Women in Business Q&A: Colleen Curtis, VP of Community in Europe, Yelp

Colleen has spent 8 years strengthening the Yelp brand into a clear market leader in the U.S. As an early adopter of the Yelp site and then as one of the founding Community Team members in the US (2008), Colleen had the incredible opportunity to build and scale a Community Program across the Midwest and East Coast.

Whilst still in the US, Colleen personally hired and developed over 30 Community Managers in local markets across the Midwest and East Coast, honing skills in razor sharp recruitment, talent acquisition and career development. She built (and turned around) highly effective teams of thought leaders and executors to further the Yelp mission locally.

Tasked with overhauling Yelp's growth strategy in Europe, Colleen, since arriving in 2012, has tirelessly developed an entirely local management team across 6 regions. She directs a 70+ person team across 17 countries to bring Yelp to every corner of Western Europe. Colleen rebuilt the playbook, country by country, in Europe alongside her stellar team of local Yelp operatives.

When she's not creating awesomeness at Yelp, Colleen can be found trying out all gym classes in East London, hunting for the perfect flat white or walking her pensioner dog and 2yr old in the local park.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I've been very fortunate in my life thus far. I have a great family, and my childhood was spent combing the beaches of Northern Michigan in an idyllic world that of course, I couldn't wait to get away from. I'm extremely impulsive and have made very large life decisions on very little information (eg I was in the market for my first home purchase, looked at 2, and bought 1 -- all with a terrible mortgage deal!). Somehow I always make it work but it's involved some tough work and jumping into the deep end of some fairly high level situations with the hope of ending up swimming. All these "sink or swim" scenarios have made me into the leader I am today.

Also, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention my parents here -- my Mum was a fairly high ranking school official in my hometown and in retrospect, she held a pretty 'male' job at the time (the 90's). She excelled by amplifying her soft skills to earn respect, buy-in from her teams and was very well respected as a leader in a tough job. My Dad on the other hand is a very sharp, sarcastic and hard-nosed high school teacher and coach who has a ton of charisma and a talent for storytelling. His confidence and sharp wit have surely shaped me as well, not to mention his competitive nature and penchant for "getting sh*t done" while having a good time doing it.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Yelp?
I think each and every employment experience I've had from hoover telesales (lasted 1 day) to demo'ing DOG FOOD at a big Pet Store has brought me to where I am today. I tried to hit fast forward on finding the type of work and lifestyle that suited me by trying as many opportunities as I could. I still miss this phase, honestly and it's probably worth going back into that mode every few years to gut check myself. Think I might go do that now, though rest assured that I'm not going to rent our sofa out on Craigslist for extra cash though (yes, did this too, pre-Airbnb!)

But if I trace back directly to how I got started at Yelp, I discovered during a nannying job in Chicago at aged 21 that I have this child-like curiosity about discovering the world around me and through that job, fell into a job at an Estate Agent in a large company. I learned there that I was likely not built for working in a big corporation, that you should always check who is in the "to" field before you send an email, that not all female bosses are created equal and then I jumped ship after 3 months to a really local real estate firm.

I worked for a bunch of real estate broker guys and though they were good to me, they didn't expect too much of me. I found myself with a really steady job (which was nice!) but I was bored. I started filling all my time in front of a computer with internet and launched my freelance writing career, landing gigs as a paid spa reviewer (still probably the best side job ever!), entertainment and nightlife reporter and copywriter. Anything I could do from my desk in 2007, I was going for it.

And then I found Yelp. A super local, new website where consumers wrote about their local businesses and where I could incorporate that childlike curiosity I'd tapped into as a nanny. I was hooked after discovering the Duck Nachos at Dorado (RIP) on the North Side of Chicago in an area I would've never stepped foot into if not for the emphatic reviews. I LOVED Yelp as a user and found my voice as a local review writer. When I applied to be an entry level Community Manager in Chicago in late 2007 I remember thinking "please just trust me with this chance, I WILL not disappoint." They took the chance on me, throwing me in the deep end of startup land (I was employee 80), and I have been swimming like hell ever since to make this thing shine all over the world.

Every experience I have had until now has shaped me into an approachable, fierce, passionate, resilient leader I am today. I don't just try to seem approachable, I AM approachable. I always will be. I want to keep that scrappy ethos and carry it with me for those rainy days when complacency tries to creep in, my life is operating like a startup and I treat both my career and my personal life with same attention to grow and aspire to new heights.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Yelp?
I've been at Yelp for almost 8 years which is a lifetime in tech years! I've seen the launch of the app world, the company's IPO, have seen Yelp take root in over 30 countries and much more. I've seen this company from the outside and the inside, and I've helped it grow from a toddler to what it is today, a big voice and brand. But really the most rewarding of Yelp's achievements has been bridging that gap between people and their cities.

