Women in Business Q&A: Michele McConomy, Vice President of RocketX

Michele McConomy is the vice president of RocketX, the corporate innovation program at RocketSpace, a technology campus in San Francisco. With over 13 years of experience in innovation management, Michele helps facilitate relationships between large corporate brands and tech startups. Her responsibilities include executive oversight and general management of RocketX globally, working with corporate partners such as Accenture, Pearson, Samsung, British Airways, Microsoft and others.

Prior to joining RocketSpace, Michele was the vice president of U.S. Business Services at Mindjet, where she oversaw a multi-million dollar portfolio of corporate innovation services and consulting engagements. Her experience also includes a diverse consulting background in both strategic and operational consulting, prior to moving into the corporate innovation space. While working for the accounting and advisory services firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Michele became a founding member of the corporate innovation program in 2007.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I feel there are so many factors that influence leadership abilities. My entire immediate family has been an inspiration as I have journeyed through school and into my career. Most importantly, I was fortunate enough to be raised by two amazing parents who were not only models of leadership in their own right, but were able to instil values in me that gave me the confidence to lead. My father is a dedicated, hardworking man and my mother is a very articulate and strong woman. I would also say my sister, Melissa, has been very influential. She is a very real, authentic and confident woman. Having these role models in my life taught me what it means to be a leader. It means believing in yourself, standing up for what you believe in and having the grace, poise and confidence to make decisions whether they be small or large, popular or unpopular. These attributes were respected by my entire family and thus provided me with a strong foundation on which I have been able to build and refine my own leadership skills.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at RocketSpace?
I have been so fortunate to have worked for some top-notch enterprise organizations and for some of the most prestigious and well-known consulting firms in the world. I have also been a part of some amazing startups. I have the right mix of the business world, from large enterprise down to small startups. In my role leading the RocketX division of RocketSpace, our team must have a balance of corporate world experience and startup mentality in order to be successful. My journey to RocketSpace has given me that unique perspective that many people don't have: the ability to see things from both sides of the business landscape.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at RocketSpace?
We are on the tipping point of corporations realizing that they must find a way to get to the outside world to innovate with others. While a few progressive organizations have been doing this for some time, I would say an absolute majority have not figured out how to engage with a world that they do not control themselves. In this day and age, it's a must. Companies cannot and should not expect to keep up the pace of innovation all by themselves. The highlight for me has been to see companies start to embrace this philosophy. On the flip side, we often find it a challenge to help companies overcome fear and realize the competitive advantage of embracing the outside world.

What advice can you offer to women who are seeking a career in the tech industry?
Women in tech have a major advantage as long as they know how to capitalize on it. My advice: embrace change and try different things. It's the different things that will help you to identify your passions and interests. It will expand your skills and provide you with more worldly experience, which is critical in today's workforce. Being open to opportunities around you is what will take you to the next level. My dear grandfather told me that "they will ask you once, but they may never ask you again." His message was referring to career opportunities and he always encouraged me to go for it - make that move, either to a new position or to a relocation, because it may never happen again. My advice to all women is to gain as much knowledge and experience as you possibly can. Don't be afraid to be a risk taker when career challenges and opportunities present themselves.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Maintaining a work/life balance as a hard working individual is challenging, but absolutely necessary. I can absolutely say that my approach to balance has dramatically shifted as I became a leader. The last thing I want those that surround me to see is someone that is only one-dimensional - work. I believe that life experience enhances your ability to be successful at your career however part of the trick is knowing how to prioritize and balance. When you plan your week, make it a point to schedule time with your family and friends as well as activities that help you recharge. For instance, it is important to me that I commit to three to four gym appointments each week. Make your life a priority and put it into your schedule. It is not a crime and the reward will be tremendous.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I believe we have come such a long way in the past 10 years, in particular to making the shift towards more equality. The biggest issue I see for women has nothing to do with your gender per se. However, stress is a huge factor for women. I think given our rise in the workforce, we place a tremendous amount of stress on ourselves. Whether you are single, married or with a family, women must find a way to manage stress in every aspect of their lives to ensure that everyone emerges a winner.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Absolutely, without a doubt, mentorship has been a key component as I have grown in my career. I have never been afraid to ask for mentorship. In fact, I seek it in many aspects of my life. In seeking mentorship, I have developed relationships with some amazing and aspiring individuals. Each one has been unique in their own right and they have inspired me in different ways to be a strong, successful leader. The mentors that have made the most difference in my life are the ones where there is little delineation between their personal and professional persona. They are authentic, real and personable - they are who they are and have been successful as a result of it. Having learned from these influential individuals, I have strived to be who I am whether it be in my personal life or in my professional career.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
It's interesting, I have admired many leaders of both genders. Jack Welsh for being a visionary leader in a challenging time, Diane Von Furstenburg for bringing confidence to a woman through the wrap dress, Steve Jobs for being brash and bold whether anyone liked it or not, and Barbara Walters for her ability to be compassionate and direct in the same sentence. While it is more common to cite more famous individuals, it's the women that I have been able to work with directly and learned from that have affected me the most. One woman in particular is Susan Kenney, a former partner at PwC. I didn't get to work with her very long but she had the most profound effect on my career path and my journey. She encouraged me to take a position to build something new and different during my early days at PwC. Her instant belief in me gave me a wealth of confidence to move forward and jump into something that was relatively risky. I admire women like Susan and she is one person I hope to emulate.

What do you want RocketSpace to accomplish in the next year?
We are on a mission at RocketSpace to continue to grow and expand, not only in San Francisco, but globally. This is just the beginning for us. We are the intersection of the corporate world and the startup world. In running the Corporate Innovation Program, RocketX, I hope to continue to show corporate America that innovation cannot be done in a vacuum. You must find ways to physically get outside of the corporate walls and engage with the outside world. Our mission is to power the ecosystems that bring corporates and startups together. We plan on creating more opportunities for networking and connectivity for our corporate partners so they not only can learn from each other, but they can also invite the world to learn about what they are doing to achieve success.

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