343: Maria Colacurcio—Stop The Revolving Door. Help Your Employees Embrace A Diverse And Equitable Workplace.

Hear how to build workplaces where everyone is valued 

This podcast interview is exceptional. Just listen to Maria Colacurcio tell you about her journey and think about your own. Her career has spanned many different industries, propelling her to leadership positions in innovative companies. Our conversation took us through those profound experiences and unexpected moments that can transform our lives in new ways. Others often accelerated her career, seeing her talent and advocating for her. She speaks about learning on the job and being excited when new career opportunities opened up for her. She also provides wisdom to other women and men trying to build more diverse, equitable and inclusive organizations, and how women are changing our society, a step and then a leap at a time. Enjoy.

Watch and listen to our conversation here

Maria’s mantra: “When preparation meets opportunity”

Today, Maria is CEO of Syndio, a SAS startup helping companies worldwide create an equitable workplace for all employees, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. Before Syndio, she co-founded Smartsheet.com, which went public in 2018. She then spent three years at Starbucks, one of the first Fortune 50 companies to go public with pay equity results. As a CEO, she is walking the walk on eradicating workplace inequities, serving on the board of the nonprofit Fair Pay Workplace and having been named one of the 100 most exceptional entrepreneurs by Goldman Sachs Builders + Innovators Summit for two consecutive years.

While her professional career has been exceptional, I was particularly impressed with how Maria wove into our conversation that she is the mother of seven children, gets up before 5am, works for an hour, and then works out. After listening to our interview, let us know how you are growing in your own personal and professional life and who is helping you along the way: Info@simonassociates.net. To connect with Maria, you can find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Is DEI really possible in today’s workplaces? Yes! Check out these 3 podcasts

Additional resources for you

Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. Hi, I’m Andi Simon. I’m your host and your guide. And as we come together for all of our podcasts, I want to celebrate my audience because we’re in the top 5% of global podcasts. And I thank you for your support for sharing and collaborating with us on great ideas. My job is to help you do something that’s very painful: to see, feel and think in new ways so that you can soar. And I love to bring you my guests because they’re going to give you some insights about their own journey, and about how you can get some key takeaways on how you can build your own career, your business or wherever you’re doing.

So today, I have Maria Colacurcio. And Maria is smiling at me because I’m so delighted to have her here. We’re in the process of writing our next book, Women Mean Business. Maria has a whole chapter in it. And in sharing her wisdom, I was just absolutely impressed with who this woman is, what she has done and why she’s a wonderful person for you to know more about.

Let me tell you about her bio. She’s passionate about helping companies build equitable workplaces, where every worker is valued for who they are and their contributions that sort of sets the stage for what she’s doing today. And she’ll tell you more about it. And Maria is CEO of Syndio, a growth startup, it’s really on its way. She helps companies around the world create equitable workplaces, for all employees, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity.

My clients tell me how difficult it is to know whether or not they’re paid the same salaries for the same job depending on who the people are, and whether or not they’re really doing it intentionally or by chance. Well, give the data to Syndio and next thing you know, you have a really good database, and you know what’s going on. Prior to Syndio, Maria co-founded smartsheet.com and went public in 2018. She spent three years at Starbucks. But she started her career working on congressional campaigns and has a long history of mission-driven work, and a compassionate and competitive attitude to spur change. She’s smiling. Sometimes when you hear yourself coming back and you go, oh, who is that? And is that really me?

She serves on the board of the nonprofit Fair Pay Workplace, and has been named one of the 100 most exceptional entrepreneurs by Goldman Sachs’ Builders and Innovators Summit for two consecutive years. She went to Whitworth University where she studied history, political science, and minored in music and studied vocal opera. Isn’t that a beautiful Renaissance woman we have? Maria, thank you for joining me today. I truly appreciate it. Now, your turn to tell the audience who is Maria, what’s your journey been like? I can read a bio, but you make it come alive. And it’s so rich. Please, who’s Maria?

Maria Colacurcio: Yeah, thank you so much for having me today. It’s just a delight to be here. And I’ve had such a great time collaborating with you on the book. And I’m so looking forward to seeing the 99 other women who are profiled in that. So I am sort of, as you stated, I think I have a very nonlinear path in many, many ways in my life and career. And I think it all culminates in this idea and experience around how do you think about a growth mindset as it actually unfolds in front of you? And for me, when I think about being a history major, going to a very liberal arts-oriented college, being a first generation college grad.

