As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy Xiao.
As Mason’s CEO, Nancy Xiao is responsible for day-to-day company leadership as well as driving its next stage of innovation. She previously served as the President of Mason–overseeing the company’s meteoric growth both in terms of company expansion and platform adoption. A mobile technology and hardware industry nerd, Nancy has undertaken complex challenges, from pushing the boundaries of VR to enabling companies to build their own smart hardware product lines.
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?
My tech startup journey dates back to high school. Growing up in Seattle, the tech scene was a big part of the local culture, and I found myself welcomed with open arms by professionals like Andy Sack, Chris Devore, Jennifer Cabala, and the Startup Weekend community. This level of inclusivity has stood out for me and become a common thread in any community that I want to be a part of. I had the chance to work alongside local legends in two different internships before I headed off for college where I wanted to continue down this path. I began teaching myself design, focusing on infographics and print design as a starting point.
At Michigan, I found myself in the thick of always building something — whether a nonprofit or side projects or startup events. I learned to code, in addition to refining my design skills, and eventually took these skills to Parse, a backend-as-a-service platform for mobile app developers that was acquired by Facebook. I jumped into the deep end as a product marketer, building a global developer community and getting a chance to learn firsthand about platform businesses, and the dynamics of being in a startup within a larger company. From there, I moved to Oculus, a VR development company, shortly after their acquisition by Facebook. It felt so scrappy at that time — the very first consumer headset, Oculus Rift, was still in pre-order, and it was up to my team to figure out how to market this new category, take the product to retail, build up our brand against heavy-duty competitors, invest in a developer community, and more. Both my experiences at Parse and Oculus gave me the opportunity to work closely with founding teams, grow platform businesses, and see the value of building out the tools and services that enable others to innovate. My favorite days were getting to go onsite with Oculus game developers, play-testing their new creations, or meeting Parse developers in person — seeing the people who were able to innovate with the platform we had built.
Now as CEO of Mason, I oversee the day-to-day leadership and operations of the company. We’re here to empower innovators to build the next Peloton or Square by democratizing access to creating and launching smart devices.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
There’s no shortage of adventures at Mason! I recently attended a happy hour hosted by one of our engineering managers. One of the product managers knew I was hoping to finally get my hands on the new Mason A4100 smartwatch, and it was so special to get to unbox it with part of my team. In that moment, it felt so moving to know how many hours and how much effort had gone into this final product from our global, remote team, and to think that much of this work took place in the midst of a pandemic. I think it highlights the power of collaboration and our core values to be able to ship something this monumental in the face of so many other challenges.
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?
We had a bit of a fire drill earlier this year where we had to fulfill an order in a short period of time, so our fulfillment center team requested volunteers from other groups at the company. People from all areas showed up, from engineering to recruiting and more. Since many of our team members joined while our workforce was remote because of the pandemic, most of the volunteers never met each other in person. When everyone arrived, we laughed at how wrong we were about everyone’s heights. Prior to this meeting, we only spent time with each other on video calls, so it was really meaningful to see people’s full presence. One team member described it as being in the afterglow of a great party. It was one of the first in-person interactions we’d had for some time, and since then we’ve had other opportunities for the team to get together which have been invaluable. It made me realize how important those moments can be outside of a Zoom box, and it’s something we’re actively thinking about incorporating as a ritual for our remote team as the world opens up again.
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 could fill pages with the names of people who have helped me along my journey. It really takes a village.
I’ve learned from so many incredible women like Christine Yen, CEO of Honeycomb.io, Deb Liu, CEO of Ancestry, Asha Sharma, COO of Instacart, and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Seeing these women take on executive roles made me feel less alone and gave me the hope and fight to prove that I could do it, too. Each of them have made time for me despite their crazy schedules, which is something I try to pay forward.
There were a few leaders who invested and believed in me at the very early stages of my career and continue to be my sounding boards today. Dug Song, who sold his company Duo Security to Cisco, Dan Gilbert, cofounder of Quicken Loans and owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, and Nick Seguin, who currently leads partnerships and people at Rise, all gave me support and encouragement when I didn’t necessarily have much in the way to give in return. When starting my nonprofit Creators Co-op, now called Shift, which is a for-students-by-students business incubator, Dug, Dan, and Nick provided tons of inspiration and support. Dug came and spoke to the students in our program. Dan spent a day with us, taking questions and sharing learnings. He also provided full resources for us to host a massive hackathon in Detroit without batting an eye. Nick offered me my first college internship at the Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurship when I was just eighteen years old, and to this day is someone I call on for advice and input.
