How Jen Grant of Appify Tackles The Extreme Work Life Balance Of Being A Woman Business Leader During Covid-19
We all appreciate nature a LOT more. Have you noticed all those people biking and hiking and being out in nature? When all the craziness of school, events, work, socialization was put on hold, we all remembered how lovely it is to just be outside. I deeply hope that this renewed love of the outdoors will continue on in everyone’s lives even as we get back to work and back to normal.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place.
As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jen Grant.
Jen Grant is the CEO of Appify, the fast-growing no-code platform for enterprise apps. Jen has spent the last 15 years building companies from the ground-up and taking multiple companies, which include Looker, Elastic and Box to billion-dollar-plus exits. She holds an MBA from Wharton and a BA from Princeton and currently lives in the Bay Area with her husband and 4 children.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Absolutely. Believe it or not, I graduated from college thinking I wanted to be an actress and ended up spending a year traveling with a children’s theater company that performed and ran workshops for elementary school children. I had decided to take this path because the previous two summers I had run the Princeton Summer Theater program along with a group of students and loved every minute of it. Very quickly, however, in my first year out of school, I realized it wasn’t the acting that I had loved, it was the combination of creativity and business that had made those summers so special. That was the insight that led me to Oracle, business school, marketing and ultimately to Google where I fell in love with what technology can do to help people and change the world. In my four years at Google I led the Google Apps EDU, Gmail and Book Search marketing teams working with amazing and passionate people. When Google got a bit larger, I joined Aaron Levie at Box when it was just 30 or so employees and grew Box from a small start-up to an industry-leading enterprise content company with a $1.7B IPO in 2015. I led the rebrand of Elastic and built the marketing team that later took the company public for $2.4B in 2018. Then as CMO, I led Looker’s marketing through its $2.6B acquisition by Google in 2019. It was at this point that I met Hari Subramanian at Appify (formerly Turbo Systems) and knew it was time for me to take the leap into the CEO seat. It was clear that we have the perfect complimentary skills — while scaling is my superpower, building amazing, scalable products is his. So, we joined up to build the next billion-dollar company. I saw the product, its platform and extensibility, and met some of the customers who are championing the product already, and it was clear that this was the company for me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?
I would say my first month at Appify was the craziest, as I came onboard as a first-time CEO in March 2020 right as a global pandemic hit. Within my first 30 days as CEO I had to shift the entire company to operate virtually, onboard from my house, and meet and create relationships with my team without ever actually meeting many of them in-person. I also needed to continue meeting with VCs virtually in order to secure additional fundraising in a completely different landscape, while at the same time having all four of my kids and my husband at home with me. Zoom is a funny thing because you can only see what is behind a person, you can’t see what is happening all around them. During those early months, I remember pitching the partnership at Mayfield, at the time, probably the most important pitch I would be making. I was standing in a small corner of the room where the light was better, my laptop balanced on a stack of boxes, and one of my daughters, at least twice, came up and tried to ask me a question about whether she could go outside. All while I was presenting and convincing them of the huge potential of Appify.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We have a few new products launching mid-October and later at the end of the year that I am really excited about. These will ultimately help companies of all sizes launch new apps in minutes to automate critical tasks and serve their customers better. At Appify, we are helping businesses across all industries create better apps for their business needs. No-code apps are the next wave for enterprise technology and will unlock the benefits that only large enterprises were able to enjoy up until now. Every employee should have the tools they need to be efficient and more productive. In surveys it shows the 42% of mobile workers time is spent on administrative tasks — that’s crazy high! And think of all the time those people could have put towards doing the work they were actually hired to do? I think it’s critical in this day and age that we give everyone tools that make their jobs easier and allow them to go home to their families refreshed and happy instead of frustrated. That’s what Appify is about.
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 in my life that have supported me and given me a boost when I needed it that it is hard to come up with just one. And given that we’re talking about both work and life balance I’m going to cheat a little bit and share more than one. In my working life, there is a group of Box women who have supported me throughout my career. I’ve hired some of them, attempted to hire others, gotten opportunities for my own career through this group, but more importantly, leaned on them when things got frustrating and hard. As a woman executive, there can be days where you must find people who will let you vent at how frustrating it is to be ignored, talked over, and generally dismissed. They get it and we are there for each other — to lift each other up when we need it. On the home front, as a mom, it would have been impossible for me to succeed without support at home. I am incredibly fortunate to have a supportive husband who is always cheerleading my career along — and my parents living nearby. I am so lucky that they enjoy driving the kids to activities, spending time with them after school, and being there when I must travel. I am always thankful that they are the type of people who want to be involved, who want to help and are thrilled to develop these deeper relationships with their grandchildren. I would not be where I am today without them.
