By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
“This was not a hot topic for me until three years ago,” said Laura Yecies, CEO of SugarSync. “Gender issues were not something I focused on. I had this idea that there were plenty of female CEOs – maybe not 50/50, but that there was a good amount.”
She continued, “Then I became a female CEO.”
Yecies said the turning point was when she attended a conference held by her company’s investors. “There was not one other woman at the meeting. I was blown away.” Not only was Yecies the only woman at the meeting, but she was the investors’ first and only female CEO.
“I realized there was more of a problem. It was really consciousness-raising.”
Beginning a Career in Technology
Yecies’ path into tech started with her interest in other cultures. She studied International Relations at Dartmouth and then went to Georgetown for her master’s degree. “I wanted to be a diplomat,” she said. “I always had an interest in foreign cultures and languages.”
She continued, “But I found that I didn’t want to work for the government – I wanted to focus on marketing. So I went to Harvard Business School.” When she finished up at Harvard, Yecies moved to California with her husband, who had planned to go to Berkeley. “This was about ’88,” she recalled. “I was always interested in technology. I got my first PC in 1984.”
Yecies’ first job was at Informix as a marketing manager, and after four years the company announced it was starting its Latin American sales division. “The CEO had seen my work and gave me an opportunity on the sales team. I was the only member of the sales team who spoke Spanish.”
She continued, “We started our operation in Mexico, and saw a huge opportunity in Brazil. By that time I had two children, and they came with me. It was a great opportunity as far as learning Portuguese, and learning how business is done there.”
She left Informix to lead business development for Latin America and Asia at Gupta, until the company began to downsize. “At this point I had four children,” she said. “So I decided to consult to have more flexibility.”
Then when one of her clients, Netscape, offered her a position in international marketing, right after its IPO, and she accepted.
Yecies was promoted to run the company’s browser division, leading 240 employees – mostly engineers. “I don’t have a technical background, but it was a phenomenal experience. We shipped Netscape 6.1 and 7.0.”
Shortly thereafter, she moved to Yahoo to run Yahoo Mail, and after a year, she said, “I thought I would try my hand at a startup.” Yecies moved to Metalincs, which was acquired by Seagate and then Checkpoint. As vice president of marketing and general manager of the consumer division, she helped the division grow from $20 million to $50 million in sales.
She said, “My heart is really in consumer and small business marketing. And in ’08, I was ready to spread my wings, and be a CEO myself.”
It wasn’t easy, Yecies said. “I had a lot of rejections – everyone wanted someone who had been a CEO before. But my persistence paid off.”
At the end of 2008, she joined SugarSync. “It was a very good fit,” she said. “The sales channels were similar to what I was used to before. And I was very excited about the product.”
She explained, “The opportunities in the cloud space were obvious to me, but it wasn’t universally obvious.”
SugarSync was in a turnaround situation at the time, she continued. “There were no business people at the company, and there wasn’t much infrastructure. I had the chance to put it together from scratch.”
Yecies hired people she’d known from across her career, as well as some she didn’t know. Now, she said, the company is on a 3X runrate path.
She continued, “One of the things I’m most proud of is getting SugarSync on a good trajectory. We were really days away from closing the doors. And we’re not done yet – we have a lot of work ahead of us. But we started with seventeen people and now we have about 50. We have substantial revenue, and we’re close to break even. That’s something I feel proud of.”
Women in Technology
“I had the mistaken impression, starting out, that working in a big company was safer and less risky than working at a start-up,” said Yecies.
“Sure, big companies may have more financial resources, but you have less control over your own work. It’s harder to be sure people are valuing what you are contributing,” she explained. “My Netscape experience was just phenomenal, but if I had known this, I would have gone down the path of a small company earlier.”
Yecies said that one of the challenges women face in the tech industry is a lack of access to capital. “There are very few female VCs,” she said. “And it can be very intimidating for women to raise money.”
The other challenge comes down to unconscious bias. “There’s this insidious bias that is really not deliberate,” she said. “They’re just not used to seeing female CEOs. When I was applying for CEO jobs, people just could not see me as a CEO – it was not their intent, it’s just subconscious bias.”
She continued, “As a female CEO, I am doing a few things. I’m really trying to participate in events that target women, working with Stanford Women in Business and mentoring. I’m participating in a program at my children’s high school to get girls interested in science and technology. I’m trying to be visible so people can see that there are women CEOs out there – and I’m blogging about my experiences.”
Advice for Women in Tech
“First of all, if you have even the slightest interest in technology, get that technical background,” Yecies advised. “It opens up a lot of doors and you will really stand out. If you’re a strong female engineer at the entry level, I think the world is potentially your oyster.”
“But it’s not for everyone – you really have to follow your interests,” she continued. “The other thing is thinking about the personal choices you make. If you want to work full time and have a demanding career, you have to make sure the person you marry thinks that’s a good idea. It needs to be a partnership. It’s hard to do it on your own.”
She continued, “It’s do-able, but it’s not easy to juggle work and family. The more you can sync things up to facilitate that, the better.”
She advised senior women to take more risks. “You need to raise your hand and speak up and stand up and take on a project that will get you noticed. Find a challenging problem in your company – and, obviously, you need to do a good job at it. It’s a really good way to stand out.”
She explained how, when she worked at Netscape, the company was looking for someone to take on a major project over the holidays. Yecies, who was raised Jewish, said she recalled how when she was growing up her parents would tell her that Jewish doctors would work on Christmas. “I thought I could really do something important, so I volunteered to work over the holidays. The CEO, Peter Curry, noticed – I didn’t realize at the time, but it really helped my career.”
“Take on hard projects that will be noticed,” she added.
In Her Personal Time
Yecies said she enjoys spending as much time as possible with her family. “I have four children and a husband. My oldest son is married and the second is engaged. The first thing I want to do is spend time with them.”
Now that her kids have grown, she continued, “I love to hike. I hike almost every morning with my friends. And I love to travel, especially with my family.”
Additionally, Yecies said she enjoys working with music-related charities. “I grew up playing the violin,” she explained. “I’m involved in a music program at my children’s school.
She has also participated in two medical missions to Guatemala and hopes to do more.