In celebration of Women’s History Month, we chat with Alka Tandan, Senior Vice President of Finance & Strategic Programs at Gainsight. She is a Haas MBA alum with over 20 years in corporate finance, operations, and mergers and acquisitions.
In this episode, Alka talks about how she fell in love with technology while growing up in Silicon Valley. We also discuss her career experiences, especially her transition from a big organization like Yahoo to IGN, and her reasons for pursuing an MBA. Alka also shares how she became an investor, limited partner, and advisor for the venture fund Operator Collective.
You will also hear about how to thrive and chart your own path as a female leader in a male-dominated industry and get advice on how to move up the ladder from a member of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women community.
On growing up in Silicon Valley and falling in love with technology
“My father came here with my mom for the American dream. There were a lot of hopes and dreams on our shoulders, but it was a great place to grow up in Silicon Valley. And that’s really how I fell in love with technology. I feel like I was born in it and it’s in my blood.”
On experiencing firsthand how the tech industry bloomed over the years
“The attention being paid to Silicon Valley now all around the world and the true respect and appreciation of what technology can do and how it not only changes lives but is actually the bread and butter of our economy worldwide is gratifying. I just don’t think people quite got it back then.”
On her decision to get an MBA
“Higher education was definitely always very important in my family. It was something that I thought I was going to do, however, also having the rebellious side, I was never going to just do something. I was at a point where I was just done with banking and really decided that the next step for me was to be part of a company and its journey.”
What she gained from her MBA experience
“I was really looking to get a more well-rounded education around marketing, around sales, around operations, and so, that’s really kind of what my goal was. I think what was interesting about it, though, is I ended up getting expertise that was equally valuable – the soft skills, the presentation skills, the ability to debate with like-minded people, which really I hadn’t done as much when you were a more junior person in banking. And the chance to really sit there and really analyze different business scenarios critically and get just the varied experience from everybody in the class, especially with international students, was huge.”
On the process of transitioning from a big firm to a smaller one
“You have to just re-sit and really get honest with yourself. I had to get really honest about the types of things I wanted to do on a daily basis, the pace that I wanted to go, the opportunities that I wanted to do. It’s just a lot of self-awareness – think about what you want to do and what you’re really good at. Know what makes you light up, and really at the end of the day, I feel like everything we’re doing is really just trying to figure out how to light ourselves up. And I would even say it’s probably our duty to get lit up for the world.”
On moving up the corporate ladder
“It’s a journey. I have so many friends and family members all around the world and there’s always this Silicon Valley myth that everybody comes here and then three years later they’re worth a hundred million dollars. And we know that is just not the reality. I’m sure the odds are better here than in other places, a hundred percent, but the reality of it is for most people, it takes time. It takes time to really hone your craft and that’s exactly what I discovered. Everyone has had ups and downs in their careers. I definitely did.”
Advice for women who are advancing in their careers
“I would encourage all women that are moving up the ladder to, first of all, really talk to other women. And again, know yourself. Advocate for yourself. Find your mentors, people with whom you can have that conversation, do things in an authentic way, and get advice and bounce things off of people. It’s the most powerful thing you can do. Sometimes, it’s ok to need help. I certainly do that for and with several people, of all genders.”
Advice on finding your passion
“At the end of the day, I feel like everything we’re doing is really to figure out how to light ourselves up. And I would say it’s our duty to get lit up for the world.”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00] Chris: Welcome to the OneHaas Podcast. I’m Chris Kim. Today, we have Alka Tandan, Senior Vice President of Finance & Strategic Programs at Gainsight. Alka is a Haas MBA alum with over 20 years in corporate finance, operations, and mergers and acquisitions. Alka has had an amazing journey, including as an angel investor, limited partner at Operator Collective, a member of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, and a founding member of Tech CFO. Welcome, Alka. And great to have you on the show.
[00:32] Alka: So happy to be here.
[00:33] Chris: I’m super stoked to have this conversation today. Could you, maybe, kick us off, just talk about where you grew up and where did your story begin?
[00:39] Alka: Yeah. I always joke that I’m the original Silicon Valley unicorn because I was actually born and raised in Silicon Valley, like literally, in Mountain View. I know. And there’s not many of us anymore. There used to be, but everyone’s spread out. And I think, even with COVID, probably even more. But yeah, my father was an engineer. He was an immigrant from India, came here and got his PhD, and back in the ’70s had heard there was a place called Silicon Valley, came here with my mom. And, you know, they were here for the American dream. And I was a first born here from both sides of the family. And there were a lot of hopes and dreams kind of like on our shoulders. But it was a great place to grow up. And that’s really how I fell in love with technology. I feel like I was born in it and it’s in my blood. And I have several family members that are in the industry as well.
[01:29] Chris: That’s awesome. What was it like growing up as a kid in the Valley? I know a lot of folks come to the Bay Area or Silicon Valley as an adult or for professional reasons, aspirations. What was it like being a kid and seeing that, growing up?