The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?
This pandemic has affected every aspect of my life, as I know it has for millions of people across the country. As a mom, I have watched how my kids have struggled to adjust to online schooling and the lack of social connections with their friends. When I jump online for my own meetings, I can’t help them figure out what their next class is and where the zoom link is located. They’ve had to figure out their own day with the resources that the schools are providing which sometimes are very confusing (Google Classroom I’m looking at you). We’ve talked about the anxiety that comes from seeing yourself in a video all day long. They’ve all experienced different levels of depression and mental health challenges being in their rooms all day, losing motivation, and losing the ability to focus. We used to restrict screen time, but now, after school, the only way they can connect with their friends is playing games online like Among Us, Jack Box, or Animal Crossing. It is even more difficult because the help that my parents always have given, had to stop in order to protect them as they are more vulnerable to this virus. Everything about our lives has fundamentally changed and I worry about how this will affect their future. What will this pandemic, and our country’s inability to contain it, do to our kids as they become adults?
Now pair all that worry with also having to run a company. I don’t just have these four kids to think about, I have the jobs and futures of 45+ people to protect. And yes, there are times when I get angry that most men do not have to contend with these same worries. I have been an executive for a long time and have watched as I am the only one asking for the meeting to start at 9am instead of 8am, asking for the offsite to be scheduled when I can be away from my kids or not miss a game or a performance. I know that most of these executives have wives at home who are handling the family business, and it can be frustrating sometimes to think about how ‘unfair’ that is. But after I take a moment for my mini-pity party, I remind myself that I love being deeply involved with my kids and I love being there for them. And I love building a business, inspiring employees, watching them grow and be successful in their own careers. This is — and has always been — my choice. And in this pandemic moment, it just requires a bit more of me to get it done.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I focus on putting one foot in front of the other. You can’t solve all the problems all at once — and the big problems are never solved overnight. In my family, we started with building structure to the day. Breakfast together, then off to our various rooms for our zooming, then lunch together too. Making sure these kids eat healthy is ridiculously hard but rewarding. Some schools have made even schedules difficult by all having different lunch times and start times, but I now have a printed calendar on my wall so I know where the kids need to be and when they should come up for air to have a meal. We also spent a lot more time creating a good working space for each person in the house. Some of their chairs weren’t comfortable. The lighting in their rooms didn’t work well for zoom. They didn’t have headphones. Pencils, pens, paper, calculators… We did everything we could to make them feel organized and ready to take on learning. After my husband spent the summer working in the garage, his Dad agreed to help him build an office in the garage — we call it the Matt Cave — that wouldn’t be too hot, too cold or cause him to wave away bugs as he sat in meetings. And then for me, I had to close my worry and get over the fact that I can’t always be there when they have challenges. When I put my own headphones on, I must put away my desire to be super-mom and go back to being just Jen Grant. Back to being focused on the job and what we need to do next.
Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?
A big work-related challenge was starting as a new CEO during this pandemic. In your first few months in the office you want to establish trust as a leader and feel the comradery that you would have if you were in the office — something that I’ve certainly had to think about in terms of this new normal and how we create this virtually. How do I connect with my teams and how do I create relationships? How do you make sure that everyone is growing in the same direction? It is not as simple as a ‘let’s go get coffee’ chat, I have to be much more deliberate in my communications about the strategy of the company. That is a bigger challenge than I had anticipated. I would also add that funding always remains a challenge for women business leaders. In 2019, only 3% of venture capital was invested in female-only founded companies — so throw in a pandemic and that complicates the issue even more. I’m grateful for my strong network and for the interest in no-code technology which has allowed me to continue to raise money and to grow Appify even in this chaotic year.
Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I get inspired by knowing that I can help grow this company, and that our success, our ability to grow and hire even more people, helps contribute to a stronger economy. In my own small way, I can do something to make a difference, and that keeps me motivated. While the pandemic put even large hurdles in front of everyone, I reminded myself that I know quite a lot about growing an enterprise software company. Step-by-step I put my experience to work revising the sales process, redoing the pricing, getting the positioning right, hiring good people, and getting our story clear so that investors will understand the opportunity. I think women have resilience built into our DNA. We are already multi-taskers and fearless when it comes to challenges. And it’s working. We’ve grown the company, hired more amazing people, and raised additional funding, which I view as a huge success.
Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?
