EPISODE 671: Creative Sales Career Paths for Women and Underrepresented Communities from SkillStorm Leader Julianne Zuber

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Today’s show featured an interview with Julianne Zuber, Vice President, Strategic Technology Ecosystems at Skillstorm. IES Women in Sales Program Director Gina Stracuzzi conducted the interview.

Find Julianne on LinkedIn.

JULIANNE’S ADVICE:  “Women are 10% more likely to attain their quota than their male counterparts, and they only occupy 29% of the B2B sales roles in the workforce today. If you don’t have a woman as a CRO in your company right now, you’re doing your revenue a disservice. You’re doing your shareholders a disservice,”


Gina Stracuzzi: I’m super excited to have Julianne Zuber with me. She’s VP of strategic technology ecosystems at SkillStorm. Julianne came to us from a number of sources, including our friend Hang Black, who I haven’t talked to in a while, so it might be time to get Hang back on the podcast. Welcome, Julianne. Like I do all my guests, I like to just start off with you telling us a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are.

Julianne Zuber: Thank you very much, Gina and Fred for having me on today. I really appreciate it. As you mentioned, I’m the VP of technology ecosystems for a company called SkillStorm, responsible for all indirect routes to market. We really design and deploy custom design US based technology teams at scale, really focused on accelerating opportunities and technology for the under access, really trying to leapfrog the broken education system ultimately. Really fill the gaps that we have in the technology market, as well as help individuals who don’t have access to four-year degrees really get an opportunity to be in technology and in technology sales as well, which includes women, veterans, and the under-accessed.

How I got to where I am today, Gina. I’m a pretty simple person. It’s not a very exciting story. It’s not like our friend Ms. Black’s story. I grew up in management consulting. I actually grew up with Deloitte, went to Accenture, then went back to Deloitte, in technology consulting. Really had tremendous formative years training in terms of my education and background in sales and my understanding, and really laser focused on customers and the customer’s need first. Also on top of that, what the management consulting industry does really, really well is they really help instill within you a mini MBA business acumen. Had really great experiences there, was in the leadership level at Deloitte running a large portfolio of business, and then just honestly wanted to get an additional diversity of experience. Wanted to actually be on the product side.

I had partnered with a lot of product organizations. Your Microsofts, your IBMs, your AWSs at the time, all of those organizations, and really just wanted to get experience in that space. I had the opportunity to make a transition into the direct sales organization at Cisco in their financial services organization. That really brought me into the manufacturing space and really brought me into the RD space, the regional director space for leading what we consider a traditional sales team, not just a management consulting sales team.

Then just recently left the technology manufacturing space as the channel chief of a company called Juniper, soon to be HPE, and then found my way to SkillStorm. Quite frankly the transition to SkillStorm has been a passion for me. In terms of really connecting back with something that’s bigger than myself in the sales space. Really helping, again, it’s not just about selling our services and our solutions to the market. It’s really about getting people jobs. It is really what I consider myself doing every single day, and building those ecosystems, building those partnerships, building those relationships, and running those sales plays and those sales go-to-market motions to support getting those individuals jobs.

Gina Stracuzzi: Listening to your career progression, and it seems you have just the right kind of combination where you understand both solutions and services and products to help in your position now, because you really understand from all aspects employer needs. They can be very different across those industry segments that you’ve been involved with, including the consulting piece. I absolutely love what you’re doing as an organization. It is so needed. As everyone has read, and as somebody who’s got a kid in college, I can tell you that it is just exorbitant and not everybody belongs there. Really, we don’t necessarily prepare kids for college. We prepare them to take tests, is all we do. I think this is brilliant what you guys are doing. That’s a nice segue into you telling us a little bit about why you chose SkillStorm. It’s a passion thing, but I’m sure you had other options. What attracted you to this mission?

Julianne Zuber: I think number one, Gina, it is exactly how I described it. We have a broken system right now. We’re producing individuals that are college degrees graduates that are coming out with this surrounding debt. We see that in the media every single day. Pair that with the needs that we’re seeing coming out in the media even, and in the technology space, we need more cybersecurity professionals. We need more cloud provider professionals. There’s a demand there that’s not being filled by the current processes and the current education systems that we have.

