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Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: Bella Renney of Tray.io On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience

An Interview With Penny Bauder

Make your feelings clear. It’s important to state how you feel about things. You should never be afraid to do so, it’s just about your approach. Obviously, driving others away with your opinions doesn’t help, but it’s both possible, and vital, to clearly let your team members, colleagues, and leadership know where you stand.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bella Renney.

Bella Renney is the Head of Product at Tray.io, where she leads the product direction of Tray.io’s suite of products, including the Tray Platform and Tray Embedded. Bella is responsible for developing and taking to market new product offerings, as well as driving product innovation to move Tray.io’s existing solutions into the next phase of growth. Prior to joining Tray.io, Bella served as a product and project manager at Carwow and a product specialist at TableCrowd.

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

While I started my career in education, I found more opportunities and more-interesting challenges working in tech. I’ve been told that communication, empathy, and collaboration — all things that are so important in education — are some of my strong points, and, as it happens, they all map directly to product management as well.

Being successful in product, particularly when working in technology, obviously requires you to be technically savvy and speak the language of engineers. However, successful product management is about so much more than being technical. It’s about being able to communicate with the highest levels of clarity to manage expectations and properly scope projects. It’s about being able to see through the eyes of your customers and feel their pain, and representing that perspective as their internal advocate. And it’s about being able to align and lead teams from across your entire company, whether they be on IT, executive, or revenue teams and being able to build mutual consensus (with people who, generally speaking, don’t even report to you).

Being completely honest, I took a bunch of risks to get where I am, because I wanted to build a bunch of stuff. At first, I’m not sure I was even aware that what I was doing was ‘product management’ per se. What I saw was that there were problems people experienced, initially in education, that could be solved with technology. If I could just identify the problem, and try to figure out a better way to solve it, I would ultimately improve the lives of people. At first, I saw it as a fun problem to solve. That’s how I ended up building products, working with systems, and improving how things are done and how tools are used — which is essentially product management. Then I took things one step further. Yes, I wanted to solve these problems. Yes, I was starting to actually solve these problems. My next question: “I wonder if people will pay for this?” That’s where the entrepreneurial risks began.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

For me, establishing a new product offering and taking it to market will always be an interesting exercise. At Tray.io, I was present when we took our Tray Embedded offering to market. At the risk of oversimplifying, Tray Embedded essentially gives software companies the ability to drop an invisible, seamless instance of our Tray Platform (which is flexible enough to integrate virtually any cloud service via APIs) into their own products — after which their products can also integrate virtually any cloud service.

I remember Tray Embedded initially being something that we took a lot of risk on, for which we had to carefully assess whether there was genuine appetite for the product in the market. I’ve had the opportunity to see everything grow and mature from a high-level idea into a successful product used by software companies all over the world. Watching Tray Embedded move into its next phase of growth with our other product offerings continues to be fascinating.

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?

I made the mistake of asking my CEO about his secret ambition to become the world’s hottest club DJ. Never again, let me tell you.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We’re excited by our mission to democratize technology, which is a fancy-sounding way of saying that we’re putting the technical power normally held by highly-trained engineers into the hands of line-of-business professionals — the mere mortals who don’t have advanced computer science degrees.

Basically, every company now uses hundreds, if not thousands of software applications, but none of those apps “talk to” each other. As a result, most working professionals spend hours on workarounds to manually move data across their tech stacks, which is not only inefficient, but stifles their companies’ growth. Connecting, or “integrating,” software to flow data used to be the domain of bulky, IT-heavy tools that required an army of engineers to execute. Our platform makes integrations a literal drag-and-drop process anyone can use. We also further empower our customers to then automate the orchestration of any software process across all the tools they currently have. Our platform can automate even complex jobs such as lead management for marketers, quote-to-cash processes for sales and finance, and employee lifecycle management for HR professionals.

Time and time again, I’ve witnessed our new customers have the “a-ha” moment when they find out they can not only skip the manual work, but also don’t have to submit any more IT helpdesk tickets for software help and wait weeks (or months) for a resolution. It never gets old to see our customers realize the unlimited potential they have to connect their tools and automate anything and everything, all by themselves.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re working on many exciting new projects, several of which are close to completion. I’m not sure I’m completely at liberty to divulge all the details, but I’ll say that our current and future projects will help enterprise teams build technology solutions to empower different members of teams to not only test what they’ve built, but also to have more confidence in building and adopting new development concepts and practices in a low-code environment. More to come on that soon!

