Episode #49: Anna Roumiantseva, FTMBA ’17, joins us on the podcast to share her journey after Haas. Having had successful careers in multiple disciplines and now applying those experiences at startups in stealth mode under Google’s famous X Moonshot Factory, she shares us the importance of questioning the status quo on a daily basis.
On Haas’ defining principle that resonates with her the most – “Day to day, challenge the status quo is to something that I have to live and breathe.”
On doing stuff that didn’t necessarily have to do with design innovation space – “Part of your job as an MBA student is to sort of going outside of what you think you want to do for it, because when else are you going to have the time to do that realistically?”
Her advice on new graduates – “You really had to go out there and find the firms that you were interested in and really kind of do that due diligence and do that work. Stay true to what you’re really interested in.”
Her best productivity hack – “Whenever something is daunting or I want to procrastinate on it, I force myself to write the first draft. It doesn’t have to be good, but just like get it done quickly and then you can build on that. So, good procrastination avoidance.”
[00:00:00] Sean: Welcome to another episode of the OneHaas podcast. I’m your host, Sean Li, and I’m joined by my cohost, Ellen Chan.
[00:00:18] Ellen: Today we are joined by our guest, Anna. Anna is a head of design research at a self-startup within X, The Moonshot Factory. She has also found it and work with early stage startups, consulted Fortune 500 companies, and worked with design agency environments. Definitely a very broad range of experience.
[00:00:37] Anna, how are you doing today?
[00:00:38] Anna: I’m doing well, just surviving the quarantine, you know?
[00:00:43] Sean: We definitely have a question for that later. Before we get there, can you just take us back in time, before you came to Haas? I’m sure our listeners are curious to hear and I’m curious to hear as a Haasie myself, what did you do before Haas?
[00:00:59] Anna: Yeah, absolutely. So, I did my undergrad at McGill in Montreal, studied finance, thought I wanted to be an investment banker, became an investment banker and then very quickly decided I did not want to be an investment banker.
[00:01:13] Anna: So, I did the strategy consulting and did that for about three and a half or four years before coming to Haas. So, I worked on all kinds of different things from, you know, operations improvement and process improvement to cost reductions to, I think my first assignment was working at an iron ore mine by the Arctic circle.
[00:01:31] So a wide range of projects.
[00:01:33] Sean: What’s brought you to Haas then?
[00:01:37] Anna: Yeah, so I actually didn’t think I wanted to do an MBA, quite frankly. I took the GMAT after I graduated from undergrad, just in case. And then kind of spent a really long time thinking about whether I actually wanted to do anything or not with my GMAT. And when I applied to Haas, actually didn’t apply to any other schools cause I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do an MBA.
[00:01:58] In my kind of all the research that I had done, I just became very intrigued with Haas itself. It’s going to sound kind of cheesy, but you know, the defining principles, I was like, wow, this actually resonates. I did a lot of brand consulting after college, and I was like, wow, this actually seems like it’s not entirely made up.
[00:02:15] Like, you know, and so it was intrigued by that. I had a lot of the hard business skills I thought, but I didn’t think I had necessarily a lot of the soft skills. So, some of the like leadership communication, some of the softer curriculum really appealed to me, negotiations, kind of that kind of thing.
[00:02:31] So when I came to Haas, I actually tested out of a lot of the kind of prerequisite and spent most of my time taking all kinds of electives. And actually, kind of the one thing that really pushed me over the edge of deciding to do my MBA is I, towards the tail end of my consulting days, I did a project in what at the time was called innovation strategy for a big beer company. And that was sort of like my first exposure to design thinking or user centered design. And I was super fascinated. It was just like an entirely different way to problem solve that I found to be incredibly impactful and interesting and creative and really wanted to learn more about it and didn’t necessarily want to do kind of a masters in design.
[00:03:13] But at the time, Haas was one of the few MBA programs that had the now very contentious or somewhat contentious, I guess, PFPS course which was sort of like the thing that finally attracted. I was like, okay, I’m go ing to apply and see what this is all about. And then, yeah, the rest is history, I guess.
[00:03:30] Sean: You know, you brought up defining leadership principles. I mean, we have to ask you on this podcast. I know you embody all four of them, but is there one of them that resonates the most with you?
