Every woman who has a big idea she’s passionate about, owes it to herself and women around her to take a chance and chart her own path — and that doesn’t necessarily mean a start-up, it could be a corporate initiative or a non-profit.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elaina Shekhter.
Ms. Shekhter heads up EPAM’s Global Marketing and Strategy, working to integrate a variety of functions that have a material influence on the strategy, positioning, and global brand of the company. She has held a number of leadership roles within EPAM, including most recently as the Global Head of Business Development and, prior to that, as the Global Head of the Travel and Consumer Business Unit. Ms. Shekhter is an advisory board member for the MACH Alliance, a group of independent tech companies dedicated to open, best-of-breed ecosystems. She is also active in the software startup and emerging technology community, representing EPAM in its investment in the Go Philly Fund to support regional venture funding for seed and early stage companies, including as a board member of recent EPAM seed investment, SigmaLedger. Ms. Shekhter also takes a special interest in artificial intelligence and sustainability initiatives and is focused on expanding EPAM’s investment in these areas.
Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Before my career in marketing and business strategy, my original interest was in economics. I earned a degree in economic theory and political science and began working as an economist for the U.S. Department of Treasury. As my interest in data analytics and statistics grew, I wanted a faster paced career, which led me to a new path in technology (online analytical processing) and consulting at Ernst and Young and later, to helping to start one of the first digital business for Carlson Companies. Following the birth of my first daughter, I started to rethink the trajectory of my career and joined EPAM to run its first digital end-to-end engagement, moving gradually into running the global Travel and Consumer Business. That was more than 20 years ago. After wearing many different hats, I saw an opportunity to help to shape, position and communicate the Company’s global brand, as EPAM’s Chief Marketing & Strategy Officer.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I learned early in my career at EPAM to never discount the power of an outrageous goal. During the dot-com crash, EPAM, like many other tech companies, was affected. While everyone feared the impact of the crisis, we began working on a digital opportunity that was outside the Company’s comfort zone at the time — that involved not only building one of our first multidisciplinary teams, but also our first digital platform for content management. I believed we could win this new contract despite strong competition against a very well-known digital agency, and we did. Since then, we’ve proven time and again that we can push the boundaries of what’s possible and succeed. This opportunity, that seemed out of reach, changed the overall trajectory and evolution of the company and how we think about our capabilities today and what’s possible tomorrow. And it’s this sort of excitement that drives me today even though EPAM is a much bigger and public company now.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A big mistake I made when starting my career isn’t funny, but it is worth sharing. When I was a very young economist, I managed a statistician who was a Vietnam War veteran. His performance was extremely poor, and after many months of being frustrated, I finally asked him why he wasn’t delivering. It turns out he wasn’t able to do his computer modeling assignments because he had a metal plate in his head from being in the war, which would give him excruciating headaches when the computer was on. Instead of thinking he was lazy or ill-equipped, all I needed to do was spend 15 minutes asking him what was going on and provide appropriate accommodations. To this day, I constantly remind myself to listen and try to understand people before jumping to conclusions, because whatever I think is going on with someone, isn’t always the reality.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Many people over the years have helped me — some may not have even known their impact. When I was in management consulting, a senior partner tried to motivate me by sharing how the firm afforded her with two nannies. Between her and her husband, they never had to do housework or homework with their kids. Her story was meant to be a positive example of how the company supports families; however, it made me realize that this wasn’t the life I wanted. Even if all those services were made available, I didn’t want them because I found meaning in spending time with my family. I didn’t want to outsource what I held dear. Throughout my career, whenever there’s been a choice between my career or family, my family has always come first. It’s easier to make decisions with this priority in mind.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much? Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, impacted me when I first read it in college. The book uses the analogy that life is like a river. At times, it may look still and mundane, but it’s never the same twice. Although life may seem routine, you never get a chance to live the same moments again. This reminds me to be present and focus on what’s going on right now.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’m only getting started. I try to use my role at EPAM to humanize what we stand for in the world. One of my priorities is to foster an open and accepting culture. As I learned early in my career, you never know what people are going through without starting honest conversations. We miss so many beautiful moments and opportunities for innovation by putting people in a box. Mentoring is one way that I’m working to change this.
Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Historically, women have been told yes and no too many times.
“Yes, we want you to be at the table, we value your contribution as long as it’s in-line.”
“Yes, we want you to be part of the leadership team, but we want you to support and not necessarily lead.”
“Yes, we believe in you, but no, we’re not going to offer you big-shot opportunities.”
“No, we’re not going to give you more money, unless you prove that you deserve it.”
“No, we’re not going to support your business case based on your vision, we need more proof.”
This is the conflicting messaging that many women internalize — the equal yes and no’s make it difficult to commit fully. Many women also struggle with confidence issues, anxiety and giving themselves permission to fail. In my opinion, men and women are held to different standards when it comes to failing. Failure is often viewed as a positive learning experience for men where “fail fast culture” prevails in modern startups. But for women, where all you might get is one shot, there’s more pressure to be right, to be successful, to be perfect — right out of the gate. This doesn’t jive with startup culture where there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty and risk involved and where you are more likely to fail and have to recover, than to succeed on the first try. Women need more support in building fault tolerance and also, we need to internalize permission to make failure a serial entrepreneurship ‘badge of honor.’
Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?
I currently mentor and dedicate time to assisting startups. I try to help founders think ahead a year or two and envision what the organization they are building looks like. To me, the real value is in the team you build and not just the investment thesis. It’s difficult to get people to step out of their daily reality, but it’s so important to see opportunities and challenges from multiple perspectives — sometimes even ones that don’t map onto the current view.
Recently, I wrote about how women can lift each other up in the workspace, and for me, the important lesson is to recognize that no one gets to where they are on their own. People help you along the way and make room for you to experiment and learn. Women can help each other a lot, and frankly everyone can make it a point to develop more inclusive teams (real diversity of experience, of opinion, of creative intuition, of discipline vs. just topical stuff.) The first step toward this is to speak up in a constructive way vs. some arbitrary rules. At EPAM, part of my role is to facilitate more conversations and actions for fostering a more inclusive and welcoming environment where diverse backgrounds and ideas are encouraged and supported.
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Every woman who has a big idea she’s passionate about, owes it to herself and women around her to take a chance and chart her own path — and that doesn’t necessarily mean a start-up, it could be a corporate initiative or a non-profit. In a world that is challenged by difficult problems, some of which are existential for us as a species, I believe it is time for more women to give themselves permission to run with their ideas and take their rightful place. Otherwise, the world could be missing out on ideas that can change the trajectory of modern society.
Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.
- Invite more women to be senior leaders. Until there are more women on the other side of the table, discussions about equity, equality and inclusivity are only wishful thinking and marketing.
- Bridge the gap between academia and commercialization. There is a breakdown between these two points when it comes to promoting women and their contributions. More female leaders need to be included in the research and development pipeline across all industries and more need to be in the foreground on commercialization, not just supporting.
- Direct more funding to women and minority-run businesses. Traditional private equity funds and venture capital firms should direct more attention to advancing women’s leadership and investing in companies that improve the status of women in every way that matters — not just socioeconomic. Women need material status, but we need street-cred just as badly.
- Call on the government to act. Governments worldwide can play a significant role in funding research and development led by women and dedicating programs for the advancement of women in STEM in particular. If you think about every major innovation in our history — from media, to fashion to cooking — it’s ALL technology.
- Provide mentorship opportunities. Women need a safe place where they can ask for advice, talk about successes or failures, or simply vent and we need a channel for our ideas to become real. Incubators and accelerators should spend some time making themselves hospitable to women founders.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would inspire a movement dedicated to reason and to science because only with reason can we have progress. We’ve made so much progress as a global society in advancing our overall well-being, but so much more still needs to be done. We’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible. Often, what is standing in our way is our outdated narratives about how the world used to work and some permission we are looking for from somewhere above to solve important problems.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Bill Gates. I admire his views and actions to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges for the greater good of humanity. He seems to subscribe to the idea that with great power, comes great responsibility — and also he seems truly happy doing very difficult work.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.