Getting Candid with Mona Sabet

Mona Sabet is a technology business executive and board member with over 25 years of experience in technology transactions, acquisitions, technology ecosystem, software business models and corporate finance for small and large technology companies.

Ms Sabet currently serves as Chief Corporate Strategy Officer at UserTesting, a San Francisco based company powering exceptional customer experiences through on-demand human insights. At UserTesting, she leads the corporate development and ecosystems and alliances teams, building out new sources of revenue through partnerships and inorganic growth. She also works closely with the CEO and CFO on corporate finance activities.

Prior to UserTesting, Ms Sabet was Managing Director of Tribal Advisors where she advised early-stage technology companies on their growth and exit strategies. Prior to Tribal Advisors, she served as Corporate Vice President, Business Development at Cadence Design Systems, where she led acquisitions, strategic transactions and venture investments, delivering tens of millions of dollars in incremental revenue. She also led the definition of the company’s acquisition and partnership strategy, enabling Cadence to expand into adjacent growth markets. Ms Sabet has also been an operator in two early-stage startups: Coverity led the market in the automation of the identification of software vulnerabilities; Viblio pioneered automated tagging of user-generated videos using machine learning and computer vision.

Ms Sabet serves on the board of Taiga Robotics, an early-stage technology company developing robotic interface systems for use in dynamic environments and industrial operations, and ENT4.0, a special purpose acquisition company. Previously, she served on the board and audit committee of ChIPs Network, Inc., nonprofit advancing diverse discussions at the interaction of law, technology, and policy.

Ms. Sabet is passionate about bringing more diversity into the businesses of the future. She serves on the advisory board of Women in Data Science conference and datathon. She led the strategy and implementation that took The Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest annual convention of women technologist, from 8000 to 15,000 attendees in 2 years. She is also the founder and a member of HiPower, a group of leaders championing executive women who drive big changes. Ms. Sabet holds an engineering degree from the University of Toronto, a J.D. from Western University, and management certificates from Simon Fraser University and UC, Berkeley.

Being the Chief Corporate Strategy Officer at User Testing, what are your primary goals for the company and your objective as a leader?

Unlike the head of sales or head of marketing, people don’t often know what head of corporate strategy means. Corporate strategy normally includes building the kind of strategic relationships that help drive the growth of the company more from inorganic than organic growth, although sometimes corporate strategy also thinks about the strategy organically. When I say organically, I think about everything you do internally to try and build a product, market a product and sell a product. During the process, you develop relationships with third parties, and together, you accelerate your marketing and selling in many different ways. That’s normally the part of that strategic relationships.

Building often includes the acquisition side of things. That’s definitely a path to inorganic growth. We’ve got some amazing executives, that all focus on various aspects of what we do organically within the company. I think that when companies have significant opportunities in front of them, they don’t think about including this sort of corporate strategy persona, what happens is that everybody gets very focused on their teams and their functional responses. And there’s no bandwidth, everybody’s so overwhelmed. There’s no bandwidth for anybody to look at everything more globally, and also look outside to the ecosystem and try and figure out what else we can do to drive growth within the company. So being able to accelerate our growth through these, understanding the whole company and how it can play more significantly within a greater ecosystem, is what I’m trying to do here. And what in general a corporate strategist should be trying to do anywhere.

What does a day in your life look like?

A day in my life basically looks like a lot of meetings. One thing I like about this role is that, I think when you get into the executive ranks and other roles you don’t have the opportunity to do very much and be very creative but here, there’s still a lot of like creation, I still get to be part of the creation process of things in this role. When you end up, you know, being responsible for very large organizations, your entire day is really meetings and delegating and reviewing, and you’re not creating much anymore yourself. And I think that it’s a really interesting question for people to ask themselves when they’re younger in their career, what is it that really excites them. Many get energized when they work with a lot of people. They’re managing a lot of people. They’re building teams, and they’re growing teams, other people get really energized by creating things. I found at one point in my career, when I was leaning more heavily on the management side, that I wasn’t actually creating anything myself anymore. I was starting to miss that substantially. So that’s one of the things that I really like, so in my day to day, I mostly have a lot of meetings, my meetings tend to be lots of fun because to be good at my job, I need to know what’s going on across the company. I get to talk to a lot of different people in various different organizations. But I also have to be able to stay in touch with people external to the company. So I have a lot of meetings that are external too. So I find that to be interesting. I, in some ways, I’m more of a generalist than, you know, a deep expert in any one thing other than structuring relationships with strategic relationships. But so that’s fun. But then that sometimes I am completely focussed on conversations and the planning and the, you know, trying to get a project from A to Z, and I haven’t given myself enough time to just sit back and think about, you know, where are we going and how could we get disrupted? Who else should we be talking to that we haven’t actually been thinking about before? How should we position ourselves to be different in that particular ecosystem versus what we’ve been talking about so far? What does that mean internally for us? Is it like in our product team, or in our marketing team, usually across all of our teams? So sometimes, you have to sort of make room to do that, otherwise, you’re not really getting the full extent of the job done. So I’d say about 80% meetings and 20% creation.

You’re a strong advocate for diversity. Where did your motivation stem from?

My story has two parts.