That being said, one of the things that SkillStorm has done a phenomenal job of is really tapping into untraditional markets. They’ve really done a fantastic job. We are one of six vet tech preferred providers with the Veterans Administration. Being able to tap into that veterans community as they’re transitioning back to the civilian workforce and helping them retool themselves, re-skill, so that they can be prepared to enter into a career in the technology space. When I looked at the numbers as I was interviewing through the SkillStorm process, as I was looking at the numbers, what was happening is I was seeing that not only are we doing a good thing by helping transitioning veterans and transitioning veteran spouses into the technology space. There’s a lot of will there. There’s a lot of increased interest in really staying with this type of career. But there’s also a match of the skill.

We’re enabling them with the skill and the will. Then when you look at the numbers of these individuals who are deployed on these programs or these projects to help some of our largest customers, like AWS, Microsoft, in terms of their deployments, helping some of our main systems integrators as well across the board, the attrition rate tends to be less than 1% across the course of two years. That is a testament to the programs, the processes, the training that SkillStorm has put in place prior to them being deployed on the project. Not only are we supporting individuals with the training, it’s not just bringing the funnel in, but it’s also helping align them with the right roles where they’re not going to want to leave, and the employer’s not going to want to get rid of them because they’re so darn good.

In fact, we have data up to two years, because what ends up happening is they end up converting usually after that point, or the employer would like to convert them to new and different positions. That is one main reason.

The second is, there is such a tremendous opportunity and need, as you hear in the media, for women in technology. I hear all the time, “We don’t have enough diversity in the technology space. We don’t have enough women in the technology space.” That baffles me because if you look at the statistics, even in the technology sales space, as well as the technology implementation space, both of those, women are 10% more likely to outperform their male peers, according to the Department of Labor. If you look at just the sales force in women in tech, they only occupy 29% of the sales positions in the B2B sales today. Not only in the Department of Labor in the US.

To me, there’s just such a mismatch. If I’m a CEO of a tech company, and I want to increase my revenues, if I look at those numbers, I’m thinking, “I bring on one woman, she’s going to outperform my male counterparts by 10%,” and I only have 29% of them in my sales force today. If I double that, I’m going to increase my ability to hit my numbers and attain my quota by 300%. For me, that’s part of the passion, Gina, is that we have the ability to tap into this whole other market of women that they aren’t necessarily going for four-year degrees in computer science, or they’re not coming out with technical degrees, but we have the ability to take them maybe after they go out on maternity leave, come back into the workforce.

We have the ability, we have the processes, we have the programs in place to bring them in, train them, educate them in the technology field, and then deploy them, get them their first job in the technology industry to help them really gain a foundation to help these companies really accelerate not just their sales, but their delivery of their products as well.

Gina Stracuzzi: Fascinating program. I’m thinking of different populations that I know of that historically struggle in four-year environments, and not for lack of intellect or desire, but just circumstance. That’s something we can discuss offline, but tell us a little bit about how long the program is. I know it probably varies depending on the job, but let’s take cybersecurity for instance.

Julianne Zuber: That’s the beauty of what we offer, and this organization actually offers, is that it’s custom curriculum. It’s a custom program for each job, each program we deploy. My role is to work with the technology partners, the technology alliances, and also the distributor partners, the reselling partners as well, to develop these relationships so that then we collectively go out and find the programs, find the jobs, find the cybersecurity needs, where do people need to put together a SOC, or the next iteration of a SOC as I’m hearing with some of our cyber organizations. I’ll give an example.

We do have a cyber customer where I just had a call this morning with them. We’re sitting down with them, my CTO is coming in, and we’re custom building a cyber training for them. When I say cyber training, it’s not just all about security. It’s not just getting a Security+ from CompTIA, that’s going to be a part of it. But it’s also going to be understanding the infrastructure, understanding the networking, understanding DevOps. Understand a little bit of Java in terms of your programming skills, all of that.

It’s a very tailored program and a very tailored training that we put together. We try to keep it within a 12 to 16-week timeframe from the time that we recruit somebody till the time that they complete the program. I will say, again, we do a really good job of ensuring that the individuals are meeting all of the milestones along the way. Not everyone’s going to make it through the 16-week program. They may defer to a different type of technology. They may figure out, we have a lot of people that retract during that training, because they figure out, “I was a teacher before. I thought I wanted to get into technology, but I think I want to go back into teaching.” They figure that out as they go through the training and program.

But we try to keep the training around 16 weeks. Then again, we find the job first. We set the expectation upfront, what the timeframe is going to be and what the needs are going to be for that timeframe.

