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Equity, flexibility, and women in leadership, with Maria Colacurcio


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In this episode, our Chief People Officer, Barbara Matthews, is joined by the CEO of Syndio, Maria Colacurcio. Maria talks in depth about what equity means to her and the challenges she’s seen in her career, including the dangers of burnout when working from home and the double standards of expectations regarding workplace flexibility for men and women.

As the conversation turns toward the future of tech in this field, Maria discusses how she is incorporating AI and machine learning, including and the pitfalls and challenges to overcome to achieve equitable outcomes.

Maria also shares stories about her nonlinear career path and talks about being a CEO today. She mentions how she does not want to give the appearance of a CEO and shares her frustrations about how women leaders are given accolades. In her words, “Why can’t we just be a person of influence or be acknowledged for the companies and businesses which we built?”

Enjoy this episode of Off Mute!

Episode transcript

Barbara: Hi, I am Barbara Matthews, the Chief People Officer at Remote, and this is Off Mute. The podcast that explores managing distributed teams all across the globe. Today, I'm joined by Maria Colacurcio, who is the CEO of Syndio, a tech company that helps Fortune 500 companies advance policies to ensure they're providing equity to their employees.

Maria has spoken out about the lack of female leaders for women to look up to and is proud to try and not look like a CEO with her appearance. We'll be talking more about this alongside her thoughts towards remote working, AI and how you can tackle unfairness within your working relationship.

Maria is hugely inspirational, and I learned lots from my chat, and I think you're going to enjoy our conversation too.

Hi, Maria, thanks for chatting with me. I'm really excited to talk to you today. But before getting started, I do want to say congratulations. I have noticed that you have announced that Fortune recognized Syndio as a company who changed the world based upon the work you're doing to create more equitable workplaces. Huge. Congratulations. You must be so proud.

Maria: Thank you for having me, first of all. And it was a huge honor. The Fortune changed the world list. It's a list of 50 companies, as you said, that are seen to be driving both purpose and profit, and it's not a pay to play.

And to be recognized in that way and really one of the youngest and smallest companies on the list was just a huge testament to the work that my team does day in day out to really make a difference.

Barbara: Maria, just tell me a bit about Syndio. There's how many, 180, is that right for your employees?

Maria: There's 150 of us.

Barbara: And what is it you do? Just in a summary for any of our listeners?

Maria: So, we're a software platform and we serve the Fortune 2000, primarily. Our software enables companies to analyse, and resolve pay and opportunity gaps that are because of something like gender, race, or ethnicity.

What does a nonlinear CEO path look like?

Barbara: So, now I want to start by looking at you. So, when I was researching you, I heard an interview where you spoke about your own career and how it was non-linear, which I love hearing all of those really interesting, nuanced career stories. So, I want to hear a bit about that.

And then can you tell me your personal experiences on the journey and how it eventually led to you being a CEO?

Maria: My journey is very non-linear. I'm a first gen college grad and neither of my parents graduated from college. I come from a really big Italian American family that's very steeped in tradition of food really.

So, every Sunday we had meatballs on the table at four o'clock and it was a real open-door policy. So, those values of generosity and hospitality, I think have been ingrained in me from the very beginning.

And when my siblings and I went to college because that was really important to my dad that we get to college, that we graduate from college. I ended up majoring in history and political science and was really set on becoming a curator which is so funny, if you look back.

I mean, talk about non-linear things. Here I am a CEO of a B2B tech company and started my career in Washington DC. I worked at the Smithsonian, the National Museum of American History, and was just obsessed with history and research.

And what that's given me is this incredible foundation of critical thinking. I learned how to write critically. I learned how to be thoughtful and think like a behaviourist. So, looking at past actions or past behaviours of people and history and predict what was going to happen based on that.

And that has really come in handy, particularly as a CEO, as you're leading and managing teams to be able to pattern match and look at how people are behaving and predict how they may behave and then figure out how to coach them through that.

