Use cognitive empathy: There are different types of empathy, but the one that is more effective in a professional environment is cognitive empathy. It is important to be open and aware of other perspectives.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Silvana Gaia. Silvana is the Vice President of Customer Success at Belatrix Software. She has been instrumental in driving Belatrix Software’s success, as one of the fastest growing providers of software development services. Silvana joined the company as its ninth employee back in 2002 as a developer. Since then she has worked in different roles gaining new insights and experiences. These include being a developer, project lead, account manager, technical consultant, and production director. In 2014, she setup Belatrix’s Technical Consulting practice. Today, she is responsible for Belatrix’s US headquarters in Silicon Valley and creating Belatrix’s new “Customer Success Management” function. Silvana lives in Redwood City, California, together with her husband and two children. When not busy with work, she loves to have fun geek conversations with her husband, while enjoying a traditional Argentine “mate”.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Silvana! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I come from a humble family — my father was a farmer and my mother was a stay-at-home mom who devoted her life to take care her children. My siblings and I grew up in a warm environment in Mendoza, a province located on the west side of Argentina, bordering Chile. If you love wine, you may have heard about our famous Malbec.
While growing up in the nineties, I realized I wanted to be able to provide as much love as I had received in my childhood to my own family, but still wanted to become a professional. At that point in time, the internet was emerging, and remote working became the subject of popular attention. I realized this was my opportunity to achieve both goals, so I decided to study software engineering.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The most interesting story in my career was when my husband and I decided to accept the proposal to open Belatrix’s Silicon Valley office. In the beginning, the decision was so easy and clear, as we understood the impact it would have on our careers and on our kids’ life experience.
But it was not as easy to go through the process.
I completely underestimated the effort of moving to another country with my family, learning a new language and adapting to a different culture. It’s been almost two years now and when I look back, I think that was the riskiest thing I’ve ever done.
As you may imagine, I don’t regret it at all.
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?
Last year I was a finalist to receive a Stevie Award for “Woman of the Year” in Technology. I was so honored because my company submitted the nomination on my behalf.
It was a big event in Argentina amongst my family members and friends. Everyone stayed up late to watch the award dinner and possibly see me go on stage to receive a Gold medal and deliver my well-practiced speech. Unfortunately, that never happened as I received the Bronze award. However, this was still a great accomplishment!
After dinner, I was then asked to record a short video interview that would be published on the Stevie Awards social channels. I thought it would be related to the speech I had prepared but little did I know that the interviewer planned to ask a different set of questions. I completely panicked and the short interview was a disaster. I was going to leave and hide in a corner, but I suddenly realized that this was not a live interview and I could ask to record it again.
What did I learn? It is not so terrible to fail, and there is always a work-around.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It is outstanding that Belatrix is now one of the fastest growing software engineering service providers with international operations across three continents. Belatrix never took external investment, so we have always been fully bootstrapped, yet continue to grow at a steady rate year after year.
I love the fact that with our nearshore model, we have been able to provide opportunities to talented people across Latin America, that otherwise would not have had the chance to work with some of the leading companies in the world.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, I’m currently building Belatrix’s Customer Journey Map.
I am interviewing individuals in different roles within our customer base, in order to understand their pain and love points during the engagement cycle. I’m so excited as I am receiving amazing feedback from each person I interview and valuable insights that will be used to improve our services. That’s my main objective right now — to understand our customers better and facilitate changes to enhance our services.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
My main advice is to be authentic. We all have role models to follow but we need to figure out what is our own style. And that is the best “lead by example” thing you can do. If you find your own style and stay loyal to it, you will encourage your team to do the same. If they feel safe to be authentic, they will bring their talents to contribute to the team and all will thrive.
I found out that my own style is to lead by serving my team. I am always concerned about removing road blocks and facilitating others to do their work.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
The challenge of leading large teams is to maintain the same empathy you are able to achieve with smaller teams. It is very important to create mechanisms to empower people to make decisions by providing the right tools to facilitate that. Onboarding processes and training programs are key activities.
