Pinned to the Top: The Leading Women at Pinterest
by Nadya Okamoto
A couple weeks ago I visited the Pinterest headquarters in San Francisco to interview four leading women at the company: Heather Dickinson (finance communications), Tram Nguyen (corporate strategy), Adelin Cai (head of policy), and Malorie Lucich (product communications). As leading women at Pinterest, I was on a mission to learn more about their respective career trajectories that brought them to their current position and hear their thoughts on finding work and life and balance.
HEATHER DICKINSON: The two things that Heather always knew she loved was writing and international affairs. Her mom was stationed in Europe working for the CIA in the 60s, which had a huge influence on her. Heather lived in Washington D.C. and overseas for a number of years. She went to college at USC, where she pursued these interests. She currently leads investor relations at Pinterest.
Could you talk about your career trajectory and how you ended up at your current role at Pinterest?
Undergrad for me was this wonderful exploration of trying a lot of different things. I knew I loved to write and was fascinated by global politics. I took classes that leaned heavily into those areas. When I graduated from USC, I’d spent a semester in Washington D.C., and studied abroad in Italy. I graduated with a double major in Political Science and Italian, and my father was like, “What are you going to do with that? Be a professor on Machiavelli?” To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I’d put the pieces together.
After undergrad I spent a couple of years in LA working for a political consulting firm, and then went to Northwestern University (Medill) where I got my Master’s degree in journalism. I was all set to head off to D.C. after Medill to try to become a political journalist, but then I met a guy. Long story short, I followed him to San Francisco in 1995 just as the tech boom was taking off.
How did you get into finance?
In 1995, I started my career in public relations. It was an exciting time to be in San Francisco and get into technology.
In 2005, I was working at Cisco doing corporate communications. They asked me to take on earnings each quarter. It was a new area for me and I loved it. It pushed me out of my comfort zone. Eventually, I asked for a transfer to New York to work more closely with financial journalists and investors.
By 2008, Cisco asked if I was interested in working overseas. I moved to London to run EMEA (international) PR, which was an incredible opportunity because it exposed me to different ways of doing business. I left Cisco in 2011 to take on international PR for Groupon in London and see them through their IPO. It was the most amazing privilege to work abroad.
What are you doing here now?
I joined Pinterest at the end of 2013 as head of international PR, but earlier this year, I transitioned to a new role in finance to start our investor relations function. It’s a lot of fun to be in this space right now.
How long have you been in this position and are you thinking of what’s happening next?
I’m happy right where I am. Pinterest is an amazing company. I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. The product is incredible, the people are some of the best I’ve ever worked with and I know we’re going to do great things.
TRAM NGUYEN: Tram was the first business hire at Pinterest in 2012. Born in Vietnam, she grew up in the Bay Area of California and would eventually graduate from UC Berkeley and Wharton. She currently works in corporate strategy and development.
Can you tell me a little bit about what you do here and what you’ve done it the past for Pinterest?
I’ve been with Pinterest almost four years. I joined when we were 80 people, we’re north of 1,000 now, which is crazy. When I joined in 2012, Pinterest was still a pretty new platform for marketers, and I was hired to forge our initial business relationships with brands like Target, Walmart and Unilever. A few months ago I decided to try something new, and joined the Corporate Development team to lead our M&A strategy and integrations function.
What does Pinterest do with mergers/acquisitions?
I focus on helping us acquire great technologies and talent that align closely with our company’s goals. For example, say there’s a team of engineers who have built an awesome product related to an area we’re interested in. Joining forces with Pinterest could help us both grow the overall pie — sort of 1 +1 = 3 if you will.
How did you end up at Pinterest, what were you doing before? How did you get involved in business?
I grew up in the Bay Area, and I went to UC Berkeley. I ended up creating my own major because I couldn’t decide on just one. I did a senior thesis on the spread of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa and how women’s empowerment can actually temper the spread of AIDS in that area. And then I minored in business and so I could get a job. After getting rejections from a bunch of companies, I was lucky enough to finally land a job at Microsoft.
