The annual Ascent Conference, already filling up for its October 28-29, 2020 edition, features the latest in technology but brings a broader perspective to the field. Specifically, diversity and inclusion, which is generally lacking in most tech events. Ascent 2019 showcased the future of work with presentations by various luminaries, entrepreneurs, experts and leaders like Kristie Beck, CEO of Proformex. The tech company was founded by Mike Pepe and initially managed by an all-male team but now has a female CEO. Grit Daily was on the scene to gain some insights from Beck regarding leadership.
The number of female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies fell from a peak of 32 in 2017, down to just 24 in 2018. However, earlier this year, that number climbed back up and hit a new record of 33 female CEOs. With only 5% female CEOs, which also falls below the 8% global average, the US trails the EU (9%), China (19%) and Thailand (30%). When you expand the definition of leadership beyond CEO to include the Top 5 executive positions, the statistics aren’t much better: only 14.2% of those roles in the S&P 500 are held by women according to CNNmoney. But many companies are more focused on diversity and inclusion and these data are expected to increase.
As a female CEO in the male-dominated industry of insurance, being a successful leader requires the right mix of experience, skills, and EQ. Beck has it all with a proven track record scaling SaaS companies with two $100M+ exits under her belt (MacroPoint and Elemica). And she offered to share her time and insights with our readers.
Proformex is an insurance tech software company dedicated to inforce policy management. Through portfolio analytics, individual contract monitoring, policy review reporting tools, and other tech, their platform essentially measures the performance of life insurance policies to help protect families and legacies from policy degradation and asset erosion coupled with increasing carrier fees. In simple terms, they advise the advisors and life insurance agents who advise the consumers. Beck said, “Think of us like MorningStar or Consumer Reports, but for a person’s individual life insurance policies.”
Grit Daily: There is myopia and general mindset that “tech only happens in Silicon Valley.” Cleveland isn’t the first place that comes to mind for tech, so how do you get the mentoring that you need and openly seek to become an even better CEO?
Kristie Beck: We’re based in Cleveland, OH, so we’re neighbors with some of the biggest Fortune 500 insurance companies including Progressive, Nationwide, All-State and numerous others that have a footprint here in the midwest. Plus, I’ve worked for other technology companies in lots of different cities – from Dallas to NYC to Atlanta – that all have larger tech networks. Those cities are home to major corporations. During my tenure at those companies, I developed skills to operate and scale tech companies and an extensive network that I continue to engage with and learn from.
GD: You’ve worked at global enterprise companies in the past, leading verticals and business units that are larger than Proformex, and been a GM at a couple of midsize companies. How did that experience help you prepare to be the CEO of a 3-year old startup?
KB: My background is in supply chain technology, which is all about operations, logistics and operating at scale – critical factors for running a high-growth business. I’ve brought a product strategy mindset and systems view on how to scale tech businesses. Proformex is B2B in the life insurance industry, where there is a lot of technology white space. Thus far, we have little competition and our edge comes from our technology by leveraging software versus similar people-based services.
GD: Pivots are something that most individuals, businesses, and brands do with some regularity, although many pivots never become known to the public. Startups are renowned for making pivots – or dying if they don’t. Has Proformex pivoted yet?
KB: Of course! Pivots are a valuable part of business evolution. You learn from trial and error on your own and what you see happening in the market. At first, we were selling directly to family offices then trustees and fiduciaries positioning our platform as a risk management tool. Then we realized agents and financial advisors were interested in using our tool to better manage their books of business and improve client service and identify upsell and cross-sell opportunities.
GD: You’re a leader who rolls her sleeves up, dives in and learns. What steps have you taken to learn about leading a company?
KB: I’ve worked in every functional area of a tech company, from small startups to global, enterprise ones. I’ve overseen teams across all segments of a business, from sales and marketing to operations and product, so I’ve dug in to learn each of these functional areas and how to make them work together seamlessly. Truly understanding the business as a whole means having a deep understanding of each individual part of it. You have to keep a clear strategy top of mind but also understand the synergy required across all teams to achieve a bigger outcome. This has helped provide a foundation for my knowledge as well as given me the opportunity to identify areas for improvement by looking at the business function with a fresh but informed perspective. Once, I even signed up for a coding bootcamp! I only lasted 3 weeks but I earned a lot of street cred from my team.
GD: The most important question we ask our featured guests is the question that our readers are most curious about. How would you advise the next generation of leaders in tech?
KB: Be self-aware, understand what you’re really good at then double-down on your strengths. We all take different paths to get where we are. Create a team with complementary skills where they are stronger than you in the areas that you are weak. Strength is finding others’ super powers, leveraging their talent and orchestrating the collective effort of the team. Focus on long-term success. Always be taking steps to build your network. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Be highly selective when building your team because the quality and ability of the team is everything, especially in technology.
GD: Kris, thank you for sharing your insights and tips which go beyond helping women in tech and can be valuable to every founder and leader of companies big and small.