[00:03:41] Anna: I mean, I think “Challenge the Status Quo” probably. I think in my role now, and I’m sure we’ll get to it later, but kind of as the voice of the customer or like the one person that at the end of the day is in charge of owning the user research. A lot of the time that really means coming to the team and sharing with them some insights that totally upend what we were doing and kind of the direction that we were taking the product in. For better or for worse, right? Like, I like to think that it’s usually for better but I think inherently, I think day to day, challenge the status quo is to something that I have to live and breathe.
[00:04:13] Ellen: And apart from core classes that help with design research, was there something else, extra-curricular activities that you did at Haas that helped with some of your development in the area?
[00:04:26] Anna: Yeah, for sure. So, I was on the leadership team of Haas ID. So, the Innovation and Design club, which was really awesome. It kind of helped me get a lot of the internships that I did while I was at Haas, at IDO, at fidelity labs. So, that was really instrumental. I GSI’d a number of different classes in sort of the design innovation space, both at Haas at the undergrad level with Clark Kellogg and then also at the Jacobs Institute.
[00:04:50] So, that was really informative. And then I also did a lot of stuff that didn’t necessarily have to do with design because I feel like part of your kind of job as an MBA student is to sort of go outside of what you think you want to do for it, because when else are you going to have the time to do that realistically?
[00:05:05] And so I, along with a few of my classmates, founded a startup while I was at Haas called Homeslice, which we can talk about later if you guys are curious. But I spent a lot of time doing that. So, both kind of in class with things like Lean Launchpad and then also obviously a lot of time outside of class actually trying to build it out and launch it.
[00:05:23] Sean: Well, we’re curious now. What is home supplies?
[00:05:26] Anna: It’s Homeslice.
[00:05:28] Sean: Ah, Homeslice. Okay.
[00:05:30] Anna: It was a startup basically geared at making it easy to buy real estate and groups. So fractional home ownership, you know, so essentially if the three of us tomorrow wanted to pick up and buy a home in Tahoe as an investment property or a second home or even just an apartment in San Francisco to live in as roommates. Right now, there’s a lot of kind of legal, financial, all kinds of different barriers where it’s not impossible, but it’s hard enough that almost nobody really does it. So, we were really trying to kind of like standardize and streamline that process and remove those barriers to make it kind of an affordable, mainstream option.
[00:06:06] Ellen: What inspired you and your fellow MBA students to start this?
[00:06:10] Anna: Yeah, so initially it was an idea that we pitched, I don’t know if you guys took the entrepreneurship class that Toby Stuart and Rob Sondra, who unfortunately recently passed away. They were amazing and the class was amazing. And you know, that was definitely a highlight for me.
[00:06:25] But that was kind of the idea that we pitched at the end of this semester and Rob, I remember at the time was like, honestly, this is one of the better ideas I’ve heard in a long time, like both inside the classroom and outside the classroom, which, I mean, we had so much respect and admiration for him that we were like, Oh my God, this is, you know, maybe we should actually consider doing this.
[00:06:45] And so it kind of like snowballed from there and we brought some more people on board and you know, yep.
[00:06:50] Sean: That’s awesome. So now let’s transition into what you’re doing currently. Can you share with us a little bit about, you know, what X is and what is your role there?
[00:07:03] Anna: Yeah, absolutely. So, I think all in when you introduced me, you said the Moonshot Factory, right? So that is exactly what it is. It is alphabets, I guess, for lack of better word, R&D lab. Right? So, the kind of idea is that it’s sort of a factory or a really exploratory kind of lab where all kinds of different projects get explored, you know, from healthcare to education to, you know, you name it.
[00:07:30] There’s probably a project within those four walls. And the idea is that, you know, explore anything, kill things quickly, and if a couple of those ideas turn to fruition, you know, things like Waymo, things like Loon.
[00:07:42] And the hope is that eventually some of those companies will become the next Google. Right. So, it’s kind of structured intentionally in a way that these are very adjacent spaces that have nothing to do with Google’s core business.
[00:07:53] Sean: How do you join X? You know, you mentioned before the call that a lot of these companies are in stealth mode, right? How do you even go about joining the stealth companies? Can you join Google as a whole and then get slotted into a company?
