EPISODE 484: Building a Gender-Blind Sales Culture with Chili Piper Cofounder Alina Vandenberghe

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Women in Sales virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on March 8. 2022. It featured an interview with Co-Founder & CXO at Chili Piper Alina Vandenberge.]

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ALINA’S TIP: “It’s very important to understand one’s skillset and understand what one’s strengths are and to make sure to double down on them because that unique combination of skill is probably just specific to you. The more we understand how we can contribute to the growth of our environment, not only to our company, but to our family unit and to our village in general. That deep understanding of our skillset can help us understand how we can better contribute, but also to understand when we might have to leave some other things to others that might do it better than us. I think that’s one important part of the puzzle. Obviously, once that’s integrated and understood, one has to have a lot of strength and energy in one’s powers to be able to execute. So consistently working on self-confidence and that motivation is an equally strong contributor to success.”


Gina Stracuzzi: I would like to welcome my guest, Alina Vandenberghe, co-founder of Chili Piper. Alina is going to be talking to us about her startup that is blazing trails and how they’ve done some amazing things to close the gender pay gap and have 50% management that is female. But before we get started, I would like to ask Alina to tell us a little bit about herself and how she got to where she is today. Alina, welcome.

Alina Vandenberghe: Thank you, Gina, for having me. In Romania actually, I’m Romanian and we don’t celebrate only the Woman’s Day, we also celebrate Mother’s Day. For me, today is an equally beautiful day to celebrate women everywhere. Sales specifically is also a subject that’s close to my heart even though my background is in computer science, and I’ve always been an engineer and that’s how I operate within Chili Piper as well, mostly on the engineering front.

On the sales front, when we started building the company, that was a skill that was very important to making the economics at first work. In school in order to pay for my studies, I sold a lot. I sold everything from my tech skills to cosmetics and I’ve even sold TVs. I know that without that salesmanship it’s very hard to achieve many things along one’s life, even if it might not be used for a specific sales career. It’s a skill that’s very important to many of our goals.

Gina Stracuzzi: Absolutely. As you’re building a company, being able to forge relationships with people that can finance the company or vendors or your own employees, that is such a critical skill. I love that you sold everything from cosmetics to televisions. It’s so interesting because a lot of people that we talk to got started selling in college and it was a way to pay their way more than what they thought was going to be their lifelong career. But they found out they’re very good at it, and that it is more than just pushing goods towards somebody. It is about relationship building and being of service to others. That’s a fabulous background. I just want to back up a little bit. Are you saying that today in Romania, it’s Mother’s Day as well?

Alina Vandenberghe: Yes, it is. It’s funny, every culture celebrates Mother’s Days a little bit different. In Romania, we celebrate it on March 8th, and we celebrate it together with the coming of spring with a lot of flowers and just celebrating many things at once. It’s interesting because with spring, there’s a bit of rebirth that’s going on of trees, of flowers in the countries that do have spring.

It’s a coincidence, but that’s what motherhood is about as well, giving that birth and it has a very strong symbolic representation for me as well because I’m a mother as well. I have two boys. Once I became a mother, I fully understood the challenges that are happening in the workspace because of that as well, and how it affects in general career assessment and in general why fewer companies, not as many companies have that kind of equal distribution of diversity in their teams because of this special role that in general women carry.

Gina Stracuzzi: Well, that’s a really good jumping off point for our larger conversation. Because when I first started talking with your company, I was really drawn to this idea of being gender-blind when it comes to what are people bringing to the table and who are they as a candidate, rather than what is their gender?

I love that when you got into motherhood, you really understood in a very strong way what it meant to be a woman, a mother and trying to build your career in a company. Is that the impetus behind making sure that the pay gap was closed within your company and that you had at least 50% men and women in management positions or is that something you’ve always had, but it just got cemented at that point?

Alina Vandenberghe: I felt the pain myself of being singled out throughout my career because I was a female. Just little things that were curious to me that would not be addressed in the way they were addressed to me in meetings such as, “Oh, Alina, she brings the coffee,” or, “Oh, Alina, she takes the notes,” or, “Alina, she must be the assistant of this other person.” Even though I was at director level or vice president level, everybody just assumed that I was more of a low-level employee in the company, no matter how hard I was trying to build my image, that of a high executive.