I grew up in a very strong Italian American family. My dad and my Italian uncles all served in different branches of the military, none had ever gone to college. So it was really important to my parents that the four of us kids go get an education. And they made that very, very clear to us. So I think being a first gen college grad, it sets you up for your career in a way that you don’t even really know what to expect because you haven’t had a model to follow in terms of looking at a parental set that sort of did college and then did their entry level internship. You don’t really know what to do.

So I think as I sort of took the twists and turns of a very nonlinear path, one of the things that it really made clear to me is, I want to be that mentor for other folks that may not have a model to follow in terms of what are the right moves to make. How do you look at a door that may open just a crack and have the courage and confidence to kick it open and go pursue something that might not be the exact sort of choice that most people would make in that situation? So I think to sum it up, non-traditional start in terms of where I ended up as the CEO of a SAS software company. But I also think that’s exactly what women need. Women need to have role models who have come from different and diverse backgrounds and are forging ahead and not necessarily looking like CEOs typically look. And so that’s something I’m really, really passionate about.

Andi Simon: As I’m listening to you, I’m smiling as you’re smiling because the absence of role models. So I had a program at Washington University to help women entrepreneurs, and they all said, We need some role models. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. And you somehow managed to move your way through things trusting in yourself, not necessarily with a mentor. Were there others who were giving you guidance, or there’s some interesting stories you might share about how you began to migrate through? You had different career points, not all leading to something, but all leading somewhere? It was very interesting listening to your bio.

Maria Colacurcio: Thank you. I think I owe a lot to other folks, other people who were generous with their time and their experience. And one of the reasons that I am so active in the words that I choose when I talk about our accomplices. So some people use the word allies, but in my career, in my life, the folks that have been in the ring with me fighting for things like equality for folks in the workplace, whether it’s gender, race, ethnicity, looking across intersections, the folks that have been in the ring with me, they’re accomplices, they’re in the fight, back-to-back, holding swords, forging our way ahead.

And I certainly personally had that experience. I had a lot of white men in power, who made it a point, for whatever reason, typically a personal case, whether it was something they had experienced or seen a loved one experience, where they had decided they were going to be an accomplice in this fight. And because of that, they took it upon themselves to really put the time in. I had several folks at Starbucks who really mentored me and helped me understand a couple of new areas around pay equity, what was the legislation, what was the process with external counsel, what was the math, all of these things that are the underpinnings to what I do today that I would have had no idea had they not taken the time.

And the second example, I think, was when I was hired at Syndio, the CEO, I was hired by people who took a chance on me. I had never been a CEO. I had co-founded a startup that was very successful, but I co-founded it from the seat of marketing and communications. I never led anything as that person in the seat of CEO. So they had to take a chance. They had to say, “We’re going to take a chance on this person. And if she doesn’t have everything we need, we’re going to figure out how to support her.”

Now, the flip side of that is, I have so much privilege because I’m a white woman. And so if you think about the leg up that I had, it’s now incumbent upon me to make sure I’m taking that privilege and bestowing it and helping others make sure that they have those growth opportunities that I had.

Andi Simon: I love your story, because you’re right, we have an obligation to lift up and to share. But also there is to your point, there’s no straight line. And it’s not as if there’s a ladder we’re climbing. We’re sort of exploring, and people see something and pluck us up and put us into roles. You know, this imposter syndrome stuff is so interesting. I’ve always been an imposter. You know, I was SVP of one bank, and EVP of another bank. They all thought I knew more than I knew. I never knew what I didn’t know. But in fact, it was okay, we were bold and courageous. And there were always accomplices who wanted to help us move somewhere and they weren’t afraid or worried either.

As you’re doing this, are there some really important lessons that you’ve learned about how to find the right ones because I had some bad ones along the way. And I never like to share them too often because I want them to go away. But I also know, being an anthropologist, that change is painful. The guys aren’t all sitting there saying, “Oh, please come in and take my job. I know you can do a better job than I can do. But why can’t I do that job or I don’t know, maybe you can’t do a better job than me.” So the complexity of this means that we need to stand out in some fashion. And as you’re helping others move up, they need a great story to tell so that they can pass through this. Your thoughts?