I worked in marketing in their B2B group and was there for four years. It was the best education in marketing and technology that I ever got. And I decided then and there that I really liked technology.
After Microsoft I went to Google. I applied to a bunch of other companies too, but they told me “no” because they were all looking for someone with an MBA. I realized it made sense to get an MBA, but I needed a job, too. I went to Google with the MBA hopes still in the back of my mind.
I never wanted anybody to tell me “no” ever again. So I worked my butt off, and then I got into a really good school, Wharton. While I was in business school I got attracted to consulting, but after spending some time in consulting, I realized I hated it.
That’s when an old friend from Google, Ben Silbermann reached out to me. He told me he was starting a company called Pinterest, and asked if I was interested in joining. I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know anything about the product so decided to stay in consulting. But once I actually started using Pinterest I fell in love. I was like, ‘oh, crap, hey Ben. Can I still come talk to you?’
Do you think your upbringing and the values you were taught played a part in your fearlessness to try anything?
I was born in Vietnam. My mom died when I was one, so I never knew her. My dad and I fled Vietnam for the U.S. right after she passed away. Single dad, alone in this country, no family. Growing up he told me, ‘you gotta be somebody’, and I always remembered that. I focused on school, and doing well in my classes opened up so many doors.
When I was 15, I actually ran away from home for a month. My dad and I got into a big fight and I wanted to take control of my destiny. I had a whole plan where I was going to work for three years until I was 18, then I’d go to community college for two years and then transfer to a UC and then I’d be set, right? I stayed with friends and I figured out how to be resourceful. It was motivating.
What was it that made you go back after a month after running away when you were younger?
My dad actually found me through a private investigator. I didn’t go that far — I was still in my neighborhood, but I had sent him a letter from my friend in LA so he’d see the postmark and think I was there.
I finally gave him terms under which I would come back. He was strict, but we negotiated so that I could pick the college I wanted to go to, spend time with my boyfriend, and go out every now and then.
Fast forward to today. Now that you’re starting your own family, are you nervous about balancing work and home life?
No, we’ll figure it out. I just put everything into perspective. If we have our health and make enough money so that we’ll never be homeless, what could be so bad? I say that now, but the sky could fall down on me tomorrow. But at the same time, when you’ve been through the worst of it, life can throw anything at you, and it’ll be fine.
ADELIN CAI: Adelin grew up in Singapore with a love for human rights and travel. Her journey took her from a liberal arts college to the tech world, and she currently leads policy at Pinterest.
What does your career trajectory look like to where you are now?
I had always wanted to work around human rights or women’s studies and gender rights in general. And so, throughout high school, college and grad school I was really focused on social movements. But, when I got out of grad school the economy was tanking and I couldn’t find a job. I ended up working at a friend’s tea shop for tip money and in exchange for sleeping on her couch. It was a really humbling experience because it was not what I expected after graduating college and grad school at an Ivy League institution.
So, I was really scraping the bottom of the barrel. A friend suggested going to a temp agency, and that’s how I ended up working in sales at Google. They needed support during the holidays for managing sales accounts, so I did that for about five months. Throughout that time I was still trying to get hired at a non-profit, but then Google offered me a full-time job, and that’s how I ended up in tech. Google led to Twitter for three years where I was doing similar work, and then Pinterest.
What exactly is your role here at Pinterest?
I run a team a team of four and we cover the rules setting for our products. For example, when we launched Buyable Pins, we didn’t have specific rules that governed what merchants could put on the platform and expectations that users should have when interacting with the product, so my team took on that effort. If you search for Buyable Pins policies for merchants you’ll now see there are certain rules prohibiting for example, the sell of weapons through Pinterest. It’s very much a role where you balance the company’s values and goals against trying to not to be overly paternalistic about what people can put on the platform. I think our founder put it very well when he said we’re not here to judge other people’s interests.
If you think about Pinterest as a catalog of ideas or the metaphor of Pinterest being a library, you don’t want it to be all puppies and rainbows. You want there to be a diverse set of ideas that people can pull from, while taking a position on things that could be harmful.
