As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Wetzel.
Lauren Wetzel is Chief Operating Officer of InfoSum, one of the hottest new technology companies in the field of privacy and customer data collaboration. As COO, Lauren manages strategy, operations, marketing, business development, and the company’s all-important People function.
Prior to joining InfoSum, Lauren was SVP, Strategy and Corporate Development for AT&T’s advertising company, Xandr. Before diving headlong into operational roles, Lauren worked for several years as a strategy consultant within Deloitte’s Technology, Media and Telecommunications practice.
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?
Well, how far would you like me to go back? I grew up in Baltimore, was a great student and a pretty good athlete. Had the good fortune to go to excellent schools — Drexel and Duke — and got started early in my career as a strategist in the world of media and technology. Now when I’m asked what my superpower is, I say it’s an ability to see the future. But the truth is that seeing the future is the easy part — I’ve learned over my career that structuring and operating an organization to take advantage of the future is the difficult (and more fun) part!
I started my career working in consulting, first with Razorfish and then for nearly 8 years at Deloitte in their Media and Entertainment division. During my time at Deloitte when working with clients like Verizon and Facebook, I started to excel in projects that were on the convergence of technology and telecommunications. There was a surge of Fortune 100-sized companies who were launching new businesses. My team worked to solve issues that come when large companies start entrepreneurial ventures — in many cases these are problems related to the mismatch in the skills and resources associated with running an established, mature business versus managing the chaos of a new technology venture.
My time at Deloitte, and those types of projects in particular, led me to an exciting role with Xandr, the advertising arm of AT&T that had been launched in 2018. I worked as the Chief of Staff to CEO Brian Lesser, who has been a great mentor to me (and a person I am working with again at InfoSum). In 2019, I led the investment from AT&T in InfoSum, and spent the next year working closely with the InfoSum team to help them grow and scale up. Last year, I officially joined InfoSum, first as President of the North American business, and now as Chief Operating Officer.
What excited me most about InfoSum was how we are at this industry inflection point with a prioritization of consumer privacy. People are fed up with how their data is misused, and companies need to be smarter and safer with how they use data, this new valuable asset.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The full-circle journey I’ve had with InfoSum has been so interesting. First coming onboard as an investor in February 2020, and then just 18 months later helping to lead the Series B raise where we brought in $65 million. I was so surprised at how fast things can move and how efficient the fundraising process could be, having only been on the investor side in the past.
The past few years have driven an engaged market of investors to become more interested in companies like InfoSum, thanks to an increase in hacks, scandals around big social media companies’ handling of data, and consumers driving data privacy conversations. Being able to lead our Series B to help fuel our next chapter was such a unique opportunity to learn from.
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?
This one is easy. Our founder and CTO is a semi-professional race car driver on one of the British circuits. When I joined InfoSum I made the mistake of saying, “Wow — I’d love to sit in the passenger seat one day while you’re testing a track.” Lo and behold, this past October I found myself at the famous Brands Hatch track outside of London, wearing a helmet and a neck brace, getting hurled around a race track next to our founder. Terrifying! But also good fun. The lesson is be careful what you say while trying to be polite and make conversation!
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 already mentioned Brian, my current boss and InfoSum’s CEO as a great mentor, so I’ll highlight another career influencer I am grateful for, who shaped my career at the very start.
Christina Kozen was the leader of the Business Development Team at Avenue A Razorfish. I had the opportunity to work on her team and was the most junior person at the time. It was one of my first full time / real-world job experiences. To cut to the chase, Christina was a badass. She had one of the most challenging and high-pressure roles at the company — pitching to win new business, which at an agency is an area that can either make or break you. She led her team and oversaw the pitches to acquire clients (often a cross-functional exercise with a range of teams and personalities involved) with authority. She did all of this while also being incredibly approachable, open, and transparent. She had high standards and it molded my own set of high standards at a formative time in my career — which I’ve held myself and my team members to ever since. I had a front row seat to witness a woman — oftentimes one of the only women in the pitch room — and someone younger compared to that of the other folks at her level, shine and build a name for herself where no one questioned her gender or her age.
