EPISODE 645: Becoming a Silicon Valley Woman in Sales Leader with Shari Begun

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Today’s show featured an interview with Shari Begun, VP of Sales, IOT and Consumer, at Renesas Electronics. She is a member of Chief.

The interview was conducted by Gina Stracuzzi, IES Women in Sales Program Director.  Read more about the PWISE designation and program here.

Find Shari on LinkedIn.

SHARI’S ADVICE:  “A lot of people talk about their three to five-year plan at your customer or for yourself. I would say dream bigger than that. I would say look out, and for me, I say, “Where do I want to retire?” For someone earlier in their career, maybe it’s, “Where do I want this customer to be in 10 years?” Then back it up. A lot of times when you look at the smaller picture, you don’t dream as big. Think about it that way and then back up what you need to do.


Fred Diamond: Shari, I’m very excited to interview you today. You’re the VP of Sales at Renesas and we really haven’t interviewed too many women sales leaders from Silicon Valley. We’ve interviewed a bunch that of course are in technology, because that’s mainly where we focus, and B2B and business to government. But I’m excited to talk to you about what do you see as some opportunities for women to get into sales roles in STEM, and some of the other things that you’ve gotten through. I think we originally met you through The Chief Network, and we’ve been fortunate to interview a number of your peers who are also in sales at great companies like Avanade, and IBM, and other companies as well. But it’s great to see you and I’m excited to talk to you about some of your observations and some of your tips. First off, tell us a little bit about Renesas. Tell us a little bit about what you do, and then we’ll get into some of the specific questions.

Shari Begun: Thank you, Fred. I’m VP of IoT sales. What IoT sales is, is basically think about laptops, phones, smart speakers. I run the worldwide sales team for that. Renesas is a broad-based semiconductor company, and if you don’t know what a semiconductor is, basically anything that has an on/off switch in it probably has a semiconductor in it. We do things like help you connect to your Wi-Fi, or BLE, make your battery on your laptop last longer. We work with basically engineers designing those type of products to make them better and have new features.

Fred Diamond: Again, you have a great career in sales, but do you consider yourself to be an engineer, a sales professional? You’re working in some tech space, you went to Georgia Tech, so give us a little bit of an insight into how you became the global leader for the IoT products at Renesas.

Shari Begun: I consider myself a business leader. My education background is in electrical engineering as well as I have a business degree. How I found out about this great career in technical sales is I was a junior pretty far along and I realized I didn’t like working in a lab and I didn’t like designing products. But you’re three years into your education and you’re like, “What do I do?” I was lucky enough to have a roommate who had a boyfriend who was a few years older, and he had just gotten a job with Shell Oil. He was a mechanical engineer and he was traveling the world. He had an expense account, he had a cell phone they paid for, and he is telling me about what he’s doing, and he was explaining to me that he works with engineers who are designing things. He needed to be technical, but he didn’t actually do the designs.

With all the perks that went along with it, I decided to do some research and go to career fairs. I found out that there are these wonderful jobs in sales, typically in marketing a company, even product development, that you don’t have to actually be an engineer, but you’re somebody that works with customers and has to have business acumen. Anyways, that was how I heard about these roles and literally when I graduated college, that’s all I went for. I just knew at that age that I didn’t want to be a designer. Then luckily it was something I liked. I was, I think, naturally good at it and that developed into leadership roles as time went on.

Fred Diamond: When you went to college, and being obviously in Silicon Valley leading sales organizations, I’m sure you found yourself to be the minority many, many times. As a matter of fact, we work with a lot of senior women in sales leaders who often have said, “I was the only woman in the room.” Talk a little bit about that, about being the minority in various places, and how you work that to your advantage, how you grew because of that. As you know, a lot of the people listening to the Sales Game Changers Podcast, they’re in the middle part of their sales career, typically B2B, or typically business to government. They’re on the cusp of moving into leadership, men and women, not just women. Give us some insights into being the minority in various settings and how you use that to your advantage.

Shari Begun: Fred, the first time I ever felt like minority was actually my first year at Georgia Tech. I grew up in Florida. I went to a relatively big high school, 1,500 people, not as super diverse, I’m a white woman. I didn’t know what it was to be different until I went to college. Honestly, I think I’m a little bit sometimes oblivious to these things. But it started my first year and a lot of times when I was socializing, I’d be at a fraternity party, or I’d be out meeting new people, and I’d get a question of, “Do you go to the local fashion college or do you go to the all-women’s college?” I would look at someone and proudly say, “No, I go here to Georgia Tech. I’m an electrical engineering major,” and I would get a snicker, I’d get an eye roll, I’d get a good luck.

