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An Interview With Ming Zhao

Self-confidence is beauty. A body-language and demeanor that oozes confidence and authenticity definitely gives you an edge. Different people draw confidence from different things. Regardless, it is very important to feel comfortable and happy about yourself.

As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite” , we had the pleasure of interviewing Saranya Babu, CMO at Cloudinary where she manages all aspects of marketing and focuses on building a brand that drives incredible value to customers. She has held various leadership roles in the high-tech industry with proven success achieving 2X — 10X growth in revenue and valuation for B2B software/SaaS startups and mid-size companies. Saranya has broad experience leading initiatives from conception to launch across engineering, product management, marketing, and BD.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I started my career as a software engineer and developer. As a developer, you are sometimes disconnected from the “why” — the business drivers behind what you’re asked to build. When I became an architect I started to talk to customers and partners and my curiosity to understand the business side really shot up and drove me to do my MBA and shift over to marketing. I started with marketing for traditional enterprise selling and gradually took on more modern business motions like dual-side marketplaces, mobile apps, product-led growth, freemium and developer-driven API-first growth.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There was an instance where a decision was made by an executive and the team was executing based off of that strategy. I noticed a discrepancy between the strategy and the execution and the team quoted the exact words from the executive. It turned out to be a case where the words were taken very literally to the point where the essence of the strategy was left behind. This is something I have seen happen from time to time. It goes to show how much weight an executive’s words can have and how important it is to weigh every word when you are in a position of power.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I have stories of mistakes but not any funny ones.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There is always a village behind every person’s successes (and failures). I’d like to give a shoutout to every person that cared enough to take the trouble of giving me constructive feedback. Giving constructive feedback can make people very uncomfortable, especially when it is unsolicited. But some people cared enough to do it for me and I am very grateful to them. In one instance a manager of mine pointed out that I was coming across as being defensive during a meeting. Another one pointed out that I was saying “hmm” too many times that came across as being too eager to comply or ready to counter instead of paying attention and actually “listening.” These seemingly tactical inputs, among many others, immensely helped me build an effective communication style and shaped me into a better leader.

As you know, the United States is facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Our perspectives are deeply shaped by our environments and experiences. There is so much diversity in people’s backgrounds and so what we can bring to the table is very diverse but also limited by our own biases.

Building a diverse team helps us achieve the global maxima of success for our organizations by avoiding blind spots that come with our biases. No single individual will be limited by the boundaries of their own way of thinking and instead will grow by learning from perspectives they never could acquire from their environments or communities.

It also helps us easily understand our target audiences and approach customers with empathy. Empathy builds trust and loyalty and ultimately helps people and organizations command leadership positions.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.

There are two gaps that need to be filled — the opportunity gap and the privilege gap.

There are members of disadvantaged communities that have fought all odds and managed to come to a level that very few in their communities have reached. When they knock on our doors, often they get overlooked because of various conscious and unconscious biases. This can be solved by actively educating people about biases, how to recognize a biased perspective, and actively overcome it. As leaders we should proactively make sure everybody is evaluated purely based on the required job qualifications in a fair manner. This would help bridge the opportunity gap by making sure that opportunities are given in a fair manner.

The bigger problem is the existence of whole communities or sections that are severely disadvantaged and hence don’t even get the privilege to compete. These are people that don’t get access to the same benefits or growth avenues as the people from privileged communities. Often these people are not able to complete their education or sometimes have to abandon it. They don’t get opportunities to qualify for higher education or good jobs. This is a social problem and needs a longer term approach.

Hiring practices that optimize for “culture add” versus “culture fit” can help build truly diverse teams. Promoting social causes through corporate gifting programs can contribute to the privilege gap. I am a big believer in taking small meaningful steps. It could be as small as replacing a corporate swag with a charitable donation to social causes in an ABM campaign. Or having a non-profit program to offer discounts to social outfits.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Often people tend to conflate leadership, management, and authority. Anyone in a management position needs all of these but executives need something beyond these. An executive should have strategic vision, sound judgment, and mental grit. An executive is vested with a lot of power and trust so they have to hold themselves accountable and responsible for their decisions. Regardless of the stress they face, they have to be the source of hope and aspiration for their employees. They should not be afraid of having difficult conversations or asking uncomfortable questions. They need the ability to take in the stress, uncertainty and lack of clarity and convert that into confidence, trust, and vision. At every level of leadership this is needed. It is just a continuum with the executive being at the far end of it.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

The most popular myth is that a CEO or executive has so much power and can make everybody do whatever they want. This may be true from a very superficial and literal view but the reality is very different. A good CEO or executive takes the highest level of responsibility and risk and will put the interest of the company and the people ahead of their own personal preferences. So in reality most of that power is spent in exercising restraint, inspiring hope while braving any turmoil with resilience. This can be quite stressful and is not something that is obvious to everyone.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

Women executives are in many instances a minority in the executive team. So they face the biases and inconveniences that any minority group faces — like lack of awareness or empathy for issues specific to them — which may result in working structures that may not fit them. I have found that women executives carry the burden of creating awareness and paving the path for future women leaders. It is important to speak up for themselves and educate others to be more inclusive at all levels.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Not applicable.

Is everyone cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

Not everybody is cut out to be an executive. There is no single formula that defines a successful profile for an executive. An executive needs to have a vision and be able to inspire a team to believe in that vision and work towards achieving it. They need to have good judgment and be able to see the road ahead through the fog of uncertainty. They need to have difficult conversations, ask uncomfortable questions and often have to make tough choices that may make them unpopular. But most importantly they need to have the courage and conviction to do the right thing and to stand up for it.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. When it comes to compensation it does not matter what anybody thinks you deserve. What matters is what you want. If it matches your true value you will find a place.
  2. When things are not working, move fast.
  3. Tolerating bad performance will make your good employees leave.
  4. Praise, recognition and celebration are extremely important.
  5. Securing buy-in at all levels is important

I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?

Self-confidence is beauty. A body-language and demeanor that oozes confidence and authenticity definitely gives you an edge. Different people draw confidence from different things. Regardless, it is very important to feel comfortable and happy about yourself.

All other forms of beauty do not matter.

Beauty is really in the eyes of the beholder. I am a big fan of the beauty industry. I know the role that beauty products play in my life. They are not a crutch for low confidence but a manifestation of the joyous spirit in life.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would love to give people an easy and reliable way to know facts from fake news and false information. I think this is the biggest problem plaguing our society during these times. We have moved from waging wars through weapons to waging them through misinformation. I would love to see a movement that would fight to eliminate all flavors of fake news, false information, opinions presented as facts, misrepresentation, manipulated information and more.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them

I have always been an admirer of Indira Nooyi. As a first generation immigrant to the US like myself and someone that grew up in the same city as me, I look at her path as an inspiration and hope for my own career aspirations. I would love to have breakfast or lunch with her someday.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

You are welcome. It was my pleasure.

Women Of The C-Suite: Saranya Babu On The Five Things You Need To Succeed As A Senior Executive was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.