From left to right: Charlotte Brown and Elaine Laguerta
In this edition of Above the Glass, Software Engineer and WWCode San Francisco Network Director Elaine Laguerta spoke with Charlotte Brown, a Senior Director of Product at Qualia, about how she found her career, her personal leadership style, methods for best addressing social issues, her experience doing nonprofit focused work during a fellowship in the Himalayas, and how her background in neuroscience affects her work today.
Thanks for sitting down with me, Charlotte! Tech has been a second career for me personally, but I always enjoyed it when I was younger. As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I went through a marine biologist phase, then I really wanted to be a masseuse, and then my dream job was to be a doctor—but none of them really stuck. I remember getting to college and being like, “Where do I start? I’ll just take classes that sound interesting.” I didn't have a strong sense of what my path was.
I had a very similar experience. Was one of the classes you ended up taking related to programming?
I took Intro to Programming, which was considered kind of a must-take class. With Computer Science being the most popular major at Stanford, programming was definitely top of mind.
Was that your first exposure to tech?
I took a field trip to Google when I was in high school, actually. They invited all the girls who were in honors math to try and encourage us to pursue careers in engineering.
I wish I'd understood what they were trying to do at the time. Years later, I remember thinking, “Oh, they were really trying to get more women in STEM.” At the time, I was just excited to be on a field trip and for the goody bag of Google swag.
So, you took that Intro to Programming class but ended up earning your bachelor’s degree in neuroscience. How has your neuroscience background affected your approach to product?
As an undergraduate, I was really interested in and motivated by the way neuroscientists translate their findings into something impactful for society. For example, if we were to further our understanding of how emotions are regulated in the brain, then perhaps we’d rethink how we treat depression or reevaluate our approach to children’s education.
Product is also about taking your findings and creating meaningful change. When you’re developing a product, you’re having to think about all these different aspects—customers, business strategy, engineering. You discover a challenge or problem, and then you work with various partners to develop a solution that works for everyone. People who work in product act as the go-between, the translators.
I feel like that attitude could be more widely spread in product design. How do you utilize a more compassionate approach when working with your teams?
I always take time to understand the motivations of the people around me. That ranges from our customers, who I’m trying to build and create solutions for, to my team, who I want to feel both fulfilled and successful. Whether you’re trying to be an impactful mentor, manager, or product manager, I find it really helps to put yourself in the shoes of other people. How does this problem they are encountering affect them? When you focus on the impact more than the problem, it tends to open up the ways in which you can drive a different, more desirable impact.
I love that. Another thing that stood out to me about your background was your time as a Clinton Fellow in India. Can you tell me about that experience?
The Clinton Fellowship is very similar to the Peace Corps. I spent most of my time in the Himalayas working with a nonprofit focused on maternal and infant health intervention. Their focus was on improving outcomes for maternal health and infant mortality rates, and I was brought on board to help analyze their progress up to that point.
During my analysis, one of the most interesting things I discovered was around decision-making. The nonprofit was spending a significant amount of time trying to educate women in the community on how to make better decisions when it came to healthcare, but it turned out that it was often other family members—husbands, mothers-in-law—who were handling these important choices for them. With this in mind, we ended up pivoting our entire outreach strategy to ensure we were reaching the non-obvious parties that had a strong influence in women and children’s healthcare outcomes.
Looking back, it ended up being very similar to product work. I had to get a holistic view of what the problem was, figure out whether the current solution was working, and then change the roadmap based on our findings.
It was also incredible to live in the Himalayas for 18 months.
What made you interested in becoming a Clinton Fellow?
Towards the end of college, I became really interested in public health—mainly because I had started to think more deeply about how research affects policy. I was looking at a variety of fellowships and thought this one seemed like a natural fit. Plus, I had always wanted to go to India. I was very excited and lucky to be granted the opportunity to work with them.
When I graduated, as a lot of new grads do, I wanted to save the world. I started working for causes I was passionate about, and that was what ultimately led me to tech. What was your trajectory from the world of policy to a private company?
When I got back from my fellowship in India, I was talking to a number of think tanks, fellowship programs, and startups. All of them were trying to address a specific societal problem. I knew I wanted to work for an organization that centered around a social mission.
I think it’s really important to have nonprofits, government institutions, and businesses all address social issues. That balance is important—it can’t be just one type of organization that solves everything. Nonprofits help plug holes when the government can’t provide direct services, but they also often lack the resources to solve problems at scale. Tech and policy are two arenas in which we can really solve large, population-based issues.
In the end, I reconnected with a few people I met during undergrad who were starting a company addressing how health systems manage end-of-life care. It’s not only an expensive problem for the health system, but also an expensive and highly emotional problem for families!
That’s how I side-stepped into tech.
That’s great. Wanting to make a difference at scale is one of the reasons I pivoted as well.
Let’s transition to venture capital. I've been volunteering for Women Who Code for the past couple of years, and we're all excited about startups and the process of being entrepreneurial or founders. As someone who has gone through the startup journey, what were the most surprising parts of your experience?
Oh wow, there have been so many. This makes me think about the Silicon Valley question you asked me before we started recording: “Do you feel like a real-life Monica Hall?”
I avoided watching that program for years, thinking, “I don't need to watch a show, I live it every day.” I’ve since seen it, though, and I can definitely relate.
I watched it in preparation when I was thinking about making the switch to tech.
Obviously, it’s just a TV show, but there are themes and experiences they highlight that have certainly felt true to life.
One thing I’ve noticed when people are considering making the switch to tech is that there is a real fear of joining a Series A company. It's certainly a risk for founders and venture capitalists, but I don’t think employees need to be as skeptical about joining small startups. Large, established companies go through reorgs or rounds of layoffs all the time. There’s always some level of risk, regardless of what type of organization you join.
