Ep 56: Laura Bilazarian: Not You Can, but You WILL Win

Diva Tech Talk was inspired by our interview with former investment banker and social entrepreneur, Laura Bilazarian, CEO and Founder of Teamable (https://teamable.com), an innovative company accelerating any organization’s ability to hire top talent, in today’s challenging environment. Teamable helps companies implement “smarter recruiting through social networks,” according to Laura. “We ‘connect the dots’ between open jobs and human social connections.” As a side benefit of the company’s methodology, some customers have addressed the need for greater diversity: tripling their hiring of women and minorities in leadership and other positions. “It’s easy to find people, but it’s not easy to find the right people for the right team. We are able to find a ‘needle in the haystack’.  We can unlock human potential at an earlier stage” said Laura.

A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business (https://www.wharton.upenn.edu/ ), the fascinating Laura began her career in investment banking -- and even made her home in Vietnam at one point. Similar to Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates (two notable tech industry superstars), Laura often found her interest in getting great grades in her college courses waning in favor of doing “deep dives” into subjects that fascinated her. “I couldn’t stand attending class,” she said. “But I would read all the required material, and beyond. I didn’t really get it until I began to understand what an entrepreneur’s mind really was. I was curious beyond the structure of getting an ‘A’.  I didn’t do such a great job on tests, but learned stuff that now is in Teamable.”

Graduating Wharton, with a degree in economics, Laura wanted to work at Google. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have the guts to go there without affirmation from my classmates.”  So her first job was at Miller Buckfire (http://www.millerbuckfire.com) an internationally recognized investment bank helping clients address complex transformation including recapitalizations, acquisitions, sales, divestitures, debt and equity financing transactions. “I traveled the world, and ended up doing private equity in Vietnam,” she said.  “I sorta hustled my way into that job, by going door-to-door, looking at mailboxes, to figure out what companies were big in Vietnam. I reached out to the biggest ones.”  

Laura had been a lifelong athlete.  In the early throes of her career, she also played professional rugby, on both a national and international basis. “Kudos for my mom for pushing me into that sport.” Her rugby-playing, on the #1 award-winning national U.S. women’s team, strengthened skills including her ability to work in teams, problem-solve, and a penchant for staying calm under pressure. She discovered: “You make a mistake in rugby, the penalty is damage to your ACL!”  Laura learned a “life lesson” from this period: “What stops you from coming in first is your own mental state.”  She quickly moved to the declarative sentence. “Instead of saying we could win a national championship, I started saying we WILL win.  Everyone was scared to say it at first. But it made all the difference.”

As she got deeper into investment banking, Laura said “at some point, I just felt that the work was meaningless. Being on Wall Street, you get burned out, moving money around, zero sum game. A few people, only, had access to capital.”  

Then, some key occurrences changed her life. “I read Mother Teresa’s letters to God (Where There Is Love, There Is God) and I had a period of introspection.  What is another way I can impact the world?”  The daughter of an Armenian father and Jewish mother, Laura “grew up learning about the Armenian genocide and the holocaust, and that had a really big impact on me.”  Laura’s brother was a news reporter in Armenia, and she was inspired to “do something there.”  She traveled to Armenia, and observed that “tech is a place where you can all win together. We could all use data to connect people to the right work.” She conceived the concept, that became Teamable, and launched a Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com) campaign around it. “What is so brilliant is you can sit there, with your mind, and make something that adds value.”  

In Armenia, Laura was “inspired by the talent there, and wanted to give them something that would bring access to the global market.” She continued to pursue investment banking, co-founding a fund devoted to Armenian companies; and Teamable’s development and data science activities also all take place in Armenia. “Doing the right thing is always great,” she exclaimed. “If nothing else in a small country, they look at you having some measure of success and they have hope. And hope is a more valuable currency than currency!”

While running the Armenian fund, (which she subsequently left) and raising money for her own company, Laura’s investment banking background has been invaluable. She had insight into what investors were looking for and the questions they would ask. “I think that’s something that every CEO should learn,” she said. “Do something, like financial modeling, to really understand ‘where are the levers’ in your business. Not all levers are created equal.”  

After founding Teamable, Laura said that at first “I wouldn’t call myself an entrepreneur.  I felt like Super-Poseur.” But like her rugby career, she said “I started saying it, because once you say things you have to make them happen.”  Her three co-founders are all technical whizzes – Armenian data scientists and crackerjack programmers.  “The hardest math we did on Wall Street, they were doing in 5th grade.” The prototype system her Armenian co-founders first showed her was “the perfect predictor of team quality,” she said. “I was blown away.

The same approach to recruiting that they created, based on 15 years of social media interconnectedness, would apply to Wall Street --- getting the right people on the right teams.”  Laura moved operations to San Francisco; met with myriad Silicon Valley denizens including the top analytics team at Google; and continuously began to validate the approach and build the Teamable company and customer base. She pitched a number of times, including her first successful round at well-known Greylock Partners (www.greylock.com/), where they found an angel investor willing to take a chance on Teamable. “I took the whole team with me,” she said. “People who didn’t have a part of the pitch, I put them on ScreenShare, because part of the mission is having access, and I wanted them to see what is was like being in those meetings.”

Highly egalitarian, Laura said that it simply became obvious that, when pitching to investors, she should initially take the title of CEO. “I really don’t know when I earned it,” she said. “Maybe it was with the first money raised, or the first customer signed.” (NOTE:  40-person Teamable has raised over $5 million in its A round of investment, and has over 90 customers, to date.  The company has quadrupled in size since February, 2017).

Besides giving everyone access to as much information, learning, and connections as possible, Laura stresses that “really being honest” in terms of feedback is crucial in the Teamable culture. “I want it to be radically transparent,” she said. “With software companies, you can make adjustments quickly. If it sucks, it’s ok.  We’ll make another plan.”   She also prizes a hard work ethic.  “Everyone’s smart. Everyone’s talented.

Where you make the margin is work ethic.  It’s discipline. It’s going above and beyond.”  Finally, she is creating an environment focused on hyper-growth. “Never feeling comfortable; continuing to challenge ourselves.”  On the personal level, Laura admits that her past two years were unbalanced and “a little dark.”  But she thinks it is the direct cause of Teamable’s current success. “If you maniacally commit to anything, for two years, you will succeed,” Laura said. “I think doing what you love, you cannot have work/life balance at least for 2 to 3 years.”

Laura characterizes that women leaders have “unique competitive advantages that are and aren’t talked about.” In looking at her own advantages, she stated: “People usually trust me.”  But she also sees the well-documented disadvantages women face in raising institutional funds. In true winning fashion, she sees that as a positive challenge.  “You have to be more strategic.”  In terms of Teamable, Laura only met with 5 venture capital firms for her Series A round, because she targeted (“reverse pattern matched”) those who would be the best partners, with the best technical view of, and affinity for, the problem that Teamable was created to solve.

Ever an ambitious learner, Laura is spurred by her technology colleagues and her access to Silicon Valley brain trusts. “I took the whole machine-learning course on Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/) at 2x speed, over a weekend.”  Lean Startup  is a book that Laura would recommend any would-be startup founder reading. “I can’t stand anything that seems like a problem,” Laura summed herself up and affirmed that “It’s super-scary to leave what you’ve done. But you can do it!”

Please feel free to contact Laura at: laura@teamable.com.  

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Diva Tech Talk Team

Podcast Divas