As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Natalie Ruiz.
Natalie Ruiz is the CEO of AnswerConnect and Board Treasurer at PDXWIT. She’s the recipient of several awards including the Women of Influence award presented by the Portland Business Journal and two Stevie Awards for Female Executive of the Year and Women Helping Women. Natalie is committed to lifelong learning and doing work that matters.
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 never intended to get into tech or telecommunications, but I can see that I have always been passionate about human connection and being a helper. I found AnswerConnect, and initially looked at it as just a job, but found unmatched opportunities to grow, learn and make an impact. My growth as an individual and a leader has been pretty organic, and I am grateful to all of the helpers and opportunities that have brought me to this place.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
After being promoted to CEO in 2015, I was still battling my own limiting beliefs. I had a hard time introducing myself professionally and including my title early on without my voice shaking just a little.
I was often the only woman CEO, a woman of color, and a person with a background like mine. After introducing myself, men would routinely question me in ways that seemed to be their attempts at disqualifying and undercutting my success. I often felt like I didn’t belong in the spaces that my position gave me entry to. I often felt alone.
I spoke at an employee event, and in addition to discussing company goals, I shared my career story. Afterward, I was approached by a woman who shared with me that when she had joined the company, she was unsure if she would find belonging or a future with the organization. She told me that after learning more about my background and seeing that a brown woman was the company’s CEO, she felt inspired to grow roots and see what was possible.
The moment made me look at my position from a different perspective. I realized that there was absolutely no time to waste with impostor syndrome. Creating an environment where people can show up as themselves, belong, contribute, and thrive, is work uniquely suited to me. Reimagining work to be more inclusive for all has become a guiding purpose in my life.
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 have made so many mistakes over the years; I try to remind myself that mistakes are a byproduct of trying new things and that the only way to avoid them is to stop trying!
I still laugh — and cringe a little — when I remember how naive I was when I had what I thought was a brilliant idea about how to improve our customer experience. My idea was too big and complicated, and it didn’t end up working. There were MANY lessons to learn from this, but two have stuck with me over the years.
The first was to break ideas down into tiny pieces, which will allow for small experiments instead of broad and sweeping changes. Experiments allow for innovation, quick iteration, and lots of learning without significant consequences when things do not go as planned.
The second lesson came from how my boss handled my massive failure. I was convinced I would be fired or demoted because the mistake was glaring and expensive, but instead, he encouraged me to keep trying and talked with me about what I had learned and what I would do differently next time. This was a huge moment for me, and I have always tried to give my teams the same energy and grace when things go awry. Creating a psychologically safe environment where mistakes are ok leads to increased innovation and superior results.
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?
So many helpers have surrounded me in my life, and there’s no way I would be the person I am today without each of them lifting me up, cheering me on, mentoring me, and helping me grow. When it comes to my career, I have to acknowledge my boss, the founder of AnswerConnect, who gave me a chance to grow within the organization and lead. I didn’t have experience or anything close to fancy credentials when he met me, yet he’s listened to my input and given me his trust from the start.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I am a better leader, contributor, and human when I get a good night’s sleep, have had a cup of coffee in the morning, get 30 minutes of exercise, spend a few minutes meditating, and write in my gratitude journal. Therefore, I aim to make these keystone habits.
Before a big meeting, public speaking, or making an impactful decision, I try to take a moment for myself. I usually listen to a playlist, stretch, breathe and mentally prepare. Writing also helps me focus, so I can often be found writing out my thoughts, talking points, or questions in preparation for meaningful conversations.
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 has been proven many times over that diversity of thinking leads to better outcomes. Organizations will produce improved results by inviting more voices with varied backgrounds into conversations and creating an environment where individuals can speak up and contribute equitably.
When we think about the places decisions are being made, we need to see those spaces representative of the world’s diverse population. It makes no sense to have homogeneous teams making decisions for a varied and ever-changing world. That is a recipe for disaster.
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.
There is so much work to be done, and it can feel overwhelming. For all of us, real change requires learning and unlearning, and it requires action. This is deep, ongoing work without a finish line.
I can speak to my approach and the approach of AnswerConnect. Our core values are learning, sharing, and giving back. Our employees are given paid learning time, and much of our knowledge is crowdsourced from our employees. By design, we are increasing our exposure to new ways of thinking every single day. We are also making connections across cultures and backgrounds. We have a global team that works together on projects and initiatives that matter. We’re creating environments where it is ok to dissent, encouraging speaking up, and knowing we are stronger because of our differences. We are willing to question and rethink our beliefs.
In business and in life, I have seen how small things compound and become big things. Brené Brown said, “People are hard to hate close up.” A big part of improving society will come from more human connections. Every day at work, I can connect with people from all over the globe, all walks of life, all industries -and my life is richer because of it. Together, we are doing work that matters, and it would not be possible alone. Success is not an individual sport.
To create a genuinely inclusive, representative, and equitable society, we have to be willing to step far outside of our comfort zones, meet new people, commit to learning, and take action. Those with power, privilege, and a platform have a responsibility to take the lead.
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?