[01:41] Alka: It was—and you hear this with a lot of places these days, it was such a different place. I remember orchards everywhere. I mean, there were literally orange orchards and apple orchards. So, still, it was not, you know—definitely not as built out. And I think Silicon Valley was very different back then, too. It definitely still had—it was a place that was, probably more than other places in the US, a place where the immigrants came to. And they had been coming to, I think, San Francisco for some time. But I think that really brought a wider population of people, you know, coming here. And I would say Silicon Valley, back then, it was definitely—we were kind of rebels, at least that’s how I like to kind of look at ourselves, you know—we were rebels. Not everybody really understood exactly what we were doing here. I remember, even in my early days of banking, you know, Wall Street, you didn’t really pay attention to people in tech. So, it was kind of a really, I think, a beautiful kind of innocent almost time for the industry. And I don’t think anybody could have expected, really, what that industry was going to become. I consider it kind of like the modern-day Renaissance of our time. And then, of course, with it, the area has just changed a ton with a lot more people, different sort of personalities. And, of course, with that, there’s always good things that come with it and things that you sort of miss of the old times.
[03:02] Chris: Definitely. Did you have any early memories? Did you think about even going into tech or finance as a kid? Or was it just like a pretty normal experience? I’ve heard stories of classmates who have grown up in the Midwest or small town in America. Did you know you were going to be a tech executive one day? Or was that totally just out of the radar, and not even—
[03:21] Alka: [laughs] You know, I wasn’t sure. You know what I mean? I think, you know, I am a child of two Indian parents. So, there were certain career paths that were more encouraged than others, shall I say.
[03:32] Chris: Very familiar with that [laughs].
[03:34] Alka: Exactly. And so, very common amongst some of my friends, too. But I think that I really—what I saw in technology was I saw a lot of hope. I thought it was exciting. And, of course, as I was growing up a bit older, I saw that it was slowly changing the world. I definitely have a theme in my life of wanting to be a little bit rebellious. And so, I think, you know, as I went to college, I knew one thing—I didn’t want to be an engineer, for sure. But I was really interested in business and finance. I was always really good at math. And I was just very interested in how the good businesses versus business that didn’t do well. I should also mention my mother was a business owner. So, in addition to getting the technology, I kind of got the business kind of bug as well. And so, that’s how I just naturally gravitated towards tech. Definitely, not a foregone conclusion, but now, like all things in life, it kind of makes sense, fits my personality.
[04:30] Chris: You kind of talked a bit about college, you know, where did you end up going to school? And how did you enjoy your time down, maybe, in a sunnier or warmer climate?
[04:37] Alka: Yeah, I went down and I went to UCLA. I remember struggling with it, though. I was like, should I go back East? And I thought I was going to go back East for business school, which didn’t end up happening. But I went to UCLA and I actually ended up really loving it. I think it was, I mean, you said it was the great school. I had gone to, pretty much, private schools for most of my life. And I’d gone to a private Catholic high school. So, I was ready for a big change.
[05:04] Chris: Thank you.
[05:04] Alka: Like, I just really was ready to just go live life. And UCLA definitely did that for me. It was a great education and great school. It was also just, frankly, a lot of fun being in LA. And, you know, I got to meet some people and had some interesting parts of my life. And yet, at the end, I was ready to come back. I really kind of missed the intellectualism of the Bay Area. And so, I was very clear that, at the end, either I was going to go to New York for banking or I was going to come back be in tech. And I said, “I think right now I want to be in tech banking.” So, there I go. I kind of came back home.
[05:37] Chris: Yeah, absolutely. What did you do after college? And, you know, as you kind of alluded to, what were you thinking about in your career before business school? And I know a lot of folks might be in that time of their lives, you know. What were you thinking as you were working in banking and then working in tech, specifically, before you were transitioning to come to Haas?
[05:52] Alka: Things have changed. And so, I think, at that time, there were just a couple of paths. And most of them were, are you going to go into consulting or are you going to go into banking? Or hopefully, you can get into like a rotational program at company at that time. There are a lot of rotational programs. So, I knew I didn’t want to be traveling out of a suitcase constantly. I, at least, want to be in my bed every night. And so, I went into banking. And it just felt like it fit me a little bit better, personality-wise. I specifically decided to go to a boutique bank. I ended up going to Broadview International, which is now owned by Jefferies. And I really appreciated them because they were renegades in the banking world. They’d all come from traditional banks and decided like, “Oh, well, tech seems interesting.” And they created this. They all had these traditional backgrounds, but they kind of created this concept and were actually really respected like industry experts. And I had some friends who’d worked—I had friends that were a little bit all over the place—at the big banks and small banks. And actually, Broadview was the most interesting. So, I was very clear that was the place that I wanted to work. And I got it. And that’s where I landed. And it was a great time. I mean, we learned a ton in the banking program. But I also say I made lifelong friendships. Even to this day, one of my dearest friends is Cheryl Chang. And, you know, she lives like close by. And both her and her husband I’m still really good friends with. And I see on a regular basis, like 20 years later. So, it was a really beautiful time of my life.