Gina Stracuzzi: Let’s talk more about industry now. In as much as you’re tapped into the needs of public sector and government clients, where do you see the biggest barrier to growth for the technology industry over the next say two to five years?

Julianne Zuber: I really do see it in the people. I do see the biggest barrier to growth in the people. It’s outside of my sphere of influence necessarily, but it is a little disheartening, is the S&P came out with their annual report looking across all of the C-suite positions across the United States. We actually, for the first time since 2005, we’ve actually lost. We’ve lost about 2% of the women in S&P companies, overall. We’ve actually reduced the amount of those in C-suite roles.

When you double click on that in the technology industry, we’ve actually lost more than that. We’ve lost over 10% in the technology space alone. That to me is we are in the midst of a cultural crisis, and that’s disproportionately affecting women right now. As we know with the pandemic, with COVID, McKinsey’s report that comes out annually, and Deloitte just put out another report around this as well, where women are continuing to take on the majority of care at home. They’re continuing to take on the majority of responsibility of an unpaid responsibility at home. With this report coming out layered on top of all these other challenges, I believe that is, in the US especially, US-based technology companies, that is our biggest obstacle to growth.

The reason I’m such a firm believer in that, I’m very data driven. If you go back to sales, women are 10% more likely to attain their quota. You don’t have women as a CRO in your company right now, you’re doing your revenue a disservice. You’re doing your shareholders a disservice, in my mind, if I just look at the data. When I look at the data around profitability of a diverse organization, when you have more than 35% women in your C-suite positions in your organization, those companies, according to McKinsey, and according to multiple other studies, have consistently found over the last 10 years, you are outperforming your peers by 9% or more in terms of your profitability overall. To me, I feel like that is our biggest barrier. I really do. The lack of diversity in leadership within technology and within sales in the US is our biggest opportunity for growth and our biggest barrier to growth today as well.

Gina Stracuzzi: I speak with employers all the time in relationship to the Women in Sales programs we have. Because our programs are really geared to be a win-win for both the employee and the employer. If you have engaged empowered women, they are much more likely to stay and they are ready and willing and more than amply able to take on greater positions. But you’ve got to retain them. Succession planning is just in a flurry of fall downs at this point, because there has been this, as you mentioned, just this loss of women in this space.

At the same time, companies are trying desperately to attract that diversity, but if you’re not working to do things to keep them engaged and energized, then you’re going to lose them. To your point, I have been more than a little concerned for the last almost two years that with all these added burdens that women now have, for one reason or another, that came out of the pandemic, everyone wants to work from home because it is far more convenient. I get it. I love it. I still got my slippers on, but we’re losing something by not having an identity outside of the house. That just incredible storm of intellect and idea sharing that comes from being in a space with people is really being lost. I think women are the ones that are being hurt the most by this scenario. I’m not sure what the answer is necessarily, because we do have these dueling needs now. Well, they’ve always been there, but they’re just perhaps more pronounced.

I like what your program’s doing, because I think a lot of the women that left, little by little, they’re itching to come back, but coming back is daunting. It’s daunting enough for women. We hear this all the time. When you come back from maternity leave and maybe you have the same position, they only have to give you what’s called equal, and we all know that that isn’t always the case. It might be in title, but not necessarily in opportunities. They’re like, “I feel so disconnected from what’s happening,” and I feel like, “Oh my God, I just left the baby at home and I don’t know what I know anymore.” I think what you’re doing is so profound because the need is going to be huge moving forward. As you say, in the next two to five years is when it’s all really going to manifest. Either we make this happen or we’re all paying.

Julianne Zuber: Gina, one point I want to highlight as well, is it needs to be intentional. There needs to be intention in there. To your point, I do believe part of the challenge we’ve seen in the succession planning has been there’s a big fear, because there has been a challenge in the commercial side of the economy in the US. There has been a little bit of a challenge, and people have gravitated towards people that look like them, or they were with before for 30 years.

Women, we were able to have our own credit cards 30 years ago, for goodness sakes. It hasn’t been that long where women couldn’t even have their mortgage for goodness sakes. This is not just for women, this is for women of color, this is for other minority populations. Intentionality is so critical as these companies start to think about the next two to five years. It can’t just be HR driving this. It’s got to be the business. I actually feel bad for our HR departments right now, because they have all these lovely programs about attracting diversity, about retaining diversity, about making it easy for women to come back into the workforce. But when women come back, they don’t have the support, they don’t have sponsorship on the P&L ownership side, ultimately. The people that have the power at the technology companies, at the S&P companies.

