Courtney Wachs of Amira Learning

    We Spoke to Courtney Wachs of Amira Learning

    As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Courtney Wachs.

    As Chief Marketing Officer and General Manager, D2C, of Amira Learning, Courtney Wachs is responsible for the brand and marketing strategy for the company, and oversight of Amira’s D2C business and launch of the Amira & the StoryCraft Reading app. Prior to Amira, Courtney spent three years leading the marketing team at Movies Anywhere, a movie app co-managed by top movie studios including, The Walt Disney Company, Sony Pictures, Warner Bros., and Universal Pictures. With a background that includes 20 years of brand and lifecycle marketing experience, Courtney has consistently worked on the cutting edge of new formats and digital products, from the launch of Disney’s first transactional movie app, Disney Movies Anywhere, to the marketing launch and strategic roll-out of the Blu-ray format. She has worked on dozens of successful in-home movie campaigns over her career as well as the launch of several successful toy and game launches in the educational toy space.

    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?

    I’ve had the privilege of spending most of my career marketing content and products that bring families together and give them a reason to engage. I have always been fascinated by how we communicate and interact with one another and how consumer physical and digital products can create a bridge, uniting different folks together. I majored in psychology in college, and worked in a psychology lab as part of my work-study program. Working in a lab was not really my forte — I realized early on that being able to interact and engage with others was critical to sparking my best work. I loved the rigor and the scientific approach that went into the studies I supported, but the human element for me was key. That’s what led me down the path to marketing… for me, marketing strategy (and in particular digital marketing) offered the perfect blend of creativity and innovation built on team-work and collaboration, and data-driven strategy built on qual/quant feedback.

    With Amira, I fell in love with the company mission (to make every child a motivated and masterful reader) and was completely blown away by the reading science and technology that fuels that mission. Our A.I. can completely transform a young frustrated reader who is falling behind to a confident, more successful reader in just weeks. Seeing the power of the A.I. in action and its great potential for making a long-term difference in kids’ lives made the pivot from entertainment to edtech something I had to pursue.

    Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

    We had the opportunity recently to sit down with one of the administrators who utilizes the Amira classroom product for all 20 schools in her district. She shared with us how diverse her district is — a split between relatively affluent and middle-class families and families in extreme poverty. Many of her kids are learning English as a second language and some of her kids are refugees. She noted how thrilled she was that Amira had the ability to support all of the children in her district equally, and said how surprised she was that the A.I had the ability to respond equally well regardless of accent or dialect. Being able to hear from a seasoned professional supporting thousands of kids, all with unique needs, espouse how helpful our product was to ALL of her students was incredibly affirming. I took this job because I believe in our product and mission, and it makes me burst with pride when I hear firsthand the difference our product makes in kids’ lives.

    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?

    There is a delicate line between funny and cringe-inducing, and most of my “mistake” stories probably lean towards cringe-inducing. In the very earliest years of my career I had a boss who seemed to take special joy in creating stressful projects for me to tackle and watching me flounder. In hindsight, I look back and realize that she herself was very young and insecure, and most of her “torture” was inflicted upon me because she had no idea how to do the job herself. After many months of tedious work, no (or conflicting) direction, snide comments, and my boss taking credit for the few wins I was able to achieve… I had had enough. But instead of taking meaningful action,I made the mistake of venting over email to a coworker. I might even have used colorful language when referencing my bosses’ abilities and her annoyingly over-pressed business casual outfits. It should go without saying: never, ever send an email from your work account that you wouldn’t be comfortable getting forwarded around. When you need to have a sensitive conversation, make sure it’s verbal. You can guess what happened next: the email was accidentally forwarded to my boss and she was more than thrilled to use my colorful language as a way to make me look bad to senior execs in the company. I looked extremely petty and foolish (and frankly, I was). On the bright side, the email drama did reveal to senior management that my boss might be playing a large role in creating a disgruntled and frustrated team. That said, the more responsible, straightforward, and less-cringey way to bring senior management into the conversation would have been to simply have had the courage and foresight to connect with them from the beginning.

    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?

