Female Disruptors: How Alexandra Connell of Pluma is shaking up the coaching industry

Authority Magazine
Jun 14, 2020 · 7 min read

Our focus is on scale and innovation. Becoming a full-service coaching solution for our global partners is key, so that’s where our development focus lies.

a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandra Connell.

Alexandra Connell is CEO and co-founder of Pluma. Prior to starting Pluma, Alexandra held corporate roles across several industries including technology, biotech, and investment management. Alexandra has an MBA from Harvard Business School and a BA from Princeton University. Learn more at pluma.co.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

uring my role as Chief of Staff at Solazyme, a biotech company, I found inspiration for what would ultimately become Pluma. Shortly after IPO, the company was challenged with transition and change. Senior leaders were hired from outside firms. Emerging leaders, who had brought the company to IPO, felt alienated with layers of bureaucracy added on top of them. To preserve a culture of innovation and fast failure, Solazyme needed to upskill and season its new leaders — and fast. Engagement with content learning subscriptions was limited. There was significant pushback around the inefficacy and inconvenience of workshops and seminars.

The one resource requested repeatedly was executive coaching, but this was simply too expensive and administratively cumbersome to provide at scale to those in need. From here, the idea for Pluma was born.

My co-founder, Samuel Cabral, and I set out on a path to disrupt traditional leadership development. By leveraging technology, countless interviews with L&D professionals, and a network of thought leaders at Harvard Business School, we developed a cost-effective and turnkey solution for developing leaders and creating great managers.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

Both our product and our road to market have been fairly disruptive. The Pluma platform has leveraged technology to eliminate inefficiencies in the traditional coaching market-making executive-quality coaches much more accessible to people in need. In terms of our path as an organization, we haven’t raised an institutional capital which allows my cofounder and myself to remain at the helm of our organization’s strategy and prioritize the interests of our stakeholders (employees, coaches, users, and organizational partners) at all times. It’s a pretty common narrative that enterprise tech cannot be done without venture capital investment, so I think we’re showing an alternative path. Our partners are big names like Adobe, Dropbox, & Gap Inc., so it validates that when your primary focus is on your product and relationships, you can make big things happen.

As a female CEO, I figured we were already breaking the mold in a number of other ways, so why not go all in and do business the way we thought it should be done.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

My most powerful mentors have been those around me who have allowed me to be myself while also setting strong examples of good behaviors and processes. My co-founder, Sam Cabral, has been a strong mentor to me. He sets me up for success by allowing me to go big in areas where I can add value while teaching me processes that I might not have known about. I tend to evaluate (maybe over-evaluate) everything including first principles, but my most powerful mentors have allowed me flexibility while creating boundaries — for example, ‘here is the way it’s most commonly done, unless you have a great reason to do it differently, let’s start here.’ That’s been really powerful for me because it’s helped me build confidence in myself and my unique vision and has often saved me much time where I might have unnecessarily spun my wheels.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  1. Define what success means to you and commit to it. Don’t let success be a moving target or something you’re always chasing but never catching up to. Make sure that when you get into the game, be it entrepreneurship, your career, your personal life, or all of the above, that you have a vision for what success looks like. If success is nothing but an IPO, that’s fine, but be honest with yourself and understand the tradeoffs that are inherent in any objective. I defined success for myself early on, and it’s helped me not to get distracted or go off course. If you let your definition of success be malleable or easily influenced by those around you, you’ll always be chasing something and never quite satisfied. Knowing where you’re aiming long term is a great way to ensure you get there.
  2. Don’t worry about what others are doing, focus on your business. Innovation won’t come from what your competitors are doing. Understand your differentiators and leave it at that. The key is to listen to your stakeholders to drive your product forward. If what others are doing doesn’t make sense to you, trust your judgment. You may be wrong, but it’s the best information you have, and entrepreneurship is about making the best decisions you can with the information you have available.
  3. Always get back up. There is no such thing as ‘being a failure.’ You may have failed or succeeded with a given initiative or in a given moment, but labels aren’t helpful. The most important factor in getting where you want to be is to just keep going. There have been many deals or projects that I thought would be defining moments of my life, and a few months later I realize I don’t even remember the outcome.

How are you going to shake things up next?

Our focus is on scale and innovation. Becoming a full-service coaching solution for our global partners is key, so that’s where our development focus lies.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

I was very impacted by David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. There are a number of excellent parts of the speech, but I’ll share one of my favorite excerpts here:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

In the speech, Foster Wallace aptly noted that, “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t,” and that with this power comes responsibility. To me, this is a major aspect of good leadership as well. To guide and focus your team to act with the best intentions, on what matters most, day in and day out. I like the sense of agency he argues for that we each have in our own lives, not to control the events around us, but instead, decide where to put our mental and physical energy. In many of our lives, the trivial or banal can take over and his speech is an opportunity to reflect on the various types of impact you can have, big and small.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

My hope for Pluma is for it to be part of a movement that promotes an essential human truth: it’s okay to ask for help.

That help — meaning support, thought partnership, validation and accountability — is an essential piece of our development as human beings, and that that effort is worthy of time and investment. For whatever reason, companies are often willing to accept vague demonstrations of ROI for their marketing and advertising initiatives but hold strict criteria as it relates to investing in their people. I think asking for demonstrable impact is excellent practice, but my hope is that it becomes more of an obvious given. ‘Of course it’s in our business interest to help our people become the best versions of themselves’ would be a great mantra for companies to live by.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.” — DOLLY PARTON

Because our work focuses on leaders at all levels, we see a lot of people who aren’t sure if they should be considered ‘leaders.’ Perhaps they aren’t direct people managers or they’re new to an organization, got recently promoted, or are just generally unsure of what leadership entails. I love this quote from Dolly because it summarizes really well what leadership is. It’s not tied to a title, a pay grade or a role, it’s a way of being that inspires others to be better versions of themselves.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: @pluma_inc

LinkedIn: Pluma Inc.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Authority Magazine

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Authority Magazine

In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.