Christina also gave the best advice. When asked, I attribute a lot of my success to starting my career in Management Consulting. It provided me with strong training, challenged me to pick up both hard and soft skills incredibly quickly, and opened doors to prestigious MBA programs and clients who turned into employers. I also didn’t have parents, family or friends who worked in business or even knew what ‘management consulting’ was to ever even suggest that path, but I had Christina at the early stages of my career. Christina recognized my talent and pushed me to challenge myself and explore a career in consulting.
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?
Taking long walks whenever I can in the day and yoga both are incredibly helpful for me for stress relief and for moments of clarity. The last two years have been incredibly trying in so many ways. The physical separation during COVID has made it harder for us all to represent ourselves in the same manner as we used to. I love going to conferences, business pitches, giving keynotes, and just being in-person in my element.
Over the last year, walking and yoga have been my saviors to help keep me level. Yoga makes me have to be phoneless and disconnected from the world for that hour of class. I am unreachable, and it makes me able to recenter myself.
Walking helps me recharge myself both before and during the day. Living in New York can be stressful, but those long walks through my neighborhood can help me relax and work myself through my priorities before hopping back online.
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?
Walking the walk is more important than talking a big game in this regard. Businesses perform better when they are hearing from both a diverse employee base and a diverse executive team. Companies should reflect what the general population looks like. Despite many generations of white male leaders, that is not reflective of what our society looks like.
Beyond the optics is what we can learn from those groups and individuals different from our own. Different perspectives and lived experiences help us as leaders to better understand our workforces, customers, and the world around us. It’s imperative that we take the time to listen and learn from those around us, especially those who have had a different background from ourselves.
Doing the work also means prioritizing more than just making high-profile social justice donations. Putting an effort into building a strong recruiting team, prioritizing retention of your diverse staff and leadership, having a focus on a supportive mental health focus throughout the company, and creating enterprise resource groups will ensure that we showcase our commitment to developing our staff. Education is key. Education is also work. This education should also be on the learners and not solely on the teachers.
It’s simple, having a diverse team is not just good citizenship, it’s good for business.
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.
The first step to take is to acknowledge that people are coming from different groups and backgrounds that have shaped them and made their journeys different. I think this is actually two-fold.
We don’t know what some of our peers, colleagues, or strangers we encounter are going through. We need to treat everyone with respect and patience — the barista we are frustrated with making our cappuccino wrong may have a sick parent at home; our co-worker might be dealing with something that made that assignment slightly less impressive than their usual work.
Additionally, we need to respect that others’ journeys to where they are now may have been vastly different based on their race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Those journeys have made their outlook and experiences different. Those different experiences are the greatest strength that companies and our societies can rely on. We do not live in a monolithic society, and our companies should not seem that way either.
Specifically when you are leading an organization and trying to build an inclusive and substantive culture which can sustain, you must acknowledge that everyone has ownership in that. It is the role of leaders within these organizations to empower people at every level. Leaders of culture are not exclusively reserved for executives and senior-ranking employees.
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?
I work for a very dynamic technology company in a fast-paced market. Everyone who works at InfoSum needs to be exceptional at their job, which involves some combination of skill, intelligence, communication, ambition, and organization. I am lucky to work with and lead an amazing group of people.
Having said that, there are major differences to being on the executive team. One of the differences, and very specific to my role as COO, is that everything is my job. While we work hard to make sure every team member has clear responsibilities and KPIs (me included), as COO I have the extra responsibility of ‘everything else’ that is not written in my job description. This is implied by the role, but more importantly an expectation I set for myself. There is no, ‘that’s someone else’s responsibility,’ when you are the COO of a successful technology company. The job is to figure out how to be helpful, how to develop tools, processes, and norms for the entirety of the business.
