As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Warnier.
Laura Warnier is Chief Growth Officer at the online tutoring platform, GoStudent. Laura joined GoStudent as the company’s second full-time employee to develop the company’s commercial strategy, and she now oversees marketing, partnerships, and international expansion for the EdTech unicorn. Laura started her professional career at HelloFresh, Google, and Telekom Austria, where she gained extensive experience in business development, sales and marketing.
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 am originally from Belgium, which is where I grew up. My mother is a headteacher and my father is an entrepreneur, so I’ve always been immersed in an environment where education and entrepreneurship matter — which makes sense given the direction my career has taken!
I was a very playful, driven, and responsible kid. I was part of several youth organizations and dancing clubs. Dancing, singing (or rather shouting…), team playing, and competing was part of my routine! My first leadership experience was at the age of 10, when I was in the Scouts. I became the youngest member to lead a team of seven children. During my free time I spent hours rearranging closets — from my bedroom closet to the school library — to organize them in a more efficient way. This character trait has followed me until now — I love structuring, optimizing, and cutting out complexity from anything I do.
I left Belgium about 10 years ago to study for my double master’s degree in international management. I initially planned to study abroad for just a brief time; however, I quickly realized that I wanted to continue learning in other countries, so that I could immerse myself in the languages and cultures. I ended up studying in Belgium, the UK, Denmark, and Spain, as well as completing an internship at HelloFresh in Berlin.
After my studies, I was hired by Google in Dublin as Agency Account Manager for France. I helped marketing agencies and their clients to better understand Google advertising infrastructure and make the right budget decisions regarding online marketing. I then relocated to Austria, where I first worked in the telecoms industry before building a department for paid performance marketing for an international advertising agency.
In 2018, I joined GoStudent as its second full-time employee, which is where I’ve worked since. Here, I’ve been responsible for developing what we like to call our customer acquisition machine. For me, this has encompassed building internal processes and growing the sales and marketing teams from 0 to more than 250+ employees and, for the past year, owning our international expansion strategy.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I have a story from fairly recently, actually. I was interviewing a candidate for a management position via video. Her child was home from preschool because he was sick, and so he was in the room with her. On the most part he was quiet and settled, and the interview was going really well. As we were saying our goodbyes, both feeling inspired and excited for the next steps, her toddler got up and mooned the camera.
Both his mom and I laughed — kids will be kids and you can’t control every single moment of an interview. For some, this would have been a total deal breaker — but for me, it was the cherry on the cake. I was happy to see how comfortable and unapologetic his mom was at that moment. I saw a glimpse of her everyday life, outside of her professional persona. I always look for authenticity and these moments show you how a person might handle the unexpected, or something not going according to plan. It made me realize that, when recruiting, I should always encourage candidates to be their true selves. And the candidate? She was hired for a director-level position!
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 am someone that is always multitasking. I love to be busy, and so I try to maximize every moment of my time. When I started at GoStudent, I was especially keen to do as much as I could, as quickly as I could. Whenever I walked anywhere, I would be on my phone, responding to messages. I was walking down the street, staring at my phone and I took a film-worthy tumble. My phone went flying and I was flat on my face (thankfully only my pride was dented!)
This comedy moment taught me the importance of taking small moments for myself, though. I now try to use my walks to listen to music that I enjoy. Taking these breaks actually makes me better at my job, because I’ve had a moment to disconnect and clear my mind, before diving right back into work.
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?
My parents have been absolutely key to my success. I truly believe that the environment you grow up in plays a huge role in defining who you are. As mentioned, my father was an entrepreneur, so from a young age he taught me to take risks and to break rules. He showed me that it can be rewarding to take the path less travelled and encouraged my sister and I to have a strong sense of independence and a bold attitude. My mother was also an incredibly strong influence. She is one of the most driven people I’ve ever known and has an incurable restlessness, meaning she never gives up, even in very tough situations. She gave me my go-getting attitude and positive outlook, which I am immensely grateful for.
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?
Dance has always been a passion of mine. I started at the age of 8 and, during my peak time, I trained up to 10 hours a week. Whilst I no longer dance in a formal capacity, it is in my blood. For me, dance has always been a way to release the emotions that I am feeling — be they positive or negative. I hear music, and my mind comes alive — I can visualize the steps and my body follows.
