadership huddles and strategy meetings I knew straight off this paradigm had to shift. Women bring in a different dynamic to the table in addition to diverse and novel perspectives. And we as a group need to collectively and meticulously work on achieving the optimum gender balance.”
As she started building out her team Arundhati worked relentlessly with Chargebee’s talent team to find ways to attract more women applicants. As someone who’s been actively engaged in SaaS and networking events, she grabbed every opportunity to talk to women from diverse backgrounds about Chargebee’s culture and our focus on providing equal opportunities & growth for all genders and levels trickling all the way up to the C-Suite.
What also helped was to have male leaders who supported this initiative. Vikram Bhaskaran, Senior Director of Marketing has always been conscious about growing a talented & diverse team of marketers and marketing managers. In his words:
“As someone managing a diverse team, it is important to first realize your own biases, and constantly work to get them out of the way. Within our team, this is not just expected but actually mandated.”
Nithin Rangarajan, a Senior Product Manager at Chargebee:
“As a man, it’s easy to be completely unaware of the unconscious bias women face but seeing it first hand gave me perspective. I saw my wife losing out on opportunities when she got back to work post maternity break. This stuff is real. I also appreciate how the founders have always rallied behind this right from when I started here.”
“As a manager, I want to be sensitive to everyone’s needs which is why I have created an environment in my team where it’s fair game for all and encourage both men and women to sensitize themselves to this issue.”
Early 2019 was when things started coming together; women within Chargebee pushed the boundaries and became more prominent in motivating change and sensitizing employees in the company about the importance of gender ratio and socializing the concept of the Unconscious Bias. They started questioning more and leaning in more. The change happened as more women were hired across the globe and were able to collectively understand issues concerning them!
This was an exciting time for Chargebee to build a culture that was compounded by diversity and appealed to people across the world. While this was happening we recognized another pattern emerging. We discovered that women found themselves struggling to step out there, and even talk about what they are doing.
A quote from one of the women employees:
“I worry a lot about how I am perceived, what the right things to say would be, if I am out of my place, careful about how I carry myself because, IMO, women are more judged by how they carry themselves – she is too easy, uptight, boring…”
A common thought: It could be anything ranging from social awkwardness, lack of time and priority, or even self-doubt. But on the whole, the challenges stem from self-imposed barriers, modesty in the form of underselling our values, and reluctance to benefit from the network.
Shelley Perry addressed the Women @ Chargebee in January 2020. The premise of the chat was: Networking is an unwritten rule for anyone to climb their ladder of success and a long-term career progression. Women struggle with networking. True Story. So how do we navigate this tricky maze of networking? Why is it important? How do we get ourselves out there and use our ability to question, so we can climb that ladder faster?
Some key takeaways from the talk:
- Raise your hand. It doesn’t matter if you’re 50% qualified for a big opportunity. Take it, OWN it and figure out the 50% you don’t know, on the job.
- When asking for career advice, be specific. Say “I WANT to be a board member or “I WANT to be VP- how do I get there”? If you want something, ask for it and be very specific with your ask. Don’t assume that your boss, mentor, peers etc. know what you want.
- For someone to advocate for you you need to advocate for yourself first. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and consciously create a space at the table to be able to lead fearlessly.
- Mentors are great, but it’s on you to take their advice, own it and deliver. Don’t expect solutions from your mentors. Figuring out the solution is on you. The best person who can help you is you.
- Networking and sharing your knowledge is the single best thing you can do for your career. Don’t hide behind the assumption that everyone knows what you know. Raise your hand to share your expertise and opportunities will follow.
Following this talk, a few women leaders at Chargebee started the WaC: Thursday Knowledge Sharing series. The primary goal of the series was to provide a platform for women to present their work to an audience and get comfortable with being heard. There is agreement across the globe and data to prove that “manels” (men-only panels) continue to be a thing even in the present because women hesitate to be more open with discussing their achievements.
We have had a good run with this monthly series for 5 months where women from across various functions presented to a larger audience about their career trajectories and the awesome work they’ve been doing at Chargebee. This opened the floor to many more women wanting to share their work and be part of growing this community.
This left us here – the PRESENT. Where do we go from here?
In 2020 we now have 4 women directors, 1 VP of Sales, and 10 women managers increasing the previous leadership make-up of 5% to ~15%.
- Arundhati Balachandran – Senior Director of Customer Success
- Deepa Vembu – Director of Implementations
- Lavanya Gopinath – Director of Operations
- Shakti Bharath – Director of Presales
- Josie Donnelly – VP of Sales, North America
We know this is just the beginning and there is a lot more we could do to enable the next generation of women leaders. This starts with speaking up more, sharing ideas, learning from peers, engaging with both men and women, and encouraging aspiring women leaders to move ahead with a path that’s less taken.
It’s also the time to reflect on what we as a company stand for. We are carving out a world-class product but we know it’s more than just this. We want our organization to be about creating an inclusive community, a brand that focuses on culture building as we scale and doing our part to promote excellence.
We know there’s a beautiful story waiting to be told so we believe this is the right time to extend this initiative to the larger SaaS community while keeping the focus on carving a path for women leaders across all layers (leads, managers, directors, VPs), with CXO being the sign of ultimate equilibrium.