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?
Over the years, I’ve met a number of founders and tech leaders in the Bay Area who were negatively impacted by the amount of mental and societal pressure placed upon them. It made me realize that at times, trajectory, success, and growth can come at a heavy cost. Because of this, I prioritize balance and identity outside of my work and acknowledge that the ups and downs of Mason aren’t tied to who I am. It’s about the journey itself and the learnings along the way.
On a day-to-day basis, it’s important for me to make time for my own physical and mental health, and having a support group outside of my work. I make time to meal prep on Sundays and weight lift a few times a week. It can be hard to prioritize this at times, but it’s also critical to step away every now and then. I’ve found clarity mid-workout before or after a good night’s sleep (another key ingredient!) or after a dog park outing with my pup.
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?
Having a diverse executive team is non-negotiable for me. At Mason, we make an active commitment to adopt this mindset across every level of our company, and that includes our leadership team. Our end users are diverse, ranging from pizzeria owners to hospital patients, and I know that we can only build the best product for them and meet their unique needs if we have that same level of diversity represented throughout our own teams.
Increasing representation also empowers people to plan for their own future for the trajectories and roles they can step into — it shows them that they can go toe to toe with everyone else. It’s helped me get to the place where I’m at today.
Diversity of perspectives is another important facet to me. The best ideas come from anywhere, not just from specific schools or fields of study. Some of the best leaders I’ve worked with have come from non-traditional paths, or less privileged paths, and enabling that diversity at Mason is a priority for me.
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.
To have these elements be a living part of our society, they have to be integrated into various aspects of our lives. As business leaders, we have to speak candidly and transparently about where we fall short and create a plan of action to guide where we want to be. Of course this doesn’t come easy — it requires taking accountability and a constant evaluation and renewal of the commitments you’ve previously made.
For example, we’ve made the conscious decision to invest in leaders and team members from diverse demographics across all levels of the company at Mason. It took us 2 years of active commitment and awareness to bring the ratio of women at Mason to 42% (both in total and in leadership). And we must continue to make an inclusive environment a priority — it’s not simply a one-year or two-year goal, or a numerical target on paper.
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?
As an executive and particularly as the CEO, you’re tasked with keeping the company on track as a holistic unit. And the company itself is dynamic — it’s a living, growing entity with different needs and challenges at different stages of growth.
This means thinking about all aspects of the business including product, customer needs, financials, growth and more; it’s not about the current stage, but about the next few. To properly plan for the future, you really need to be thinking five to ten steps ahead. In doing so, it’s imperative that you empower your leaders to do their best work so that the business can scale successfully. In fact, you need to be empowering people all the time and serve as the primary demonstrator of your values in everything you do so that your team can carry them through as well.
As CEO you have a lot of different stakeholders and types of people being impacted by your decisions. It’s critical to have a pulse on each of their needs and goals to factor into how you drive the business forward.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The myth of the corner office is one we’re dispelling through Mason’s culture. At Mason, we strive to be transparent and cultivate inclusivity because we truly believe that good ideas come from everywhere, not just from leadership. Building this kind of culture has been important in allowing the team to feel safe bringing good ideas to the table.
There’s another myth that startup CEOs need to be really aggressive or hard-charging, and put growth at the cost of people and empathy. I don’t think it’s a choice of having one or the other, or that aggressiveness is correlated with success. I believe that leaders can be empathetic and values-driven, and quickly grow a strong business at the same time.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
One of the biggest challenges that female executives face is the difference in expectations surrounding communication cues and protocol. There are certain nuances to communication that are perceived differently when a woman does it compared to a man. For example, women are typically expected to soften their language (e.g., use more exclamation points and emojis, be less direct and apologize more frequently) to avoid being perceived in a negative light.
Another challenge is the simple truth that there are less women in executive roles. Even when women hold positions of leadership, they’re expected to prove their competence over and over again. I think this dynamic is beginning to change and that excites me because the more you see powerful women in leadership, the more attainable it seems for the women who are working their way up.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The role of CEO comes with more to worry about, constantly. There is a certain amount of pressure all the time about everything, and that’s the biggest change that’s happened for me. As executives, you question if you’re taking your company in the right direction or if your team feels supported. However, I’ve put myself in the mindset that it’s truly a privilege, rather than a pressure, to be able to lead the Mason team on this adventure. With each person we add to the team, I get excited at the prospect of all the things we’re going to accomplish together and how they can add to our community.