[00:08:08] Anna: There’s no, like, singular way, I guess, to join. I can tell you how I joined and then I can kind of elaborate other things that I’ve seen. So, I joined as part of a central team. So, within X, you know, there’s a lot of project teams or like many startups essentially at all phases, you know, from really, really early stage ideas to sort of much more mature companies that have large teams behind them. But aside from that, there’s also some central teams, you know, like strategy, like design, that essentially you can almost think of them as like many internal consulting teams that partner with all the different projects within the lab or the factory to kind of help them do what they’re doing better faster.
[00:08:48] And so I joined the design team, which was one of those central teams. And so, the first year that I was at X, I worked across, you know, probably like eight or so different projects, helping them answer. I was still a design researcher, so helping them answer a lot of those user-centric kind of human questions that they maybe didn’t necessarily have expertise on the team to answer.
[00:09:08] So, things like, you know, what are the ethical implications that we might be overlooking? You know, yes, we can build this technology, but should we build it? Who was this for, you know, is it for everyone? Which is a common answer you hear, not just at X, but more broadly, I think. But at the end of the day, like, who is it really for and what need are we solving and what is the most important need to focus on first?
[00:09:28] And how do we link that to the product strategy from MVP to sort of, you know, some of the later releases. So, that was how I joined X. And then, I transitioned over to actually join one of those teams that I had been consulting and so, yeah, I’ve been there ever since.
[00:09:45] Sean: Do you mind me asking, and I don’t know if you’re allowed to disclose this, but do the ideas come out of Google internally or do people with ideas bring them to Google and then, you know, go under this moonshot factory?
[00:10:01] Anna: I would say, I don’t want to say all because there’s always exceptions. And, there are actually teams specifically kind of scouting outside, but I would say most of the ideas do come internally. And so, whether that’s like a resident who’s, you know, spending a couple of months at X and has an idea from their dissertation or PhD that they want to pursue, maybe it’s someone who just works at X and has had an idea, you know. People spend a really long time, actually, I mean, a lot of time at X thinking about, you know, what are the best ways to kind of generate these ideas, to vet those ideas quickly, right? And so the intent is to go kind of as broad as possible and to enable and encourage ideas to come from everywhere.
[00:10:44] But I would say most of the time it’s largely kind of internal.
[00:10:48] Ellen: I’m assuming there are a lot of ideas in a lot of, you know, different areas people want to pursue. Just want to see, like, who decides whether to pursue this area or not?
[00:10:58] Anna: Gotcha. Like kind of how do people evaluate those ideas and decide what goes forward and what gets killed. Got it. Yeah, so that’s a good question. I mean, it depends. It depends but I mean there is a leadership team at X and they make some of those decisions. I would say the way that is structured is to sort of discourage hierarchy, I would say, like in a very intentional way.
[00:11:22] And so most of the time the leadership team kind of enables either the single person who was working on idea or the team that they’re a part of. By the time the leadership team is making that decision, like the decision has kind of already been made by the team most of the time, you know, at least from what I’ve seen.
[00:11:41] And it’s been actually kind of interesting. So, the central team that I was a part of, one of the projects that we were tasked with right before I switched over to join the startup that I’m now a part of was to think about what at the earliest stage, like in the early pipeline, what is the right process from a strategy standpoint?
[00:11:59] Like what are the questions we should be asking? How do we ask them, how do we support people? Right? And so, it’s actually kind of, yeah, it’s been interesting thinking about what the right way is. And, I don’t think there really is a right way which I think Astro Teller who, I don’t know if you guys know or not, he’s kind of like the head of X or one of the heads of X at least.
[00:12:17] He often says that it’s sort of X is in itself kind of a moonshot in a way, right? This idea of a factory that in a repeatable process generates and spits out moonshots. Like there is no playbook for how to do that. And so, in the spirit of that, they’re always experimenting or we’re always experimenting, I guess, with ways of, you know, what is the right way?
[00:12:41] Sean: I mean in regards to that questions on that topic. I’m curious, how do you go about doing research, you know, as a part of a stealth company?
[00:12:51] Anna: It’s a great question. You have to get really creative; I would say. Yeah, you have to get, it’s, I don’t know how much I can really disclose. I guess I can’t disclose any of the specifics, but in a I guess a blanket statement you need to partner with outside recruiting agencies to do a lot of the recruiting of users for you.
[00:13:16] And in a really ethical way do double blind studies basically where users sign up. They know it’s a tech company. They know that they’re going to be engaging with prototypes and providing feedback or, you know, having someone follow them around and ask questions. But sort of not necessarily know whether it’s, you know, Google or Amazon or Facebook or whatever.
