31/12/2015 09:03 GMT | Updated 31/12/2016 05:12 GMT

Women in Business Q&A: Sharmila Mulligan, CEO and Founder, ClearStory Data

Sharmila Mulligan

Sharmila Mulligan is the CEO and founder of ClearStory Data, a big data analytics startup based in Menlo Park, California. Sharmila has spent 18-plus years building game-changing software companies in a variety of markets. She has been EVP and CMO at numerous software companies, including Netscape, Kiva Software, AOL, Opsware and Aster Data. She drove the creation of several multi-billion dollar market categories, including application servers, data center automation, and big data analytics. She is on the board of several tech companies based out of Silicon Valley, advisor to numerous companies, large and small, and an active investor in early-stage companies.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?

Being in tech presents a series of opportunities, one great opportunity after another, provided you have the conviction, desire to innovate, and constantly solve interesting new problems. To that end, each company I've worked for led me to want to solve the next related hard problem - and to lead it, by taking it on, not waiting on someone else to figure it out and go build the next great thing.

Starting early in life, my family had the strongest influence on me. That influence set me off on this journey that now has been 20 years of start-ups, innovations, IPOs and leadership paths. My father spent his life breaking new ground wherever he went. He was first to become the head of a European bank in a foreign country outside of Europe, first to change the way certain things ran in the financial world, while no one else dared to challenge it, and first to reach new heights as a young boy in a family that wasn't so well off - but nothing stopped him from running after his dreams and making them happen. That's where I got my own deep down drive and ambition to chart new territory, my willingness to take risks, the drive to succeed and never accept failure. He taught me, literally over daily dinners, that you don't know what you can achieve until you go after it. My mother, a nurse, was a champion of women following their career dreams and having a family. This style of upbringing is where it all started, and to this day, I tend to pursue opportunities others don't think of. Whether doing it from a position of the leader or a participant on the journey, it has to come from within and takes drive and courage.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at ClearStory Data?

Open communication and transparency are key elements of the management style I've adopted here, particularly after being at many companies, both big and small, where often that was not the case. Everyone should understand the company vision and mission and be there for the same end-game, and you have to remind yourself of this daily so you don't get lost in the weeds and miss seeing the forest through the trees.

I also believe in giving frequent feedback on how people are doing and how they can continue to rise to the occasion. Silicon Valley presents opportunities for people with talent, regardless of educational backgrounds and experience, but you have to want to go after it and surround yourself with people who, to a large extent, have the same DNA deep within. My experience at previous companies, including working closely with Ben Horowitz at Opsware, Jim Barksdale at Netscape, and Tim Howes (now CTO of ClearStory) at many companies, paved the way to my approach at ClearStory.

From a strategy standpoint, besides the team building experiences, I gained a great understanding of how to product-market fit before growing the company too fast and spending capital to 'find it' - versus using capital once you've found it. Most startups tend to scale the company before really carving out a product-market fit. That's why a high percentage of start-ups fail. It's smart to find your sweet spot early and understand how customers value your product before scaling the company. At ClearStory, we've been discerning about addressing that sweet spot and investing capital at each stage of growth based on real market input versus hypothesis, or what some companies do, which is spend money simply on the dream.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at ClearStory Data?

In a startup environment, you need the strength and conviction to drive through peaks and valleys, both managing through the challenges and personally surviving them. If every peak makes you shoot to the moon, and every valley crushes you, it's not sustainable or effective over the long-term - for yourself or everyone around you. Ben Horowitz, a well-known investor and tech entrepreneur, said that being a CEO or entrepreneur in Silicon Valley is "more about courage than genius." He's dead on. After leading many companies in a variety of markets, I appreciate the wisdom of Ben's statement. Building start-up after start-up is like watching the same movie over again, but each time, you bring more 'production' experience to it, and the 'actors' are picked more carefully. If you do it right, one day you get the Oscar. I should point out that a lucky few get it on their first shot.

While each company has growth phases and challenges, the road to winning is identical. In the beginning, it's about building the right team and culture. Here, we brought together data architects, designers, and engineers - marrying different kinds of technical DNA together on one team. The first couple of years were tuning and tweaking at a lightning pace, and then product, people, market and technology choices align. That's when you hit takeoff point. After takeoff, good operational execution ensures you hit escape velocity.