I went into engineering back a long time ago, when that wasn’t necessarily, as much as about what women did as they may do more recently.I went into a program called engineering science, which is sort of like Engineering Physics at the University of Toronto, which was a very highly science and physics-based engineering program. I remember, very vividly still, even though it was such a long time ago, in one of those amphitheatre type classrooms, with a ton of people, there are about 180 people in our class. And there was, I mean, something like 12 women out of 180 people, and, you know, honestly, in order to get into that kind of program, we sort of had to be really weird. We’re all sort of a little odd. I looked around and thought, jeez, you know, is this going to be my life, not only being the odd person out within the program, but also the odd person within the gender community, because you had to be so weird to do what I wanted to do. That was probably the very first time where I thought about gender diversity specifically, and that it matters to me.

But, even earlier than that, one incident had a big impact on my life. My parents moved a lot. So I was born in Egypt, and then moved to the UK, and we lived there for a number of years, and we moved all around the UK. I was like a little Egyptian kid and I didn’t really understand a lot of the stuff that was going on in the culture there. Just when I started figuring it out, we moved to Canada. And then I sort of had this weird Egyptian, UK British accent, and the kids in second grade, and third grade, they’re not very nice to you, when you have strange accents and stuff. I remember, not even knowing what recess was. I was so clueless about the culture.

I think from a very early age, I felt like there were people who were cool and part of this ‘in-crowd’, and then there was me and a few others. And we were just trying to figure out what was going on. So this idea of being more integrated, and more diverse, and not setting apart people that looked different and acted differently, and sounded different from you, was super important to me.

I just didn’t really realize that until I started working and that came to the forefront as something that was very important to me.

What has been the idea behind founding HiPower and how are you achieving the goals that you set?

Back in 2009, I was working for, a venture-backed technology company. I was in the court, I was an executive. And we were in the board room. And we were talking about, an acquisition that we were thinking about. There was a board member who asked a strange question about what law firm are we going to use? And this is like a relatively small company. We’re a startup. We’re not brand new. We’ve got a good amount of revenue, but we’re not large by any stretch of the imagination. We’re buying a very tiny company. And this board member says, “You know, we should use Jimmy, Jimmy is the best mergers and acquisitions lawyer and in California, we should use him.” And I’m thinking to myself, we don’t need the best mergers and acquisitions lawyer with a small company buying a smaller company. So that’s strange. But anyway, I say, “Tell me where does Jimmy work?” And the board member says “I don’t remember where he works now. But I know that he’s this amazing acquisitions lawyer, so we should use him.” And so I was frustrated for a whole bunch of different reasons. I went home, and I thought about it. But then I thought the thing that was most interesting about that experience was that this very powerful board member was recommending a person and not because he worked at a particulaplace, he just knew the person himself and what he did, and what he was known for. And then I thought, well, how many women do you think get mentioned in boardrooms, regardless of where they work?

I could only think of Sheryl Sandberg who was known for herself first, and for being the COO of Facebook, second, I could barely name another person like that who was female. But you can name men all over the place, especially if you’re deep into tech, there’s a ton of names of men in tech, and you’re gonna know their names, and they jumped from, company to company or from VC to VC, or maybe they even stay at a VC but you don’t know the name of the VC, you just know the name of the man. There are a lot of women that are sought after, but they’re sought after, because of the title they have with a company and not because of the name in and of themselves. And the problem with that is once you leave that company, nobody wants to talk to you anymore, so they didn’t really want to talk to you, they wanted to talk to the person who held that role. Yeah, there was this board member who wanted to talk to Jimmy, regardless of what his role was, he could have just started up his own practice, and he would have still been talking about Jimmy. So that was sort of where I thought, we need a program to get women to start thinking about what they want to be known for and that’s how HiPower started.

What would be your advice to the younger generation, who are just starting with their careers, wanting to be entrepreneurs and leaders?

Well, I think that you can be a leader without being an entrepreneur.

I think for people early in their career, especially in today’s world, entrepreneurship is a very attractive thought. But it’s like one of the hardest things you can do at any stage of your career, probably doubly hard if you haven’t really had experience at a company before. I think that entrepreneurship is a much better learning experience for business than any education you can get. And that’s a great reason to go and try being an entrepreneur.

A terrible reason to go try being an entrepreneur is that you want to make a whole bunch of money and build a really big company. Because the fact is, most companies fail. So if that is the reason, then you’ll probably come out of it, wondering, if that was the right thing to do. But it’s still a phenomenal learning experience.

As far as being a leader goes, I think one of the biggest things on your way to becoming a leader is having a huge amount of curiosity, but also having early in your career, a commitment to developing a depth of expertise. You have to be really good at something in order to know how to manage other people going forward.

I see a lot of people who actually aren’t creative about investing the time and understanding how to be really good at what they’re doing before they start worrying about promotions, and advancement and all of those things. So, I’d say a combination of mastery of a skillset combined with a curiosity about the business, and about everything related to that space.

What is the one thing out of work that you’re very passionate about?

I’m very passionate about my two children and my partner. With my family and a career and then obviously, diversity and the nonprofits that I work with on the space of women and advancing women, it tends to fill up more than enough of my time. I spend a fair bit of time with early-stage startups and maybe learn about a prototype or a product that just got launched out in the marketplace.

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