I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think people are intentionally pushing women out. I just think it’s naturally happening because of fear and because of gravitation towards what people know. Unconscious bias piece. I think as people are succession planning, as companies are starting to look at how do I get out of this, innovate myself out of this this economic challenge that I’ve been facing, or maybe how do I create something new with this new company? I do strongly believe it needs to be intentional in the business side of the house. From the CEO down, not from HR going up.

Gina Stracuzzi: I feel sorry for those people because they work so hard, and yet quite often their hands are tied and people go to them when there’s a problem, not for a solution. The solution has to come from the top, and it has to be intentional or it will fail on the bind. It’s happened so many times for well-intentioned companies who didn’t think it through. It’s not enough to just say, “This is our philosophy now. This is how we are going to move forward. Good luck with it. Go make it happen.”

Julianne Zuber: Not just hiring women to hire women or hiring diverse talent to hire diverse talent. You can hire qualified ones, because I’ve seen that game before too, where it actually makes women like you and I maybe look bad. Where they put people in roles that aren’t necessarily a fit for their skillsets or their background.

Gina Stracuzzi: They don’t have the support, so of course they’re going to fail. Going to the similarity bias that you were mentioning earlier, which is a real thing. My whole premise with conversations that we have inside of the forum is if you do not raise your hand, if you do not ask for the opportunity, they’re going to pick Bob, because Bob is a known quantity. Maybe Bob’s been around since Moses. But we know how Bob works and we know we can count on him. You have to force your way in there and make sure they know what you’re about and who you are and what you can do. It’s exhausting at times, and you’re already exhausted and there is that fear that they’ll be like, “Thanks, Gina, but we got this.” That’s hard. It’s hard to hear and it still happens. Again, it’s just unconscious bias and sometimes it’s fear on the part of the person running the project, the department, the whatever. It takes courage on everyone’s side to try something different.

Julianne Zuber: Definitely a thousand percent. I’ve been there, Gina. For my previous promotion, I actually had asked four times. Four times. For four different years. Then I was wildly successful and everyone was surprised. Well in skill.

Gina Stracuzzi: What I say to women too, if you’re knocking it out of the park at what you do, and also probably cleaning up messes along the way, “Hey, Julianne, could you handle this for me? You’re so good with this stuff,” why on earth would they move you? You have to make a lot of noise and like, “I’m not going away. I’m not the kid in the front of the class waving their hand.” I love all of this because I think that what you all are doing, and with your passion, you could really be part of a sea storm change. It could really be big.

We talked a little bit about the mass layoff. I love what you’re doing. Now we have to talk a little bit about AI, because that’s just part of the conversation now. Where does that roll into what you are doing and where do you see opportunities for women?

Julianne Zuber: AI comes up in every single conversation. I probably talk about it six times a day. Whether it be AI in the form of a product that’s already been developed and delivered that we’re supporting the execution of, or whether it’s these policy level conversations around how we’re going to secure AI. How can we equip and prepare our cohorts of individuals to support the security piece around it? I think from my perspective, how women can get involved in it, I really do think it’s going to create more opportunities than it’s going to eliminate. I think there’s this general fear that I see with a lot of maybe your legacy SP providers, your legacy technology providers, et cetera, that have just been around for decades and a long time.

There’s a lot of fear amongst that population, especially in the engineering community around, “Oh my gosh, if they take on AI, then they don’t need me.” Actually, I have a law degree. I’m always very tight with my procurement shops and my legal teams. There’s a fear in the legal community even around, “Oh my gosh, are they going to need doc reviewers anymore? Are they really going to need us to draft contracts?” Because you can draft it, and then all I have to do is redline it. Are they going to need the populations that we have today?

My answer is they’re going to need the people, they may not need the roles. They need the people to step up the game and to evolve that contract into something that’s even more than it was before. They’re going to need it for the amount of volume of contracts that are going to need to be put around some of the AI tools that are being put out around there in terms of security, all of that new clauses, new standard Ts and Cs, all of that. When you look at the technology side, it’s a tremendous opportunity for women because it’s not an etherical thing. I get frustrated when I go to these conferences where we talk about AI is out there. It’s AI as applied to something, whether it’s document review, whether it’s looking across unstructured datasets to support gathering information to mitigate the next pandemic. Whether it’s technologies that are trying to make our homes smarter, all of that. There’s going to be AI as applied to something. Or to reduce the amount of maintenance that you have to do on a specific equipment.