[07:28] Chris: That’s awesome. Maybe, for folks who’ve been in the industry for a while, you know, what was it like being in tech banking then? And, you know, what were some of the things that you were working on or getting excited on, as you were kind of—I think, as you were saying, a bit of a Renegade or at a forefront when it comes to, you know, tech banking. So, I think a little bit in a different place today, maybe a little bit more mature industry and very predictable. But then it was definitely a different place. Could you, maybe, share a bit of that history?
[07:54] Alka: Well, I think one of the reasons also I chose Broadview is I felt like they were the champions for the founders, you know, at that time. So, they did a lot of sell-side work. And we did some buy-side. And it was only M&A. We really focused only on M&A. And I being a daughter and an immigrant and having several entrepreneurs in my family, like I really sort of appreciated that. They were kind of looking out for the guy that actually like built the companies and getting them exit. And I also got a chance to like work with not only the great people that actually worked within Broadview, but also externally got to work with some really incredible founders and get really excited about what they built and learn their stories of like how they got there. And for a lot of that, it was, back then, people really get sure that, of course, they want to make money, but they were just really excited about the technology and building something great. And I think that kind of just always excited me. And I was always taken aback by the creativity of the technologists and the founders as well. I think we would just operate a little bit in a vacuum because regular Wall Street really wasn’t paying attention to us. The big banks, maybe, they had one or two at the time. But really, we were kind of just operating. It was very quickly thereafter that, all of a sudden, there was like the tech boom and people started like paying attention. But then, even after that, it was pretty quiet. So, I think, the big shift is just that the attention being paid to Silicon Valley now, like all around the world, and the true respect and appreciation of what technology can do and how it, not only changes lives, but is actually the bread and butter of our economy and sort of worldwide and the actual impact. I just don’t think people quite got it back then. And venture capital was also like a big black box, like people didn’t quite understand it. They found it way too risky. Fast-forward to today, there’s so much money being thrown around. And so, it’s been quite interesting to sort of like watch it.
[09:58] Chris: That’s awesome to hear. A lot of folks might say, you know, you’re in amazing job and a career space even early after graduating from college. What made you think about going to get an MBA? Had you always thought about getting an MBA? Or, how did that come into the picture? And then how did you end up applying and getting into Haas?
[10:14] Alka: Yeah, I definitely come from one of these families that collects degrees, I’d say there’s—
[10:20] Chris: Also, I’m very familiar with that [laughs].
[10:21] Alka: I had a feeling, Chris. I had a feeling it would be familiar to you. You know, I have cousins who like have three degrees, you know. I have one cousin who was, like… I think he went to Cal. He was an environmental engineer, then decided to get his MD. Sure. Why not? Higher education was definitely always very important in my family. So, it was something that I thought it was going to do. However, also, having the rebellious side, I was never going to just do something and start to do it. I was at a point where I was like just done with banking. I started off at Broadview and I actually worked at WR Hambrecht for a bit, too. That was a startup bank that was doing something really novel, an auction process for IPOs, which I think was just way too early for its time. Google went out with a version of it. Salesforce went public with a version of it. And then it just never took off. It had a lot of resistance from the rest of the banking world. So, I was a little bit done with banking at that time and really decided that, okay, the next step for me was I really wanted to be part of a company and its journey and not be kind of there kind of at sort of the end. So, I had a couple of options. I could just go in, you know, straight into a company. And I knew I could probably go into like corp dev, like a mid-manager, or I could go to business school and get a crash course in all the different aspects of business. And so, I thought, probably, at that point, I was going to stay in the Bay Area. So, there’s probably only two schools I’m going to go to. And I applied. And I was thrilled to go to Berkeley. So, it was a dream come true, truly. And it was a little bit of a full circle moment for me, a little bit like this conversation is also. Because my father, when he had come to the Bay Area, he had accepted to Berkeley at first PhD program and acceptance in Montana University. And Montana University, he didn’t have as much money. And so, they gave him a full ride. And I just didn’t understand the value of Berkeley. And so, he was a little bit heartbroken that I didn’t go there for undergrad. And so, I finally made it for grad school. Like, he was like really happy. So, it was great.
[12:21] Chris: Got you, yeah. What was Haas like when you got to campus? And what were you hoping to get out of the program? You had to experience in school already, you had professional experience. What was it like when you stepped on the campus into the MBA program?
[12:33] Alka: So, I think I was really looking to get a little bit more well-rounded. All I had done, really, up until that point was banking. And so, I was really looking to get a more well-rounded education around marketing, around sales, around operations. And so, that’s really kind of what my goal was. I think what was interesting about it, though, is I think that what I ended up getting, which was equally as valuable, was the soft skills—the presentation skills, the ability just to, you know, like even debate with like-minded people, which really I hadn’t done as much when you were kind of a more junior person, you know, in banking, and the chance to really sit there and really analyze different business scenarios critically, and getting just the varied experience from everybody in the class, also internationally. I think that was huge. I remember when I was making the decision, I had someone who was a bit of a mentor and a prior boss from banking. And I was like, “You know, I think I want to do this.” But he could sense a little bit of hesitation. And he’s like, “Well, what are you hesitating?” I was like, “Well, you know, I don’t know. I could just keep going.” And he’s like, “Okay, it’s two years of your life. Two years of a life, you’re going to live a long life. And do you think it would be time well-spent?” I said, “I think it would be a great time well-spent.” And he’s like, “Yeah, and then go for it.” He was also a Haas alum. So, that’s what I was looking for. And then I feel like I got so much more. Also, a place where I made lifelong friends that I’m still friends with today.