My job as a CEO is to ensure that our company is healthy, thriving, and staying true to our values and mission. To achieve this, I work with remarkable leaders from around the world. I couldn’t accomplish anything without my fantastic team. As a CEO, I have to trust my team to make a million critical decisions that I will never be part of. One difference between this and other leadership roles I have been in is as CEO; if I am constantly in the nitty-gritty, it likely means I can’t focus on the big goals that move the organization forward. With a team I can rely on, I can think about what will be next for our company and map out a way forward.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Being a CEO does not mean that suddenly, I became all-knowing or that my life is glamorous, but sometimes people assume this is the case. I’m a working mom, so I juggle kid-duty along with a full calendar of meetings and a long list of work. Every day, I ask for help or a second set of eyes on something before sending it off. There’s also the myth of self-made success that I reject. I’ve had so many helpers in my life, and I think it is dangerous not to highlight this. Life is not an individual sport.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
There are still so many glass ceilings to shatter, so many ‘firsts’ to happen. We have so far to go to reach equity in opportunity, representation and pay — and this is not just for women; this is for all underrepresented people. The challenges that come up for people who have been historically excluded from executive teams are too plentiful to list, and THAT is the biggest challenge that we face. It takes a lot of energy to simply exist in spaces that were not designed with us in mind.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I didn’t know what a CEO did when I accepted the position. I knew I was passionate about my company and the people who I worked with, and I knew I wanted to make a positive difference. In hindsight, I assumed there would be many more board rooms, heated discussions, and mahogany desks than there actually are! My vision of what being a CEO would be has been drawn from movies and headlines. The work is showing up day after day and trying to be better than we were as individuals and as an organization the day before. We want to provide value to our clients and build something that matters.
I also work from home most of the time, and my standing desk is made of bamboo, not mahogany.
Is everyone 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 have the opportunity to work with so many startups and entrepreneurs through AnswerConnect, and I think there are lessons to be learned from their journeys. They have a vision and want to bring it to life, and to do that; they wear the CEO hat, the logistics hat, the product design hat, the marketing hat… They’re doing it all, and it isn’t very glamorous. They’re doing it all because they’ve found their purpose.
Great executives need to have a foundation built with humility, grit, and the desire to serve others. The higher you ascend in an organization, the more responsibility you have to care for your people. The best executives have experience working in various parts of their business and have had some exposure to their end clients.
I’d discourage someone from seeking an executive position just for a fancy title or to increase the number of their W-2. I genuinely believe that a leader’s success should be measured by the success of the people they can make an impact on, and if you only want a cool title and more money, there are other ways to achieve that.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Lead with your heart and your head. Remain connected and human in all that you do. Commit to learning something new every day. Admit when you’re wrong. Apologize when you’ve hurt someone. Share your knowledge and expertise freely. Don’t operate with a scarcity mindset when helping others; a rising tide lifts all boats.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I want to leave people and places better than I find them, and I always seek ways to accomplish this.
I’m working hard to use the privilege I have as a CEO and be a light that can show a path for more people — specifically those underrepresented on executive teams — to find their way. I always try to lead by example and share what I know. I am invested in people’s success and look to multiply my impact through speaking, writing, and mentoring.
AnswerConnect just surpassed the 1 million trees planted as part of our global giving back initiative.
We transitioned to remote work back in 2007 and positively impacted our people and our planet. We’re working to make work more inclusive and offer benefits like paid learning and giving back time to employees so that we can all continue to level up.
I volunteer my time as an active board member at PDXWIT, a nonprofit committed to advancing inclusion in the tech industry.
I spend a lot of time counting my blessings, which helps fuel me to be a more joyful, generous person. I’m never too busy to do the right thing.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You will be misunderstood. Most people will not comprehend your big dreams and goals, and that’s ok. The ideas that change the world usually seem crazy and impossible until someone makes them happen. Get to work making your vision a reality, and they will come around.
- Tenacity is a superpower. Being determined to stick with something will take you further than most other skills. When it comes to achieving, consistency and hard work are tough to beat.
- Nobody knows what they’re doing. There’s this myth that at some point, people suddenly have it all figured out. Most of us are doing our best, day in and day out and hoping for the best!
- You are your best advocate. Speak up! No one is going to be as committed to your growth and success as you are.
- Invest in yourself. From learning to wellness, you are your best investment. Every experience you’ve had has been training for your next endeavor, and every action you take — or do not take — is moving you closer or further from your goals.
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.
You asked earlier about more diverse and inclusive executive teams, and that is still on my mind. If we can imagine a world where all decisions are made in rooms where diverse people are safe to speak up and influence the future of technology, government, education, and beyond, how could that change things? It is so vastly different than what is happening in too many places…I think we would be living and working in a very different world. This is why the work to overcome bias and inequities is so important.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Define success on your own terms, achieve it by your own rules, and build a life you’re proud to live.” ― Anne Sweeney
We get ONE life to live. Time is precious, and I feel a sense of urgency to make the most of every moment and every opportunity I get. I want to be fully present and know that I did it all when I come to the end of my life. I want to smile, knowing that I didn’t hold anything back and that I always stayed true to myself.
There is no time to waste shrinking or bending ourselves to fit someone else’s idea of what our lives should look like. We get to decide what kind of life we live and how we measure success — no one else gets to do that for us.
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
When I was promoted to CEO, I sought out women CEOs to learn from, and Indra Nooyi became my mentor via interviews I could find online. I’ve followed her career for many years, read her book, and admire her approach to life and leadership. I’d love to buy her breakfast!