If you accept that a Series A startup job might mean working there for only a few years (rather than five to ten), then it’s a great way to learn. You tend to get the opportunity to take on as much responsibility as you can handle, and you can have a direct impact on the business itself. It can also totally change the trajectory of your career.
I love being on small teams, and even feeling a bit like we’re the underdog. If you’re trying to decide between joining a startup or a big company, don’t think about the risk—think about the opportunity!
In your current role, what is a typical week and where do you think you make the most impact?
At Qualia, I spend most of my days in meetings, all serving different verticals. They range from long-term strategy to aligning with various teams across the company to what can we do today to move us one step forward. I also regularly touch base with my direct reports, ensuring they have what they need to be successful. To round things out, I also help with a number of one-off situations where I act as a consultant, solving problems that arise in various parts of the business.
It sounds like you are a navigator steering the rudder on a small and large scale.
It’s really about making sure the ship is going in the right direction, identifying the moment we start to veer, and then course correcting. One of the places where I think I have the biggest impact at Qualia is in that consultant role where I can help solve the small issues that crop up. I think I have a knack for fixing little problems without distracting the team from the overall mission.
That sounds very impactful! I think I would love to have you as a manager. How would you describe your leadership and mentorship style?
You know, I used to play volleyball at various levels and a very consistent piece of feedback I got—which was very humbling—was that when I was on the court, my team played better. I’m a big believer in leading by example. If you create safety and support, the people around you can thrive.
I consider enabling, celebrating, and supporting the people around me to be the most important thing I can do as a leader. I don’t expect people to do things the way I do them, I just expect them to do the best they can.
As for mentorship, it’s something I have to actively work on. Coming from my background, I don’t necessarily have very prescribed opinions about a person’s growth path specifically in product. Instead, I just try to contextualize any feedback I give. I think it’s important for people to understand why feedback matters and how addressing it will help them succeed. To say, “This is how I am viewing the overall system, and here is where I am seeing one of your challenges. I'd like you to focus on this specific challenge because it'll help us get from Point A to Point B.”
It's a hard job. People often talk about the 10x programmer who does 10 times as much as the next person. I think you can be a 10xer by helping people be more productive. That's something that I really value, and I love the analogy that you had around volleyball.
I personally think that’s the role of any leader. But it doesn't even have to be a manager, anyone can bring some enthusiasm or motivation to the table that other people really respond to.
One hot topic that comes up a lot in the Women Who Code community is negotiating. What have you learned when negotiating your own compensation packages to be commensurate with the experience and value you bring? What tips would you offer?
My advice would be to ask about compensation early and often and to make it clear that it’s important to you. Try to make it a topic you can discuss comfortably with your manager. It will be awkward at first, but that's okay. The more you can withstand the discomfort of it, the more you'll get used to it and eventually get comfortable!
It can be disappointing to ask for higher pay and not get it. If you feel like you're still satisfied with the company and interested in your work, you can wait and try again at a later point. Don't be too discouraged by a no or a lesser offer unless you feel you’re actually being compensated unfairly. Whether or not it seems fair is an equation you can really only qualify for yourself, but do your research.
That being said, I also don’t think we should just consider compensation in terms of what might seem “fair” in a global sense. I think many of us, women in particular, look at compensation pragmatically and in terms of being “enough.” In tech, salaries tend to be quite generous and are probably more than “enough,” but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for more if that’s what would motivate you. What you feel you should be compensated may be more than what you need to pay the bills, and that's okay!
That totally hit the nail on the head for me! I’m coming from a different career, and the salaries in tech are literally double what I was making before. I find myself thinking I don't have to negotiate, but I know down the line that if I am being compensated at a lower level than peers who are equally valuable, then I'm not going to feel good.
You have to look out for yourself. Sadly, more often than not, other people aren't going to do it for you. Also, you're not going to hurt an organization’s feelings to ask for higher compensation.
The last thing I would say is to read the book Never Split the Difference. I found it very, very helpful with negotiating.
How do you view feminism in your career?
I definitely consider myself a feminist, and I think a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the industry.
There is so much wealth accumulation in tech that I think it’s really important for women and people of color to get into the industry as a wealth redistribution mechanism. Product is an interesting role, too, because you don't really need a specific background to get into it. I think it’s actually one of the best ways to transition into tech from another career. I’ve hired a number of people on my team who have nonlinear paths to tech, and I value the unique perspectives they bring to the table.
At Qualia, I talked to our founders about DE&I very early on. The company was small at that point, but I emphasized that it was something we should already be thinking about.
If you’re working at a company that doesn’t talk about DE&I, my advice is to keep bringing it up. Don’t just have the conversation once, continue to push the envelope. I see myself as a steward of Qualia’s culture, and I take that role very seriously.
I have one final question before we wrap things up. When do you believe others should feel like they have enough stature to suggest their companies put more or modified focuses on DE&I?
I know that I come from a place of privilege because I’ve never been concerned about sharing my opinion. I was definitely the most junior person at Qualia when I started voicing my thoughts about DE&I. Thankfully, our founders have always been incredibly open and supportive.
Ultimately, it's never too soon, but how safe you feel at the company is probably the most important thing to consider. Asking questions about DE&I policies or advocating for better programs means being vulnerable and putting yourself out there. You have to follow your gut. If you don’t feel like you can safely voice your opinion, you shouldn’t feel guilty. You need to put yourself first.
For me, it probably helps that I'm 6’4”. I think there's something about being tall that has really helped me feel fearless.
What a dream! I’ve got to wear heels or something. As good a volleyball player as I'm sure you were, I'm glad you're using your skills in the court of Silicon Valley instead of pro volleyball.