How Entertainment Inspired A Young Executive In The Digital World
I had the pleasure of interviewing Leila Modarres, VP of Marketing at Infostretch, a digital transformation company based in Santa Clara, California. Leila is an Iranian immigrant who, at 32 became one of Silicon Valley’s youngest female VP’s; and now, as Chief Marketing Officer, she runs all marketing efforts for Infostretch, a thriving digital solutions and services company with more than 700 employees worldwide. With more than 15 years of experience in marketing and communications serving high-growth software companies and early-stage technology companies, she has helped three startups achieve their desired exits.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
As the daughter of two Iranian immigrants who fled Iran after the revolution in 1980, I was raised in Boston Mass., where I attended elementary school and grew up hoping to make it as a top artist or performer. Of course, I felt like an outcast on occasion, being from a different background; but that wasn’t my claim to fame or why I am telling you this. I was always driven — and continue to be inspired — by female characters in the entertainment industry — such as movies or TV series. As a child, dancing and theatre were my passions. I was a performer at heart, and I’d sneak into movies like “Flashdance” — a movie where the main character “Alex” played by Jennifer Beals fascinated me — a girl with no training or education making it to top and getting accepted into a prestigious ballet academy. I danced all over the living room floor for months. My mother finally decided to do without furniture!
I was determined to make my way into a role on a screen, stage or in front of an audience. Later in my teens, I also found an appreciation for business… there was always an element of drama in business… and there still is. Inspired by shows like Dynasty and Dallas, I continued to imagine myself as an influential member of a thriving organization. One day I saw “Working Girl” and that was it. Melanie Griffith sealed the deal for me — talk about a risk taker who rose to the top. I decided that my calling was in the land of business, where I not only needed to perform every day, but I could leverage my business acumen and help others — especially young women — grow and thrive in the business world. As I think back, I am wondering if I was just looking for ways to make thigs more difficult. Not only did I want to be a top performer, but switch to a competitive field like corporate business which was — and still is — a male-dominated industry.
Once I got started on this track, I had the fortune of working for many amazing organizations, such as the Harvard Business Review and Porter Novelli, where I had amazing female mentors. I also rolled up my sleeves and helped grow a number of startups that were flourishing in Silicon Valley. Regardless of where I work, I will always be driven by the need to perform and help other “Tess McGill’s” navigate their way to the top. Today my inspirational fictional characters include Tea Leoni as Madam Secretary and Julianna Margulies as the Good Wife
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started working for your company?
This was not at my current company but is related to the theme of “performing all the time,” which seems to permeate my life. I was a new hire at a company, eager, young and hungry. Unbeknownst to me they company had also hired a woman in the engineering department who was scheduled to start the same day. With the same name. They accidently thought I was the new engineer, and took me to a lab environment where I was supposed to spend most of my time. I kept thinking to myself … why don’t I have a proper desk? Why am I getting introduced to product engineers and product development team? Where are the sales/ marketing people I met? They kept asking me what programs I use. “Ok I guess I should just play the part,” I thought to myself and I blurted out some programs I barely knew. Apparently, I put on a good performance and got away with it for a few hours. Finally, after we all discovered the huge mistake it became the running joke between the two departments! I must have put on a good show
So, what does your company do?
Infostretch has over 10 years of experience testing, developing products and applications and providing digital solutions and services to organizations worldwide. We help enterprises achieve digital transformation, one of the biggest challenges facing traditional industries like financial services, retail and healthcare/pharmaceuticals.
Infostretch provides an experienced team of digital technologists and solutions for digital strategy, digital development, DevOps, quality engineering, cloud, the “Internet of Things” where everything is available online, data analytics and mobility services. We work behind the scenes with Fortune 100 Companies as well as emerging innovators, to deliver solutions that work seamlessly across channels, leverage predictive analytics to optimize the software lifecycle, and support continuous innovation. Companies are drowning in data, and most of it goes un-used, according to Forrester Research. This fact slows down systems and challenges clear thinking; we help companies deal with this phenomenon through a new type of service called data engineering.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are in the midst of a space — professional services — that for years has been dominated by big-name incumbents, which tend to be cumbersome companies with Ph.D. vocabularies. Those days are over. We have blazed a new trail as an agile professional services firm focused exclusively on digital. I often like to say, “This is not your mother’s services company.” Although we are a leader in our field, few people know about us because our work is behind the scenes. Rather like the inspector whose initials or employee number goes into the underwear package you buy.