    I’ve been fortunate to have had a wonderful circle of friends, colleagues, and mentors who have helped me grow as a manager, strategist and better human. But if I had to choose, a former boss of mine at Disney was one of the first people to actually give me wings. She came in as my new supervisor in the middle of a big project launch that I had been working tirelessly on. I immediately and incorrectly assumed that she would want to swoop in, change everything, and then have me spend my time figuring out how to execute against her vision. But instead, she told me that she had been watching me from the sidelines, and knew that I could handle this project. She told me that she was there to offer support and to unblock blockers, but that she knew that I knew what I was doing. She was the first person to ever tell me, “I know that you can do this without me.” What a powerful thing to hear from a respected leader! She had a level of confidence in me that I certainly didn’t have, but her belief in me was enough to help me feel more comfortable in my own skin while making decisions and when presenting in executive meetings. She made me realize that I belonged in those rooms, and she pushed me to ensure that my voice was heard. I’ve never forgotten that feeling and always try to build that level of confidence, support, and encouragement within my team.

    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?

    As an introvert, my natural tendency when it comes to being in front of a large audience is to attempt to recede into the background. (Am I blending into the wallpaper? Good.) In order to fight through this, I do several things to help boost my confidence and reduce my anxiety: (1) I focus on the role I need to play in the moment. For presentations that are particularly high stakes, I try to put on the hat that the moment requires — shrewd strategist, creative ideator, problem-solver, etc. — and focus on delivering the results I need to deliver in that particular role. If I’m focused on the “role” then I can’t worry about being judged or critiqued personally. (2) I practice my presentations outloud. Sometimes the act of prepping out loud makes me realize that I can speak to the material better than I thought I could. (3) Coffee. Lots of it. (4) Finding at least 15–20 minutes to exercise in the morning keeps me focused and less tense. It took me almost two decades to appreciate a good morning workout, but it really helps!

    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?

    It’s critical to have different voices and perspectives in the room. It fosters much more creativity, greater visionary thinking, and a deeper, more informed connection to the customer. Beyond that, it inspires and motivates the leaders of the future in our workforce, reinforcing that an effective senior executive team is a diverse team. As we think about how to create more meaningful, effective, and successful products and businesses, we need to understand what resonates with diverse audiences and how to connect with these audiences in a meaningful way. Your executive board should be a representation of your audience and users. If you don’t have that representation, there are bound to be gaps in terms of how you succeed.

    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.

    I think the key to creating a more inclusive society is to constantly keep chipping away at the challenges that keep us from being more inclusive. It’s not enough to simply talk about the problem and send out a press release — we all have to be willing to embrace real change, and continue to work on improving equitable representation in the workplace on an ongoing basis. A few examples of what we as leaders can do now to begin chipping away:

    1. Hire thoughtfully — Being very intentional, thoughtful, and open to different perspectives, faces, and backgrounds from the beginning of the hiring process is critical. If your entire team looks and thinks like you, you must rethink your process.
    2. Offer a living wage and a transparent wage structure — This should go without saying, but we can’t expect our employees to thrive and perform to their fullest if they’re struggling to keep their home or wondering how to pay the next bill. Value and reward your employees with fair compensation and benefits, and they will give back tenfold. Additionally, being more transparent about wage structure for all employees is a good start to closing the wage gap.
    3. Provide forums for your diverse workforce to connect and have their voices heard in the wider company — This begins with giving different communities in your workforce the ability to find one another and giving them a safe space to commiserate, support one another, and collectively develop means for change and improvement in the company. But critically, we must also give these groups the opportunity to share their concerns, fears, and ideas with the broader company and C-level teams AND encourage action against these ideas and concerns. Diverse voices must be given a chance to be heard and the executive team must be willing to act.

    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 a CEO or 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?

    An executive is a ‘leader of leaders’. As a ‘leader of leaders’, you must find ways to evolve and articulate a more compelling vision together with your senior team while motivating those leaders to shape the strategy for their core area of business. An executive is not simply responsible for ‘getting projects done’ or helping their team grow professionally (though at a start-up, you certainly do it all!), they are also responsible for leveraging the collective brainpower and strengths of their team to move the entire business forward. As my career has evolved and I’ve taken on more responsibilities, I’ve been able to shift my focus to blue ocean opportunities — to think about transformative change — vs simply rethinking and growing the status quo.