At first it would catch me off guard and I would let it roll off my back. But then it kept getting more and more and I realized what was behind that was, one, electrical engineering was one of the toughest majors, and both men and women moved on from it. But two, I was typically one to four women at that time when I was in my major classes. I would say, Fred, I’m a stubborn person. I have a lot of tenacity. Part of it drove me, but the other part when classes were hard, it took away a little bit of that confidence.

Now, fast forward into when I started my career in Atlanta, first year in sales, I was seeing five customers a day, out pitching my products, asking questions, and I would get comments like, “Wow, you really know your stuff.” Or, “You’re smart.” I remember thinking, “Huh, that’s weird.” I come up with little bit of funny but smart comments back and say, “Well, I’m glad that Georgia Tech degree paid off because I still owe 40,000 in student loans.” I was acknowledging and telling people that I had the credentials to be there, but at the same time, I was also letting them know that I worked hard for it. I was still working hard.

To summarize it is I’ve tried to look for the positive in it and just maybe reinforce why I should be there. How I’ve used it to my advantage, it’s memorable. They would meet with our customers, many, many, many men, very few women. I’ve been in Silicon Valley 25 years now. I’ve run into people that I met 15 years ago who are now vice presidents at a company like myself, where we were all individual contributors 20 years ago, and they remember me. Because I was unique-looking, I think I did a good job, and I was a female. I’ve used that to my advantage also, of just being able to maybe stand out a little bit of being different.

Fred Diamond: What do you love most about your job? Again, you’re running a global team, you’re in Silicon Valley, IoT markets. It’s a very exciting, interesting time. Obviously, your customers are global companies as well with a lot of stake, a lot of things that are critical. I lived in Silicon Valley, I worked for Apple Computer for a long time. This was in the mid ‘90s even, and it was pretty intense. Even now it’s much more so. Tell us what you love about your job and tell us what gets you excited about it.

Shari Begun: There’s two things. One is I think being close to the customer in the revenue stream. Second, that I get to develop and promote people. I’ll start with the first one. I think at any company, revenue is the lifeblood of a company. If you don’t have revenue, you can’t survive long term. As you said, I have a global customer base, I get to travel the world. I get to see very early on what companies who make the largest consumer electronics products in the world are thinking about three years ahead. I love that of helping to shape what our customer’s products look like, as well as our roadmap to enable that. I was in Korea last week, I’m going to Japan and Taiwan next week. I just love meeting customers, meeting my team around the world.

The second part is as I’ve moved into leadership positions, I’ve been able to develop people. I’ve been able to promote them, I’ve been able to help them make moves, whether it’s cross country, it’s in another organization. I’ll give you an example. I have someone on my team right now, I worked with him at Texas Instruments 10 years ago. He was straight out of Vanderbilt. It was his first job out of college. TI had a sales training program where they matched you up with a program coach, and I was his coach. Basically, he never worked directly for me, but I mentored him for a year. It was such a natural mentor relationship that we kept that up even after the formal program was open.

Fast forward, I changed companies. I brought him over to my last company. My last company got acquired by Renesas. He wasn’t working for me. He was working a different place in the organization, but helped him get in the door. Well, now he works for me and I recently promoted him to a director. Ten years of experience of seeing this new college graduate to now he has a team of I think about 15 people in several different regions of the world, that’s just been an amazing journey. I have a lot of those in my career, but that’s one that’s pretty recent.

Fred Diamond: We’re doing today’s interview in September of 2023. It’s just after Labor Day. A lot of new college grads are starting their career in sales this week. Of course, the show is being broadcast a little bit later in 2023. What would be some of your advice, Shari Begun, on how women in sales, what are some things they should do early in their careers? Obviously, you’ve progressed quite successfully. Looking back, what would be some of the things you would recommend to the women who were either in their first or second year in a sales position? What are some things you would recommend that they do to set themselves up for success?

