What I’d say to me back then – Corel CEO Christa Quarles on why you should never hide your true self
The ‘accidental CEO’ explains why it’s her duty to represent and advocate for other women in tech
Christa Quarles’ first career was in banking on Wall Street in the mid-1990s, a sector she says is no less hospitable to women in many ways than technology.
Doing an MBA at Harvard Business School in the summer of 1999, Quarles was watching dot com explode, mesmerized by the amount of innovation happening:
I wanted to be a part of it, even if I didn't really understand it. I was on the banking side around those tech companies, that was really the entry point.
In 2000, Quarles landed a role at Thomas Weisel Partners, focusing on internet companies and was part of the team that took Google public:
I could see the power of tech and I could see how much it unleashed. It wasn't until after the birth of my first child that I realized, this banking job that I'm doing is really challenging and terrible. I have to travel all the time. I decided I wanted to go work at a tech company.
Quarles left the banking sector in 2009 to join a gaming-as-a-service startup as its CFO, which then got sold to The Walt Disney Company. After a stint there as CFO, she progressed to General Manager of mobile games, and has since held C-level roles at many big-name web companies, including Chief Business Officer at NextDoor, CEO at OpenTable, and now CEO and Board Director at Corel:
At OpenTable, it was really understanding what it means to help a business succeed by virtue of the software that you're putting in front of them every single day. Corel came along with this really interesting multiple set of software assets that I thought could evolve into many different things in so many ways, like redefining what the future of work is going to look like.
In this post-pandemic world, Quarles has encountered many people, especially male leaders, who advocate going back to the way it was. However, leaders need to understand the importance of companies evolving how they're intersecting with workers:
A lot of people are stuck in a mindset that existed in the before times and workers are saying, we don't want that. You've got to redefine what your leadership is for this next phase.
Quarles believes things have improved for women in the workplace, even though there are always challenges, and some examples of how women are still treated make her want to hit her head against a wall. However, she says it’s useful to keep in mind the Martin Luther King Jr quote, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’:
It was only nine years ago when Twitter went public and they couldn't have a woman on the board because 'there just weren't qualified women out there'. In this day and age, it would be uncomfortable to go public without female representation on your board.
Having diversity at the very top of organizations, starting with boards, is crucial to shrinking the gender gap. But women also need to be set up for leadership roles. Quarles notes that often you still see women in non-CEO priming roles:
That’s not to discount them, but the chief people officer is unlikely to become the chief executive officer, whereas the chief sales officer is.
One of the early pieces of advice Quarles received from her boss in her first job on Wall Street was to always have a P&L, as it’s an objective measure of how much money you're bringing in for a company:
It was an important lesson for me because it was a signpost of me delivering top line to this organization, therefore I'm going to be valuable. It's an important lesson for people who want to be in a position to get roles that enable them to manage, even if it’s not an entire P&L, at least be a driver of delivering top line into an organization.
Despite holding CFO roles at some big names like Disney and OpenTable, Quarles says it wasn’t part of a coordinated plan that she would become CEO of a major technology company. Rather, she feels like a bit of an accidental CEO, something she attributes to the lack of representation. In her ecosystem, the highest role she was able to directly observe was a woman CFO, not CEO. One of her mentors, Sue Decker, had the exact same job as Quarles, covering tech companies in Wall Street:
She then went to be CFO at Yahoo back when Yahoo was really hot. And I thought, oh that's possible. Representation is super important. That's why I set my sights on going to be a CFO and I did that. But I didn't really have any examples of women CEOs.
This idea of being able to see more examples, it connects what vision and ambition you could potentially have for yourself. That's why I spend so much time trying to pull up the next generation. Anything I can do so that they're in a better position to succeed, is something that definitely gives me a sense of purpose.
Quarles has already been putting this into action at Corel. When she joined two years ago, there were zero women on the leadership team; now, half are women. That wasn't because Quarles made a point of going out and seeking women, it was down to her network:
I happen to know a lot of incredible women, who are capable of doing incredible things.
As well as starting an employee resource group for women to come together at Corel, Quarles also makes a point of being open about the challenges she and other women face:
I'm a working mom. I don't ever hide that. For the majority of my career, when I was in male-dominated environments, I almost pretended not to have a family, not to have a life, not to have anything outside the office.
It's such a mistake because I became 10x the leader by virtue of having kids, setting boundaries, being clear, being consistent. All of the things that made me a better parent have also made me a better leader.
Looking back at her younger self and what she went through to reach the top, Quarles says she could think maybe she should have done something extra or different - but she had to play the game that was on the field. Once you’re in a position of power, that’s when it’s your duty and obligation to change the system:
Not only do I lean in, I do a lot of speaking, I try to give the representation, but I am looking at systems and structures of power to say, how do we get more people to raise their hand and want to be a part of this; how do we get the accidental CEOs to light up and lean in. If the structure around them keeps spitting them out, no amount of talk or inspiration is going to get you there.
One piece of advice Quarles would give her younger self is to find a company that cares about all of this, something which is easier to do now than back in the 1990s:
When I was entering the workforce, you couldn't find a company that cared about it, you couldn't find leadership that was representative.
I was not in a position to deliver my best work in an environment where I was being sexually harassed every day. You look back and say, I endured and now I have some semblance of positional power, now it's my duty and obligation to dismantle the structures so we keep highly qualified, incredible people.