[14:03] Chris: I’m going to ask, do you have any fond memories of your time at Haas? Any classes or any events or anything that you still remember to this day?
[14:10] Alka: So many, but the one thing that I remember the most is actually our international trip. And it’s our practicum. So, I don’t know if they still do that. I’d set a goal that I really wanted to go to Africa before. I was like, I don’t know, 30 or something. And so, I was really hoping they’re going to send me to Africa. And we did. So, we went to Ghana. You know, there’s groups of four. And for four or five weeks out of, you know—and I think it was like June—we all land in a country. And I think that, first of all, I love the symbolism of it, that all of us are going at the same time to all these parts of the world and just knowing all these groups are everywhere. I think I was just like, really, it’s such a cool special thing. And I’m surprised to learn that I thought different business schools did this, and they don’t. It’s very unique to Haas and very much Haas-like, I think, as well.
[15:00] Chris: Yeah.
[15:02] Alka: And I remember landing with four relative strangers. The four of us actually didn’t interact that much in business school. And we had so many incredible moments. We were like the team. I’d like to say that I do think that people were like talking about us. And probably, for many different reasons. I would say we almost got arrested.
[15:23] Chris: Oh, wow.
[15:24] Alka: We did a car crash. We literally visited two jails while we were there. Yeah, I mean, we really, you know—some of it was a little scary. One of our colleagues got on TV there. We visited with a world-renowned professor. I remember one day in the morning, we were literally walking in the slums, literally walking in the slums. And that night we were at some very senior political officer’s house. It was like, you know, it was a little jarring. But my favorite moment is that we had these neighbors. And they were so kind to us. One day, they brought us food. Another day, we told them that, “Hey, we just love your outfits.” And we came the next day, and there were just four outfits for us. It was the kindest thing. And we told them that—they talked to us about going to church. So, we said, “We’d love to go with you one day.” That night, I’ll just say we had quite a night. We were up till 4:00 in the morning. We were talking. We were bonding. We finally go to bed at, I think it was around 5:30 in the morning. We got a knock on the door. We’re ready for church. And we didn’t know that you had today. And what should I say. We were still feeling the couple of hours before, because it was a late night. We just put on our clothes. We went. And you know, we said, we’re going to need like 20 minutes, at least. And now we’re driving. The sun is coming up. And we’re like, oh, my God, what are we doing? We arrived. And what we see is an unfinished church with plastic chairs. And we sit there. And we quickly find out we are the special guests of honor that day. And I remember like this—and it’s like I could feel the chills already. Like, I remember like the sun coming up. And they were singing their prayers. And I think it was probably the most beautiful service I’ve ever been to. And I’ve been to a lot, like around the world. And I still just remember it, how special it was, and that unfinished church with the wind blowing and the prayers in the morning and being able to do with my classmates, it was like really special.
[17:33] Chris: That’s amazing. Wow. How do you go from that to back in the workplace? And where did you decide to go after graduating?
[17:40] Alka: It’s hard. You know what I mean? You have all these incredible experiences and you just don’t want it to end. I mean, it’s such a great time and it’s a great—and it’s a time that, you know, there’s a lot of validation for you to sort of like take it off. I had been doing banking and, mostly, like semiconductors and some of these harder technologies. And I knew I was ready for something sort of new. And at that time, I was very interested in media. And so, there were a couple of the big ones. At that time, Yahoo! was still one of the big ones. And I decided that it was best—I hadn’t really worked at a large company, so I decided to go to Yahoo! And I got to work on some really cool products, like, you know, I think Flickr is a great one. For those that don’t know who started Flickr, it was Stewart Butterfield who started Slack. I got to work with him, you know, a little bit, and got to work on, you know, Yahoo! video and some of their search products. It was a really great training ground. And it was actually a lot of fun, also. Yahoo! was a really fun place. So, it was a great time. But I also quickly realized that I wanted more, and just at a big company, I just didn’t feel like I was going to get more. And so, it was sort of like, “Okay, once I got recruited into IGN, it was like I just knew it was just time for me to go.”
[18:54] Chris: Yeah. Can you talk a little bit about that? I’ll go how do you go from—because I’m sure some folks who are listening might be in that position where they’re at a big firm, you know. How did you go through that transition phase, you know, even mentally thinking through it? And then how did you end up going through that process to be in IGN?
