Women in Business: Q&A with Selina Tobaccowala, President and CTO of SurveyMonkey

Selina joined SurveyMonkey in October 2009. Previously Selina was Senior Vice President of Product and Technology at Ticketmaster's Europe division, where she managed the 200-person Product, Technology and Operations team. Prior to that, Selina was Vice President of Online Product and Technology at Entertainment Publications, where she led the company's online sales and technology initiatives. In 1997 Selina founded Evite.com, an online invitation service that lets users organize an offline event online, and which currently sends over three million invitations per month. As VP of Engineering for Evite.com, she led the company's development and operations and played a key role in setting the strategic direction with the board of directors. In 2001, Evite.com was sold to Ticketmaster. Tobaccowala holds a BS degree in Computer Science from Stanford University.

How have your life experiences made you the leader you are today?
My parents are immigrants from India who worked hard to give us every opportunity. They were very driven and set a great example. My mom, despite having a masters from India, was forced to redo her Bachelor's degree in the U.S. She now has her Ph.D. and is an associate professor. My dad came with empty pockets and rose to be CEO/COO of multiple companies. They taught us to work hard, take risks and be empathetic. All qualities that are important in leaders.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at SurveyMonkey?
When I was working on my first start-up, Evite, I focused on three or four data points and watched them like a hawk. One of the most important lessons I've learned in business is to use data - more importantly, the right data.

If you're managing a business, like I'm doing with the product and engineering team at SurveyMonkey, you've got to know the most relevant data points and behavior patterns that will make or break your company. Measure them maniacally.

How can companies use data to build a business?
Clarity is critical. Know what numbers drive your business. There is a load of data you can use as a business to make decisions. Once you figure out what data is important, track it. Most of it is implicit, such as watching user behavior. This gives a company the data to figure out WHAT is happening. Businesses can really harness the power of data by taking this implicit data and pairing it with explicit data, like that gathered with surveys. Today's online tools and provide answers to WHY things are happening.

For example, implicit data - like your sales data - can tell you that sales are increasing. But, the implicit data alone can't tell you WHY sales are increasing. Asking your customers can give you the reason why sales are on the up and you can keep them moving in the right direction.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I have a very supportive husband and two wonderful kids. Since becoming a mom, I have to leave the office at 5:30PM which means I have to be efficient in the office. It is essential that I make sure I work on the highest priorities.

The key to a good work/life balance is choices. Before I had kids, I was traveling 60-70% of the time. I knew I couldn't keep that up if I wanted to start a family. I had to look for a job that allowed me to have the flexibility of a career and a family. That's not easy. I was lucky to find SurveyMonkey, a more mature, stable start-up that had resources to allow me to take time for my family and provide me with a challenging job.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at SurveyMonkey?
The highlight of my job is working with my team. They're an incredibly talented group. I love working with them and using the latest technology to grow our business. The challenge has been growing the organization from 19 employees to 230 while also ensuring that we have efficient organizational structure and processes to ship our product quickly.

What advice can you offer individuals hoping to establish their own business?
Don't focus on funding. People always ask me for advice on how to get rounds of funding or what data most impresses a venture capital crowd. When I co-founded Evite earlier in my career, these questions were the furthest thing from my mind. Instead we focused on building a great product that people want to use. Focus on building a great product. The money will come.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
One of the biggest issues for women in technology is the fact that there are not many women IN technology. Women aren't encouraged to pursue science and math. This has a major effect on the number of women in the field.

We have made huge efforts and are still less than 20% female on the engineering team. There's only 18% of women graduating with CS degrees.You feel the void. We should be doing whatever we can to encourage girls at a young age to engage in math and science.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In" book and movement?
I love the book. I always had the view that men and women are the same. After having a boy and girl I really started to see the natural differences between them. For me, "Lean In" reaffirmed that men and women are different. You need to think about how, and what characteristics you need to succeed. I think the book has been important in addressing gender issues in the workplace. The decision to start Evite and take the SurveyMonkey role were my personal "Lean In" moments. I could have easily stayed at a more comfortable, predictable job when I started my family, but chose not to because I knew myself and that I needed that dynamics and challenges of a start-up. I'm also lucky to have a husband who works full time and truly does 50% of the work at home.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
My dad is my biggest mentor. He's been in the technology sector for more than 50 years as a CEO/COO of two startups. He now works on multiple boards. When I come across a question during my current job running consumer marketing, product and engineering at SurveyMonkey, I rely on his insight and guidance. I can turn to him for advice on any management challenge I may be facing. From scaling teams to product pricing and positioning, he gets it. His guidance has been invaluable.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Part of what is inspirational about Silicon Valley is the strong women's network. I have had the fortune of having great female mentors throughout my career.

When I look at the world at large I think one of the most impressive female leaders of our lifetime was Mother Theresa. When I was 16 I volunteered at one of her shelters in India for orphaned and handicapped children. She targeted the absolute poorest people and quietly built out a home for them. There is no question this experience impacted who I am today.