Felicia Curcuru Of Binti: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO
Avoid distractions and focus on the most important things, which in the early days, is finding product market fit.
As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Felicia Curcuru.
Felicia Curcuru is the Co-Founder and CEO of Binti, is a technology company that partners with state and county governments to transform child welfare with the goal of helping every child have a family. Felicia was first introduced to the world of child welfare many years ago when her sister adopted two children. Over the past 5 years, Binti has approved 40,000 families to foster and adopt children. The team is currently 75 people and growing to 150 in the coming 12 months.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My sister adopted two children and it was just a really difficult, complicated process. I did research and learned that the statistics on what happens to children within the child welfare system is really sad. There are over 400,000 children in child welfare. 50% of foster youth will be homeless at some point in their life. 50% of foster youth will have experience with the criminal justice system by the time they are 17. And the majority of sexually trafficked youth are current or former foster youth. It was clear that children growing up in child welfare don’t have a fair chance at life. It didn’t make sense to me that there is a shortage of foster and adoptive parents, the statistics on what happens to youth who age out of child welfare is so sad, and yet it’s so hard to become a foster or adoptive parent. In general, I’m really passionate about people having a fair chance at life. When there is not equal opportunity, I get upset. With this striking so close to home and impacting my family, I decided that I wanted to get involved.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Talking to families, youth and social workers is always the most interesting and rewarding part of my job. There is a youth that I met who was separated from her family when she was 7. She moved in and out of group homes. Because there is a shortage of families, many youth are placed in group homes, which are institutional care. They tend to be very traumatic places because there are so many children coming in and out, each of them having experienced really hard situations in their lives. Not surprisingly, family settings have been shown in research to be much better for children. She moved over 12 times in 6 years to different group homes, switching schools each time, which was hugely disruptive to her education. After Binti launched in her area, there were a lot more families approved, given we make it so much easier for eligible families to apply and get through the process. She was able to move from a group home to a family setting. She started doing better in school and she was much happier and calm. She also started being able to do more regular visits with her family, given she was placed in a foster family nearby. After these visits, she was able to reunify with her family of origin and she is now out of child welfare. I’m really proud that Binti is approving more families and was able to have this kind of impact on her life. We’ve now approved over 40,000 families and I’m proud that these families can have this kind of impact on children across the country.
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?
Ooh, so many mistakes! As I think back, maybe it’s too soon, but most still feel painful instead of funny! :) One of the biggest that comes to mind is that early on, I did not talk to users enough. After my sister’s experience, I jumped in to start the company and initially thought Binti would be a consumer company, building software to help families like my sister get through the foster/adoptive process. I raised a seed round and grew the team to 6 people. I realized over time that the government controls the process and so I was holding families’ hands through a process I didn’t control, and therefore, was not helping very much. I went through a painful pivot where I let the team go and my co-founder left. It got back to just me after 2.5 years. This was definitely the lowest moment at the company.
I then decided I needed to make fewer assumptions and listen more. I spent 4 months shadowing San Francisco county’s child welfare team. I spent that time watching them do their work and listening to their challenges. What I saw was that families were applying all on paper, which was very cumbersome. Social workers were using 70 column excel spreadsheets shared across large teams to track families through the process. Families were falling through the cracks and it would cause delays. Social workers cared so much and were working really hard, but they didn’t have the tools they needed to do their job effectively. That’s when things started to become clear in terms of what the challenges were to approving more families and how Binti could solve them. We built the TurboTax for child welfare — simplifying the process for eligible families by letting them apply online. We also built a user-friendly dashboard for social workers to track families through the process, track the background checks they are running, and do their social work on their mobile phone while they are out in the field.
After learning this lesson, as we build new products at Binti for other workflows in child welfare, I try to make sure we are not jumping into solutions too quickly, and are spending time listening to users and solving their problems.
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?