Obviously, once I would speak to them, they would understand that I had the right knowledge to be in that meeting and be an equal part. But in general, men always had the impression that because I was a female, I was not an equal table representation, and it’s the same in school. Teachers would just assume that I would just never do well, they would assume that I’m just cheating, or God knows what.

I’ve always been singled out because I was a female. That was very curious to me. But more curious to me was, what was the root of it? Why would females be singled out and why would females be assumed that they would be less good at certain jobs? Because I’m generally very curious, I keep observing the patterns and the behaviors of others to understand how these attributions come to play and how the perception switches from one place to another. The more I go through life, the more I understand how we’re wired to behave based on certain events that happen in our life.

Certain things that have happened to me in my recent history that have made me understand how people are trained to view others in certain way, and gender is obviously one big discussion. We can go into the details and what I’ve discovered but there are other things that make for this kind of imbalance in presence within workforce. It’s not only female versus men, it’s a lot of skin color that I’ve observed that is problematic. Cultural differences are oftentimes problematic. People that are of a certain culture are more likely to hire more people that look a lot like them.

This refers to multinational companies. We’re global from the get go, so we have a lot of cultural diversity. I can see that it’s very easy to get focused on a specific region, because the hiring manager is from that particular region and they might want to just hire people that look a lot like them as opposed to diversity. Then, even within gender, there’s so much fluidity around what the male and what a female really means and all the other things that are in between.

There’s also an age discrimination that’s happening. Every time we’re taking any kind of action, I want to make sure that we have a good framework to understand what makes somebody really, really good at their job. What are the skills that need to be exemplary in that particular role? Whether it’s an account manager, it’s account executive, an SDR, customer success, any role within our company, we’re very laser focused and very precise on what it takes to be very good at that job and test on those particular skills as opposed to being biased by any other attribute that is irrelevant in achieving success.

Gina Stracuzzi: That makes a lot of sense. The similarity bias that we all have, it’s a subconscious effort on our part. Not even an effort, just a way that we see something that looks like us or thinks like us, and our mind gets lit up and we’re not even necessarily conscious of it. Getting to the point where we are consciously fighting that so that we can make those better choices for the position and equal choices and diverse choices is really something that I applaud that you are doing. That you are making this conscious effort to hire whoever is best for that position based on their skills and experience. You’ve gotten the term now unicorn startup. That was a phrase I have to admit was new to me. Talk to us a little bit about what that means and how that impacts what it is you’re trying to achieve and where you want to go with that.

Alina Vandenberghe: Unicorn was also new to me a few years ago when I first heard about it. I just thought it was a horse with a horn on its head. I never really understood entrepreneurship when I started my career. I never even thought of that as an option because I was not exposed to it in my group of friends and family. Probably it’s because of the way Romania functions and education happens in there. In US it’s something that’s better understood because a lot of people start their own businesses, even if not everybody’s doing it in tech, there are small businesses, restaurants, nail salons.

Entrepreneurship is better understood but in Romania I wasn’t familiar with this term. I didn’t fully understand that I had the skills for it until I saw the signs in my past and then I understood the full story. When we started in 2016, when we started Chili Piper and I made this partnership with my husband, who’s also the co-founder of Chili Piper, I understood that I had the correct skills to make things happen because there’s a multitude of things but one of the thing that was useful in my case is that I have a very strong drive and a lot of energy to make things happen.

We started step by step, and we made the economics work, but I never understood the extent to which it can grow. I didn’t fully grab it, I don’t know how to explain it better, but I didn’t fully understand it in my bones. Even though I wanted to build a large company, I didn’t fully understand the path to getting there. I had not been exposed to all the things that one is exposed to building a company like venture funding and unicorn and secondaries and all sorts of legalities that are required to get all the operations off the ground.

But I knew from the beginning that in our specific industry, there was an opportunity to have software that can be built better with skillsets with somebody that is passionate about building beautiful software. That has been one of my goals from the beginning. I was looking at companies like Microsoft and Apple, and we’re seeing the beautiful things in the software that they build and it was always white male. I was like, “I need to make this happen.” I want to contribute and then get to represent females in that segment as well.”

Gina Stracuzzi: Wonderful.