[19:09] Alka: I think you have to just sit and just really get honest with yourself about, first of all, nobody really knows at the end of the day where they’re actually going to be in 20 years. But you can know kind of like what makes you light up. And really, at the end of the day, I feel like everything we’re doing is we’re really just trying to figure out how to like light ourselves up. And I would even say it’s probably our duty to get lit up for like the world, right? So, I had to get really honest about the types of things I wanted to do on a daily basis, the pace that I wanted to go to on a daily basis, the opportunities that I wanted, you know, to sort of do. And so, I think it really just takes a lot of just self-awareness. But then it’s also, you know, like what you want to do. And then I also think it’s what you’re really like good at. So, I’ll give you an example. I think, at that time, I was still trying to learn how to kind of do the whole political game. And that was actually really hard for me. And I didn’t really enjoy it. I was really looking forward to just digging deep, building things. I just wanted like more. I wanted more exposure. I was just very ambitious at that time, instead of like spending time, frankly, playing that political game. So, I did get really honest with myself. Now, there are some people who are brilliant at it and do it so well. And I just was like, I don’t think so. It’s like what you like to do, but also what you think you’re sort of really good at.
[20:41] Chris: Absolutely. What you end up doing at IG? And I know you had a great number of years there, you know. How did you manage your career after leaving such a big company like Yahoo! at that time?
[20:51] Alka: I feel like it was actually a little bit easier when you’re at a smaller company to sort of manage your career. I actually felt a little bit like I could get a little bit lost in a bigger company. So, IGN was interesting, because even though it was still owned by a large company, it basically run on its own. And so, I was really interested to work with the CEO. His name is Roy Bahat. And he actually runs Bloomberg Ventures now. So, I was really excited to work with him because I knew he had done some really interesting things, you know, before. But really, what kind of got me going on, was the opportunity to build the finance group from the ground up. So, at that time, all the services were centralized and they were basically trying to make IGN like super independent, because IGN just didn’t fit the rest of the portfolio. And so, there was really not much there. There was controller and, I think, maybe one other accountant. And I was like, actually, the true first finance hire. The ability to do that but also work with an incredible brand like IGN was really interesting. It was also—If you’re a gamer, at least you know the website. But what people don’t know is actually, behind the scenes, it was really a portfolio of products. So, it was also the chance to work with, yeah, a lot of different business models. So, they own ign.com. They own askmen.com, which was like a men’s lifestyle. So, those were the kind of the media websites. But they also own a tech licensing business, a subscription business. There was even a small retail business. We did a homegrown e-sports business. We were one of the first players in e-sports. So, I got to work there. I call IGN, actually, my real MBA. And then we did about six M&A transactions. At that time, we also owned Rotten Tomatoes, which we sold to Flixster. We did six M & A transactions and eventually selling ourselves. And I got to really experienced building a group from the ground up.
[22:44] Chris: That’s amazing. I think a lot of folks who are moving up the ladder, you know, they get to a point where they either just keep staying or ended up taking a different opportunity. You know, after having such great experience at IGN, what made you want to have a different change to another challenge, especially after having all those different experiences in just a couple of years?
[23:04] Alka: So, after we sold IGN, I decided to leave. And of course, it usually gets absorbed by the company. So, it was amicable and totally fine. I actually took some time off. I went to Europe for about six weeks and just needed to sort of just clear my mind. It was the best time ever. I encourage everyone to do that. And I came back. And I really started looking at the tech landscape of where we’re at. I think it’s so easy to sometimes get absorbed in your job. And everyone’s trying to build a career. And then, of course, everyone has personal life. To just actually really take a step back and see what’s actually going on, it’s not always easy. And so, I really try to make a point of doing it. And, of course, if you have six weeks in Europe, you really have time to think through. So, I saw, you know, media, of course, was valid. It was continuing to be valid. It was an advertising game, for the most part. And at that time, Andreessen Horowitz had just sort of organized themselves. And, of course, their famous manifesto, that software was eating the world. And as I was looking for jobs, I was actually getting pinged for a lot of SaaS companies, because I had done subscription-based modeling and work and finance. And so, as I kind of look deeper and deeper into it, I really realized the potential of SaaS and just decided that this was a place for solo, with many different verticals that would provide me a lot of flexibility, and especially being a strong finance person, and so decided to make the transition. And luckily, it was the right decision.
[24:41] Chris: That’s awesome. For some of the folks, I think it comes very intuitive for folks who have been in Silicon Valley or the Bay Area. Could you explain, maybe, a little bit more on the finance side? What’s the difference between SaaS and other models of selling technology? And why is that so compelling? I think, for us who work in software industry, it’s very apparent. But could you, maybe, explain a bit of that, and how it works on the finance side?
[25:03] Alka: Sure. Overall, I’ll say I’ll just talk basics. You can have businesses, like semiconductors, that have a lot of inventory, require a lot of sort of manufacturing. And then you can have businesses that are like media or like SaaS that actually require none of that. And so, I already have step up sort of in terms of like cost structure and capital needs. Those businesses mostly just need people. People is the biggest cost. What makes SaaS, in particular, so valuable and so, so interesting, is, really, the subscription model. And with that subscription model where you’re essentially locking in sort of customers over certain periods of time and interserve your technology, it becomes almost self-perpetuating business model. And as a business, you get incredible leverage for every customer that you gain. And so, that’s versus media, for example, that I was in, where it’s once you actually flash the ad, you’re technically just going back to the customer and selling more. In SaaS, you’re usually, locking in customers for a certain amount of time. And you’re able to actually take that revenue over a long period of time. Hopefully you’re doing multi-year deals. So, it is both very cost-effective as a technology and, on the top line, you get incredible leverage out of every customer you gain. So, it ends up being very efficient, financially speaking, for each customer.