There are so many people who have helped shape Binti. The person that comes to mind is Allison Lacker, our CTO. Allison was Binti’s first employee after we made our pivot into govtech. I’m so grateful she has been along with me for this journey. Many people on our team say that she is the best leader they have ever worked for. She is not only very capable and competent, but she’s also very high empathy. She cares deeply about diversity and inclusion and has grown the engineering team to be a high empathy, inclusive team. You can never claim victory on this, so there are things we can improve and are always working on, but she has done an amazing job. In addition to this, I see her as my main thought partner in the company to bounce the most challenging decisions off of. I found her on LinkedIn and sent her a cold email over 5 years ago. It was the best cold email I’ve ever sent! :)
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I am really passionate about diversity and inclusion and having diversity on the executive team. It’s incredibly important to make sure you have diverse ideas at the table to most effectively solve problems. It’s also important to make sure that people of all groups feel welcome and like they belong in the company.
There have been times in my life where I could not see myself in the roles that I wanted. When I first worked at McKinsey (which I learned so much from and am so grateful for), there were no women partners in my office. Then when I was looking to start a company, there were so few other women founders (less than 10%, it was even lower when I started 8 years ago). It was very unwelcoming in both of those situations to look where I wanted to go and not see people who looked like I do. I want Binti to be a place where people can bring their full selves to work and can see themselves in the roles that they want to move toward. We are not perfect and have areas to improve but we have a number of things in place to strive to continue to improve our diversity and inclusion across the company and on the executive team.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
I think we need diverse leaders that represent the country at the top of organizations in every field. Too many decisions at the top are made without certain groups represented. A few steps that Binti does for this and we’re always interested in learning more are:
- Do a survey of how the current team self-identifies. Compare the team to the country in terms of race, gender, LGBTQ+, veteran status, age, experience with the child welfare system and more. Identify gaps that we have on our team — we do this overall for the company, specific to the exec team, and then specific to each department. Then do targeted outbound sourcing to fill in the gaps. For example, if a team is under-represented on women, we will target more women in our outbound sourcing. Or if we are under-represented on Latinx team members on a certain team, we’ll target that group. Without targeted outbound, over time, your company or specific teams will become unwelcoming to certain groups and it will become harder and harder to hire them. I learned this from Mitch and Freada Kapor at Kapor Capital, which is one of our investors. I’m so grateful we learned this early. I think all organizations should do this early in their life because it will only be harder to implement later on.
- Survey your team on if they feel they belong at the company. Ask what the company can do better to make people feel more welcome and included. Act on that feedback. If you act on the feedback, people will trust you actually care and then will continue to provide feedback. Continue this process forever :) There are always things to improve!
- Institute a culture of feedback in your organization. At Binti, we do feedback in every 1:1. We train people when they join Binti on giving and receiving feedback and we do refresher trainings on an ongoing basis. We believe that if people feel comfortable speaking up, leadership can react and continue to improve the organization. This applies to diversity and inclusion but also other areas too.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Being a CEO is very different at different stages of the company. When we were 4 people, I did all of the sales, product, much of the customer success, handled fundraising, accounting, HR and more. Every time we grow, I hand off certain things and take on other things. We’re now 75 people and my day to day mostly involves recruiting and hiring other team members (especially executives), helping our sales team partner with large state child welfare agencies, working with our executive team to develop the vision and goals for the company and making sure we have a good process to make them happen. I also do fundraising for the company, but that’s only about a month every two years.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is around mental health and health. CEOs have higher rates of mental health issues and suicide than the general population. It’s an incredible amount of pressure, it can be lonely, and there are always hard problems to solve. CEOs often work unsustainable hours for long periods of time to get their company off the ground and keep it alive over time. I think some people think because CEOs are in charge, they don’t have hardship. One of the most common reasons people fail is due to burnout. They just work too much and can’t do it anymore. I know many CEOs who have significant health problems. I’m part of a lot of CEO groups that are basically support groups where we help each other and provide emotional support. I’m working on strategies to focus more and work less hours. It feels safe to talk about these things in those groups and it’s a little scary to share it outside of those groups because it sounds like complaining from a position of privilege. I recognize being a CEO is a choice and a privilege and I wouldn’t trade it in for another job. I also recognize that many people have it a lot harder than I do in life and don’t get to that place through choice, as I have. But being a CEO can also be hard and can be challenging from a mental health perspective. Both of these things can be true!