Maria Colacurcio: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I think you’ve got to take chances when you get them because then again, as you’re walking down sort of the corridor of your life’s experience as it relates to your career specifically, you’ll walk by doors that are open just a crack. And I think our natural response, particularly as women, is to say, Well, I have no business trying to peek into that door that’s open just a crack, that’s for someone else. That’s for someone with more experience, better skills, but more confidence.

And I think when you have someone sort of on the other side holding it open for you saying, “Just give it a shot. I’ve got your back if things go sideways,” that’s the confidence you need to walk through. And I had that at Starbucks. There was a woman who really took it upon herself to guide me. And I had been in marketing and communications my entire career, and a role opened in finance, working on a team doing enterprise operational planning for the CFO and doing deep finance, work that I had never done before.

I was terrified. I was a history major, I was a writer, I was a marketing and communications person, but this woman said, “You gotta do it and here’s why: because you’re an entrepreneur and if you want to continue fostering leadership and capabilities that will help you run a fortune 500 company someday, you have to understand GAAP and non GAAP, you have to understand these financial terms” that at the time seemed absolutely terrifying to me. But knowing that I had her there, her name was Carrie, and knowing she had my back, it gave me the confidence I needed to sort of walk through the door. And those are the moments I think that are really turning points in a person’s career when they’re willing to make that nonlinear pivot because they know they have somebody behind them.

Andi Simon: You know, we tend to think of our own stories as we share this story. So my story begins to come through because I was a tenured anthropology faculty member, and my husband introduced me to Citibank. And they said, Why don’t you come and be a consultant? And I said, Sure, why not? And I had no idea whether it could lead somewhere or not. But what was interesting, being a woman, as you’re describing it, is that it was okay to take a step in a new direction, without any linearity to it. But once we got going with it, you say, I can do that. And then where does that take you? But you’ve been in different kinds of companies. Is your journey different with them? You know, somebody saw you and said, Why don’t you try this? Or you went public? And so you can move on to something else? You know, how did you move from one stage to the next?

Maria Colacurcio: Yeah, so early in my career when I was in Washington, D.C., working at the Smithsonian, at the National Museum of American History, and then went on to work at a firm that supported nonprofits through nonprofit management, it was as random as meeting a woman. And this is what really happened. I met a woman at a dinner party who said, “You need to be in tech, my company’s hiring right now. You would be so great.” I was like “Tech? I know nothing about tech. I’m a history major. I’ve been on congressional campaigns. I work at a history museum.”

And she said, “Come interview for my company, we’re hiring someone in marketing, your background would be perfect. We need a great communicator, communication skills are a big need right now.” She really got it, she really got that concept of skills over experience. So I was like, What the heck sounds interesting. The tech boom was going strong. And so I flew to San Francisco, and I interviewed for this startup company. And it was a really technical startup, it was an Israeli-based startup. All the folks that work there were former Israeli military, because they’re all encouraged and actually, they must serve. And so it was quite technical.

But what I realized was, I had this incredible chance. I took the leap, got the job, and moved cross country. And I found that I really loved applying my communication skills to translating these deep technical concepts into things that could help the sales team go out and sell them. And it became this realization for me that’s continued, which is, someone might not have the experience, they may not have the matchy matchy experience of 10 years as a B2B professional and enterprise, you know, SAS, sales, marketing, whatever. But they might have the skills to really get it done.

And I think that translates to the work that I’ve done with veterans moving into the corporate environment from former active duty and applying those skills as operational pieces of expertise. I worked with this incredible woman named Kelly McCoy who was one of the first female colonels in Afghanistan and Iraq. And she taught me so much about this because she was so brilliant. And the way she translated that experience to running operations at Starbucks was incredible.

I think you can extend it to moms who have spent a couple of years out of the workforce caring for young children. What are the skills they’re gaining that you can apply back to work? Do they have to go back in their career five, six years? Or can you actually give them credit for some of the things they’re doing? And I think that started very early when I realized through experience, that wow, I do have something to offer here. I can make this work.