[26:32] Chris: That’s great. I know, from that time, you went through a number of transitions. And really, for each one, at least on paper, it just kind of looks like you just kept moving up and up and up. And finally, at Gainsight, you’re kind of a senior executive now. Could you, maybe, explain a bit about what that journey was like and how you navigated that? I know, for a lot of us Haasies and folks in the MBA program, it’s a pipeline dream for some folks. Could you explain a bit what that was like for you, and you know, both the good and maybe some of the hardships of going through that experience?
[26:59] Alka: You know, it’s a journey. And I have so many friends and family members all around the world. And there’s always this perception of Silicon Valley that everybody comes here and then, three years, they’re worth $100 million or something like that, you know.
[27:13] Chris: Yeah [laughs].
[27:13] Alka: And we know that is just not the reality. Sure, are the odds better here than other places? 100%. But the reality of it is, for most people, it takes time. It takes time to really hone your craft. And that’s exactly what I discovered. I don’t know one person who didn’t, even from business school—well, maybe I know one person. I think I do know one person. But other than that, everyone else has had, I would say, the ups and downs in their careers. I definitely, as I sort of went out, I actually started consulting and acting. And they said they were going to only hire someone with software experience in three weeks. And they’re like, “No, please stay here. We need to hire you.” Acting was super interesting to me because we were acquiring three companies all at once. And they were basically you can own the integration and you can own finance. And I said, “Yes, that’s something that I want to do.” And I knew I was going to learn about a lot of different software products all at the same time. And it was also my first taste into private equity a bit, as well. And so, I did that. It was really interesting. The company was doing well. I just got the opportunity to work at MetricStream. And at that time, MetricStream was being run by Shellye Archambeau. And I really wanted to work with her. So, one thing definitely in a lot—and you’ll hear this at Gainsight, too, the opportunity to work with Nick and you heard it with Roy, I really do follow leaders, for the most part. That’s something that’s super important to me. Shellye is fairly well-known. She’s on the board of Okta and Nordstrom and Verizon. And just the chance to be a bit closer to her was super exciting. MetricStream was a leader in its space. So, I also look for companies that are just obviously doing something sort of unique. They started the industry. And they were sort of leading. And they also have great investors, like Goldman Sachs, etc. So, I had my time there. And then, eventually what happens is I get sort of recruited out. And that’s what happened with Gainsight again, you know. I came to Gainsight because I really saw the potential for customer success. I saw what they were doing. And also, just again, to be able to work with Nick was also a bit of a dream came true. For those who don’t know him, he started an industry. And I would say—but he also started movements like the Human First Movement. And he really believes that we could win a business by being human first. And I think that and those values and the values of Gainsight really drew me here. So, I’ve been here now for about three years or so.
[29:52] Chris: That’s awesome. Can you explain a little bit what Gainsight does as a company and what makes Gainsight so different from the other folks that are out there in the market?
[30:00] Alka: So, Gainsight was basically—I would consider Nick a founder, Gainsight. He came in, I think, a year or two after the company and really came and rebranded it. And he’s certainly, I would say, the face of customer success. It’s this idea that, just because you’ve actually acquired a customer doesn’t mean that you actually stop working with your customers and helping them with the product. And so, he created this concept of customer success. And now, in most SaaS companies, you do have a customer department group. And it’s actually one of the fastest growing jobs out there. And you’ll often find a chief customer officer on your executive team as well. And so, we create software to help essentially manage that group. And we are now, also, you know, going kind of on the edges. We bought a company a couple of years ago called PX which is also a product experience product as well. And that actually helps customers see what’s kind of going on with their product. And so, our primary goal is to really help companies, essentially, build their ARR and help retain customers and help grow them. But I would say the overarching goal is also really to do business wellbeing, you know, human first, as I mentioned. And the great thing was I remember when we did the transaction with this last year, you know, Nick looked at all of us and he said, “The most important thing about this is we just prove that we can win in business by being human first.” And that, I remember, was a very personally, just a very proud moment for me.
[31:35] Chris: Yeah, those who aren’t aware, this is an amazing, you know, technology investor who in a Gainsight with a very large transaction, if I’m remembering correctly. And I think it’s not just the initial investment, for folks who are familiar in this industry. It’s really the ability to grow that business even beyond what Gainsight does today, right? So, super exciting for us who see it from software. And I know that keeps you pretty busy, Alka, I can imagine. It’s probably just a testament to all the great things that and everybody at Gainsight is already doing. Kudos to you.