I can say that having separate office spaces, which I’m fortunate enough to have, has definitely helped. And sometimes during the summer, my husband and I looked at each other and both admitted we hadn’t really thought it would last this long. This was when we stepped back and evaluated everything in our workspaces. Do we have what we need to be productive? I missed my white board from the office, so we bought white board and found a place for me to use it in my meetings. There are all sorts of possible solutions to making your office space work for you. Take the time to figure out what you need to feel good and be productive. I also believe that it’s important to walk away from work as well. It’s so easy to have it slip into more and more of your day. Scheduling time for breaks, for walks, to do something other than sit at a computer is important for keeping yourself healthy.
I also make it a point to schedule ‘kid time’ on my calendar. Once the transition was made to virtual schooling I made a point to take off a few days from work — this meant no emailing or last minute calls and meetings, but instead I really dedicated myself to take that time to help onboard my kids and make sure they had everything they needed to take on this different version of schooling that they were about to embark on. And there are times when I have to schedule a block of time to spend with one or more of the kids to help them with whatever they are struggling with. I do this visibly on my calendar, because I want everyone at Appify to know that it’s OK to have time when you need to prioritize your family. If the CEO does it, then it’s OK for anyone to schedule these occasional blocks of time to keep everything working.
Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?
I’ve made a conscious effort to continue our normal routines like making space for breakfast, lunch and dinner and sitting down together as a family. We always try to get outdoors as much as we can, of course now, not so much with the recent California fires — but I’ve made it an active goal for us to get outside so that the kids and myself can take a break from the screen time, as there has been much more of that this year. I’ve seen first-hand through this pandemic how important it is to get fresh air and be out in nature and I definitely appreciate how lucky our family is that have such cool and scenic places to visit right in our backyard.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
5 Reasons to be Hopeful
- Companies have had to adjust — and it’s a good thing. Before the pandemic, it all seemed too hard to give people the tools they needed to be more productive. There was change management, IT discussions that went on for weeks, approvals, various contingencies arguing as to the value of giving productivity tools to employees. But overnight, there was no more time for discussion, it just had to be done. And everybody benefits when it’s easier to get the job done. That’s a big belief of Appify and why we do what we do.
- Working from home is the new normal. The commuting we were doing put an enormous strain on our mental health as well as the environment. With the flexibility of working from anywhere, it is much easier to prioritize a work-life balance that works for both your career and your family. Because we’re working from home, I get to see my husband and my kids much more than before. I think many people are experiencing this too and enjoying it. Companies will have a hard time rolling back the option of working from home because people will now expect it.
- We all appreciate nature a LOT more. Have you noticed all those people biking and hiking and being out in nature? When all the craziness of school, events, work, socialization was put on hold, we all remembered how lovely it is to just be outside. I deeply hope that this renewed love of the outdoors will continue on in everyone’s lives even as we get back to work and back to normal.
- We saw that we CAN help the planet. The most spectacular results were in India where the smog of pollution lifted as factories were shut down and everyone stayed home and stopped commuting. The pictures coming out were amazing. Blue skies, views of the Himalayas, the sound of birds. Appify’s engineering team is in Bangalore and they shared how they were hearing birds chirping because there was no longer any sound of traffic to compete with. We cannot give up on saving the environment and here is an example of how fast nature can recover if we do the right thing.
- It will eventually be over. If you do any reading of the 1918 pandemic, it has followed a similar path as this one. Masks, social distancing, different communities operating with different levels of safety — you can find parallels to everything we’re going through now. And just like that pandemic eventually was over, so will this one be. It’s just a matter of time, vaccines and good governance to deliver these solutions to us safely.
From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I think what I’ve learned through my personal experience through this pandemic is that you shouldn’t be afraid to lean on the people that you love and trust in your life when things get difficult. I know that I’ve had to do that many times in the past few months, just talking about your feelings out loud helps. This also goes with work. I make sure that my employees know that they should voice when they are feeling anxious or their mental health isn’t what it should be, whether that’s work-related or just related to the crazy world that we are all currently living in. No one should ever be afraid of sharing their struggles because, even at work, you will have someone there to support you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Tell me more” — Early in my career I was quick to jump in and share my opinion. I didn’t listen enough and didn’t look to find connections. I had a great mentor at the time as well as a great leadership coach that helped me realize I needed to slow down and understand the other person’s point of view. When someone says something you disagree with, ask them to “tell me more” and look for the gold — the thing they say that you CAN agree with. More often than not, you realize that you do actually agree with some of what they are saying and finding that point of connection is all you need to collaborate and move forward together.
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Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!