When Covid hit, it was a particularly stressful time, professionally. We were working from home, in the midst of trying to fundraise. Because schools were closed and exams postponed, tutoring was not a priority for parents. We were facing a lot of challenges, and we were all feeling the pressure. I found myself walking and dancing far more often than usual — either at home, or in the park, late at night, with music playing in my headphones. I’d end each routine feeling calmer, energized, and ready to overcome the hurdles that were in front of me.
When I am in the office, I can do the same thing — If I need to take a moment for myself, I put on my headphones, allowing the dance to play out in my head. By imagining the movements, I can focus 100% on that, and re-center myself. And sometimes, I even enjoy the freedom of making some more recognizable moves…
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?
Diverse teams allow for diverse opinions. If a team does not represent the needs, views, outlooks and priorities of society as a whole, then it is missing out on essential input and insight. I personally love to hire extreme personalities and I look for people who are confident with who they are. These individuals might not fit a traditional mold, but they will without a doubt add value by being true to their authentic selves. They will also challenge me, and the rest of the team, which is so important.
I believe that a person’s life experiences are also what helps to shape them, and it is important to have talents with different backgrounds in senior roles. We should do more to empower individuals to feel confident to apply for senior positions; I often am most drawn to those that are proud of their life experiences, and that have fought to get to where they are. This shows resilience, strength and willpower, which are qualities that some are too shy to share in an interview setting, and yet it is just these personalities that we need.
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.
For me, the key to an inclusive society is ensuring that every business leader is focused on making their product or service available to everyone. In our case, we are planning ahead to work out how we can diversify our offering to bring tutoring to those that perhaps can’t use our current model for whatever reason. While we don’t have the immediate solution, it is an important goal, and one that we will proactively be looking to meet. Businesses should always be thinking about how they can support the many, not the few.
Tied to this, is the importance of ensuring that your company is representative. When expanding into a new market, or reaching out to a new audience, it is vital that you first have a good idea of local sensitivities and priorities, so that you can adequately reflect these needs. In our case, it is vital that we understand differences in education systems, levels of access to private schools and where there are income gaps, so that we can ensure that our offering is accessible. By hiring people within those markets, rather than having your central team oversee expansion, you will gain an accurate understanding of these very specific and important needs, and you will ensure that individuals within that market are authentically represented.
I also believe that the key to an equitable society is ensuring that all people have the same opportunities. As business leaders, it is our responsibility to support this cause in whatever way makes sense. For us, our goal, as we grow, is to eventually make our tutoring service available to all, so that all children are able to see the doors that education can open for them, and can be inspired to, for example, pursue higher education or to study a new disciple. While not every business can do this right away, the key is to be thinking about the partnerships you could enter into, or the initiatives that you could put into place, and then focus on making them a reality.
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?
It might come as a surprise, but one of the biggest parts of our job is to listen. We spend hours listening to colleagues and to customers, as well as to the media and other experts in our space. By listening to what everyone has to say, we can come up with new ideas, based on what is actually needed, not simply what we think would be interesting.
Once we’ve listened, it is our responsibility to scale the ideas that have been formed. We build the foundation, and then we hire the talent that will make the vision become a reality. We share our ideas and our knowledge, and then we empower these new talents to use their experience and understanding to make the project their own.
This is where the third responsibility comes in: as an executive we must be the visionaries for the company. It is our job to ensure that we continually inspire our team and share with them the big vision for the business. So often a team member is required to focus only on the day, week, or month ahead. We, as the executive team, need to always be thinking of the next year, even the next five years. That way, we can always share the big picture. We are the inspiring partner for all of the incredible team members and leads that ensure that the day-to-day running of the company is going smoothly. If they have a bad day, we can offer the long-term view.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
I think one of the biggest myths out there is that the executive team is only focused on strategy, but, at least in the startup environment, this is not at all the case. In my experience, the senior team is typically very operational — and this is often a strategic choice. To distance oneself from the day-to-day means that you are not in the mix when some of the best ideas are formed. Ideas come from the customers, the team and the industry, and the executive team needs to be able to hear these ideas in order to execute them.
This actually leads me on to the second myth that I’d like to dispel: that the C-Suite is unreachable. Good leaders know that the best ideas come from their team, and so they see the benefit of being hands on. They also know that if they are approachable, the team will be empowered to seek help or advice and share their ideas. Typically, you will have already experienced the hurdle that is being faced so, by offering solutions based on your own experiences, the most effective outcome will be achieved.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
What I am going to raise is an issue faced by all women, not only female executives. In some countries, we need to stop believing that women are the best caregivers for a child, and that, because of this, if a mother is also working, by having a child she will suddenly have less time or energy to dedicate to her work. A person’s capacity to focus on something is not finite, and a child does not mean that the attention dedicated to one area of a woman’s life is halved when a baby is born.
