Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: “To thrive as female leaders, we must first look to accept ourselves” With Mara McMahon of NetApp

Penny Bauder
Jul 9 · 11 min read
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As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mara McMahon.

Mara McMahon is the Head of Partner and Service Provider Go-to-Market at NetApp delivered through the Fueled by NetApp program. She is a service provider expert in GTM activities with a maniacal focus on maximizing return on investment from infrastructure assets. Mara serves as a business consultant to partners and service providers across the globe through the Fueled by NetApp program, which is a free service designed to ensure the desired business outcomes from NetApp technology purchases are achieved.

Mara has been working at NetApp (formerly at SolidFire) for over five years, and prior to SolidFire/NetApp, she spent a number of years in product marketing and product management at a variety of service providers around the world, including Cable & Wireless, SAVVIS, Verizon and Tata Communications. She has over 20 years’ experience working in executive, product management and product marketing roles.

Mara has a BS from Wittenberg University and an MBA in marketing from The Kogod School of Business, American University.

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

My career path started in fundraising first at a foundation that provided tennis lessons and tutoring to children in Washington, DC and then at a non-profit that delivered meals to people living with HIV/AIDS. This issue meant a lot to me as I had two brothers who died from AIDS-related illnesses, but eventually the emotional toll became too great for me. This is when I decided a career change was in order. Two of my other brothers were in pharmaceuticals sales, and I had a few friends in telecom, so I pursued jobs in both industries, ultimately landing my first telecom job at NRTC.

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

I worked alongside one other coworker to deliver our business-outcomes focused consulting program. He was a very well-known executive at the company, was admired by our customers, and he was smart, funny, and a good communicator. Recognizing this, my initial instinct was to compete with him and to be better than he was, as I was a woman looking to prove myself. I realized quickly that the most significant thing I could do for my career was to be the best version of myself: the best Mara. From then on, I set out on my own path, creating my own voice (which can be a bit colorful from time to time), developing my own version of the messaging and my own approach to customer interactions. As I look back, that career choice helped me grow to where I am today.

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?

My technology career started in the sales department at NRTC where I was pushing ISP business opportunities. I was relentless: traveling and training non-stop to perfect my sales pitch in order to sell dial-up internet services to the board of directors at utility cooperatives, which was an industry made up majority of men. At one of my first presentations, I was asked to get someone’s coffee before speaking to the board of directors. I was not recognized or respected for the presenter I was, and ultimately, the pitch didn’t land. To date, this has fueled my career and growth, reminding me to work to stand out as a woman in STEM and to always be prepared by thinking one step ahead. Today, as the Head of Partner and Service Provider Go-To-Market at NetApp, I represent a company that is a leader in hybrid cloud technology and data management services. I manage a program designed to help drive growth for service providers who are enabling their customers on their digital transformation journey. My career path empowers me to continue to push new boundaries and to remain an influential woman in technology.

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

NetApp stands out as an organization that promotes openness to new things. They encourage breaking the mold, pushing the “norm”, and give all employees, including women, a voice to make a difference. The leadership teams at NetApp are invested in each executive to help develop their careers and create a path that is personal to them.

Additionally, NetApp has allowed me to fuel my passion of approaching the route to market with the mindset that we are a business supporting another business, rather than a business selling to another business. . Fueled by NetApp, the program I lead, is built upon this philosophy and we invest in partner go-to-market through in-depth consulting at no cost to them. When partners succeed, NetApp succeeds.

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

Yes, a main focus of our partners and service providers is to reduce risk. Keystone is a new financial model that allows customers to minimize risk and lessen the complexities associated with IT infrastructure and lifecycle management. Bringing Keystone to partners and service providers will offer a new level of flexibility in purchasing and operations, supporting the margin and ROI outcomes desired.

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?

Although the status quo is shifting, I am still not satisfied with where things are. Granted, the level of racial diversity and the number of women in STEM has improved in the last ten years, the change is still too small and too slow. We need more women in technical leadership positions such as engineering, operations, and product management. I see this unbalance every time I attend industry events and conferences, as the audience is still male-dominated.

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 believe the biggest challenge women in STEM or Tech face is the perception of women and boundaries that are established based on gender. The world has spent a lot of time studying humanity and creating labels for people, which can promote diversity and empower the disenfranchised, but at times, labels can drive people apart or overly influence behaviors and thoughts. I think it is important to continue encouraging younger generations to accept no limitations — that their characteristics are not boundaries, and they’re not limited to one group. Your mix of ‘labels’ is what makes you “you.”

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

I would like to end the assumption that if a woman is in STEM or Tech, she must not be in a technical role but rather marketing, HR, sales, etc. As we look to push the gender boundaries in STEM and Tech, I hope to see less assumptions made around a woman’s role and qualifications in the field.