As soon as I joined Yelp (having been an avid reviewer previously) I just knew I was part of something special in terms of solving a big challenge in an authentic way. My heart has always been in it, and that can be the best part of it and the most challenging at times, too. As the company grows and scales, there are times when I really have to take a step back for better perspective, but I do always try to keep that heart in it, as I think that is what drives the best results for us long term.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking a career in your industry?
Know your wheelhouse - what are you get excited about? Tirelessly figure out what those few spaces are and then go find the startup or company you think is going out and doing that every day. Apply even if they aren't hiring. Use the product or platform as a super user. Make the match, don't wait for it to find you. Make yourself irrefusable, gain new skills and experiences, do the hard stuff, prove you are worth taking a chance on. Be more than your resume or career path plans, bring something to the table and rock out once you get that opportunity -- then help other women get the same chance when you are in the position to do so.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Screw the balance! Kidding, but I do redefine my idea of balance daily, sometimes hourly. Who says what work/life balance is? Some days I'm geared on a great idea or project and I can crank it out for hours on end. Other days I need to do some self-preservation and recharge my batteries with some serious time devoted to myself or family. I also have an incredible husband, a great team at Yelp, and an extremely long term view on happiness.The flexibility and self-awareness to rejig that balance means I feel that I've got the right balance for me.

Also, I drink a TON of coffee and I'm perpetually a very mediocre (but content) yogi.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
No one really asks "what are the biggest issues for men in the workplace?" And THAT is what I think the biggest issue is, actually. This pervasive presumption that the workplace is (and will always be) a male-dominated world, and women are just interloping at the party hoping to overcome all the issues we face to be seen as equal players is just not true.

So, the biggest issue is - women have to consider this underlying assumption at the workplace, and men typically do not. All the studies about how men often overestimate their capabilities and women do the exact opposite, prove this theory. This creates some weird stuff. If I read one more article about all the things women are doing to diminish their credibility in the workplace (and it lists things like "stop using the word 'just' so much in emails"), I'll "just" retire to Norway and open a coffee shop, serving rare filtered coffee to friendly, progressive Norwegians. Really, all these articles are saying is " here is how to make your communication style fit better for the men you work with and who probably make decisions about your career." No. Thanks.

I think, 'own it, women.' Let's be ourselves. Let's stop apologizing we weren't born as men and that we've crashed the bro professional party and a lot of those issues start not to matter. They matter if we let them stop us from asking for opportunities and performing at our best.

I also only hire men to work on my teams that have high emotional quotients and a high level of professionalism and decorum, as well as those with strong female friends, partners or networks. It says a lot about them as people (and professionals) and it makes the dance floor at the party level, so everyone can bust a move without worrying about stepping on anyone's toes.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Amy Poehler, because she's an unapologetic and hilarious (semi-awkward, too!) female, but also does great things to encourage girls to be smart, adventurous and fearless. She's given me my single best piece of life advice when I became a parent: "Great for her, not for me." Zaps any guilt at the core and reminds me to be confident in my choices and that everyone has their take on life, no need for judgment in either direction. It extends beyond just parenting but to any situation. "Hey, you're doing your best and so am I...so let's go get scones or matcha lattes and not be mean to each other." That can be very powerful in terms of supporting the rise of other women, I'm totally on board with that 100 percent. We need more of that.

I've also really been digging Angela Merkel lately (I'm not really that into politics, honestly) because wow, that woman is a BOSS. Being an adopted European, it's been really interesting to understand female leadership outside of America.

What do you want Yelp to accomplish in the next year?
I want local to win. I want the City bankers to find Assenheim's instead of Abokado for their lunch break. Pilpel instead of Pret. I want for it to be easy to buy independent designer clothing instead of defaulting to H&M and the High Street megastores. I want Londoners to fall in love with different parts of this vast metropolis through the lifeblood of local commerce, independent businesses. Every time there is an option to go local in the UK, I want to make that decision easy for consumers. In the next year I want to ensure anytime a consumer in the UK is faced with a decision that could include a local option, that they do. How do we do that? Keep building a product that delivers great local recommendations from real people so the option to buy/shop/eat/go local is not just the best one, but the easy one. Oh, and I want to get our kegerator at the office working again. And for it to have wine in it, or at least cold brew coffee.