Women in Business: Q&A with Kate Swann, COO at Blue State Digital

Kate Swann is a digital and innovation executive who specializes in growing creative organizations and managing cross-functional teams and clients. She is currently COO at Blue State Digital, a digital and technology agency that works to mobilize communities on behalf of nonprofits, brands and advocacy groups-- most notably for the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

At BSD, she works with CEO Joe Rospars to develop and grow the business, which has nearly doubled in recent years. Much of the work is in the political, nonprofit and advocacy space, with digital strategy at the core. She leads business strategy and technology integration as Blue State builds new products and services.

Kate was previously COO at frog design, where she managed all offices globally and helped grow both the agency's team and revenue five times over during her tenure. She has extensive leadership experience with start-ups like Avalanche (acquired by Razorfish), Organic and Fry.

Kate is a graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
In my family, women typically did not have careers. As a child, I remember my adored grandfather telling me that I shouldn't let anyone know I was smart, or the boys wouldn't like me. My father, in what I know he considered a compliment, told me I could be a stewardess or a model. Even at that age, I didn't like being told what I could and couldn't do. I set my sights on becoming a lawyer--at that time, the most tangible profession I knew.

Once I got to college, however, my attentions wandered and I explored writing. My friends were also aspiring artists. What that meant for most of us was waiting tables and taking administrative jobs while following our dreams. Eventually I found myself in graduate program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. I was pursuing a master's degree in Performance Studies and took a job at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) to pay my tuition. At Tisch, I found a fantastic mix of artists and producers of every stripe. I realized that my talents were in planning, strategy, and organization. I could work in the creative world without being an artist.

All of these experiences shaped the leader I am today--my skepticism for what "can't" be done, my experience in a variety of jobs at all levels, and my respect for the creative process. I hope that my best leadership qualities include an ability to solve problems and craft new paths forward, to give people opportunities they may not otherwise get, and to empower creatives to do their best work.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Blue State Digital?
Every single one of my professional experiences, from waitressing to being COO of a company owned by private equity, has contributed to what I bring to Blue State. Having the opportunity to grow several digital businesses is the most immediately obvious, but there are so many other experiences that have taught me relevant lessons--the importance of culture, how to balance process with innovation, communication and management styles, and effective business planning and strategy. The growth phase of a business--when it's no longer a start-up but still learning and maturing--is the most fun in my opinion.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Blue State Digital?
A real highlight has been discovering a team of passionate and talented people who are truly willing to change. By partnering with some of the existing leadership team, I've been able to implement a significant number of initiatives quickly. We have focused on building up leadership, defining our market position, and instituting processes to enable the business to scale. Since the start of 2013, we have hired more than 100 additional people globally--effectively doubling BSD's size. The headquarters moved to a 16,000 square foot space in SoHo and we are planning new offices; 40+ web platforms launched; and millions of actions were taken on behalf of clients including Google, Ford, NAACP, Freedom to Marry, and the Coalition to Protect America's Health Care. There is plenty to be proud of!

There are always challenges--I call that job security. At Blue State, most of them are consistent with those faced by similar companies. Changing the behavior of teams on a day-to-day basis is something that takes a great deal of time and patience. And finding and hiring the right people is a constant challenge.

What attracted you to working with start-ups?
I was lucky enough to get in at the birth of the dot-com boom. I was working at NYU's ITP after finishing my master's degree, when someone ran down the hall and told me I had to come look at something. That something was the first visual browser: Mosaic. Shortly thereafter, I got a job at a web consulting company as a project manager. At that time, there were no standards, no hierarchy. I managed client relationships, wrote specifications, worked in Photoshop and coded HTML. That experience of doing everything myself gave me a real understanding of what was possible. And I moved up the ladder quickly, becoming an executive producer in one year. I loved the energy and pace of the start-up. A small company, where things change quickly, is a great place for women to grow their careers.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start a start-up?
I would give them the same advice I give anyone who wants to start a new business. It's a great deal of work! And you are accountable for every single piece of it. The two things many people overlook when starting a new business are sales and the bottom line. Even if you are getting money from investors (especially if you are!), you need to be laser-focused on the path to profitability. As long as you are profitable, you can control your destiny. Keeping track of where you are on that path needs to be a constant. And regardless of how good your product is, sales will make or break you.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Both my husband and I have demanding jobs, so when we had children, we had to make a real effort to balance our schedules. Early in my career, I would regularly work 70-hour weeks and stay at the office until 10 pm. Obviously that was no longer feasible. The two key tactics I employ to manage my schedule are prioritization and delegation. I typically spend an hour or so on Sundays reviewing my week, evaluating my schedule and identifying the must-do items. I also consider what things can be moved forward by junior staff. I try to give junior people on my team meaty initiatives that they can own with my oversight. Trusting and investing time with those people has been very effective--both in terms of keeping on top of my work and giving others opportunities to grow. And then you have to decide what can fall off the list--you can't do everything.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think there are issues for women in the workplace across the board, but they differ wildly depending on your field. Finance and law are two professions where I'm told there are still huge barriers. Digital consulting, on the other hand, is a pretty good field to advance in: there are many women in senior roles and many opportunities. It is a highly collaborative environment where women excel. But here, the obstacles are more subtle. Typically there isn't great support for mothers with young children. The hours are demanding and part-time work is discouraged. I have also experienced a higher standard and harsher judgement of women in senior positions. Behavior that is tolerated from male colleagues is not acceptable from women and can prevent promotions. This can include tone, attitude, and temper--things that can be tough to quantify and thus easy to gloss over.

I joined Blue State about a year ago at the same time as another senior female colleague. Historically, BSD had not attracted enough females, but that is no longer the case. Since then, the gender ratio has gone from 33% women to 51% without a big fuss. The CEO embraced the change and in fact is one of the most supportive leaders I have worked for. Overall, I think the entire company is interested in closing the gender gap. It can be so egregious in our fields--the tech industry is 70% male and in the agency world, women make up just 3% of creative directors. We recently started publishing updates of our gender balance on our jobs site, and we're inviting other companies in our space to do the same.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I have been very lucky to have strong female mentors throughout my career. The most impactful one was Red Burns, the former Chair of ITP who died last year. I began working for her while I was getting my master's degree because I could get free tuition. I worked as her assistant. She had an amazing career--no college degree, twice widowed with small children and the founder of the NYU program. She was always pushing me to define my career path. When I finished my degree, she offered me a position as a Producer of a CD-ROM called Chaos. I was terrified and told her I didn't know anything about CD-ROMs. She replied, "Well, no one else does either," and gave me the job on the spot. I strongly believe that who you work for is a critical element of professional success and I continually look for mentors and leaders that are partners, not dictators.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I have a great deal of admiration for politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Wendy Davis. They are truly on the front lines in creating change for all of us. And while I believe that successful women in business dedicate much more than their 9-5 to that success, from where I sit, politics appears to be a 24/7 commitment. Their lives are scrutinized and their every action is a part of the work they do.

What do you want Blue State Digital to accomplish in the next year?
Our goal is to create change in the world for causes and organizations we believe in, and we do so by bringing the best digital strategy and tools to nonprofits and advocacy groups. This year, we are focused on growing our Strategy and Technology practices, and we'll be launching new platforms which will substantially grow our clients' impact. Overall, I want to see us successfully deliver in those areas and partner with a few key organizations to create change for pivotal causes, such as climate change and marriage equality.