Women Leaders Speak: Q&A With Linda Abraham, Co-Founder of ComScore

I think dogged determination plays a huge role... Refusal to lose or to give up once you have your sights on something can take you far in this world. While it's important not to let it blind you, I've been in plenty of situations where others would have given up, and choosing not to has made all the difference.

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Linda Abraham is a founding member of comScore's executive team who helped guide the company's growth since its inception in 1999 to its current position as a global leader in digital measurement and analytics. comScore went public in 2007 (NASDAQ:SCOR) and today has a global footprint of 32 offices across 23 countries. Now an advisor to comScore, Ms. Abraham is an angel investor, and a board member/advisor to a number of startups and private companies, spanning data/analytics, machine learning, cybersecurity wearable technology and the sharing economy. She is on the advisory boards for both the Data Science Institute as well as the Center for Business Analytics at the University of Virginia and is an active member of the World Economic Forum, including being a member of their Technology Pioneer Selection Committee. She is a frequent industry speaker, appearing in media outlets such as CNBC, The CBS Evening News and NPR.

Can you tell us about some of your biggest career breakthroughs and turning points?

At P&G, timing played a big role. Coming out of school, my degree was in Quantitative Business Analysis, and by some fluke, in the summer before my senior year, I got an internship at IBM so I had had some exposure to programming and statistical modelling. At that time, P&G was just getting access to brand new data streams coming from supermarket scanners. (Prior to this, they relied on in store audits to determine how much product they were selling -- people would go into stores each month and count product on the shelves! Can you imagine?!) P&G had the foresight to know that data like this would usher in a whole new world of insights, but they were not set up to extract them. So they hired seven people out of college from all over the country with quantitative backgrounds and essentially unleashed us across their various divisions.

We used the data to develop a lot of granular insights about how consumers made choices across brands, how they responded to promotions, and things like price elasticity. Because no one in our chain of command was 'teaching' us what do with the data -- we were largely collaborating with one another and working with internal and external experts -- it created a great opportunity for us. At one point got to present my findings to the CEO of P&G. I think I was 22.

This was the beginning of the 'data revolution' for the consumer packaged goods industry, and it was very exciting to be at the forefront. I quickly grew to love extracting insights from data and using them to help make better business decisions, and I've largely been in data-related business ever since. I'd always known from a young age that I wanted to start my own business at some point, but I'm so glad I had that opportunity at Procter before I did so. It taught gave me an invaluable education. It's also where I met my husband, who was working as a consultant to P&G at the time I met him. A few years later we found ourselves working together at Information Resources in Chicago, and we discovered we made a pretty good team, both professionally and personally. He also had entrepreneurial aspirations, so after we got married, we decided to co-found our first company, Paragren. We sold that a few years later, and started comScore in 1999.

After 14 years, I stepped out of my operational role and am now an advisor to comScore. While it was a great ride, it was time to pass the baton. I really like thinking about where data and technology is going, so I thought working with startups as an angel investor/advisor would give me a chance to work with a broad array of companies and business models. In my view, it's newer companies that are making many of the big breakthroughs, so that's where I'm now spending my time. I have to say, I think there's never been a better time to be in the data/technology space. I'm enjoying it immensely.

What achievement are you most proud of to date?

I'd have to say taking comScore (SCOR) public.

Next to marrying my husband and bringing my children into the world, it was probably one of the most exciting days of my life -- standing on the floor of the NASDAQ, leading up to the opening of the market, you're behind a guy with a bunch of flashing screens in front of him, and he's yelling:

"I'm opening comScore, SCOR at 16. Who's got 16? Now 16 ½! Now 18!" etc.

We closed at 22 that day, well above what we were hoping for, and it was a day I'll never forget. But as exciting as it was, the better and more meaningful memories followed.

A lot of people who had worked long and hard for comScore for a long time became very wealthy that day, and there were subsequently some terrific stories about what that meant to people. We heard about people who suddenly did not have to worry about college tuitions or home mortgages, others fulfilled lifelong dreams. One of our top technical people, who was first in his family to go to college, was a car lover. He had a lifelong dream about driving through Germany at very high speeds on their open highways. That summer, after buying his first house, he took his new wife to Munich, bought his dream BMW, and drove 100 MPH on the autobahn. He had also worked with us at our previous company, so this was especially meaningful. When he told me that story, I cried. One woman from Argentina had a very large but close family, who lived all over the world. Sadly, her dad back home suddenly became very sick. With her proceeds from the IPO, she was able to bring her family all back home for a reunion to say goodbye.

These people had really been in the trenches at comScore, for many years. It was extremely gratifying to hear these stories. While I think it's true that money doesn't buy happiness, it sure can make deep, meaningful differences in people's lives. It's humbling and gratifying to have played some role in that.

What in your opinion, is the key to your success?

There's one school of thought out there that suggests entrepreneurial success is a combination of heart, smarts, guts and luck. I think that's largely true. The first three are definitely necessary, but I'd argue not sufficient. Luck, which sometimes takes the form of good timing, or simply being born in the right country, plays a role for everyone who's successful. This became abundantly clear to me when I started doing international acquisitions for comScore. I met entrepreneurs from all parts of the globe, who were brilliant and capable as any I've ever met. Had they started their companies in Silicon Valley or New York, I'm sure they would have been hugely successful. But because they came from countries that didn't have the capital to scale, there was an upper limit to how big they could get. While it's certainly possible to have successful startup anywhere, I think if you start in one of the technology hotbeds in the US, you have a huge head start.