When a male executive or employee becomes a father, his commitment to his role is almost never questioned; however, this is rarely the case for a woman in the exact same position, because she is immediately assumed to be the primary caregiver. This has a really problematic effect and leads to a decrease in the number of female voices in the room. In an executive team, women bring different perspectives and competences to the table, as well as the ability to challenge views and ideas. If women are not being invited to participate, then vital input is going to be lost. Half of a company’s potential customers and employees are women and the best way to attract them is by having equal decision makers in a company.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
For me, everything about my role is hugely different to what I expected when I joined GoStudent in 2018! When I started, we were a tiny company — just myself, our two co-founders, Felix and Gregor, and a couple of developers and students, armed with a lot of ambition, a big vision, and some solid experience. I was working at a senior level, but I was also incredibly operational. I built all of the company’s commercial workflows and processes, I hired and trained new team members and, for a long time, not only was I head of sales and marketing, but I was also the marketing manager, the CRM manager, and the sales enablement manager. I wore so many hats, but it meant that I got to know the fabric of the company inside out.
For a long time, I thought my role would always be this hands-on; however, with the sales and marketing team at GoStudent now at 300+ people, my role is much more about giving back and sharing my vision and experience. Rather than building processes, I am building teams. I do a lot of hiring now. When we see the need for a new talent, I am best placed to bring them into the company because I have likely done their role before, so I know what to look for, and I’ll have an immediate gut feeling. I have also been part of the culture at GoStudent almost since day one, so I have a good idea of how to spot an individual that is going to be a good fit.
I do miss the operational element from time to time, but I also understand that my personal mission has changed as the company has matured. My goal is no longer to build the foundations, it is to plan for the future, have a vision and hire the right people to ensure that the GoStudent continues to thrive.
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?
I honestly believe that there is not a single person that should avoid being an executive. If you want something badly enough in life, you will make it happen. Perhaps right now there is someone that wants to become a leader, but is not currently the perfect candidate, for whatever reason. My advice for them would be to identify the areas where they want to grow and then learn from those that have the skills that they are seeking to develop. Reach out to people that inspire you and ask for advice — show initiative and take control of your destiny.
I can also offer some advice regarding the qualities I see as key to being a successful executive. In my mind, the best leaders have, among others, the following traits:
- They are responsible and accountable — As a member of the executive team, you need to understand what your responsibilities are and why you were hired. Your role is to own the direction that the company takes — good and bad. You are accountable for its successes and its challenges, and you need to have the strength of mind to do this. You’ll need to make fast decisions and take mistakes on the chin. The best leaders are those that do this with a positive mindset, and that don’t let the stress they are under impact others.
- They are passionate and driven — Being a member of the executive team is a restless job — you wake up and you go to sleep thinking about the company and where it is headed next. I personally see this restlessness as passion — by being always on, we have been able to build a company that we are incredibly proud of and that we wholeheartedly believe in. The best executive teams are made up of individuals that are equally as passionate as each other — they have so much energy because they are so driven and see inspiration in everything that they do.
- They set goals and are rational — There is a lot of emotion in human interaction, and this is especially true when a team is passionate about the business that they are building. A good leader is able to act rationally when faced with someone that is communicating with too much emotion. Because the executive team needs to be goal-driven in order to succeed, they need to take this same approach in these interactions: they go back to the facts and work out how to find the right solution that will allow all parties to move forward. By having goals, and always keeping them in mind, you are better able to prioritize and focus.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
For me, the key to success is trust and expertise. As a leader, you need to hire people who have more experience than you in a certain domain and that you feel can do the job better than you would do it on your own. If you trust in their ability, then they will feel empowered to own fully the task that you have given them. If a team has the freedom to work in the way that best suits them, relying on their experience and instincts, then they are going to function far better than one that is micromanaged or afraid of their employer.