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?
This is a tough one as a lot of people have helped me to get where I am now.
Let me start with my first professional job experience. I was very lucky to be surrounded by strong women. I remember the first time I met one of the senior developers and architects. She was having a tough conversation with a male partner about how to build a particular architecture for a new software product. I also remember a business analyst firmly negotiating scope with the final customer. It is funny that I also recall one of the project leaders calling her husband to ask him to take care of dinner. This last one might sound trivial but coming from a stay-at-home-mom family, all of them were role models that helped me counter stereotypes.
Also, there are two main milestones at Belatrix worth mentioning. Back in 2006, our Production Director, Rosana Fabris, decided to leave for personal reasons and she chose me as her successor. To have the assurance of a person I trusted so much was key to accept that position, which has been crucial in my career development.
The second milestone was the day Alex Robbio, Belatrix’s President and Co-founder, trusted my husband and I to open the Belatrix office in Silicon Valley. We will always be grateful for this amazing opportunity.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Lately I have been writing about my own experience, both professionally and personally. Reading and writing have always been a passion of mine since I was a young girl. I have been using my passion to tell my story, and hopefully, inspire young women to pursue a career in technology. I’m convinced that technology can be an equalizer that can empower women. Day by day, women around the world are unweaving societal stereotypes, and I’m glad to be a part of this change.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Act as a facilitator: The most important task of a leader is to remove potential road blocks that may hinder the team’s progress. If as a leader, you serve the people who work for you, they will serve your customers.
- Create an honest feedback loop: This starts with yourself. If you are honest about your own mistakes and open to feedback, you will be able to gain your team’s trust and implement continuous improvement.
- Use cognitive empathy: There are different types of empathy, but the one that is more effective in a professional environment is cognitive empathy. It is important to be open and aware of other perspectives.
- Provide the right tools together with empowerment: Ensure your team has the right tools to succeed.
- Set time aside to discuss goals and expectations: As a leader, it is good to set expectations about what are best practices on sharing information, collaboration, etc.
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. :-)
Lately, I been thinking a lot about how tough it is for professional women to make the decision to start a family and all that we leave behind when we decide to take a break from our careers. It is a huge metamorphosis we face, not only physically but emotionally. I believe this is an issue we need to address together as a society.
I would like to inspire a movement that also helps mothers to plan their breaks, to help them keep up to date, to determine when and how to re-enter the workforce, and if necessary, support them to gain their confidence back.
For example, the Netherlands provides a postnatal service called Kraamzorg, included in standard health insurance packages. A professional nurse provides care to the new mother and her baby in the first ten days immediately after birth. I wish I could have had access to a similar service in my country. It would have been very valuable and would have eased that chaotic and amazing process.
Research has shown that that many employers are biased against job applicants who have temporarily stayed at home with their children, even preferring laid-off applicants who have been out of work for the same amount of time.
Parents re-entering the workforce are penalized for their career gap: 15.3% of employed mothers, 9.7% of unemployed mothers, and 4.9% of stay-at-home mothers received a call back from a job application. How unfair does that sound?
Providing this kind of help in a new mother’s professional transition would significantly impact not only her life, but also the entire family experience and dynamic.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Value your own contribution.”
For almost two years, I’ve been living in the Silicon Valley area and I’ve noticed that everyone here wants to change the world. Last week I attended a great networking event with amazing people that had amazing stories. We spoke about how competitive this area is and the pressure we are putting on our own children to change the world. Even though it is difficult to stay away from that pressure, I have learned that we need to value our own contributions. Not everyone could (or should) be so extraordinary, but all of our contributions are valuable.
Some of the biggest 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 :-)
I would love to have a sit-down meeting with Melinda Gates. I admire her work as an advocate for women and young girls all over the world. She had recently published a book called “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World”, which I’ve already pre-ordered, as it aligns very closely with what I’ve been thinking lately.
Also, if Dr. Brené Brown could join us, it would be the most inspiring moment I could ever dream of.