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 really believe that anyone can become an executive. The perception that executives have to look or speak a certain way is a fallacy that exists simply because the world has only seen one representation in those roles before.
The most successful executives aren’t always the most talkative or charismatic, but are those who are excited to collaborate and empower people to be their best. Great executives also have to be very self-aware and understand their shortcomings because they’ll never be able to fulfill every role or be everything to everyone. They have to know how to delegate, give people the tools to be successful, and rally teams around a shared vision.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
For a while, the idea of having to behave a certain way to present myself as a more polished person plagued me. However, I quickly realized that perceived perfection is not what connects me to the people around me. It was only when I began to be more transparent, direct, and ultimately human that people felt more comfortable to come to me — from their challenges to wins to concerns. And that’s what matters most. My advice is to be authentic to yourself and own your voice with confidence.
I used to also be afraid of calling out my differences — of being a woman or child of immigrants or a person of color, until I realized that drawing upon those experiences actually makes me stronger. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge and celebrate the things that make you different.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
There’s a huge need for increased representation in leadership roles across a variety of different industries. I have and want to continue to use my platform to lift other people up where I can and show women and other underrepresented groups around me that hardware and B2B doesn’t have to be dominated by a sea of sameness, and that they can have a pivotal place in the industry.
I’m also excited to use the platform that Mason provides to empower innovators to bring incredible ideas to life that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. It’s amazing to build the infrastructure that powers remote patient monitoring for epilepsy patients and people with cardiac health issues, and we’re just getting started with what’s possible.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- It’s important to have rituals within your company and establish them early on. This is something I did coming into the CEO role at Mason, as I saw it crucial to have a shared set of values and rituals within my team. It’s powerful to have something for everyone to believe in together.
- Have a clear, shared vision of what a successful team looks like and set goals for how to get there together. Oftentimes, people can get too caught up in the thick of business goals, metrics, and numbers for the sake of success. The truth is, a successful team is one that collaborates together and leans on each other to achieve the same goals as a unit.
- Time management is key. This is something I’ve always struggled with because I want to be really accessible to my team. However, being able to properly manage my time also means understanding my priorities. In re-evaluating my priorities, I’ve been able to focus on where I can add the most value rather than dipping my toes in each bucket.
- Don’t be afraid to be direct. Whether it’s in emails, messages, or meetings, I’ve learned to voice what’s on my mind more frequently and in a more unfiltered (but still empathetic) manner. Especially with the challenges of navigating communication in a remote world, it’s important to be able to express yourself authentically.
- Make sure the stories you tell externally make their way back to your team. This idea is similar to how parents often brag about their kids to other people but sometimes fail to express the same sentiments to their child directly. I’m constantly talking about how amazing our team is and make sure to bring that gratitude back in-house.
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.
Many times I’ve wondered how powerful and impactful it would have been to have seen greater diversity and representation in the tech industry when I was growing up. I didn’t have a real grasp of what engineering was as a kid, and when approaching engineers in college, I often felt boxed out by what was a male-dominated population. I remember so clearly when I joined a group of friends to a hackathon and one asked, “What are you going to do, spectate?” assuming that I couldn’t possibly be contributing in a meaningful way and would be relegated to spectating. That burned. And I hope we can get to a place where that isn’t the first reaction when someone different comes to the table.
The world relies on technology for our future, education, infrastructure, and so many other aspects of our lives and I believe there is so much to be gained from bringing diversity into the ranks of these systems that have been run a certain way for a long time. This is why I strive to ensure that at Mason, we prioritize diversity and inclusion at all levels of the company. Similar to Mason’s values, I want to ensure that diversity lives and breathes within our decision-makers and innovators.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A quote we live by within my leadership team is, “In times of pressure, we build each other up, not bring each other down.” This quote applies in both our highs and lows, professionally and personally. It reminds me that the reward of all of this is not the momentary burst of achieving a goal, but the holistic journey and process of working together through any situation.
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.
How about breakfast with Richard Branson and lunch with Michelle Obama? I’ve loved each of their writing and presence as people who are both wildly interesting, unafraid, and able to climb Everests in their own way.