    What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

    1. MYTH: The executive team is able to leave their functional hats at the door to make critical decisions. REALITY: As humans, it’s very easy to fall back into our comfort zone. My comfort zone is marketing — specifically B2C marketing — and it’s very difficult to remove my marketing hat when making critical decisions for the company. Knowing this, for me to make well-rounded decisions, I have to bring in other perspectives from different areas of the business — both at C-suite level and from other functional teams — to inform an approach that might otherwise be biased with a marketing bent.
    2. MYTH: Being tough and encouraging competition amongst your teams builds respect and delivers stronger work. REALITY: Simply being tough is not a means to meaningful results or building respect. And pitting type A personalities against one another to fight their way to the top is a great way to build frustration and anxiety, but is not necessarily a great way to build a strong successful team. In my experience, the best way to build a high-performing team and establish yourself as a high performing leader is to listen; provide forums for meaningful discussion (1:1 and as a team); offer fair and direct feedback often; give your employees room to learn, fail fast, and grow; and execute decisively with an openness to constant iteration.
    3. MYTH: The exec team sets the rules and guidance for the rest of the team to follow, but typically does not have to follow these guidelines themselves. REALITY: Well, sadly this may be the reality at many companies, but it should not be. Good leaders lead by example and make better decisions by empowering their teams and incorporating team feedback into their decision-making. Creating delineations between “the c-suite us” vs the “all other employees — them” creates dangerous divides that can water-down our ability to make good decisions and build a solid strategy. A good executive should never create rules for the company to follow that they themselves cannot embrace.

    In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

    I have been fortunate enough to have worked at several companies with a large number of female executives, but even these seemingly more inclusive environments have some inequality gaps that must be addressed. Truly being ‘heard’ when you don’t necessarily have the loudest voice in the room can be a challenge. This is especially true in the world of Zoom meetings when sometimes the only voice heard is the fastest and loudest to pipe up during a meeting.

    Balancing work and family is also a real challenge. Many of my female colleagues still take on the lionshare of child care and home maintenance responsibilities on top of their long hours at work. Many of us are expected to work late nights and on weekends to get ahead (or in some cases, just to get by). This type of schedule is impossible to manage while still having quality time with family. As a result, many of my female counterparts make huge sacrifices — they lose out on sleep, or they spend less time with their kids/ partner, or they choose to step away from work opportunities that could lead to a promotion. We should not be asking our team members to make these types of sacrifices.

    The only way for us to push through these challenges and to make things better is if we acknowledge that these issues exist, are unhealthy, and agree NOT to accept these ways of doing business any longer. We continue to reinforce bad behavior and the existence of unhealthy work environments when we don’t speak up. The more that we can have open discourse and rally around solution-oriented thinking, the more likely there will be a change.

    What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

    I have never been one to shy away from long hours and hard work, but the notion of “living, sleeping, and eating” your job is LITERAL at a start-up. The reality of being CMO at a start-up is that most of the work is not terribly glamorous, and it can be challenging to carve out personal time amidst a long list of to-dos. However, I can honestly say that all of the “roll-up-my-sleeves” moments that I’ve encountered have allowed me to become a MUCH smarter marketer. I’m continuously finding new hacks to squeeze out every drop of productivity I can from my limited bandwidth and resources.

    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?

    First and foremost, being a good communicator is key. It’s all about being able to manage and communicate effectively up, down, and sideways to ensure stakeholder alignment and to execute successfully. Having a clear understanding of your own personal strengths and shortcomings, AND being able to use these strengths and shortcomings to your advantage is also critical.

    Can anyone be a successful executive? I think first and foremost, you need to be passionate about leading and driving meaningful change and results. If you have that passion and are committed to clear communication; continuously learning from your peers, team, and mentors; and are willing to embrace change and make hard decisions where needed, I would say you have the right foundation for being a strong leader.

    What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

    Make sure that you listen and observe closely, ask lots of questions, and ensure that you are giving your team the opportunity to be leaders themselves. Keep your door open and let your team know how much you value their feedback, their questions, and their guidance. Give your team the space to grow, thrive, and learn, while building trust so they know they can come to you for support. As a leader of leaders, often the best thing I can do is to listen, unblock blockers, and offer my team members the access to the connections and guidance they need to get to the next level in their careers.

    Finally, don’t shy away from letting your intelligence, your drive, and your confidence shine. I sometimes see talented female leaders dampen their ambition, cleverness, and strength in an effort not to appear “bitchy” or “aggressive.” Men don’t worry about these things — neither should you.

    How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

    The focus of my role at Amira Learning is to ensure we can connect our proven product with children who need a leg-up with reading mastery. We’re not just solving short-term reading goals… we’re battling a crisis that is hiding in plain sight: 32 million Americans can’t read. Two-thirds of our fourth graders aren’t proficient readers and 80% of Black and Hispanic students are struggling with reading — and these stats have only worsened since the pandemic. Children who fail to become fluent readers by third grade are 3X more likely to drop out of school and earn 40% less over their lifetime. This literacy gap is a root cause of wealth disparity, unemployment, and racial and gender inequality.