Where did you go to school?
I went to this really, kind of hippie-dippy high school. I was fortunate in that there was a scholarship program that tied me to the college that I ended up going to. I grew up in Singapore, and I spent the last two years of high school in Norway.
I had no clue what the U.S. schooling system was like. So, when I applied, I was basically following where I could get scholarship money because it just made it easier to not have to deal with debt. So, that’s how I ended up at Colby College.
Where did you go for grad school?
I jumped right from college to grad school at Cornell, which in hindsight, wish I hadn’t. I wish I had gotten a couple years of experience under my belt, but I ended up with my Master’s in public administration.
Can you talk a little bit about your upbringing? How did your early experience shape who you are now?
I grew up in Singapore, and I really wanted to leave. I was very fortunate because my parents took us on a lot of trips. My mom is Malaysian so we got to go to Malaysia a bunch, and I had a lot of exposure to Southeast Asia. My dad for a time worked out of Indonesia. We’d gone to Thailand a couple times, but I wanted to travel more. And that’s what led me to the United World College, which is a consortium of schools.
Being exposed to people from all over the world as a teenager was amazing. It changed my life. I think when you’re at a certain age you’re open to absorbing everything.
And how was family life growing up? Does your family life still play a part in your life now?
Yeah, absolutely. My family’s a little odd in a really good way. My dad was raised Buddhist, and my mom went to Catholic school, but isn’t religious. My sister is Catholic and my brother is Methodist. I don’t really know where I stand.
My dad’s family is from Singapore, my mom’s from Malaysia and when she married my dad she moved to Singapore. Singapore is very racially and culturally diverse, so growing up there allowed me to pick my own path when it came to how I wanted to worship.
MALORIE LUCICH: Malorie went from studying journalism to finding a career in technology through a PR agency and eventually her current job as head of product communications at Pinterest. She’s also the mom to a 9-month-old daughter.
What is a Pinterest product?
We call Pinterest a catalog of ideas. One part of that product, for example, is home feed, and that’s the front page. It’s the job of engineers to put really great recommendations in home feed and throughout the product, and figure out, based on signals, what you’re interested in, what point in your life you’re at, and show you great ideas.
My job is to tell that story through tech blogs, like TechCrunch, or business publications like The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. One of my goals is to reach engineers through this press so they come work here.
How did you end up in tech?
I always wanted to be a writer. I went to San Francisco State, which has a great journalism program. It was just writing non-stop, and working with great professors, some were writers at The San Francisco Chronicle. The head of our program was one of the founders of Rolling Stone. I went to college in 2002 to 2006, which was a time when the journalism industry was taking a hit as all these technologies were coming up, for example Craigslist was taking a lot of ad money from newspapers.
While trying and failing to get a job in journalism, I ended up taking an internship at a tech PR agency in San Francisco. That just opened my eyes to this whole tech industry that I didn’t know existed and it showed me there could be a place for me in tech, which I had never realized.
At the agency, I got the chance to work with Facebook. I loved Facebook the product and it inspired me to stay in PR so that I could continue working with the Facebook team. I eventually got the opportunity to make the jump from the agency to work in-house at Facebook.
After about five years at Facebook, one of the people on the team ended up starting the comms team at Pinterest, another product I loved. I landed at Pinterest doing a similar job, working on product communications, and I’ve been here for a little over three years.
How are you balancing family and career?
I drink a lot of coffee. It’s crazy. Everyone tells you it’s really hard and it’s going to totally change your world and it’s true.
You have to build a squad around you that supports you — maybe it’s family members if they’re close by, or it’s a nanny or it’s childcare providers. My advice is, go to the companies that have good maternity leave and a culture around supporting moms. There’s a lot to be said for leaders of companies that support moms — they’re very empathetic. And it’s not just moms, they’re building a culture around being inclusive of everyone and they make diversity a priority.
If you work hard and it’s important to you, you’ll figure it out.