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.)

Lesson 1 — My best advice is to always be your most authentic self. Lead by example and stay true to yourself because no one can be a better “you.” As a leader, you want your team to be the best versions of themselves, and this will, in turn, reflect in their work.

Lesson 2 — Don’t bring your baggage to a discussion with a customer. This lesson comes from a conversation my wife Suzy had with our twins on their first day of kindergarten. Suzy asked the kids if anyone had any questions before their first day of school. Our son asked, “Does anyone know why we don’t have a dad?” Suzy, looking at her watch, knew she did not have enough time to explain it all. But then she remembered some parenting advice we received and answered the question being asked. So, she looked at Benji and said, “Yes, I know.” He replied “good” and got in the car.

Lesson 3 — When you see something that isn’t right, speak up. Trust your instincts and don’t be shy even if you have to speak to an executive. If you do, it may help improve your work environment and facilitate higher quality of work from you and your peers.

Lesson 4 — Own yourself — all of you. I am tall, with short, silver-white hair and broad shoulders. During my high school years, I did not embrace my height as I was taller than most of the boys. Today, I have learned to embrace it. To compliment my height, I like to wear 3–4-inch heels along with my confidence. Showing confidence and strength goes a long way when you are in an industry that is dominated by men.

Lesson 5 — I am not sure I have a 5th leadership lesson — actually that is it! Admit when you are out of fuel. It’s okay to not have all the answers and accepting and admitting it can lead to fruitful discussions or at least have the courage to show your humanity and enable others to do so as well.

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

To thrive as a female leader, we must first look to accept ourselves. By accepting ourselves, we are able to build stronger relationships with our peers, which creates a better, more efficient, working environment. Additionally, mastering communication — especially difficult conversations where not everyone agrees — is key to helping our teams be successful. Learning how to communicate effectively with your teams, even if they have opposing views, can lead to valuable and diverse insights. Lastly, be transparent. This is a great way to show that you respect your team members and will facilitate a judgement-free work environment.

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

Be you. Leverage your strengths, accept your weaknesses and be transparent with your team. This will encourage them to do the same.

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?

First, I am grateful for the product management team at Tata Communications who taught me more about leading, following, communicating, diversity, and team work in four years then I had learned cumulatively in my life. For example, when I wanted to learn to say everyone’s name properly, which required patience from my teammates, we formed a genuine platform of respect for one another, embracing our differences and finding common ground.

I’m also grateful for my mentor, friend, and NetApp colleague Stuart Oliver. We had a highly collaborative but not always easy journey together — especially when one of us was going to move into the group management position. I reached to Stu and we talked about our careers, goals and next steps and it became clear to me that Stu would be best suited for the job. Together, we discussed the best way for us to work together and continue supporting each other. He embraced my needs whole-heartedly and became one of my biggest cheerleaders. I have learned from his approach to management, business and life.

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

Goodness in the world for me starts very small by staying well-balanced (work/restore, emotional/practical, and curiosity/status quo), enabling me to focus on the topic at hand and approaching it with a positive mindset. With this foundation, I am prepared for the interactions I have, hoping to leave my peers and family a little better off than they were before.

Perhaps one of the easiest things to do — because there are hundreds of opportunities per day to do it — is smile. See someone and just give them a smile. And the great thing is its free and doesn’t require any investment — just a positive attitude.

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. :-)

You know the five second rule we use with food (this maybe a US thing), as long as the food hasn’t been on the ground longer than five seconds, it can still be eaten. My thought is if we are willing to give food on the ground up to five seconds, surely we can all hold our reactions for up to five seconds. Giving us the ability to digest each situation rather than having an instant reaction in order to look at each situation through a different lens. Breath, smile, count to five, and move forward.

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

This is an impossible question as I have so many — here are a couple:

  • Better than a sharp stick in the eye — This was shared by my mother about perspectives, reminding me to keep an open mind.
  • Careful pointing your finger at someone because there are three fingers pointing back at you — This was shared by my father about limiting judgements.
  • Pay it forward — In the Garden of Delight, Lily Hardy Hammond, “I never repaid Great-aunt Letitia’s love to her, any more than she repaid her mother’s. You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.”

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 :-)

If I had to pick, I would say that the three women who inspire me to be a strong women leader are Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama and Ellen DeGeneres. Of those three powerful women, I would love to have a private meal with Michelle Obama. I have never felt more inspired, prideful of our democracy, and hopeful for our country as when Michelle Obama (beside Barack) was walking down Pennsylvania Ave to the White House. I realize it may seem like I was focused on the wrong person, but I remember sitting in awe knowing she would be the first lady. I am also open to receiving any parenting advice she has for 15-year-old twins.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Penny Bauder

Written by

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Penny Bauder

Written by

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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