What advice can you offer to women who are seeking a career in your industry?

You need great passion and conviction for the problem you are solving. If you go after something you're not passionate about, it won't work. For women interested in big data and analytics, my advice is to get a technical degree and concentrate on building a technical background early in your career. Move into the business side once you have that experience, if the business side interests you. Further, participate in networking and mentoring opportunities that are focused on your industry. Many good investment firms have organized networks for CEOs to spend time together and talk. I'm in those networks, and they're awesome. They are very well designed and set up to facilitate open communication. Build a management team that's a mix of both men and women to create balance. Be realistic with your personal partner about the rigors and time requirements of working in a start-up environment, and be sure they are up for the journey with you, because it won't only be taxing to you, it will tax your family along the way. From that respect, I feel fortunate to have fantastic mentors, a fantastic executive team, and an amazing partner that can relate to everyday life of running a company, while also understanding the big picture and what drives me.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

I've spent a great deal of time with other women leaders sharing tips and tricks for work/life balance. Most women are balancing themselves on a daily basis, whereas from what I observe, men tend to focus on a weekly level. I have a great partner who understands what it's all about. We talk all the time. This frequency of communication is important.

You need to find ways to have time for yourself. For women who seek balance daily, many dedicate early-morning hours to work and leave evenings free for family time. To get personal time, I use early mornings for exercise four days a week. I find 30 minutes to go for a run, bike ride, or do a hard workout. Even if I'm already dead tired, I never forego this 30 minutes. It's energizing and my own private time. I also spend quality time with my three children daily. Since my time is tight, our time together is very high quality and not filled with distractions. To avoid distractions - media being the worst of them these days - we have a 'media usage contract' in our household. It's an actual contract written up that everyone has agreed to. Every night, we have digital detox with no TV, email, texts, or phone calls allowed. They're not allowed to touch media, and I'm not allowed to touch media. We just spend time together.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

Women have an advantage in terms of understanding people's needs for work/life balance, as they tend to be in the situation themselves. If they have kids and are running a household, they understand the differences in what women need and what men need to create work/life balance. Women tend to be very communicative, which gets things out in the open and addressed faster. Without this diversity, communication isn't always as healthy and open as it could be.

The importance of diversity in an organization is backed by research showing that mixed-gender teams are more profitable and innovative. When you have gender diversity, it attracts more diversity to the company in terms of skill sets, experience levels, culture, and life experience. I believe mixing gender and different skills and experiences creates a better working environment compared to a more homogeneous company.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

Any CEO or founder should have a mentor they can trust and confide in so they can share experiences and opinions in line with their own. A mentor has to be a friend, and they need to understand you and what drives you personally and professionally. Never be too busy to set aside time with your mentor.

I talk with my mentors frequently, sometimes as often as once a week. The conversations aren't about work or business. It's focused on how the week is going and caring about how we're feeling and doing. One of my mentors, a ClearStory Data board member, is Shona Brown. Shona has had senior roles at several companies and brings an element of really understanding women in the workplace. Ben Horowitz, as mentioned earlier, has been a terrific mentor to me in terms of understanding the rigors of running a startup in the fast-moving technology industry. He shares some of his wisdom and experience in his new book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things.

One of the best parts of mentorship is the feeling that you're not alone in everything you're experiencing and going through. Many leaders are experiencing exactly the same thing, and others are experiencing it at some level.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

I admire any female CEO that's risen to the top of a multi-billion dollar company in a situation where, after decades and decades of male leaders, they are the first woman to become CEO of the company. Now Fortune 100 and Fortune 200 companies in industries like banking, packaged goods, global consulting and systems integrators have women CEOs for the first time. They bring a leadership style people are in need of. Companies like PepsiCo, Citigroup, and Deloitte have female CEOs that I admire.

What do you want ClearStory Data to accomplish in the next year?

We made early technology bets on Apache Spark for fast data processing and the cloud to deliver data blending and analysis in a way that's accessible to business users. These were the right bets, and now we're capitalizing on how they're coming together and how it's playing out. Every company I've started was born out of a problem that I saw at the last place. There aren't enough statisticians to address corporations' demand for data intelligence and processing massive data at scale. This part of the journey is similar to the way it's worked at other companies. You make well-informed bets, and then see what happens.