I should also say that I’m excited about having a best-in-class building experience. One thing that sets our platform apart is that it offers the power and flexibility to both integrate a huge variety of cloud services while easily building out automated processes across those services using a completely visual, drag-and-drop builder that’s incredibly easy to start using, but surprisingly flexible when it comes to building out multi-step, multi-tool operations. We have customers who use our platform to orchestrate sophisticated processes, such as lead management for marketing, deal desk approvals for sales, order-to-cash processing for finance, and employee lifecycle management for HR, to name just a few. And we’ve totally rebuilt our platform’s visual workflow builder to make it easier to use, more effective, and of course, more beautiful.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

No, I can’t say that I’m satisfied with how women are represented in STEM. I think there are quite a few changes that are needed here. Among other issues, we continue to see the fundamental chicken-and-egg issue of what might be summed up as representation vs. bias. With the possible exception of healthcare-related fields, most areas of STEM have disproportionately fewer women working in them, and among them, a discouragingly prevalent opinion that women are less knowledgeable or “valid” representatives of the field. Is the inherent bias against women in STEM the cause of the lack of representation, or is the lack of representation the cause of the bias? It probably goes both ways.

As for specific changes we need: First and foremost, we absolutely need greater representation for women across all fields of STEM. Estimates suggest that only 28% of the STEM workforce is women. To increase representation, we need to rethink our educational system to break down traditional gender-related barriers and stereotypes that have driven young women, however subtly, away from scientific fields. We need greater representation of women in the field to act as mentors who can counsel and inspire young women, such as through regular speaking programs, regular calendar events to raise awareness, and media appearances, among others.

We need strong support at all levels of educational and professional development for women interested in STEM disciplines. We need to attack and neutralize bias across both the academic and professional landscape to ensure women have the same opportunities in STEM as everyone else. (Reports suggest that nearly half of women in STEM report experiencing discrimination in hiring promotions, compared to less than 30% of men in STEM.) There’s a lot of work to do.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I’d like to mention one challenge I believe to be as important as it is insidious: Implicit bias. A recent study across nearly 80 countries suggests that men are more likely to be considered “brilliant” than women. Conversely, to this day, I still find myself joining meetings and calls in which I’m the only woman, and the men on the other side of the table assume I’m some kind of secretary, rather than the head of product management. There remains a common assumption that women just aren’t part of technical teams — maybe that women don’t even belong on such teams to begin with.

And there’s also an additional nuance to the nuance. The inherent, systemic bias that emphasizes STEM for young men and de-emphasizes it for young women seems to continue throughout adult careers, even for those seeking to pivot to a different profession. I know several brilliant male engineers who have changed careers from non-technical disciplines to become engineers. I know far fewer women who have made the switch. Conversely, when I was at school, all boys studied physics and math, and while I had a friend who was amazing at both, she didn’t go on to have a career in those things.

How can we address our challenges? I’m fortunate to work with an organization that takes diversity very seriously. We have women in senior leadership across mission-critical roles such as product, engineering, and customer support. We also routinely schedule internal training programs, guest speaker seminars, and other activities to actively attack implicit bias all year round — all measures I strongly recommend for just about any company nowadays.

We’ve seen some lobbying for change at the systemic level through external agencies such as the European Commission. We’ve also seen some adoption of organizational regulations, such as hiring quotas I’ve seen at some companies and school boards. Quotas are an example of a type of strategy to combat bias, but frankly, I’m not sure how effective they are.

I think what’s needed is significantly more representation of women in STEM from within to normalize their presence. Representation will require more recognition and legitimacy, and not just through PR channels such as industry awards and news coverage (though they do help). We ultimately need to see more women join the field. We need more opportunities for young women in STEM, more mentorship for junior roles. As mentioned, there seems to already be a distinct lack of initial career opportunities and even less support for career switching or moving to a different role.

So we’ll need to inspire more women to pursue their interests in STEM, hire more women, and mentor more women. Today’s new starter has the potential to become tomorrow’s influential and inspiring leader.

There’s one thing that’s certain: doing nothing is not an option.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

There are too many to relate, but here are just a few. As mentioned, there’s the myth that women are somehow less knowledgeable or qualified to work in STEM than men, which seems to come from other myths around women being inherently more interested in “caregiving” occupations — such as nursing or teaching — and men being inherently more interested in, and more naturally talented in, and disposed toward “hard sciences.” There’s the myth that all women inherently desire and plan to start a family, which dovetails into the myth that women make poor STEM practitioners and unreliable STEM leaders because of their inability to balance having a family with a demanding technical career.

There are also a few myths about women in STEM I find to be particularly absurd. One, that women inherently “don’t like” to solve problems, even though they’re fantastic problem solvers. And two, that women can’t be ruthless in executing important initiatives because they inherently don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.

Of course, none of these myths is true. I could spend hours rattling off a list of amazing women I know who have been keenly interested in STEM since the beginning, have worked gainfully in the field for many years, and have masterfully balanced work and family life. I could spend just as many hours citing the many men I know who have never had the slightest interest in STEM and have gone on to experience massive success and make an incredible difference in “caregiver” fields.

In the same way that we need a world where women are fully normalized as both contributors to and leaders in STEM, men should be fully normalized as creatives and allowed to be creative and exploratory. I have lots of male friends who are incredible creators, artists, and photographers. None of them fit the “lawyer/banker/engineer” archetype, but they all do culturally valuable work.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. No woman is an island. If you want to go far, you need to go with other people to make the largest impact. Collaboration is the key to accomplishing great things.