All of those things being said, I would say women have a tremendous opportunity, especially through our program, and I’m very biased about that, our organization, to make a pivot into that space as attached to something. Now, we don’t have an AI curriculum necessarily, but there’s AI embedded within our security curriculum, because there’s going to be a job at the end of it, supporting security that goes around the AI. There’s going to be AI embedded in our cloud curriculum, because a lot of our large cloud providers are introducing AI within their platforms as well to make it easier to go more of a coding neutral environment. As well to get smarter about any sort of security data breaches, et cetera. I would say AI’s going to open up a tremendous opportunity because no one’s really been trained on it yet.

Gina Stracuzzi: It’s an even playing ground.

Julianne Zuber: Yeah. It levels the playing field. Exactly. Gina, that’s a great way to put it. It’s going to level the playing field for everyone because it’s new to everyone right now.

Gina Stracuzzi: If you’re a rocket scientist, we’re still going to need rocket scientists. I could talk to you all morning about this. It’s so fascinating. Like I said, I love what you’re doing, and I’m all about making sure women have lots of opportunities to learn and to grow and to take all that brilliance and bring it to companies that can really benefit. I applaud what you are doing. Tell us your piece of advice that listeners can put into place today to take their careers or selling to the next level. What would you advise?

Julianne Zuber: I just want to repeat my statistic first. Women are 10% more likely to attain their quota than their male counterparts, and they only occupy 29% of the B2B sales roles in the workforce today. In technology, it’s even less than that. I think there’s three things we can all do in terms of broadening our perspective and being intentional about getting women more opportunity in sales and in technology.

Number one is very simply take on one woman, one female that’s outside of your direct reporting chain today as a mentee. Take them on as a mentee, volunteer to be a mentee for a woman. I’m not saying be a sponsor. Be a mentee, and be ready to turn on your listening ears, as I tell my 4-year-old. Turn on your listening ears, just listen to them and understand what challenges they’re facing, and offer the best advice you can, and seek your peers. Seek advice from others in terms of helping them.

Number two, ask one woman outside of the mentee in your network to put you in touch with two other women in her network. Women that you don’t know today that may be interested in technology, in sales, that you are not in contact today, they’re not on your speed dial. You’ve never worked with them necessarily before this person, ask that individual for a favor to put you in contact with them. Use other women’s networks to expand your network as a woman, and even as a man, especially as a man. I think women, we tend to do that more. We’re more natural networkers. But as a man, just be intentional about asking a female counterpart to put you in touch with two other women in her network.

Third and final thing is, going back to some of the pain I’m still feeling of asking for four times for promotions in my previous role, when somebody raises their hand, especially a woman, a woman of color, a diverse employee, take them seriously. Double check yourself. Even if you have a candidate lined up, ask other people around you to interview that person for that role. Somebody else as a third-party perspective on whether or not that individual should be a candidate or could be a candidate for that role.

This goes back to our conversation, Gina, around that unconscious bias and the sameness bias, the similarity bias that people have. Try to take a step back from that and recognize that, “Hey, I probably have this, but I really think this candidate’s the right role. I really don’t think this person raising their hand is,” but double check that. Have a third party double check. I recognize it’s hard to get out of our similarity bias. I experience it all the time in the world that I live in as well.

Gina Stracuzzi: It’s something we all do. If nothing else, your advice is priceless and invaluable, and all those wonderful words. Have two other people interview them. If nothing else, it gives them a chance to interview. Go through the interview process at a new level. Even if they don’t get it, that is a learning experience that you can’t take away from them, and it gives them something to think about for the next time. You are more than qualified and certainly not a bashful person, and it took you four tries. It is not for the faint of heart, you’ve got to really plow through it, but if you don’t have somebody, an ally that is really working to help you, that is a brilliant way to go about it. At least check yourself and say, “Are there other candidates we should be looking at?”

Julianne Zuber: Well, and listen to your peers that are interviewing the other candidates too. I think that’s the other thing, is making sure those listening ears are turned on that you’re not so overly similarity biased, where I’m going to take this person through the motions. Which I agree with you, that’s a great experience for that individual, but you also need to be open to the fact that they may actually be a better candidate, and you may be this predetermined candidate through rose-colored glasses.

Gina Stracuzzi: Be willing to hear it. Well, this has been a great conversation, Julianne. Thank you so much. All right everyone, we will see you next time.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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