    The team at Amira is aiming to close that literacy gap, and to date, we have delivered 8 million minutes of tutoring to over 200,000 students, powering growth that is, on average, nearly DOUBLE the norm. We can and will do more — our goal is to reach every child in need, and we get closer to that goal every day.

    What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

    1. Be prepared, but don’t overthink it. As an introvert and a perfectionist, it’s taken me a LONG time to realize that there definitely is such a thing as being over-prepared. I find that when I’m too prepared, I am less likely to notice or embrace subtle signals from folks around me, and I’m less likely to extricate myself from my script and really let important conversations go where they need to go. Being a good leader and influencer means allowing yourself to go with the flow at times and improvise when needed. The folks you’re presenting to will appreciate it, and they’ll see more of YOU in what you’re presenting.
    2. Hiring folks who are smarter than you is a given. Hiring folks who offer a unique perspective is key. It’s easy to hire a smart person who thinks and communicates similarly to you. It is MUCH harder to open yourself up to someone who challenges you, and who offers a POV different from your own. Investing in someone who helps push you to see things differently is incredibly important, and your results will reflect this diversity of opinion and approach.
    3. You are going to get things wrong WAY more than you get things right. But the critical thing is to ensure that getting it wrong doesn’t slow or weigh you down — you need to learn, apply those insights, and tackle things differently next time. Then keep tackling things differently until you get it right. And once you get it right, keep making it BETTER.
    4. Don’t be afraid to stop doing something that’s not contributing to the bigger picture. At one time or another, we’ve all found ourselves working on projects because “this is how it’s always been done,” or “I was told to do this, so I’m going to do it… period.” As leaders, we need to ask hard questions about how all of our work is laddering up to bigger goals, and it can be incredibly difficult to extricate ourselves from projects to which we’ve already committed mental power, time, and money. But if all of the projects we’re prioritizing aren’t ultimately supporting the bigger strategic picture, it’s our responsibility to flag it, stop it, and pivot to projects that will better address company goals.
    5. Confidence coupled with honesty will take you far. Having confidence in your company, your team, and yourself is key. No surprise there. But it’s worth noting that that confidence only takes you so far if your team and your stakeholders don’t trust you. Build that trust through honesty and humility. Be transparent when you get something wrong, but also communicate to stakeholders how you’re going to address that mistake. Being honest and open with all stakeholders not only builds trust, but it helps stakeholders feel like they’re part of the solution.

    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.

    Being on the front lines of addressing the literacy gap means that our team sees first hand the destructive power of low-self-confidence, embarrassment and shame. Children struggling with decoding who are asked to read in front of the class often are left feeling “less than” their peers and begin to develop negative feelings about school more broadly. This embarrassment and these negative feelings can then stifle progress and an ability to succeed into adulthood. How wonderful would it be if we could remove shame and embarrassment from the learning process and simply encourage and reward growth, even if that growth follows a slightly different progression than the “status quo”? Part of what makes Amira so successful is that she is infinitely patient, and she doesn’t judge. Kids can go at their own pace without fear of being labeled or appearing “less than.” I think the more that we can boost the confidence of children who are willing to learn and reduce their fear of social stigma, the more progress we’ll see.

    Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

    “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” — Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

    I think this quote speaks for itself, and it’s certainly worth reflecting on given the very short attention span of the world today. Most meaningful change takes time — it requires a gradual chipping away, a slow but decisive buy-in process, and a progessive momentum. As we think about chipping away at the literacy gap — a fight that will take years to address fully — we have to measure our success in mini milestones along the way. Every child we help to reach their goal of reading mastery gets us closer to our ultimate goal of closing that gap.

    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.

    As marketers, our challenge is to offer our audience something special, helpful, and interesting that matches our customers’ unique tastes/needs. A beautiful, funny, and/or creative ad campaign is not enough anymore — we have to connect with our audience on a deeper 1:1 level. The marketing and creative masterminds at Spotify — among them, Alex Bodman and Neal Gorevic — have created an ever-evolving series of personalized campaigns called “Only You” that offer endlessly-sticky user touchpoints that I would love to be able to apply to the edtech space. They have figured out a way to offer content that is uniquely personalized to each of their users, which drives sharing and discussion, and ultimately drives a multiplier of users back into the Spotify app, where they can experience additional personalized and shareable experiences. The user feels celebrated and reacts in turn by celebrating the Spotify experience with others and spending more time in the app. The campaign is brilliant in that it has created an optimized, personalized flywheel — no marketing “trickery” — just highly valued content and experiences that users naturally want to promote themselves.