Equally, though, a good leader is always there for their team. I find it best to take an open-door approach. My team knows that I trust them, so I won’t chase them, but that they can always, at any time, come to me for support, advice, or guidance.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
For me, I think this is still to come. GoStudent is still a very young company — we are just five years old — but we have big dreams. We want to make high quality education accessible to all that need it, and we want to do this in a meaningful way. We are working now to grow rapidly, so that we can connect as many students as possible with top tutors; however, in the future we are keen to explore how we can use our network to give back on a much wider scale.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You’ll spend a lot of time hiring: When I was starting out, I would never have imagined that I would spend so much time hiring. In fact, if I’d been told that I’d spend 30–40% of my time in interviews, I might even have said that the job was not for me. What I’ve learnt, though, is that hiring is one of the biggest sources of learning. I now use interviews with candidates as an opportunity to listen and learn. Every person comes with fresh eyes and new experiences, and I love these interactions. It is incredibly inspiring to see candidates that instantly get what your vision is and that make you feel excited and energized.
- Don’t let emotions drive the wrong decisions: Unfortunately, this isn’t something that I’ve found the answer to just yet, but it is definitely something that I wish I’d been given the answer to before I took on an executive role! When you are leading a hyper-growth company, you are surrounded by passionate and driven people. This means that often there is a lot of emotion, and feelings of stress, frustration and anxiety can arise. When someone is in a highly emotional state, the instinct is to empathize; however, as a leader, you need to take a calm and rational approach, in order to reach the best outcome. It can be difficult to read these situations, and I wish I knew the key to resolving these situations perfectly every time.
- Titles matter: It’s important not to underestimate the power of job titles. On the one hand, titles attract and retain talents, but when wrongly used, they can also create confusion and frustration, and limit employees to share their ideas and opinions. Addressing the last point specifically, at GoStudent we have a very flat hierarchy; however, a number of our employees come from offices where this has not been the case, and so an opinion or idea coming from a person with a more senior title can be taken for granted and not challenged or questioned. This has happened to me several times but by being aware of this, I proactively encourage my team members to challenge my ideas and decisions.
- The message can be lost in translation: The main communication medium at GoStudent is Slack — an alternative to emails. In the management team we tend to use it at any time of the day and the week, and without formalities. This enables us to be more efficient. However, when employees don’t know us and are not yet used to our fast and bold communication, they sometimes perceive it as too direct. Written communication can be wrongly interpreted depending on the emotional state and personality of the receiver. The solution? Use a lot of emojis to send out the right message or emphasize the emotions! And leave more complex discussions to oral communication.
- Trust your gut: In my almost 3 years at GoStudent, I have probably interviewed around 600 people — for any job function and from 40+ countries. I’ve learned what we are looking for and can now hire candidates for certain positions within a few minutes. At the beginning, however, it wasn’t so crystal clear. We were questioning the fit of some candidates without knowing exactly what it was that wasn’t a right fit. Because we could not pinpoint the reason for our reticence, we were then giving a chance to the candidate. But in the majority of these cases, the partnership didn’t work out for either party, and those feelings were right. Bottom line: trust your gut.
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.
Something that concerns me is how people so often feel pressured to fit a certain mold or follow certain outdated society rules. Be it in the workplace, at school, with a group of friends, or at the office, there are, it seems, a handful of ‘acceptable’ ways to be, and if you do not conform, then you feel pressured to change how you look, how you act, or how you think. If I could bring about change, it would be to help us to not only accept ourselves for who we are, but also to embrace our differences — what make us all unique, authentic, and interesting — in order to bring different perspectives to the table and change the status quo.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A life lesson that has always guided me is “There are no problems, only challenges, and every challenge brings with it a new opportunity”.
I believe that in any unexpected or tough situation, the best way forward is to embrace the challenge and trust yourself, your decisions, and the people around you; knowing that together, you’ll handle it. In any case, no matter the outcome, a challenge is always a great opportunity to learn and make yourself stronger — more experienced, more knowledgeable, more confident. By staying positive and open-minded towards any challenge that comes your way, you’ll have the confidence to take it on, and will see the potential in doing so. Will tackling the challenge teach you something new? Will it encourage you to take a new direction that, ultimately, might be better? By always framing a problem as a learning moment and an opportunity for something maybe even greater, I’ve been able to foster an incredibly positive attitude, which is vital when leading a company and inspiring a team.
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
I’d love to have a coffee with Misty Copeland, the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). She started her career at the age of 13, which is very late for dancers, but she didn’t let that hold her back. She trained for hours a day, with her one goal in mind. She was and is passionate, disciplined, and driven. She challenged the perception of the physique a ballet dancer should have, and her curves became part of her dancer identity. She chose not to conform to the dated and sometimes damaging rules that have typically applied to the industry, and it worked. She is a fighter: she has lived her dream against all odds, trying not to apologize for who she is.