As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Costanza Ghelfi.
Costanza Ghelfi is a marketing technology leader with more than a decade of experience, the last three of which have been devoted to founding and building up the adTech company ad-machina. She has spearheaded numerous marketing initiatives across paid, owned, and earned media channels in the travel, education, digital transformation, and investment industries. She takes pride in now allowing others to do the same in a more efficient way through the natural language generation technology, ad-machina.
Costanza is a keen observer who keeps her clients’ end goal well in mind when tackling new challenges. She and her team work tirelessly to optimize their ad-machina technology and demonstrate how their clients can benefit from its ability to personalize ads at scale.
She is passionate about enhancing the consumer experience and providing an opportunity for advertisers to connect with their audience in a more organic and relevant way. Costanza continually motivates her team to analyze their work through a consumer lens.
Her advice to aspiring female leaders is succinct: “Understand your goals and what it takes to accomplish them. It’s good to be flexible, but don’t let anyone or anything deter you from what you want to achieve most.”
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Thank you, Charlie, for having me. Well, if I look back at my roots the end result was quite unpredictable. Even though I have always been passionate about advertising and consumer behavior, on the informatic side I had been almost illiterate until I was 19, which is when I got my first computer.
Two years later, while studying for my Master’s in Science I fell in love with statistics and big data, and I recognized the perfect match between this new passion of digital marketing and advertising. During that time I started working for an agency in Italy, my home country, then I moved to Spain to lead the digital advertising of an international company. Here in Spain I found the perfect environment to undertake my own project. Three years ago, I co-founded the Ad Tech company ad-machina.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Ad-machina is a young company but since its creation three years ago a lot of interesting things have happened. I guess the most interesting one happened just a few weeks ago. At the beginning of September, we were acquired by the Making Science group, a technology consulting firm with more than 700 employees in 11 countries. Since we joined the Making Science family we have already experienced exponential growth. It’s been a little dizzying but stimulating above all.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I remember once, when I was an intern with no experience, I had to visit with a new client alone to kick off a project. My boss, sensing how nervous I was, told me, “Don’t worry, if there is something you don’t know, just pretend you do.”
So, I went to the client office acting as I thought an expert would have done. I guess I was quite convincing because they started asking me for recommendations about literally everything, also things that were way out of my scope. I kept on acting in my brand new expert role and inventing answers for hours.
Of course, my boss was everything but happy with it, as my answers were a little too creative.
But this episode made me realize that the way other people see me depends on how I act.
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? Can you share a story about that?
Ad-machina wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t met my business partner Eduardo Sarciat. He was one of the first people I met when I moved to Spain. I remember it was really surprising for me to find someone who shared the same vision about automation in digital advertising. Several years later I am happy to be sharing this entrepreneurial adventure with him, as we know each other very well and we know how to boost each other up.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I have a perfectionist nature, which made me struggle with anxiety and stress during the first years of my career, until I decided to ask a therapist for help. That was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Now I have a set of tools that I use to manage stress and to prepare myself for complex situations.
I think that there are two exercises that are especially effective for me. The first one is introducing a small voluntary mistake every day. This helps me to be more flexible. The second one is for those days when I especially feel stress or anxiety. I write down a note when I wake up that contains everything concerning me and that could potentially go wrong during the day. In the rare cases something on the list happens, I am already mentally prepared for it and this helps me to react in a constructive way.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
As a foreigner and as a young woman, I have experienced discrimination firsthand several times. It really looks ridiculous and retrograde to me, but it still happens. So I am happy to spell this out.
I think we can sum up the role of diversity in the executive teams in three points.
The first is representation, to bring different perspectives to the table and to enrich the decision making process. Secondly, inclusion improves team health as the management is more aware of all the needs of a multiethnic and diverse team.
The third point is inspiration. In one of my first jobs, I had a female boss who built her company from scratch and led a team of more than 80 people. She was an inspiration for me and I believe that this influenced me in setting up my career goals.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
In order to create a company culture of acceptance and empathy, it is key for the management to recognize that everyone has different needs and that, at the same time, we all have the same rights. It doesn’t mean give the same resources to everyone, it means to give everyone the resources he or she specifically needs.
Women and men, for instance, have biological differences that can affect their performance at work. Gender equality first requires recognition of it. As an example, Harvard says that 70% of people who suffer from chronic pain are women, but this is still seen as taboo too often. On the business side, there are a few things we can already do to get closer to gender equality and make women’s lives easier; for example, providing schedule flexibility or providing the opportunity to work from home.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what an executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
The main difference lies in the level of responsibility. The C-level is responsible for the company’s success and this may require very different tasks. This is why it is so difficult to define what a CEO or executive does, as his or her tasks change everyday and evolve with the company.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I have grown up with the myth that the CEO is the absolute star of the company, the most clever and charismatic person, a kind of business genius. Now I am aware that a great CEO or executive is not the star itself, but is the one that is able to lead stars. The role of a great CEO is building the best environment for employees to shine.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Unfortunately, on the business side we still live in a world made by men for men, so for us women it can be more difficult to build a strong network of contacts or, just as an example, to get financing for our projects.
On top of this, we also have to deal with all the stereotypes about female leaders. I’ll share a personal example for this.
When my male business partner and I left the company where the two of us both used to work, in order to found our own business ad-machina, our former management explained his exit as him finally realizing his entrepreneurial dream, while they talked about my exit as an effort to obtain a better work-life balance. I think this perfectly represents the inaccurate narrative that we are used to.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I thought that having a company would mean being my own boss and managing my time as I preferred.
Now I know this is quite far from reality. I now feel personally responsible for the satisfaction and growth of each team member and each client. So I actually feel like I have dozens of bosses and, surprisingly, I find it much more rewarding than having just one.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Being an executive requires a certain level of risk appetite and ability to handle pressure. As an executive you have to make hundreds of decisions without all the information necessary. So I would not recommend this kind of role to people who like to always feel in control of the situation, as they would get really frustrated.
There are a few more personality traits that I would use to identify a good executive profile: empathy, passion, resoluteness and the ability to motivate people.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
There is not just one kind of good leadership, so nobody can tell us how we have to do it.
Society continuously reminds us that we are not enough, but we are. Society is just evaluating us with its own criteria, telling us we have to look young, to smile, to be kind, to be great mothers and so on. But nothing of that would make us better professionals or would improve our work results. We have to ignore all that outside noise and just focus on our own goals and values.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Everybody can have an impact on the environment that surrounds us. In my case I have tried to influence my local reality. I strongly believe in the empowering role of education, so I give classes and share my knowledge in digital marketing with young students who are approaching this field here in Spain.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Seeking perfection slows you down. It is better to have a “good enough” result today, than a perfect one tomorrow.
- You have to put yourself first, as nobody else can do it for you.
- It is OK to ask for help. It will make you a better person and professional and it will also make you progress faster.
- Trusting your team is key for growth. Surround yourself with people who are better than you in their role.
- Being young doesn’t mean you cannot have an impact.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to dedicate my time and resources to reducing the gender pain gap. I think there is a huge potential in applying technology to this cause, both on the education and the research side. For example, IoT and big data could help women get a faster diagnosis of gynecological diseases. The average diagnosis time today is too long.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Time only moves in one direction.” I remember my physics teacher writing this on the blackboard while explaining entropy, and from that moment on I have repeated this sentence to myself hundreds of times. It reminds me that there is no gain in mulling over the past. We have to accept the present as it is and to work on the future to be as we want it.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Whitney Wolfe Herd is a real inspiration for me. She believed she could change the world and she did it, with her first projects and now with her company Bumble.