When Christal Bemont became Chief Executive of data integration and integrity firm Talend in January, she brought with her two other senior executives from her previous workplace.
Nothing particularly unusual in that you might think, yet it caused comment at the time because all three were women.
This reaction surprised Bemont, but it also reminded her that being a female CEO in tech is still an elite club and that all women leaders need to play a role in making it less exclusive:
I thought, why is this even a topic? But now I’ve kind of converted and I guess a take a bit of a different position and say I’m just going to acknowledge reality, that we’re not quite there yet [when it comes to equality], that’s why it is a topic and therefore is there a role I can play in this to make this not a topic at some point?
It seems crazy to consider half the population as a minority group, yet, as is depressingly familiar, this is still the case in technology firms. The percentage of women of chief executives in the Fortune 500 as a whole hovers around 5%, and the number of US women in computing was 25% in 2015, according to the National Center for Women & Information Technology. Parity is a long way off.
Bemont has worked in the tech industry a long time, for the last 15 years at cloud-based travel and expense management applications firm, SAP Concur, where most recently she was Chief Revenue Officer.
The move to Talend appealed to Bemont particularly because data and data integrity is an increasingly sought after commodity. Although Bemont joined before lockdown, if there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s the importance of data. Without data (lots of it and high quality) scientists and other experts struggle to understand, model and predict the path and effect of the virus. Bemont explains:
Statistically over 50% of data is typically something companies cannot access, because either they don’t know it exists, they can’t pull it into one place or they put it in these various places in the organization where it just doesn’t sit in a place that’s easy to get to.
That causes a challenge in organizations, not only because of regulatory obligations, but also because that 50% of unknown data is an amazing asset that could have a compelling competitive advantage. And as experts looking at the pandemic are finding:
If you miss a critical piece of information it tells the whole story - it’s like missing pieces of the puzzle. You may be missing pieces round the edge that aren't that terribly meaningful, but what if you’re missing pieces of it that tell the whole story - how damaging that might be or how much of a missed opportunity might that be?
Talend’s pitch is that its cloud services integrate that data in a single place and ensures it’s clean and usable.
Bemont believes that she can turn the company from a million to a billion dollar concern:
You have to look at whether or not there’s a market opportunity - is it really feasible? Is this a multi-billion dollar problem and the answer to that is,yes. Then you ask the next question: is this problem getting worse or is it getting better? And it’s getting worse...The reality is the problems we solve today are significant and have shown massive growth over the last few years.
While the right product at the right time, is key to that growth, so too is having the right people. According to Bemont, diversity is key:
It has to be a very intentional part of your core culture and it has to be something that doesn’t just sit in one part of your organization, but it needs to be communicated that diversity brings a better and stronger business - it brings better outcomes.
Whether it is women in the workforce or any other under-representated group, Bemont believes the best approach is to establish the kind of culture and environment that promotes and welcomes diversity without slavishly following quotas:
I stay one step short of saying to myself that there has to be a certain percentage, only because I would never want for someone to feel that they are in a role they didn’t deserve or for others to say you’re just filling a quota. There's really good legitimate reasons why having a balanced and diverse team is the right thing to do and you should do it for the right reasons.
There’s a rather apposite analogy with data here. In the same way that you need a lot of different types of (good) data to make better decisions, you need a team of people who think differently and live different life experiences:
That’s very important to this business being successful and honestly the thing that gets us to a billion faster will be people.
And of course, having a diverse workforce is only going to work for you if you listen to their opinions and give them the kind of environment where they can be themselves. This is a lesson Bemont learned from a couple of female role models earlier in her career:
The number one thing that they taught me is to be authentic….There are expectations for women whether it's in the tech industry or anywhere else. So a lot of opinions about how you could speak, how you should dress, how you should conduct yourself, how strong you should be...That wouldn’t be the case quite frankly if you weren’t a woman and this is a topic that is underserved, because I do believe a lot of women experience this and try to conduct themselves or fit into a mould and that’s the opposite of what we’re talking about.
The whole point of having diversity is to have these different channels of data or experience. If you’re just trying to create another lookalike or simulation of what we already have, it’s kind of defeating the purpose. But it’s a real struggle for women who have a lot of people giving them opinions about all these things.
've been very, very fortunate to have a couple of strong, very talented women. The things I have watched with them and discussed with them is their ability to be unique and to bring their best selves to work and not to change. And it’s the first thing someone wants to do when they put you into a role is to change you… So authenticity is something that is core.
Acknowledging this advice, Bemont feels that it’s a leader’s role to create a support system and environment where people can be themselves:
I’m looking for 1,300 people who bring their best selves to work because that’s who they are and they feel comfortable in their own skin. They are comfortable being here and feel comfortable being accepted and comfortable having a voice.