So, it was kind of a strange situation, but probably pretty common for folks out there. I was at a dinner party, and I met a woman who said, “You got to move to the Silicon Valley, tech is everything right now. You'd be so great in tech.”

And I thought, what the hell, I had just broken up with my boyfriend. I was young, I was in my early 20s. And so, I did it. And from there on, I just fell in love with technology.

I fell in love with the idea of positioning and messaging and acting as that conduit and translator between the deep technological engineers and thinkers and the market to which you were selling a product. So, that started my tech career, and it took off.

Barbara: Did you go into sales, or did you go into marketing, or what area was your first stop in Silicon Valley?

Maria: Marketing and communications, and that's really been my role ever since. So, prior to becoming a CEO, I had led marketing and communication teams at tech companies. I co-founded a company called Smartsheet in 2007, that went public in 2018.

And then that's where I kind of took another detour or rest stop or whatever you want to call it, in terms of the non-linear journey. I went back to work after staying at home post Smartsheet. I took some time off, stayed home with my young kids. So, I have seven kids. At the time I had five.

Barbara: Wow.

Maria: Yeah.

Barbara: I have three, and I think I'm a superstar. So, you have seven. Wow.

Maria: You are a superstar. I think all parents are superstars because you're raising humans, you're figuring out how to coach and lead humans that in the beginning look to you for everything.

We talk a lot about this continuum of control where at the beginning the kids have no control. They don't decide what they eat, they don't decide what they wear, they don't decide what activities they do.

And parenting is really just this long coaching journey where you know by the end, if you succeed, they're making good choices for themselves and they're developmentally independent and they're figuring out how to live a life that for them drives purpose and happiness.

So, at the time I had taken time off, I was very lucky and privileged to have that choice to be able to stay at home with them. But then went through a pretty painful divorce and was headed back to work, and decided to go back to Starbucks HQ and work in communications there.

A lot of that part of my journey is what's given me so much passion for what I do today, because I started to understand deeply that the motherhood penalty was very real.

And this detour of five years. But really the perception of women and men, of women, specifically when they become mothers, is that they're less devoted to their work. And I found that to be true and had to take a pretty big step back and then work my way back up.

What does it mean not to ‘look like a CEO?’

Barbara: Such a common tale that you hear. So, you've mentioned that there's a lack of female leaders out in the world for people to look up to. And I second that obviously.

And also, what I love or what I was really interested in was that you said that you're really not trying to look like your regular CEO. What does it mean to not look like a CEO and what are you trying to look like instead?

Maria: I think the frustrating thing for women leaders is that we're given accolades with the moniker in front of it that includes our gender. So, you are given a women of influence award.

Barbara: Female CEO.

Maria: Exactly. Great female CEOs, great women CEOs, even Fortune's most powerful women. At what point do we get to be on the most powerful list? Or do we get to be just a person of influence, or do we get to be acknowledged for the companies and the businesses that we're building that are quite remarkable and exceptional in their own right?

I think at that point, when you start to see representation of women on those regular lists, that's when we really will have made some significant progress.

Equity in a remote workplace

Barbara: We're going to pivot into equity. So, it's quite a commonly used term, obviously. And what does it mean to you in terms of a remote workforce and making sure that there is equity within that?

Maria: Well, I think it's interesting, especially in light of the McKinsey study that just came out last week. So, their annual study of women in the workplace came out, and this is something that they do every year.

And I thought this year was really interesting because they talked about how women have made advances in the workplace, but those advances are slipping. And to me, the work we do at Syndio provides a real clear path forward on this issue.

So, the problems are pretty clear and easily understood. I'll summarise the findings really quickly, but basically McKinsey debunked common myths about women in the workplace in that women are not less ambitious.

In fact, they're more ambitious than before the pandemic because of flexibility, it's fuelling that ambition, to your point about remote work.

Number two, it's not a glass ceiling, it's a broken rung because their promotion rates are really lagging, reaching that critical first step, whether that's senior manager or director, is the greatest obstacle women face on their path to senior leadership. So, they debunked that and put it in really plain terms.