[32:09] Alka: It was great. It was a great moment. The story is I finally decided to take a week off in Hawaii and two days, I got a call. And so, you can imagine where that vacation went. But it was fine because we were all super excited. As you said, they have about $80 billion in management. And so, if you put all their assets together, I think they’re like the fourth largest software company. So, yeah, it was fantastic. And it’s been a really good journey where I think we’re actually teaching each other. We learn a lot from them. And I’d like to think they learned a lot from us, too.
[32:40] Chris: Yeah, Alka. I know, amongst, you know, all your other amazing endeavors, you also end up becoming an angel investor and a limited partner over at Operator Collective. And I know that’s part of your journey. Can you explain a little bit what drove you to actually want to go into investing? And what has it been like to have been an operator and now really coming into this new market space where operators are becoming—or being asked to be investors as well in different tech companies or other companies that might be out there?
[33:08] Alka: First, to answer that, I should probably first tell you some of the struggles I had. And particularly, I can share like a story. I’d always thought about being an investor, but I always felt like it was something that I wanted to do sort of later in life. And it actually all starts with a story that doesn’t quite—it’s not a great memory of mine, but I learned like a lot of it, which was, you know, I had a really good friend who is part of a sovereign wealth fund. And he’d come to me. And I had been telling him for quite some time that I really felt like they need to have a presence in Silicon Valley. They’d just been doing some investments here and there. And he finally realized he was actually not—it was in a place where things may be weren’t going so well for him there. So, he was just a close friend. And I think, you know, he would even say that I did my best to support him. And I gave him a bunch of thoughts. And he came to me and he’s like, “I really want you to be part of this fund. And let’s do it together.” And I wasn’t really sure at the time, because sovereign wealth funds have their own interesting complexities. And I was at a point—you know, I’ve worked at some great companies with some great leaders, but I was at a point at one of the companies where I didn’t feel like things were just moving forward enough. And so, I was just figuring out what I really wanted to do there. And, you know, I finally went to my friend and I was like, “I think I really want to do this.” And honestly, I mean, since we’re being casual and friends here, he went really dark on me. And then, all of a sudden, I found out that he’d hired somebody else. And it was like I actually felt really betrayed. And it was really upsetting because I really supported him for a really long time. And he’d said, “Yes, I want you to do this,” and then all of a sudden totally did a 180. So, as you can imagine, I was not friends with him anymore. And they’ve since opened up their fund here. But honestly, it also just put a fire under me. And I basically was like, you know what? I’m going to figure a way to sort of do this, anyways, if this is something that I want to do. You know, at that time, I started just putting sort off feelers out. And it was a great lesson for me. It was just amazing how, I swear, the universe just sort of aligned, that I was hiking with a friend, and we were talking about a bunch of things. And she started talking about Operator Collective. And I was listening to her. And I was like, “Wow, you know this woman, seems really interesting, Mullen Yen, who was starting this?” And she looked at me, and my friend is like, “Do you want in?” I said, “I don’t know, but I think I’d love to have a conversation, at least.” So, she got me in touch with Mallun Yen. And Mallun and I had a conversation. And I was just really blown away by Mallun. I mean, she’s definitely someone who inspires me. So, Mallun had a career where she was a lawyer and a celebrated one at that, and then really had this belief that, well, operators will make the best investors, because they’re the ones that know companies, they’re the ones that are doing it day in and day out. And why shouldn’t they get a piece of the pie, too? And then, also, really wanted to focus on women, as well as minorities. Everything about it was very aligned, I would say, to sort of my values. And she had some incredible, incredible people on her funds. So, she has people like [Theo Zoom 36:26], the senior PagerDuty. And so, I was thrilled to be a part of it. And I’ve learned a lot about venture capital through my experience with the fund. I love what they’re just doing to bring more exposure to people who normally wouldn’t get venture capital. And this was, honestly, frankly, before—she was doing this before it became something that everybody needed to do. And after that, I was able to also just get into certain companies, just as an operator. And you’re seeing this more and more where companies will actually bring in a group of operators as part of their investment group. And then they will just like actually pull on investors to help with just different things that might come up day to day. And so, I think it is the natural progression. I believe, actually, it is the future for investing as well. So, yeah, I’m really grateful for all of it and the exposure, and also, just a great life lesson that, as one opportunity goes, other opportunities come. And this way, I actually get to do both. I get to do my day job, and I get to invest in great companies and learn from incredible people.
[37:38] Chris: That’s awesome. Yeah, Alka. I know we’ve talked about couple of different things. To be super candid, you’re probably a role model for a lot of young women, especially, you know, who, just like a super powerful female leader that’s out there and just doing such amazing things, year after year, you know. Can you, maybe, talk a bit about that experience and what it’s been like, coming from, you know, an immigrant family, or even being, maybe, a female leader in an industry that doesn’t always have a ton of female leadership? You know, I know that’s one of the things you said that you’re passionate about. We’d love to hear just about your experience and your take on that.
