New challenges, new growth

An Interview with Apeksha Garga

There’s more than one way to meet a challenge. Here at Design Dept., we’re big fans of meeting them with this question: If the universe were using this person or situation to help me grow, what would I get to learn about myself and life?

Apeksha Garga takes this approach to a new level, and it has propelled her growth as a design leader. Since joining Wealthfront, Apeksha has expanded her impact from an individual contributor to VP of Design in just 2 years, embracing each set of challenges as an ally in her growth. We talked to Apeksha about what keeps her growing as a leader, how she has cultivated a healthy inner critic, and taking a broad view of what a leader looks like.

Photo by Greyson MacAlpine for Within Magazine

Tell us a bit about your journey at Wealthfront
I joined Wealthfront at an exciting time. We had just decided to expand from an investment management product to becoming a holistic digital financial advisor. And, Andy, our founder and CEO, was coming back.

Two months after I joined, I became the Director of Design and was charged with leading the design team. There were 3 major parallel efforts in front of me — reimagine the brand across marketing and product, envision a new financial planning product offering, and up-level and grow the design team. It was not an easy transition, but led to very valuable learning.

What has contributed to your growth? 
First, I want to acknowledge the things beyond me. Our CEO’s philosophy allows design to thrive and for me to thrive as a design leader. He has built a company that is driven by creativity and is constantly disrupting itself. Most of the company is working on new products from the ground up, with little data to rely on. This means designers — who are trained to make cubes out of fog — can have big impact.

Wealthfront Design Team offsite hike turns into tower creation.

Also, the business challenge is not just a technical one. We are building a digital product that people have a relationship with, enabling them to understand the impact of their financial decisions on their future selves. It’s a hard problem that cannot be solved without good design.

With that backdrop, my growth is a function of my willingness and ability to learn and adapt to address and engage on varied kinds of problems over time. First it was building a team I deeply trust, then process, then ambiguous future opportunities for the product and business. Now, it’s business strategy, and where to focus. Every 3–4 months, I see a set of challenges that I’ve never seen before. Each time they show up now, I feel more confident than before that I will be able to overcome them, and know that I will have to adapt and scale myself.

We talk about leading the self as the most fundamental aspect of leadership. How would you describe your relationship to yourself? 
I am constantly having a conversation with myself: “Given this challenge, what do I know? What don’t I know? What can I learn?”

Then, I prioritize whether I want to focus on that learning. This process requires a great deal of self-awareness, and a healthy self critic. The unhealthy version can paralyze you. The healthy self critic helps me take a step back, and engage in a process of analysis. It helps me see what I’m missing, and leads me to the right people and skills.

Any advice for other leaders who hope to see a VP role on their horizon? My first question is: what motivates you to be a VP? If it is power, authority, status, or how people will perceive you — leadership is the opposite of those things. Leading a group of people is about giving power, being in service of others. Status is what others perceive, but there’s no practical application of having that status. I find that I have to be more humble and vulnerable to be a good leader.

Second, have a broad view of what a leader looks like. I didn’t think I could be a VP because of the models I had in my head of what a leader looked like. For example, I’m not someone who likes to be in the limelight. I’m very short; I don’t have the executive presence people talk about. There is this image people have built up culturally over time. Intellectually, I disagree with all of that, but in practice it affected how I saw myself.

As I’ve gone on the journey, I’ve seen that there are many other forms of what a leader looks like, and people who are willing to embrace them. I was proved wrong twice. So, my advice:

Free yourself from these artificial constructs. Be the leader you are.

Design Dept. offers guided experiences that foster creative leadership. From individual coaching to customized learning and development programs, we help transform the way you work — wherever you are in your design leadership career.

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