Women in Business Q&A: Kathryn Petralia, COO and Co-Founder, Kabbage, Inc.

Kathryn has spent the past 20 years working with startups and established companies focused on credit, payments, technology and ecommerce. Kathryn and her co-founders started Kabbage in 2009, and they have provided more than $600 million to SMBs. Prior to Kabbage, Kathryn was with Revolution Money, an Internet-based credit card startup based in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she was Vice President of Strategy. Before Revolution, Kathryn was a corporate development executive with CompuCredit Corporation. She spent the early dotcom years with several Internet startups, including US Web and WorthKnowing.com. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from Furman University.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
Most people are surprised to learn that 20 years ago I was in graduate school planning to become an English professor, and my departure from that path was driven by my openness to new opportunities and an interest in learning. From my first foray into the dotcom boom of the 90s until today, I made career choices in order to do compelling work with people I respected. If I wasn't an expert in the field, I was committed to becoming one. Throughout my career, I've always taken the lessons I've learned, both positive and negative, to my next role.

Since we started Kabbage six years ago I've learned a tremendous amount about how to develop and grow a business, and I wouldn't have been as successful without applying the knowledge I've gained along the way. Having a partner that brings different strengths to the table has also been critical at Kabbage. Rob Frohwein, my co-founder and our CEO, and I approach opportunities and issues from different directions, and those distinct perspectives are paramount to our success.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Kabbage?
Because I've been involved in startups for 20 years, I've learned a lot about what to do and what not to do. Experiencing the 2000 tech bubble first hand made a deep impression. I saw so many companies spend a fortune on things that didn't drive revenue or growth, such as office space and décor or extravagant parties; the memory of that wastefulness is still vivid in my mind. I've learned to invest where it will have the most impact: something that benefits customers, employees or investors.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Kabbage?
What's been most gratifying since founding Kabbage has been the opportunity to really make a difference for small businesses. When we first started the company, I had no idea how rewarding it would be to have a direct impact on our economy. More than half of our GDP and two-thirds of new jobs come from small and medium businesses. I love hearing from our customers how access to capital has helped them grow, or even stay in business during a tough spot.

One of our greatest challenges has been determining how to grow our business in a smart way - scaling at the appropriate rate, managing and growing people and deciding when to add new roles. We're continually charged with looking into the future and gauging what we'll need in the coming quarters, not just what will meet our immediate needs.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
I consistently sit in meetings among a sea of men, but it never occurs to me that there aren't other women in the room until someone points it out. This may be a contrarian view, but I believe there's a reason women don't tend toward professions in technology and finance. These industries can be competitive and solitary, while women tend to be more collaborative and may not gravitate toward those environments.

I think it's time we value women's strengths and understand why and how they're important across industries. Most women's natural inclinations to nurture and collaborate can be just as meaningful in the boardroom and on Wall Street as they are in schools and at home. However, I think it's most important to focus on your interests and strengths - which aren't always related to gender - and to seek out a career that utilizes those talents.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
This lesson I have learned at Kabbage, which is that the truth is always in the middle. Regardless of the issue, nothing is ever as extreme as anyone thinks it is, for better or worse. It's important to take a breath, ask the right questions and get the full story before taking action. As a reactive person, it can be hard for me not to dive in and try to fix something right away. Taking the time to understand a situation completely is hard to do, but it's always the most effective.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Starting a business requires a lot of time and travel, and that can be hard to balance while maintaining quality time with your family. Regardless of your gender, it's important to have a strong partner and support system to help you maximize your time. I've been fortunate that my husband has been an at-home dad since our son, now 14, was born.

In addition to outside support, it's critical to be where you are. If I'm at work, I'm focused on work, and the same goes for my personal life. I put my phone away and remove other distractions to make sure I'm present and conscious of what's happening around me. Obviously sometimes there are urgent matters that must be addressed wherever you are, but it's important not to let everything fall into the 'urgent' category.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Balancing work and family is one of the biggest challenges for both women and men. Partially because of traditional gender roles, combined with our desire as women to pull our weight and be a team player, women often bear more of the burden of managing things at home. It's hard, but asking for help can be one of the most freeing things you can do. Whether it's your spouse, your family or your friends, leaning on the people who care about you will actually make you a better parent, spouse and friend.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Since I haven't followed a clear "path" throughout my career, I haven't always known where to look for mentors. I'm impressed with the young professionals and students I meet who ask to sit down with me for advice. It's fantastic to see them take initiative to get a new perspective and learn from women who are in the careers they seek.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
1. Marissa Mayer - She has accepted the formidable challenge of taking the helm of a stagnant company and driving it forward, all while balancing her personal and professional lives.
2. Sheryl Sandberg - I really admire the way she aims to mentor large populations of women through writing and speaking to them about how they can achieve the careers they desire and how to integrate their strengths in the workplace.
3. Hillary Clinton - Regardless of political views, it's easy to respect how hard she has worked to overcome adversities in her life. She's had to swallow her pride - which is a hard thing for anyone to do - and hasn't allowed it to distract her from her objectives.

What do you want Kabbage to accomplish in the next year?
Our focus is on continuing to grow and deliver on the promises we're making to our customers, our employees and our investors through initiatives like international expansion, product differentiation, portfolio growth and industry-changing partnerships.