The other major difference in being an executive leading the business, and specific to my role managing corporate strategy, is that while most team members are focused on the quarter or the year, I have to do that, AND plan for the next five-to-ten years. Annual priorities are always important, but my role is to make sure they align with a longer-term plan, and to ensure we are on track for the broadest-possible opportunity.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to being a leader, and particularly a female leader. I have seen people with many opposing characteristics excel in leadership roles: both introverts and extroverts; micro-managers and big-picture thinkers. One does not need to fit into a mold in order to excel.
One myth I’d like to see dispelled comes back to what we were previously saying about diversity in leadership. As a society we haven’t done a great job of making executives diverse and inclusive. There has been a misconception of what a “leader” looks like. When you see a CEO, world leader, or other executive in a movie, we’re not always showing how diverse that position might be.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
There aren’t enough women which has a trickle-down effect and leads to things like not enough parental leave, and staggered promotion timelines. Women’s personal lives and identities surrounding family (children in particular) are held against them still in a way that they are not for their male counterparts. We are all fluent with the phrase “she is a working mother” and yet rarely do we ever hear “he is a working father.”
Sometimes being the only voice representing women of your company on an executive team can also add an increased amount of pressure. Too often, women, especially in companies where there are few women executives, may feel undeserving of their own accomplishments, leading to self-doubt and low confidence. This is often referred to as imposter syndrome. Our Women’s Network at InfoSum, recently read a fascinating article from HBR “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome.” The article explored why imposter syndrome exists in the first place and what role workplace systems play in fostering and exacerbating it in women, questioning whether the concept of imposter syndrome may be the very reason women may be inclined to distrust their success. I tend to agree with the article.
Perhaps the biggest challenge faced by women executives is they are often the ones tasked with leading the charge to address these workplace systematic biases.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
My background in consulting actually prepared me quite well for this role! Every day there is a new problem to work on solving. In my few months in the COO role, these have ranged from overhauling our US-focused benefits packages to ensure we’re offering our employees top-of-the-line healthcare and vacation, rolling out new messaging alongside our marketing team, and also overseeing our search for new internal softwares and tools to make sure our teams are optimized for success.
There are some obvious benefits, and some speed bumps to rebuilding parts of the business I’m overseeing like I am now. Building from the ground up in certain departments and being able to put better practices in place I find to be both a hefty challenge but a massive opportunity. In my previous companies I walked into well-established departments and operational oversights which made things easier but also more inflexible when needing to make changes.
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?
No — it’s not for everyone. This is not to say that you can’t be, but it means that this path or role may not be the most valuable for your career and life. There are many paths that may take you towards there, but there are a few things to keep in mind to increase your chances at being a successful executive. I’ll share three.
Vision. Successful executives require vision and the ability to articulate that vision. Your vision is not an immediate goal or objective. Vision helps to articulate where you want to go and can help inspire and influence others to march towards it. It serves as a framework to set short and long-term goals and helps you to guide your decisions along the way.
Flexibility and adaptability. Executives need to be ready to do what is necessary, adapt, and change. With influences of technology and communication preferences of younger generations, one constant is change. Businesses and the cultures which shape them will always be morphing. The past two years enduring the global pandemic is one of the greatest examples of companies needing to be flexible and adaptable. You can maintain your values and core beliefs, but you also need to change with the times, listen and learn new ways of leading.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Develop thick skin. Take the high road whenever you can. Call out discrimination and hypocrisy whenever you see it. Build an organization to eradicate it. Be yourself and invent your own authentic version of leadership. Don’t underestimate the power of being kind. Kindness is not weakness. Most importantly don’t try to live up to anyone’s version of what a female leader should look like.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
This first starts with not letting success go to your head, and not forgetting your roots, where you came from (and how you felt) before achieving success. It is also about recognizing that there were others who helped me reach this level of success, and knowing that this didn’t just happen on my own.
Recognizing this is helpful to remind you to pay it forward and make it a priority to carve out time for people who reach out and ask for career advice. Identifying the ways you can support others, and putting in the work to do that or the work to connect others when I am not the best positioned to provide the right intel.