Andi Simon: Now you have seven children.

Maria Colacurcio: I do!

Andi Simon: And you got funding in the middle of being 8 months pregnant with your seventh. I don’t think there’s a way here to push past the stereotypes in such a way that our listeners can begin to understand that yes, you can carve for yourself your own personal story that others immediately grab hold of you, and your point about serendipity should not be underestimated. You were at a dinner party, you were talking to someone, you weren’t selling yourself, but she pulled from what your story was immediately and said you’d be perfect. And then you get into tech, and you’re not quite sure what you’re doing, but you have the skills and the comfort to translate the tech into understandable communication.

And then as we move along, and I do think that having seven children, or two or three, teaches us a whole lot about navigating complicated worlds, because nothing is simple at all, the personalities aren’t that different than the ones you’re going to run in a company. But as you’re looking at it, then it leaves you with the sense of, Of course I can. And now it’s at Syndio, you’re growing something that is so needed in such an innovative way. Are there some key insights from this, this company in particular, because it’s intended to do exactly what you want passionately to do, which is create the equality, power and position for women and men so that we don’t have this kind of battleground going on.

Maria Colacurcio: Yeah, thank you. Yes, exactly. Syndio is our workplace equity analytics platform. So what we do is, we help Fortune 2000 companies analyze and resolve pay and opportunity gaps that are because of something like gender, race or ethnicity. So we’re really looking at how you provide workplace equity. How do you make sure that you’re letting data guide the discretion that’s inherent to decision-making to get the bias out?

There’s so much discretion in decisions of compensation and decisions of promotion. Who gets promoted in decisions around who gets that promotable project. And if you let data guide those decisions so that you have a roadmap, you have guidance in terms of what’s the right pay range for this person. They may be a great negotiator, but what’s the right pay range for them that looks beyond that to see what do other folks make in this same role that are from different genders, different diverse backgrounds, whether that be race, ethnicity, whatever, but really letting data be your guide to ensure that you’re providing workplace equity and that workplace equity is really embedded into how the company does business.

I think what’s exciting right now is that the companies that are doing this, and have been doing this, are actually performing better and are more durable because of it. So this isn’t just nice to have when times are good. This is something that needs to be sustained. And I think we’re seeing pay transparency legislation accelerate across the country. We’re seeing global compliance explode in Western Europe. We’re seeing median and mean pay gaps really rise to the top in terms of shareholder proposals and what the activists are talking about, in requiring public companies to do race and gender audits. And I think we’re going to see more and more of that. So we really help companies be ready and to use data to guide that discretion, as folks make decisions.

Andi Simon: I’m curious about “who I am, and how we do things.” Changing culture is a painful process. Humans believe whatever they’re doing is true. And I preach that the only truth is no truth. And so when you give them data, and there’s some great articles, they’ve been republished recently about why humans don’t read the data or the facts and actually believe them, they believe their own shared mythology about what it is. But, you’re watching them actually take the data and turn them into reality.

So they begin to believe that in fact, there is a better way to define the job, promoting the job and get the biases out and look at what’s factual. What I’m curious about is, what are people actually doing to do that? Hiring new people, training them but beginning to build? Because so often they get the data and do nothing with it.

Maria Colacurcio: I think we have a couple of things going for us. Number one, when you have to communicate to your people what you’re doing to commit to things like pay equity, which has become table stakes, companies must ensure they are not paying unfairly or that there are parent pay disparities because of something like gender or race. And when you get into this situation where you have to communicate that to your people, you have pay ranges that are now public. You have to communicate to your people, why they’re paid what they’re paid, because the first question, when someone sees a role that’s the same as theirs posted in terms of a company’s now hiring, and they’ve got to publicly post that pay range. The first thing folks look at is, what’s the job title and what’s the top of the range?

And so the next question is going to be, why am I paid what I’m paid? So when companies are forced into a position where they have to communicate with their people, the data all of a sudden becomes not so much a negative but a positive because now it helps you explain, it’s this huge benefit around pay explainability. You’ve got to be able to explain why people are paid what they’re paid while they’re in the area of the range that they are and the more companies have to explain.