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?
There are a few: My first boss — indirectly was Suzy Welch — then Suzy Wetlaufer. She was a Senior Editor at the Harvard Business Review — later became Editor In Chief. A brilliant woman, and a force to be reckoned with. Two qualities I admired most about her. Suzy took me under her wing and wrote my first recommendation letter. I owe my next three jobs to that letter. Next came Laura Beck, my boss and mentor at Porter Novelli. Brilliant. And again … a force to be reckoned with (see a trend here)? An amazing manager with more energy and brain power than anyone I know. I continue to rely on her counsel and friendship to this day. Last but not least my stepfather — Mohamed Fotouhi — who taught me almost everything I know. Mainly discipline and not to be afraid of hard work. A self-made millionaire and entrepreneur, he made himself available at the drop of a hat, drop of a text or call, to give me the advice and counsel I needed to succeed.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I often think of all the innovations that we have helped other companies bring to market, all behind the scenes. Few people comprehend how complicated it can be to quality-test a first-of-breed product like, for example, “smart pills.” We built a model of the human body in our lab, so we could help the developer of a new anti-anxiety drug test a digestible sensor, so the use and effectiveness can be documented. Imagine what could go wrong, if this didn’t work as planned; and yet, there was no precedent, no established “best practices” for testing. The same can be said of a company like LifeScan, the blood glucose monitor company, an operation of Johnson & Johnson. They are taking a well-understood product, the monitor, and enabling it for the mobile user. We have several other examples where we are helping innovative companies prepare their products for the new digital market. From my own personal standpoint, I continually need to find the most effective and relevant way to help tell the “quality story” to a market that can often be wary of technical innovation, whether it concerns healthcare, entertainment, or retail.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I switched careers, and why?
(1) Male-dominated industries don’t change fast, at least not without some pain. We are seeing that today in Hollywood, even. Fortunately, I am working in a place where this is not an issue (at least not one that I am facing), but I see examples of either harassment or the glass ceiling all around me. Even here in Silicon Valley, which is a revelation. I don’t scare easily, though; so maybe this warning signal wouldn’t have steered me to a different field.
(2) “Build a better mousetrap” is nonsense. The world will not beat a path to your door. Marketing is hard. It is not just about execution, it’s about vision. Entire courses are taught on “why good products fail,” and the culprit, as often as not, is poor marketing.
(3) Good ideas have a shelf life. Shopping centers and malls “saved” inner cities from congestion and enabled the spread of suburban living. I’m glad I didn’t invest in companies trying to “mallify” the country, though, because the Internet is eating their lunch. Now, augmented reality and other innovations are bringing retail into a new online world…a concept that is very difficult in a brick-and-mortar world.
(4) There is a corollary to the Peter Principle (people rise to their level of incompetence). A computer scientist and educator named Paul Armer coined “The Paul Principle,” which says that (paraphrasing here) advancing technology renders people incompetent at the level where they once excelled. This is a critical lesson for R&D as well as marketing. You cannot relax on the skills that you once mastered; we are learning for life.
(5). Don’t be afraid to take risks. This brings me back to a quote from the movie Working Girl… “I’m tired of playing by rules which I didn’t make.” The biggest message I wish I knew sooner is don’t be afraid to break the rules…. Sometimes that’s what you need to do to succeed.
I have been blessed with the opportunity to interview and be in touch with some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.
Well, for one, I consider the career paths of the two main characters that Julianna Margulies has portrayed: a junior nurse who nearly overdosed in the first episode of E.R. to a position of authority and respect in that same field, healthcare; and, a legal intern who rose through the ranks amidst personal challenges and tragedies, eventually founding her own firm. Of course, these are fictional characters, but I’ll bet that in researching the scripts and the background scenarios, Julianna gained plenty of insights into the roles of women in two important industries. It would be great to get to know those characters, through her.
Absent that, there’s always Tom Friedman or Angela Merkel. Tom Friedman because of his insights and world experience; and Angela Merkel because she is one of the most accomplished players on the world stage. I could learn from either of these people. What time is lunch?