Secondly, for me, I think dogged determination plays a huge role. One of the characteristics of my Irish heritage is that I'm stubborn-refusal to lose or to give up once you have your sights on something can take you far in this world. While it's important not to let it blind you, I've been in plenty of situations where others would have given up, and choosing not to has made all the difference.

If you could perfect one new personal quality, what would that be?

I would be a better active listener. I'm pretty talkative, which can be an advantage socially, but when it comes to business, I've learned a lot more by listening, rather than talking. I'm constantly trying to get better at this in business situations. Not to confuse this with being passive -- that's very different. By active listening, I mean getting to know the person you're trying to sell to, hire, negotiate with, whatever the case may be. Not small talk, but really trying to learn what makes the person tick-what's been formative to them in their careers, what their values are, that sort of thing. The more you know about them, the more you can understand who they are and what's important to them. When you know that, business is always easier. For example, I like to learn someone's 'non-financial objectives.' These are intangible things that don't have a financial cost but are important to them. If you know what they are, you can wrap them into a deal, and that might make all the difference.

Have you ever been 'professionally stuck'? How did you become 'unstuck'?

Personally I'm always happiest and the most motivated when I have one foot in something I know how to do well and the other in something I have no idea how to do, so when I become stuck, it means I'm spending too much time doing what I already know how to do. In fact, one of the things I've told many managers that have worked for me over the years is that if you know how to do something really well, either someone on your team should be doing it or you should be teaching it to them. While you can't be a butterfly -- you need to stick with something long enough to get really good at and put points on the board-unless you want to keep doing that thing, at some point, at least in entrepreneurial organizations, you take initiative to make that happen. No one is sitting around asking themselves, gee, I wonder what Tania would like to do next to continue enriching her career?

Another of my mantras is 'you are the CEO of your own career.' I think that's true for people at all levels of an organization.

On a larger scale, there have been times when I've wanted to get into a whole new function. When this happens, something I've always done is to find the white space in that function -- something that would be incredibly valuable to the company if it could be done, but they don't have the resources to hire someone to do it. White space is usually plentiful in small companies, so I've always loved starting from nothing, coming up with what the right vision was, and getting something and running. When it's working pretty well, we would hire someone who can take it to the next level. Our board referred to me as the 'utility infielder' and I think that's a good description.

What advice would you give your younger self?

If you plan to be an entrepreneur, pay attention to all aspects of business -- even the ones that don't interest you -- early on. In my case, both in school and early on in my career, I found finance and accounting to be yawners so I did the minimum needed, then delegated them as soon as I could. As an executive, you need to have a firm grasp on these topics, so I often find myself wishing I'd paid more attention earlier. I guess the lesson is don't' delegate until you really know how to do something yourself. At the end of the day, you're going to be on the hook for making sure it's right, so don't shortcut your opportunities to learn, even on the less interesting topics.

What would you like to achieve in the next two years? How about the next five?

The next years are going to be a new learning and new adventure for me. Lots of changes. I have four kids and the last one is now in college so I'm officially an empty nester. I have some exciting travel planned with my husband, which I'm looking forward to (three weeks in Australia!). Starting next year, my husband will be a visiting scholar at Stanford, so I'll be spending a lot more time in Silicon Valley. It strikes me that there are some stark differences between the east coast and west coast in how startups get funded, how they operate and how they grow, so I'm looking forward to digging into that a bit. I'd like to see one of my 'portfolio' companies break out and take a decisive lead in their respective space. I've been really enjoying having more time to think, read, learn. On one hand, I've been taking a course in machine learning, which is awesome; on the other, they say if you want to get a new idea, read an old book, so I've been reading some great old books, from Sun Tzu's Art of War to Steibeck's Grapes of Wrath. Each has definitely spawned some new thinking.

All of that said, while I put together goals for myself each year, I'm not a huge long-term planner. Have never had a five year plan, either personally or professionally, likely never will. The world moves too quickly, which makes it exciting. So I look at the next few years largely as dry powder -- lots of virgin territory to be explored. Not sure if they're will be a third company in the cards or not. Sometimes I think about it, but I'm not sure if I have the energy! We'll see. But the next year or two will largely be about taking some time to think, reflect, read, and learn. Some of my favorite pastimes!

What qualities do you believe are most important to be a leader? If not all these qualities came naturally, any tips on how to cultivate them?

I think vision and communication are very important leadership qualities. In my experience, regardless of size of the organization, people want to know four things

1) where you're going, so what's your big picture vision
2) how you're going to get there
3) what their role in it is, and
4) what's in it for them.

What they generally don't want, at least in entrepreneurial organizations, is to be micro-managed, or to be told at a very tactical level, how to get there. In my experience, if they know these four things, they generally have what they need to get there. And by #4, I don't just mean money -- what's in it for them might be a new responsibility, team lead, career advancement, etc.

What are three words that describe you best?

Curious, resilient, determined