With leadership positions and success comes great responsibility to make meaningful change happen. These changes don’t need to be “change the world” ambitions, but what you do for the team you lead can influence the company at large, and can influence the industry you sit in, and raise standards across a range of areas. Your small effort may trigger this butterfly effect of changes — whether that is fostering a progressive culture, empowering someone who didn’t feel like they had enough mentorship, or opening up brainstorming sessions to a larger group leading to a new product idea.
At InfoSum in particular, there are a few examples I’ve been focused on. The first is by putting in place a company-wide bonus payout, ensuring all employees have the opportunity to be rewarded based on our shared success. We’ve taken a strong position on Diversity and Inclusion in the past year since I’ve joined with the outline of company wide commitments, and launch of new initiatives and resource groups. We’ve also made it a priority to raise awareness of mental health, whether in discussion or in programs we’ve invested in for our employees.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
You can’t (and won’t) always make people happy. The more responsibilities you have, more decisions you need to make, and the larger teams that you manage often mean that your decisions won’t always be celebrated unanimously by your colleagues and teams. This is part of the job. You can’t always control how others will feel and react to your decisions, but what you can always do when you make them — is explain the ‘why’ — share more about the process you went through, what data and other inputs you had to influence your decision at this time, and help people to understand your perspective.
Try to enjoy the process. Doing great work often takes time, and we often don’t celebrate or enjoy the moments while doing the work until the process is over and it feels like there is a “win” to celebrate. You will hustle through work to feel the satisfaction at the end of a fundraising round, close of a sales pitch, or any other critical project, but the process and often the challenges and work to get there can sometimes be the best experience and learned moments. It is worthwhile to enjoy and savor those moments. It’s always over before you know it.
Your ‘To do’ list won’t always get done each day (and that’s okay). The ‘type A’ activity of building to-do lists and the satisfying feeling of crossing off every line of the list will happen some days, but not every day, especially in a fast-growing company in a dynamic industry. The to-do list should exist to keep you accountable to get tasks done, not as a daily yardstick of how successful each day was.
Often spending time deciding what isn’t worth your time is actually a great example of time well spent. Proactively choosing where you focus your time, on what challenges, and why you choose to put your energy into a given task, is an important exercise. Sometimes the art of delegating and saying no is the best time you can put into a day to ensure that you stay focused and that you are being intentional with your time.
Don’t try and label things on extreme ends. It is incredibly important to not look at situations, or judge individuals on extreme ends of “all or nothing” or “right or wrong.” The majority of situations fall somewhere in-between in the grey area. It may feel easier to try and put labels on everything based on experiences, but it is also important to monitor your reactions and be open to acknowledge the grey areas and not limit your perspective.
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.
When I think about the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, outside of the scope of my work here at InfoSum in building the next generation of data privacy, I immediately think about protecting our planet. We have so many great leaders on topics that are important to me, but my choice would be to address the challenges with climate change. This is obviously already a movement being driven by some fantastic businesses, governments, and individuals. It is a topic which brings world leaders together to discuss, but too often education on this topic to kids in classrooms or the everyday person gets soured by political back-and-forth, or failure to see the bigger picture while focused on short-term challenges.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Live your life on purpose. Perhaps the strategist in me, who subscribes to the notion of vision and planning, but I love Simon Sinek’s advice on this topic and his quote of “Live your life of purpose.” He describes this further to state that each of us as individuals (and yes, also companies) need to have a destination in mind, and that you should be less concerned about the route. Knowing where you are going and defining the destination is critical. You must stay focused, find the destination/ the cause, and from that discovery the ‘passion’ will come. Once you know that destination, living your life on purpose, is doing everything every day to get there.
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 would love to do coffee or breakfast with Melinda Gates. I love to learn and there is no possible way to leave coffee or breakfast with Melinda Gates without increasing knowledge across a range of topics. I’ve long admired her personally: her career in technology, her commitment to family, and her role in being one of the most impactful advocates for gender equality. The ambition of the Gates Foundation is inspiring. For over 20 years, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been committed to tackling the greatest inequities in our world. Melinda is a true force behind their purpose and the strategies to get there.