Mean and median are another thing. Median reflects representation. So why are some people up at the top? Why are some people in the middle, where some folks are at the bottom, and when you have to explain that, the data all of a sudden becomes to unlock it and it becomes the context. It becomes the story, the narrative as to why these things are happening. And it’s the authentic truth. So that’s where we’ve seen an incredible amount of momentum as companies have had to go explain these things. They now have these data visualizations to rely on.

Andi Simon: Don’t you love it? You know, I can only say that quietly, because I hope they love it as much as I love hearing about it because transformation is so hard. Data can be so transformational if you believe it and you use it, and if others are asking for it and make sense out of it. So I think it’s really propelled the moment that is really propelling us to the next stage.

And if businesses can do so better, and retain people better, and grow them better with the data, that bias can really get diminished. It never goes away, but at least it can become far less powerful. Wow, exciting! You know, I could talk to you all afternoon and this is really a wonderful time, but I also know that my listeners like about a half hour together. As we’re going to wrap up, are there two or three things that you think are takeaways? Things you can do? Some of them are serendipities right in front of you, but for you some things that you’d like them to be able to actually maybe do when they leave.

Maria Colacurcio: Yeah, I think one quote that sticks with me and I don’t even know who said it, but it’s: You get lucky when preparation meets opportunity. It’s something that I try to live by because I’m a preparer and I work really hard. And I prepare for everything in my life, from the personal side with the kiddos and my husband and putting time and effort into my relationships. And also saying no to a lot of things that go against the goals that I have.

A lot of people ask me all the time, like, how do you do it all? I have the same amount of time as everyone else but there’s a lot of things that I say no to in order to have time for the things that I really care about. And are those decisions difficult sometimes? But when you’re really clear about what you’re trying to prepare for, and what your targets are, that sets you in a position to have that luck when your preparation does meet opportunity. So I think that’s number one.

I think number two: thinking about skills over experience and thinking about how you communicate your skills. So going back to communications and the power of communications, when you think about your skills as a whole, not necessarily your experience, but how do you talk about your trajectory and your nonlinear journey? And can you talk about yourself in a way that’s more wholly encompassing of who you are as a person versus what you do right now? Or maybe what your last career choice was?

I think that can be incredibly beneficial. And for companies, I think just understanding this moment of transparency, if you can look at it as an opportunity. Right now there’s a tidal wave coming in terms of transparency around workplace equity. Instead of waiting and being a laggard, taking this opportunity to be one of the first to dive into the center of the tidal wave to figure out: How do I embed this into the core of my company and take advantage of some first mover opportunities here. I think companies are going to see a huge leg up as it relates to employee loyalty and retention and keeping those high performers that you want to keep, even in times of incredible volatility.

Andi Simon: And they are very volatile. I think McKinsey’s latest research on women in the workplace 2022 said: There’s a great breakup happening. Women are leaving, they’re frustrated for all the things that could help them turn around, and they’re not getting the pay equity they’re looking for. They don’t see upward mobility. They don’t have the sponsorship or the mentorship and they are just saying, “I’ve had enough. I’m going to find another path. Let me open up entrepreneurial opportunities for myself or new types of businesses emerging.”

But, remember that women represent 60% of the kids in college. They graduate, they’ve got lots of talent, and they are tremendously capable of doing many things, including raising seven children at the same time you’re CEO of a company. And if nothing else, Maria is a wonderful role model for how you can do all the things that matter, including saying no when you don’t think it fits into what’s important to you.

This has just been terrific. Let me wrap up for our listeners and our viewers. Thank you so much for coming. Keep sending me those emails. I love to share with you. And at the end of the day, whether it’s collaboration, or they’re allies with you in some fashion, but they’re all trying to help us move in a new direction. That puts all of us on the climb of trying to figure out how to do this right and how to do it even better.

And I’m always delighted to share with you our my two books, On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights and Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business, and my third book is coming out and I can’t tell you a lot about it yet, but it’ll be coming out in September of 2023. Maria has a chapter in it that you are going to love to read. It’s just a great time to celebrate 100 amazing, trailblazing women who mean business, and they really do. Thank you for coming today. Maria, thank you again. It’s been a pleasure. Bye bye now. Have a great day. Bye Bye.