[38:10] Alka: Yeah. You know, I mean, always interesting to hear, you know, different people stories. So, I think, first off, I was very fortunate to come from a family that valued education incredibly, and also, didn’t see much difference in gender. I had as much expectations put on me as my brother did. And I really am grateful, actually, because I believe that came from my grandfather. He had, back in the day, I think it was in the ’40s, actually studied in England and gotten his masters.
[38:42] Chris: Okay.
[38:43] Alka: And I really believed that it was important for women and mothers to actually be out and working. And it was good for children. I don’t think I appreciate it as much when I was younger. And now, I look back and I went, “Whoa, he was ahead of his time.” He truly was ahead of his time. And so, growing up in that type of environment, I was always expected to do well in school. I think, also, going to Presentation, which was an all-girls Catholic school, really helped sort of nurture that. You know, there was, obviously, no gender bias. And we all got to just sort of like be ourselves. And we were encouraged to succeed and be powerful, even when we were younger. I think what’s the interesting thing is I think it was actually when I went into the workforce, that, because I had been brought up that way, I would say I was almost probably a little bit naive. Because I didn’t see myself as any different, I assumed anybody, no one else did, either. And I learned. And it took me actually a long time to learn it, because I do think, when you’re more junior, I’d like to think you don’t see as much of a bias. However, I do find that, as you get more senior and the stakes are bigger and, frankly, there’s more money involved, that you do start to see certain things. And I don’t know any woman who’s an exec who hasn’t had their stories. I will say, probably, one of the most disheartening things was, you know, being in finance, you often do have access to a lot of information. And I was at a particular company where I did not have that. And then I got promoted and I did have access to it and not transition a lot. Some people had left. And when I opened the file and I realized that my salary had been growing at one quarter of one of my colleagues who was like 10 years my junior and didn’t have my education. That was incredibly disheartening. And it definitely ruined some relationships because I did actually call it out [laughs]. So, I did call it out. It was an interesting sort of wake up call. And so, what I would say—and I do think that, also, Silicon Valley, even though it’s not perfect and there is no perfect industry, I do think it has made incredible strides, I would say, in the last five years or so. And I have seen the difference. I am so grateful to be working at a company like Gainsight that continues to provide incredible opportunity for people of all walks of life. You know, we have a program, for example, called CSU that helps train people of all backgrounds to go into industry. And we provide scholarships and things like that. And it’s one of the reasons why, you know, I stay here, because of our values. But I would encourage all women that are moving up the ladder to, first of all, just talk to other women, really talk to other women. And again, know yourself. So, you know, there are certain things that are much more comfortable. I find advocating for yourself, like when it comes to salary and promotion, can often be something that’s really uncomfortable. And so, find your mentors, you know. Have the conversation, even if it’s not—it doesn’t need to be like a two-year mentorship, but find people who you can have that conversation, and do things kind of in an authentic way. But also, get advice and bounce things off of people. I think it’s the most powerful thing you can do. And you know, I certainly do that for several people, both genders. But sometimes, it’s okay to need help. It’s okay to need help. And I would just really encourage it.
[42:28] Chris: Alka, I know we’ve had an amazing conversation here, you know. We have a tradition on the podcast to end with a lightning round, just some fun and short questions. So, if you’re down for it, we’ll go through our lightning round. And then we’ll be at the end of the podcast.
[42:42] Alka: I would love that. Let’s do it.
[42:44] Chris: The first question that I have, it could be controversial, it could be not, famous place to eat when you were at Berkeley.
[42:51] Alka: Chop House.
[42:52] Chris: Oh, very definitive [laughs].
[42:56] Alka: Yeah, there was no hesitation there.
[42:58] Chris: Favorite class that you took a while you were at Haas?
[43:01] Alka: Ventures, I really liked that throughout the years.
[43:04] Chris: Two more, what’s one thing or one piece of advice that you recommend to future female leaders or folks getting into tech?
[43:11] Alka: I would say, don’t underestimate yourself. And that, like I’ve tried to explain with some of my stories, you can really do a variety of different things. Just go for it.
[43:20] Chris: And last question, and my favorite question, what’s one thing that gets you excited about the future?
[43:26] Alka: I’m sort of excited about how, particularly, technology is sort of changing. And I’d like to think there are more conscious companies. And how we’re merging sort of conscious leadership and conscious values with technology. And that’s personally where I would like to see my career going.
[43:45] Chris: Alka, it’s been so great to have you on the podcast today. And wish you and all the amazing work that you’re doing, both in your company and investing, I wish you all the best in the future.
[43:55] Alka: Likewise, Chris. This was wonderful chance for me to talk to you. And it was a definitely a full circle moment to be able to come back. So, thank you so much for the opportunity.
[44:03] Chris: Awesome.[44:07] Outro: Thanks again for tuning in to this episode of the OneHaas Podcast. If you enjoyed our show today, please remember to hit that Subscribe or Follow button on your favorite podcast player. We’d also really appreciate you giving us a five-star rating and review. If you’re looking for more content, please check out our website at haas.fm. That’s spelled H-A-A-S.F-M. There, you can subscribe to our monthly newsletter and check out some of our other Berkeley Haas podcasts. And until next time. Go Bears.