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The most striking difference is I didn’t realize how much of my job would be recruiting as the company grows. Earlier in the company’s life, I spent a lot of time working on projects myself and moving things forward. I still work on some projects myself, but I can’t do it all, and usually that time is better spent trying to find great people who can do the job even better than I can. So I spend a decent amount of time learning about what makes a great VP of Sales, VP of Talent, VP of Customer Success, General Counsel (or whatever role we’re looking for), and then sourcing and interviewing people, and then persuading them to join us.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think most people can be an executive if they wanted to. Not everyone would enjoy it though. As an executive, a lot of your time is spent setting the direction, recruiting/hiring/onboarding new people, managing people, solving hard problems that come up. There is definitely a lot of talking and person to person interactions. I know some people who love just working on their own and not needing to have a lot of meetings. Also, some people enjoy doing things themselves vs managing others. We have some great people at Binti who we would offer manager roles if they wanted, but they really prefer to own and execute on projects themselves and don’t enjoy people management as much. Ideally there are paths in companies for senior individual contributors to continue to have paths at companies to continue to grow without getting into management.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
There are so many different variations of what a great work culture can mean. I think something that all organizations should strive for is to be a place where everyone feels welcome and can bring their full selves to work. I talked earlier about how organizations can strive to ensure their team is diverse, which is part of this.
Another way an organization can have a great culture is by being values-driven. Many organizations talk about having values but they are not top of mind day to day. We took time early at Binti to come up with our core values. We came up with 1) Put the child first (keep our mission top of mind), 2) Create love through empathy, 3) Break through walls, 4) Embrace the best idea, 5) Empower with information. We put our values into practice in many ways. One of the most important ways is that we hire by our values. We came up with questions for each of the values, and we created rubrics to make sure the questions are graded fairly across candidates with minimal bias. So everyone is interviewed and scored based on their alignment with our values. We also use it in performance reviews. Every six months, everyone is graded according to how they exemplify our values. We bring them up day to day in decision making. There are many other ways too! People often say when they join Binti that they have not seen an organization live by their values to the degree that we do.
Lastly, I want to share that while I’m super passionate about this topic and proud of what Binti has done to date to be values driven and inclusive, I know we still have so many things we can improve and we need to continuously learn and improve going forward!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I feel really lucky that I get to work on a mission that I’m so passionate about as my job. If we’re successful at Binti, more children will have safe, loving families and have a more fair chance at life. That is very motivating and fulfilling. Aside from my day to day, I also spent a lot of time supporting other women to start companies. As part of All Raise, which is a non-profit focused on helping more women succeed in venture capital and entrepreneurship, I have co-founded a few initiatives supporting women founders. I co-founded Female Founder Office Hours, which has given over 1,000 office hours to women starting companies from more experienced women founders. I also launched a seed fundraising bootcamp that has a curriculum on how to raise your round of funding to start a company. It’s taught by experienced women founders and VC and hundreds of women have gone through it. I also launched an initiative helping women connect to investors. I want to use my initial success at Binti to help other women and underrepresented minorities start companies as well. I think a world with a more diverse set of leaders would be a better place.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
There are so many more than 5! Here are the top 5 that come to mind:
- Work on something you are passionate about.
When I first decided to start a company, I just started working on the first idea that came to mind, which was actually a gifting startup. I worked on it for six months and it wasn’t working well. I realized I’d either have to pivot it or ditch it. I did some reflection and realized, I’m not passionate about gifting and when things got hard, I just didn’t care enough. I decided to move on. I joined an early stage startup to learn for a while. Then when I felt ready to start another company, I made a list of the problems that I cared about the most in the world. Many of them did not seem like potential venture capital backed startups. The top one on the list was helping children have stable families (due to personal connection in my family). There were also things such as women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and more. I started at the top and challenged myself to think of how I could solve that problem and I’m super grateful that I get to work on it every day. Startups are hard, and if you don’t care enough about what you’re working on, you’re not going to get through the hardest times. When things have gotten hard at Binti, I’ve been able to persist through them because I care so much.