And then lastly, flexibility has declared itself to be gender neutral. It turns out that men actually want flexibility as much as women. So, this pipeline for women in leadership is growing, but it's growing really slowly because of that broken rung.

And I think what companies need to take note of in this is that organisations that view flexible work as essential to do a better job attracting and retaining talent, especially women are going to be able to lead in this area.

Barbara: Maria, if any of our listeners are thinking about how to make the first step in having more equity in their own workplace with regards to women, what would you advise them to do first or to think about first?

Maria: A couple of things. So, number one, I think it's really important how you look at the company to which you want to trade your time. So, what does that mean? It means that we're in a relationship with our employer. The employer needs to value us for our contributions without bias.

And so, there are a couple of ways to filter out whether the employer of choice that you're looking at is going to do that. Number one, are they talking about things like pay equity? Are they making commitments to ensure that people in similar roles are paid fairly without regard to gender, race, or ethnicity?

Are they doing things like disclosing salary ranges? Are they doing it nationally and not just in jurisdiction by jurisdiction as laws come up? That's a great one because if you look at a company a year ago when it was just a handful of states, now about one fifth of all workers in the United States are covered by some kind of pay transparency legislation.

But a really great tell was if a company said, we're posting jobs when Colorado was one of the only states that required pay ranges. And so, the posting would say, “Open to anyone in the United States except Colorado.”

That's a really great tell that this particular company is not going to be forward thinking or progressive around how they're thinking about workplace equity. Because to me, workplace equity is really a confluence of two things.

It's pay equity, do they believe in equal pay for equal work, which has become table stakes? And are they looking at opportunity equity? So, what's that rate of promotion? Are they making sure that there's equitable opportunity for advancement?

Women in remote work

Barbara: We've spoken in former episodes or past episodes if you've heard them, about how we can focus on opening remote working up to encourage more women into working. What challenges do you see Maria, and what support do you think can be offered in that endeavor?

Maria: In terms of asking more companies to be open to remote work?

Barbara: Yes. And thus, encouraging more women into the workplace.

Maria: Well, I think one of the first things is thinking about flexibility. The verdict is in on flexible work. It's a must have when you're talking about women. But again, remember the McKinsey note that this is a gender-neutral policy. Men want it as well.

And so, it doesn't mean if you're an employer that you can't have an office. It doesn't mean that there are no benefits to having in-person opportunities for people to collaborate and innovate and work together. It also doesn't mean employees can work wherever they want, whenever they want to. You can have some guidelines to this, but flexibility is a must have.

So, you've got to be able to provide those opportunities for your people to have some say in when and where they work. And it doesn't have to be all or nothing, but you absolutely must come to the table with a flexible mindset. And if you don't have that, you will lose talent. And it won't be just women, it will be women and men alike.

Barbara: In your experience, have you seen folks experiencing unfairness or not seeing the type of support in which a remote or distributed team member should be experiencing? And have you seen any way that they have challenged it to try and get that into their workplace?

Maria: I think there's a lot of challenges right now on both sides. So, I think there's some language that is very polarizing when it comes to going back to the office, if you will.

So, when people are talking about, I want my folks back in the office, it's because they don't have accountability, or they don't feel that their people are working as much or as well as they want them to. And that's really an indicator of just this broken trust that's happening between employers and employees.

And so, I think the question is, if you're a leader and you want your folks back to the office, you want butts in seats, you have to ask yourself why? What is the context behind my desire to have my people visible and is it that I don't trust them? And if I don't trust them, why don't I trust them?

And then I think the flip side of that is there are things that are just better in person. A lot of the things that are better in person are things like collaboration, being innovative.

I mean, there's proven research around opportunities to connect and interact in-person provides benefits not only for the employer, but also for the employees.

One thing that I struggle with and that we really work on at Syndio to provide in-person opportunities for employees to connect is that they're asking for this because there are rates of burnout that I think are exacerbated by being in a home office 110% of the time.

And I'll explain that a little bit, particularly for women who are taking on the larger share of care at home, the mental load for care at home.