Alina Vandenberghe: Gina, I have to show you this because it’s very sweet. He didn’t know that I have a podcast and he just showed up but I just got flowers for Mother’s Day. That’s very nice.

Gina Stracuzzi: That’s quite alright. We’re happy to share your joy with you. How old is your little boy?

Alina Vandenberghe: He’s three, and I have another, one year old.

Gina Stracuzzi: Wow. Well, you’re not too busy, are you? [Laughs] I love that he brought you flowers. Little kids have no boundaries and they don’t know how to tell time, so it’s all perfect. Let’s talk a little bit about how you built your salesforce within your company and how you see their role in helping you develop this company and build an even bigger horn on the unicorn so to speak.

Alina Vandenberghe: When we started Chili Piper, both my husband and I were selling, and we were making sure that the product can be sold and that we know exactly what the process looks like. What person we’re addressing with what messaging, what functions, what the demo looks like, what the onboarding looks like, what the pre-sales and all of that. We were both quite keen in making sure that our sales team is going to start on a predictable format because without us being able to sell, nobody else would have been able to sell.

Once we got that going, we made sure that everybody who came on board, we would expose them to that process. Then we realize obviously that every salesperson is a little bit different and everybody sells in their own way, and we’ve understood a lot more on how to go about that. But at the same time, we were also interested a lot more than other companies in our sales team because in our product, the sales persona is also a part of the personnel that we address, so the person that we sell to.

I had a double interest in it because everything that every role would do would be somebody that I will build a product for. I wanted to hire top salespeople so that I can make sure that our product addresses the productivity of a top performer and that we can enable a tech product for a top performer. As you’ve noticed in sales, everybody’s very focused on that personal relationship and being able to get them in a call, a meeting or in-person conversation because that’s the most important part of the day because that’s when you finally got somebody’s attention.

You want to make sure to make the most out of that, and everything else is just stuff. As an account executive, you’re less likely to want to add the notes in the CRM, you’re less likely to update the opportunity stage or any of the other things. You just want to sell, to meet your quota and that was very important for me to have top performers because I knew that if I’m able to enable these top performers with my product then I would be able to have other sales teams adopt it as well. It plays a double role.

Gina Stracuzzi: Well, that makes perfect sense. I like that you looked into some of the top companies, and what do their sales teams look like? You’re very right. Each company comes at sales differently. The one thing that we certainly learn at IES is as we were talking earlier, is all about helping employers attract that top tier talent and then retain them, which is a challenge unto itself. But emulating companies that have strong sales teams, and figuring out what it is they’re doing right is a great way to go about it.

I love that you’re trying to marry your sales teams to the product and what it can deliver. That is such an essential part of really escalating sales is having more than a relationship, really understanding the client’s needs, and what it is they need from your software. It sounds like you went at it the right way from the very beginning. What have been some of the challenges that you’ve met along the way? Let’s talk a little bit too about your commitment to having at least 50% management at Chili Piper and does that equate in sales as well?

Alina Vandenberghe: I think that it’s really, really hard to make a company successful without having equal representation because I look at mine and my husband’s partnership and the things that we’re bringing to the table to make this success. We have such differences of opinion in so many topics and we have such a different way to looking at everything from product to the sales process to our hires to the go-to market. Because of those differences, we make better decisions.

We found a process to which we can express our differences without alienating one another and with having a strong commitment to listening to those opinions in a way where it’s just not lip service to the listening part but we actively understand that that difference of opinion comes from a different understanding than ours. Understanding that view from all angles in general just makes us better human beings, but it also helps us make better decisions.

We have what we call decision memos. It’s not very specific to Chili Piper but to a lot of other companies where whenever we notice a challenge, we document that challenge with all potential options to solve for it, and we do so in a crowd source format, so that everybody can contribute with data points with different perspectives on how that came about and what are the possibilities to be sold for without pointing fingers or without making harsh remarks. More of an observatory approach to the state of the fact and then potential actions that can be taken to solve for it.

By going through that process, we’ve seen that if there’s not enough information in the document to make a decision, it means that we cannot make one, it means that we need to continue our research. If there’s a consensus on the crowdsourcing of information on what the choices to move forward are, then it means that we’ve done a good job at highlighting the information.