- Prioritize taking care of yourself
Starting a company is hard and it can take everything from you if you let it. There is always more to do. It’s important to take care of yourself. When I first started Binti, I put everything in and did not have enough balance. There was one point where I was not sleeping enough, I was not exercising regularly, I was not taking any days off (even on the weekend) and I was frequently feeling dizzy and didn’t know why. My family happened to be coming out for a visit and when they saw me, they had an intervention and told me I needed to start taking care of myself. I went to the doctor and it turns out I had vertigo, which they treated me for. I started prioritizing sleep, working out, and taking at least one day off on the weekend. I do think that starting a company requires a lot of hours of work, but I do think there is a balance to making sure you are taking care of yourself, physically and mentally. I’m still not perfect at this. I go through periods where I have good balance and then periods where I am less balanced. It’s a constant thing that I have to keep working on.
- Surround yourself with other CEOs for tactical and emotional support
Starting a company can be very lonely, especially when it’s just you at the beginning, but also later on. You are going to work long hours and encounter a lot of challenges. Many challenges are the same across companies, for example, how to recruit and hire your first employees, how to fundraise, etc. You don’t need to learn them all from scratch. You can learn from what others have done that has worked and what they have tried that has failed. It’s also very helpful to talk to other CEOs for emotional support as you go through hard challenges because they can empathize with them. Surrounding myself with other CEOs that are a step or a few steps further than me has been incredibly helpful in my journey.
- Avoid distractions and focus on the most important things, which in the early days, is finding product market fit
In the early days, nothing matters except talking to customers, understanding their needs and finding product market fit. There are a lot of distractions when running a company. It’s easy to get distracted and to “play running a startup”. You can go to conferences, focus on hiring people before you really are ready, and try to market your product before it’s good. There are so many ways to feel busy and productive. However, until you have a product that people love, you really should not focus on anything else. Once you have that, then focus on scaling your users and scaling your team to support that. I definitely fell into a number of these early on. I grew our team to 6 people before we had product market fit. As mentioned earlier, I had to let the whole team go when we pivoted, which was very painful. I wish I had focused on finding product market fit and only scaled once we had it.
- Listen to users and don’t make assumptions
It’s a very common mistake when starting a company to get excited about a solution and start building it. I made this mistake myself. I thought I knew what people wanted and went down that path. It was very humbling for me when things did not work. I had to let go of the team, my co-founder left and it got back to just me after 2.5 years. I then spent the time to actually understand the root of the problem. I shadowed social workers for four months to understand their workflows and challenges, then built software to solve those problems. As we build new products, I try to keep this in mind going forward. I see so many startups doing this. They get excited about a solution and start running with it. Please learn from my mistake and don’t make assumptions but instead spend time understanding the problem and talking to users, and then build things to solve their problems.
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.
Something I’m super passionate about is people working on what they love and they are good at. I think many people spend their lives working on things they don’t love and that does not play to their strengths. Can you even imagine a world where everyone was working on their passion and what they are best at? It would be an inspiring world. There are so many obstacles to this happening. I’m working on one of those obstacles which is that if someone grows up in child welfare, without a stable family, they have a less fair chance at life. If more people have stable families, they will have a better shot. There are many other obstacles as well. I’d love for more people to take on tackling other pieces of this puzzle to unlock everyone’s full potential to lead the life they want to live.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Ooh I have so many quotes that I love! One that I love so much is “Be the change you want to see in the world.” We can each start with ourselves, working toward things we think will make the world a better place.
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.
Oprah! She is a badass and an inspiration, both as a self made woman entrepreneur as well as an example of being a vulnerable leader.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.