So, if you're at home and you have young kids, for example, I have a five-year-old and a three-year-old, you're constantly facing interruptions that require code switching, even if you have full-time care, even if they've got daycare or all sorts of things.

And again, there's a high bar to that cost, childcare is so expensive, but if you have young children at home or even if you have older children, there's code switching that's constantly happening that's putting an emotional and mental tax on our employees, particularly our women, that we also need to be really mindful of.

So, we need to be checking in on our employees even when they are fully remote, to say, “How are you doing with this? Do you feel like you have the ability to be focused? Do you have the ability to shut out distractions?”

And it's the opposite of what it used to be. So, we used to talk about how we keep work out of our home life? And now I think the challenge, and it's just as disastrous for mental health, is how do we keep home out of work?

Barbara: When you were talking about offsites and ability to connect, how do you run that in your company or how do you encourage that?

Maria: So, we do a lot of functional offsites because obviously in this moment with the volatility in the economy and really this push toward profitability, so we're a growth stage startup, we're doing very well, but everybody wants companies of our size and stage now to be pushing toward profitability, which means you have to be a little bit more mindful about your burn. You have to be really responsible about what you're spending.

So, we've really leaned toward flexible offsites between teams that are in hubs or between teams that are in particular functional areas. We have a really interesting group at our company called the cultivators, and it's sort of this innovator combined with culture.

And they are responsible for the various hubs where we have people co-located putting together different types of opportunities for connection that's not always centred on work.

So, sometimes it is something around a brainstorm or figuring out future vision or doing some really interesting innovative work that's applied to the company. But other times it's volunteer opportunities.

So, we try to do what we call a day once a quarter, and we call it a day on because it's a day on in service of the community. So, whether you are volunteering at a food bank or you're cleaning up trash in a park, it's a way to get folks together doing something that provides a purpose bigger than themselves or the company. And that kind of fosters that community.

Barbara: And I assume everyone takes part, like the take up on those kinds of initiatives are always very strong.

Maria: Absolutely. And even our folks, where we have people that are not in a co-located area with other employees, we do have a couple of folks in states where there isn't anyone around them.

And what I always love to see on slack on our day ons is when those folks are posting photos of something that they chose to do, they went on a hike to pick up trash, or they went to do food deliveries just on their own.

And so, they're also participating in this moment, in this sense of something bigger without even being next to other folks physically.

The future of AI and machine learning in equitable workplaces

Barbara: I'm going to pivot a bit to AI and tech if that's okay. So, artificial intelligence obviously is becoming a lot more crucial to companies as they grow and expand. We're starting to leverage it here at Remote as well. I'm just wondering how you use it at Syndio.

Maria: So, AI is something that we've always been very invested in. If you think about it from the perspective of machine learning, and you think about it from the perspective of natural language processing, those are things that we've been incorporating into our software and solutions for a long time. And there's a couple of examples I can give.

So, we have a solution called OppEQ. And when you think about OppEQ, it's software that can help you identify and measure. So, measure and monitor employee movement, track where there are gaps, identify pockets of disparities in areas of success.

And the software really helps set a course for the organisation's future so you can know with certainty are people being promoted at the rate in which we want. So, it's probably the most progressive and lawful solution on the market in terms of thinking about goals and representation and distribution.

So, one of the ways we look at how you're doing is by doing utilisation analysis. So, if you're hiring for a bunch of roles, identifying through matching job codes to the DOL dataset in terms of what does the pipeline look like in the areas in which you are hiring, because if you don't have a pipeline that matches your goals, the recommendation would be you need to expand beyond that pipeline.

So, that's a really great use case for NLP because you're using natural language processing to do a better job of job code matching and looking at people's descriptions and responsibilities in particular job codes to make sure that you're getting that match 75% right. So, that's one example.

Another example would be when we think about pay equity. So, one of the most difficult parts to a pay equity analysis if you've never done it before as a company, is it's equal pay for equal work, but what does equal work mean? Is an executive assistant the same as an assistant? How do you decide that?