It all comes from those lenses and that’s one of the main things why we’ve considered it important that the management team and the sales team and all our teams really are bringing very different views and opinions into our approach so that we can make better decisions and we take better actions because we can see things in ways that others might have blind spots or might have a different exposure to different things.

Gina Stracuzzi: It makes great sense. Can you point to specific instances where that approach to problem solving has really helped you as a company and to your growth? Do your employees really respond to that and feel heard or do they after a while, consider it just one more thing out of their day that needs attention?

Alina Vandenberghe: It’s constant. This process of making decisions using documents is constant. I have at least, I don’t know, 10 decision memos of some kind that are lurking in my inbox at any point in time and they’re important decisions. I don’t think that anybody views them as a waste of their time because without that information, we cannot make good decisions that impact their work. Whenever we might make a change around pricing or around go-to market, everything is transparent to our employees.

You can imagine, if you’re working in sales, and there’s a change in price, or there’s a change in how we market something, it affects you because you’re going to be able to sell more or less or whatever you think might impact you and your opinion is super important. Whenever we make any important decision, everybody’s being asked what they think about it. By polling our employees, I don’t even know how other people do it without that process. I don’t even know. They can just make the decision like that? It’s impossible.

I feel like it’s an important process. It just forces you to present the information in such a way that others understand how you draw that conclusion and it forces you to be much more concise in your communication and in your exposure of information and in explaining your decision making process so that things get internalized better, and people can understand what are all the actions that we’re taking and why and how everybody contributes to our growth, so that it’s not, “Oh, I’m just the cog, I’m just selling this thing, and that’s all there is to it. I don’t have any representation.”

You understand every action, how it impacts everything else. That’s important because I’ve worked for so many companies, and I felt like it was so hard for me to understand how I’m impacting the bottom line. It was so hard for me to understand how my actions made any difference. It’s only natural that the process is transparent that way.

Gina Stracuzzi: Yes, I agree with that and I applaud it. Because we talk to people all the time within these larger selling organizations who don’t feel heard, and then they do get things kind of thrust upon them, price changes, changes to the product, whatever the case is, with little to no explanation, and they have to carry it forth to their clients which really can damage relationships or just make it more and more difficult.

I applaud you on what you’re doing. We are at the end of our conversation, and I do have one last quick question. What advice would you give other women who are looking to maybe start a company or even if they’re in a growth company that has fairly open conversations, what advice would you give them to help grow that?

Alina Vandenberghe: The first question of what to do if you want to start a company, I would think that it can only be done if you have a very strong motivation to building the product or the software or the services that you want to build. Just financial reward is not at all sufficient. You have to have a very strong interest and motivation and also have a high tolerance to risk and to stress because there are a lot of stressful moments and a lot of moments where you can just be on the street, it happens constantly.

For the what can you do to contribute to your company’s success, you have to make sure that you understand whether you have some options in the company or whether your bonus is tied to certain outcomes. Understand how that bottom line is impacted by your actions, and how you can use your skillset to grow yourself as a human being within that organization to serve for that growth.

If you’re not passionate about that particular service or company, that is very hard to do so. There has to be some alignment around the motivation there. But we’re all humans, we all want to make ourselves better and better our path to becoming a better version of ourselves. In order to do that, we have to understand deeply how our skillsets and how our contributions impact the organization that we’re part of to be able to grow those skillsets.

Gina Stracuzzi: Absolutely. Well, generally, we ask for one last piece of advice that people can put into place today to help their careers, help their companies. I think you gave us that in your last answer but I would still like to leave you the opportunity to give us a closing piece of advice or make a closing remark on International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day, whatever you would like to say.

Alina Vandenberghe: It’s very important to understand one’s skillset and understand what one’s strengths are and to make sure to double down on them because that unique combination of skill is probably just specific to you. We’re all very unique human beings. The more we understand how we can contribute to the growth of our environment, not only to our company, but to our family unit and to our village in general.

That deep understanding of our skillset can help us understand how we can better contribute, but also to understand when we might have to leave some other things to others that might do it better than us. I think that’s one important part of the puzzle. Obviously, once that’s integrated and understood, one has to have a lot of strength and energy in one’s powers to be able to execute. So consistently working on self-confidence and that motivation is an equally strong contributor to success.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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