2. Make your feelings clear. It’s important to state how you feel about things. You should never be afraid to do so, it’s just about your approach. Obviously, driving others away with your opinions doesn’t help, but it’s both possible, and vital, to clearly let your team members, colleagues, and leadership know where you stand.

3. You don’t need to be blunt. Regarding the way women are perceived in leadership positions, people still ask me whether they need to be blunt and assertive, to act like a “tough guy” in order to be heard. That’s not my experience. You can be heard without shouting over others, just speak your mind clearly.

4. Hold yourself to high standards (within reason). Leaders should always set high expectations for themselves. If you want to go far, you have to have high standards for your own output, as well as for your team. But obviously, there’s no need to be too hard on yourself.

5. Avoid impossible standards. A bit of a follow-on from the previous point, but an important distinction to make. It’s quite possible to end up holding yourself to unreasonable, superhuman standards that no one could ever live up to. As a leader, what matters is not that you deliver some otherworldly level of perfection. What matters is that you and your team can successfully ship products out the door, learn from your mistakes, and always continue to improve.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

There’s at least one thing in common between women leaders and men leaders: they’re all leaders. As a leader, your responsibilities are no different than any other leader’s. Your objectives likely include important matters such as accomplishing strategic goals, enabling your team members, and growing the business. At an organization with its priorities straight, you should be able to prove yourself to be a capable leader who hits all your marks and rallies your team.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

I think it’s important for any leader to be in tune with both their organization’s higher goals and their team members’ needs and capacity. I think it’s also important for leaders to constantly pursue improvement and learn new things, and to pass those learnings on to their team so the entire organization constantly grows and improves.

Otherwise, there have been oceans of ink spilled on how to be a team leader and I won’t purport to tell anyone the “right way” to take the lead. Whether you’re someone who leads by example, leads with empathy, leads through accountability, or some other approach entirely, so long as you’re mindful of your organization’s goals, your team’s hopes and dreams, and your own personal and professional growth in service of becoming a better leader…you’re probably already on the right track.

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?

I had a former boss, the Chief Product Officer at my previous company, who had a fantastic attitude to testing and trialing. I’m very grateful to my CPO for pushing me towards the mindset of “everything doesn’t need to be perfect, just iterate, test, and see what the market says” rather than trying to keep things secret and have a perfect reveal.

While I believe this to be an ideal approach for product management, I think it also contains an important leadership lesson as well: Be confident in owning your approach. Don’t apologize for not having all the answers yet. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with teams led by masters in their field, and when the time comes to defer to them, I do.

But I’ve also learned that it’s important to not be intimidated by others or feel pressured to have the best answer in the room. Part of being a good leader is to be unapologetic and confident regardless of any expectations. I’d say one of the most important leadership lessons I’ve learned is how to be confident enough to say, “That’s a question without an answer right now.”

Additionally, another leader I admire is Edith Harbaugh, who founded the product-centric company LaunchDarkly. She’s someone who doesn’t attempt to be a Sheryl Sandberg-like leader who is expected to be outspoken due to her position. Edith has her own personality and style, and even after launching a very successful company (with all the pressure and expectations you’d expect), she has remained true to herself. It’s important to be yourself, rather than trying to conform to a cookie-cutter template of what a great woman leader is expected to be.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

In a previous life working in education, I’d like to hope I made a difference in inspiring young minds to learn about the world. As a leader in technology, I’ve had the amazing opportunity to hire incredibly talented people, several of whom are women, to begin or continue their careers in STEM. I’ve also had the good fortune to work in a STEM capacity at organizations that have made a genuine difference in the world, most recently at my current company Tray.io, which has enabled healthcare startups and community organizations to rapidly test and vaccinate thousands of people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You are a person of enormous 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.

I’m not sure what kind of movement I could inspire, but if I could, I’d like to bring about more equality of access and opportunity for people of underrepresented backgrounds.

As an example, perhaps because I come from a certain background, I had the opportunity to declare: “I’m going to try a bunch of product stuff and start my own company.” I knew that even if it didn’t work out, I had a family to stay with. If I didn’t have that to fall back on, would I have taken as many risks? There just isn’t that equality of opportunity for people who don’t have what I had.

So I’d like to inspire a movement to offer equal access to opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be available for those who don’t get them. And I don’t just mean professional opportunities and job offers. I’d really like to see more people have the opportunity to take risks and dream bigger. I doubt I’d have come anywhere near as far as I have if I hadn’t had the ability to take some of the risks I did.

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

Here’s mine: “What’s the worst that can happen?” As a product manager (and perhaps somewhat of a professional risk-taker), it sums up my approach to both my career and to being a leader. You don’t ship world-class products without trying, failing, and improving. You don’t learn or improve if you don’t ask questions or experiment.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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.

A historical figure I’d like to meet would be Barack Obama. I just think his view and take on the world is very optimistic and inspiring.

Thank you for these great insights!

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