Women in Business Q&A: Donna Wells, CEO, Mindflash

Donna Wells is the CEO of Mindflash.com, a leading online training platform. She was previously CMO of Mint.com, the online personal finance service, where she was responsible for driving the company's growth to 2 million users from its launch in 2007 to its acquisition by Intuit in 2009 for $170 million. Donna has also led large marketing organizations for industry leaders including Intuit, Charles Schwab, and Expedia, where she was SVP of Marketing for the U.S. She started her career at American Express, where she launched the Gold Rewards and Platinum Corporate Card products for small businesses. Donna's work has won multiple Webbys, an OMMA award, and has been cited in Newsweek, Brandweek, and Web Marketing for Dummies. She was named one of the Top 25 Women in Tech to Watch by Accenture in 2009.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I believe there are three strong influences that have shaped my leadership style. First, my father and grandfather were both senior leaders in large organizations and taught me from an early age that people management skills and reputation are your most important assets. Second, I spent my junior and senior high school years in a full back brace, and my 20's as the only Western woman in the room while working in Singapore. I believe both experiences help me better manage being a woman in tech and the diversity of styles and backgrounds of my teams. Lastly, my mom has a wicked sense of humor and I love and leverage every opportunity I've got for a good laugh. "If they're laughing, they're listening," someone smart once said.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Mindflash?
I've had an unusual set of experiences that are proving to be uniquely helpful to me at Mindflash. On one hand, I've managed teams as big as 150 and budgets of $250 million at companies as large as American Express and Expedia. But I've also been on the leadership team of five start-ups, including Mint.com, where I was employee No. 9, CMO and built a national brand with pretty much no money.

My corporate experience is useful in understanding our typical customers, which are larger companies using our online training platform to scale their programs across thousands of employees and customers. My start-up experiences have taught me that there is almost always a less expensive, more scalable means to achieve any business objective when you are unconstrained by legacy systems and attitudes. And if you can identify and intelligently implement those solutions, you can beat the Goliaths in your industry... and have a lot of fun doing it. It's how we built a $170 million company at Mint with 25 people and how we're doing it at Mindflash, delivering 2 million training courses a year ... also with 25 people.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Mindflash?
Our biggest challenge to date has, happily, become our biggest highlight. Based on customer research and feedback, we made a "bet the company" decision in late 2012 to significantly enhance our features most appropriate for larger companies, and completely change our pricing level and strategy as a result. The team completed an incredible amount of work over six months to make this happen and we released all of these changes at once in April 2013. The new strategy has succeeded beyond my expectations, allowing us to deliver greater value to our customers, grow our average revenue per customer six-fold and sign some amazing customers, including Samsung, Intuit, Bosch and Johnson & Johnson just in the past year.

What advice can you offer to women who are seeking for a career in technology?
In my opinion, every woman or man working today is already in a "technology career" and the sooner they recognize and embrace that fact, the more successful they will be. Think about it. Anyone currently in their 20's and 30's will still be working in 2050 and beyond. Even people in their 40's won't be retiring until the 2040's. No one paying attention to the accelerating pace of technological change believes that their industry will still be using legacy systems, working in co-located offices or even using a ream of paper a year at that point. So why anyone would put off embracing every intelligent technological enhancement in his or her industry just mystifies me.

For example, we offer a cloud-based business-to-business software product that's used by mining companies, police departments and even the American Chimney and BBQ Associations. If you think your industry is less technically adventurous than those, I'm betting you're wrong. So my advice is to embrace and seek out new technologies for and technology training in your company...whether it's a software, non-profit or manufacturing company. Become the thought leader on new tech in your space, volunteer for...or initiate...smart new technology projects. And do it fast.

What advice can you offer to women who are seeking for a career in finance?
The majority of my career has been in personal finance, from American Express, to Charles Schwab, to myCFO and Mint.com. And I'm on the Board of Boston Private Financial Holdings (BPFH) now. I think finance is a fantastic field for anyone with passion on the topic for two reasons. First, financial firms' success is increasingly dependent on female customers. At the affluent end of the market it's older women, not men that control the majority of wealth in developing countries. At the younger, "starting out" end of the market we've just seen a generational transformation...with more young women than ever taking control of their finances. And smart financial services companies are looking to build employee and leadership teams that reflect that reality. So I see the industry as one where sharp women can and should be able to make measurable impact. And my advice is to demonstrate early and often that you have unique and accurate insights into product design and service delivery for the most important and highest growth segments for personal finance. Do that and you'll do well in larger organizations...and increase your odds of get funded if you're an entrepreneur.

Second, I just love businesses with no physical constraints (materials, manufacturing, physical distribution) ... and finance went digital very, very early. In these industries, innovation and distribution is virtually frictionless and the capital requirements and barriers to entry are lower...two important assists for female entrepreneurs.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I struggle with this, as every working parent I know does. Mindflash already had an exceptional culture in place when I joined, one that emphasized being productive and efficient in the office...and then going home to recharge for another day. We've maintained that culture, which I have to credit in part to our Agile software development process, and I've written about this.

The transition to leading a lean SaaS company has also helped me tremendously, because it's virtually eliminated the need for business travel. I no longer have big, distant teams to visit as I did when leading large, geographically dispersed corporate departments. We do a weekly, but virtual All-Hands meeting at Mindflash for our local and remote employees. And unlike my friends leading enterprise software companies (with only a handful of, but very large, demanding customers), I instead have hundreds of smaller (albeit equally demanding) customers. Which means that my customers don't expect me to jump on a plane if there's an issue. I do need to jump on the phone, email or Skype ... but I can still be home for dinner. Travel becomes a much bigger problem than I believe most women and men realize it is early in their career. If you care about work/life balance, I'd choose your industry and business model very carefully.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I won't rehash the truisms about women holding themselves back, or societal/cultural stereotypes in the office and the home making it harder to succeed, or the fact that our national maternity and childcare policies and infrastructure are uncompetitive globally and unfair to women. But I believe all of these are significant contributors.

The biggest issue I see in the Valley is the challenge to female entrepreneurs in raising venture capital. A 2014 Babson College study showed that, on average, just 60 female CEO's got VC funding in the years 2011, 2012 and 2013 nationwide. Which is particularly shocking, given that women are the majority owners in 36 percent of all businesses in the U.S. Part of the issue is that less than 4 percent of investing partners at VC firms are women, and firms without a female partner are three times less likely to invest in a company with a female CEO. So, we need to examine why women are not entering and succeeding in Venture Capital. I'm cheering on Aileen Lee, Theresia Gouw, Sharon Wienbar, Kate Mitchell and Rebecca Lynn, among others, who I think are all killing it and will probably help us figure out how to increase VC-backing for women with great ideas that should be venture funded.

What do you want Mindflash to accomplish in the next year?
I want to maintain our positive culture and further increase the value we deliver to our customers. So my priorities are ensuring that we're hiring the right people, managing them brilliantly, and focusing all our efforts on the enhancements to our total product experience that matter most to our customers. If we succeed in those things, great metrics pretty predictably follow. I hope we'll again double the number of courses we deliver for our customers. We delivered 2 million in 2014...so 4 million in 2015 seems like a good number.

I'd also like this to be the year that Mindflash steps up to contribute to closing the U.S. Skills Gap. We have nearly 5 million open, unfilled jobs and 10 million under-employed workers in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. We were approached by the National Economic Council to help on this last year, and I'd love to see that move ahead in 2015.