Shari Begun: First, one of the things that was most helpful for me early in my career was to travel with people and be able to shadow. That could look like actually physically getting in the car with them and going to the customer, or in a virtual world, it’s listening in or participating in there. I found that I don’t always want to emulate people because it isn’t natural for me. But take pieces of what you learned in those meetings and make it your own and put it in your toolbox. One of my favorite stories was early in my career, I had just gotten my biggest commission check ever, and the customer wanted to return product, which meant I wouldn’t have had a commission check for a couple years. Well, we go in there and the customer is throwing all these problems at the wall, and the person I was with was able to separate them out and knock them off one by one, and we left the meeting and they didn’t want to return it. I would say travel, emulate, watch.

Second thing is let people know what you’re doing and ask for help when you need it. I would say that not only at your company, but at the customer. I think it’s okay when you’ve done a good job at an account, and maybe you’re having a good relationship with one customer, and there’s somebody you can’t get a meeting with, maybe ask that person, “Hey, do you know Jane Smith?” “Yeah, I go to lunch with her.” “Would you mind inviting her to a lunch with the three of us and telling her I do a good job?” I would say not only ask internally, but ask for support at that customer with your allies there.

Then lastly, early in your career, develop discipline. It’s so easy in sales to call on the nice customer, to work on the fun things, but a lot of times those things that will move the needle are with the most difficult people, they’re hard. I would say do a nice balance of prospecting, trying to close and your funnel, thinking about long-term programs, and just develop a discipline and never lose that. No matter how busy you are, schedule time to do the things that are important.

Fred Diamond: We talk with a lot of people who’ve had 20, 30-year careers in sales, and a lot of them have worked for the same company, the big companies like the Intels and the Oracles of the world. You mentioned a great story about one of your young sales leaders who now works for you, who you mentored a while ago. How about customers? Do you have long-term relationships with customers? Give us some insights for the people listening on what you get from that and the value of continuing to have those long-term customer relationships.

Shari Begun: I have several that I’ve known 10 years, 20 years, but I’ll give you one example. I was calling on Apple many, many years ago, and I was a global account manager and there was an engineering leader there that had two or three people, and we worked just super close together for four years on many programs. I left that role. He eventually got promoted there. I was no longer working with that customer, and he started his own company. He called me and I was in a completely different role, and he says, “I need help from your company.” Now, I wasn’t responsible for his account, but I actually did introductions. I went on a sales call and just made sure that this person got taken care of when he had a startup.

That startup ended up failing. He went to another company. I was at another company and I needed to get in that company. I went on LinkedIn and lo and behold, he was now VP of engineering. Here’s a person that we had a great relationship, we had to work together. Then there was a time I really didn’t need to help him, but I did because I felt it was the right thing to do, and then now I needed his help. Over that span of time, that was a probably 15-year time, and we kept in touch over the years, but not close touch. But I think just every time I had an opportunity to do a good job for him, I did. There came a time where I needed his help, and lo and behold, with his help, I closed the biggest deal in the entire North America in years because of him.

Fred Diamond: One thing that people don’t always realize is most people, yeah, you might do some shifts in your career, but most people don’t. A typical career is a trajectory. Like I tell people, if you’re in technology, you’re going to be in technology for probably 40 years as a customer. Maybe you progress to director of IT, maybe you become CIO, or something along those lines. Maybe you move into security potentially. But people generally have relatively direct career paths. I’m working with some people at the Institute for Excellence in Sales that I’ve known for 40 years, that I worked with when I was back at Apple, and Compaq Computer, and they were salespeople. Now they’re working for whoever they’re working for, and they’re participating in our programs at the Institute for Excellence in Sales.

We’re coming through a challenging time. Again, we’re doing today’s interview in the fall of 2023. We, of course, went through the pandemic and there was so many challenges, particularly for women. As a matter of fact, by the time this show comes out, we will have done our Institute for Excellence in Sales Women in Sales Leadership Elevation Conference. We talked about the challenges of being hybrid, of working from home versus in the office, et cetera. How have you inspired, navigated your team through the challenges? We continue to have challenges because everybody is still trying to figure out, we think, how do we be as a sales organization moving forward based on how our customers have changed? I’m not even talking about macro level things like layoffs and stuff like that. I’m talking about continuing to evolve as we’re coming out of the last three years. Give us some of your insights into how you inspired and navigated your team through these challenges.