And so, that's a really interesting opportunity for machine learning because if you have a cohort of 300 customers like we do, and you have a aggregated anonymized data set, if you have a bunch of hotels, for example, and then a new hotel comes on board as a customer, you can actually, with a pretty high level degree of accuracy, predict the groups that they will need to have in terms of doing that initial grouping to run their analysis. And so, that's another example of how machine learning can be applied.

From an AI perspective, we're very, very careful, cautious, and thoughtful because AI for HR in particular is something that's very highly regulated and you have to be really mindful of the bias that's inherent already in these training sets.

So, that's something we're very, very careful about how we sort of take baby steps into that because we don't want to obviously exacerbate biases that exist.

Barbara: Yes, Maria, I actually, spoke with Lauren Pasquarella daily in the last episode and we spoke a lot about gender bias in artificial intelligence, and she made the point that the technology itself is neutral, but it's the developers and the engineers that are programming it, and that's when the unconscious bias may occur.

So, I totally agree with what you're saying. Tell me a little bit about resistance or engagement from your organisation to adapt AI.

Maria: I think our organization in particular has been pretty open to the idea of AI.

Barbara: Great.

Maria: And our engineers, for example, in the very early months, our CTO and our head of product put together a hackathon. And I think they had a lot of fun just playing around with different technologies and seeing what they could come up with.

I think one of the areas where we're really bullish in terms of leveraging this technology are things that can service our customers in a more efficient and powerful way.

So, if you think about all the training material that we have, creating a more natural language interface so that our customers can get help when they need it, versus having to go through some web-oriented interface and knowledge base and search for answers. Those are the types of things that I think we're grabbing onto and executing on very quickly.

Barbara: We tend to end the podcast with kind of a universal question that we ask everyone. Can you think of a time, Maria, when you've had to deal with a challenge that made you think this could only happen with distributed work?

Maria: My answer is a little bit on the flip side, meaning there's absolutely nothing I can think of that can only happen with distributed work.

So, there's a number of things that can only happen in person together, but I don't think having just solely distributed work 100% of the time, there's really nothing that you can do in that scenario if you don't also make room and time for in-person opportunities for your people.

Whether that's once a year or every other year, I think you've got to start working on having some form of in-person relationship building because distributed work 100% all of the time for years and years, I just don't think that you're ever going to get to the place you need to get to.

We've got to start thinking more flexibly and not in such a binary way of, it's either remote or it's not. There's so much on the continuum of what can happen in between.

Barbara: Maria, I do actually have one final question for you. Tell me about that picture behind you on the wall. It's a little girl, she's standing upright, and she seems to be facing off to a bow. Where does that come from? What's it for? Why do you have it up there?

Maria: Oh, I love this picture, so I'm going to move so you can see it. So, it was done by a New York Street artist and actually one of my very early employees, I think she was employee number four.

She bought it for me as a gift from a street artist and it's a fearless girl facing down the bull. As most folks know, she was moved, so she now stands right outside the New York Stock Exchange.

The New York Stock Exchange has been a great partner for us in terms of recommending our software to their listed companies to address ESG and to address workplace equity.

And so, the painting is just so fitting because she's standing there, she's taking it on, and she's doing what we really believe in at Syndio, which she's not admiring the problem or talking about the problem. She's actually taking it on and figuring out and innovating with solutions to solve the problem.

Barbara: I love that. Looking at that every day, I think I need something better on top of my screen here to inspire me every day. And Maria, thank you so much for what you've shared today and for our conversation. I really appreciate it.

Maria: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.

Barbara: Thank you so much to Maria for talking in depth about remote working and the challenges of distributed teams. Well, that's just about wraps it up for the latest episode of Off Mute.

I'm Barbara Matthews, the Chief People Officer at Remote, and we'll be back in two weeks with the next episode.

But in the meantime, please subscribe to the podcast and if you like what you've heard, give us five stars as it helps others like you find our podcast. Thank you for listening to Off Mute from Remote. Catch you next time.

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