Shari Begun: I think the biggest thing I’ve done is just be very transparent with my team and acknowledging the challenges that we have on it. Right in the middle of the pandemic, my team went through an acquisition from a billion-dollar company to a $14-billion company. That can be daunting. You have to communicate that to your customers. I think transparency is always important to have. Second, I always tell my team I have their back on it, that as long as they’re trying and they’re not doing crazy things, that any mistake, anything can be fixed out there. I think that gives people a lot of confidence to leap out and do some things that might be a little experimental, but the payoffs can be good.

The last thing I would say is I don’t know everything on it, and we brainstorm a lot as a team, or bring in people from our business units, and making sure when we’re trying to maybe win something at a customer that has high stakes, is really trying to figure it out as a group. At the end of the day, when you have a game plan, everybody’s bought in. Whether you win or lose on it, you at least know you tried, you put the best minds together. I think that gives people a very safe environment to be the best they can be. I would say that I’ve done that my whole career, but I think it’s more important, even now when economy’s uncertain, customers have uncertainty. We got used to one way of working and now we’re going back to how we did things before. It’s been challenging.

Fred Diamond: Before I ask you for your final action step, you made a joke before about when you were starting out in sales and people said things like, “You know your stuff,” or something, and how you used some humor to deflect some of the bias, if you will. If you could talk about that for a second or two right now, about gender bias that you may experience now. Again, you’re in a very male-dominated industry. Again, you told us an example from early in your career, even now, I’m sure that sometimes you find yourself as the only woman in the room. You might find some comments directed towards you that may not be appropriate, if you will. How do you deflect those? How do you handle those? How do you call them out? Give some advice for the women listening on how they could also respond accordingly.

Shari Begun: I’ve had two things that I’ve noticed, is one, when I’m excited about things, people sometimes interpret that as stress, or as like I’m worried. I think it’s just because women, we say more words. It’s a fact, we talk more, our voices are higher pitched. I’ve had to sometimes put a disclaimer at the front of it of, “I’ve got everything under control. I’m sharing this with you because I’m excited,” or, “I’m sharing because this could become a problem,” and just grounding it in, “I got it under control. This is just for your information.”

The second one that has come up is sometimes I’m very blunt, and that could come across as cold. Where maybe for a male, it’s tough on it. I’ve also prefaced it with, “This is important to me. It might not come out right. Please know that this is coming from the heart and I’m just going to say it.” I think that diffuses the room. Those are two things I’ve personally done. I’ve also, when I’ve seen males interpret women that way, I’ve decoded it for them of where they’ve like, “I think she doesn’t have confidence, or she doesn’t have this,” I’ve just called it out of, “Well, why don’t we ask her? I think she does have this under control,” or, “Why don’t we ask her if she’s ready for this?” Those are some just personal ones that I’ve noticed in my personality that get misread and that I figured out how to navigate.

Fred Diamond: Before I ask you for your final action step, I’m going to give you the opportunity to tell the audience why they would want to pursue a career in sales at Renesas. If you had 30 seconds to pitch someone who maybe you went to Georgia Tech and you think would be a good candidate, why would they want to consider starting their career in sales at Renesas?

Shari Begun: First, I would say there’s never a dull moment. You will see things that you never dreamed of from a technology standpoint. You’ll have an opportunity to work with a global company and travel the world and meet people from all over the world. Lastly, I think you’ll be able to make a really good living and be able to do a lot of those personal dreams too. For me it was financial stability, it was traveling. I just think my career, not only at Renesas, but in technical sales, has been bigger than I ever imagined it to be. I would say to give it a try.

Fred Diamond: Shari, you’ve given us so many great ideas, this has been fantastic. I’m thrilled that we had a chance to have you on the show. Give us one final action step. You’ve given us so many great things to think about. One thing that the people listening to today’s Sales Game Changers Podcast should do right now to take their sales career to the next level.

Shari Begun: A lot of people talk about their three to five-year plan at your customer or for yourself. I would say dream bigger than that. I would say look out, and for me, I go, “Where do I want to retire?” Maybe it’s somebody earlier in their career, “Where do I want this customer to be in 10 years?” Then back it up. But I think a lot of times when you look at the smaller picture, you don’t dream as big. I would say if you had the perfect, how that customer was going to be, think about it that way and then back up what you need to do.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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