[00:13:34] But it’s not easy.
[00:13:36] Sean: I can imagine. All right. So, you know, you’ve been out of school a couple of years now. Well, we’ll still call you a fresh grad. A 2017 wasn’t that far away, but you know, what’s your experience been like as an alumni? You know, how do you connect with other alumni and the school.
[00:13:57] Anna: Yeah. That’s a really good question. So I mean, first of all, I think one of the, I think great things about doing an MBA at Haas, is that it’s one of the few schools where people tend to stick around after graduation, at least for a couple of years until they realized that the Bay area is still very unaffordable.
[00:14:14] And so I think we’ve been lucky that, you know, most of our class is still around. And so from like a social standpoint, but also from a career standpoint, right? When we need advice, we have career circles still, like once a month or so, where we get together and we talk about what’s working, what’s not working at people’s jobs and what kind of challenges we’re facing.
[00:14:33] And people give advice and share perspectives and stories. And that’s valuable from a career standpoint, but it’s also just really nice socially, right, to kind of keep that alive. So that’s kind of like one thing that we do. I also have gone back a bunch to Haas to speak at different speaker series and panels, you know, helping with interviews for recruiting new students and that kind of thing.
[00:14:53] So, and I think generally just, I don’t think I realized when I was a student and I was reaching out to people on LinkedIn or via email, quite how many requests those people were getting. And you know, I always appreciated them responding, but now that I know the volume of requests, I think I’m even more appreciative of all those times that they responded.
[00:15:14] So I also try to do the same, you know? And I think when I was at my previous job, I was getting some. Now that I’m at X, I’m getting many requests almost every day from either newly admitted students or current Haasies. I try to do my best to kind of respond and provide whatever perspective I have for what that’s worth.
[00:15:33] Sean: Going Beyond Yourself. I mean, what you’re saying is very true. And that’s something that we find just across the board from prospective students, right, coming into alumni. We keep hearing this theme that, you know, Haas students are just willing to give our time to other people and go beyond ourselves.
[00:15:54] So we’re glad you’re still holding that strong. Do you have any advice for new graduates, you know, that are going to come out into this tumultuous time?
[00:16:09] Anna: That’s a good question. I mean advice. I don’t know. I think something that I looking back, I’m really grateful for is, you know, going into the sort of design strategy, design research space is not, I would say, and correct me if you think differently, but it’s not really a traditional MBA career path.
[00:16:29] Right? And I think over the past couple of years Haas has actually, you know, they’ve built out their network quite a bit. I think now there’s a bunch of people at Frog and IDO and a lot of those places. But you know, when we were in 2017 I think like Sandeep at IDO was one of the few people who had graduated from Haas and worked in the space.
[00:16:45] And so, you know, when there was no like standard recruiting pathway where people came on campus and kind of handed you a job offer in a sense. And so you really had to go out there and find the firms that you were interested in and really kind of do that due diligence and do that work. And I think at times it was very tempting to not do that.
[00:17:04] And somehow I still, you know, managed to get a job in the space, even though people had kind of really like setting expectations of like, don’t worry, it might not happen. That’s fine. You could do product management or something else, you know? And there’s nothing wrong with product management by any means, but, I think looking back, I’m just really thankful that I kind of stayed with it and was kind of, yeah, I guess stayed true to what I was really interested in and didn’t take kind of the first couple of job offers that came my way.
[00:17:41] Sean: No. I think that’s still solid advice. It’s just having that tenacity to really reach out right to your network. I mean, that’s why you’re at Haas. That’s while you’re paying for this MBA is the network. If you’re not leveraging that resource, it’s really come, the onus is on you.
[00:17:58] So that’s, I think, more, more important now more than ever.
[00:18:03] Anna: That’s true.
[00:18:03] Ellen: Yeah, and in the long term, it’ll certainly work out.
[00:18:09] Anna: Yes, yes, yes.
[00:18:11] Sean: Okay. Well, that wraps up our interview, but before we end, Ellen developed this really fun fire round and we did the fire off questions. Quick questions?
[00:18:22] Ellen: All right. Are you ready? Awesome. So, first question is a seasonal question. What are you doing to keep yourself sane during this quarantine?
[00:18:34] Anna: Hmm. So, a lot of, you know, yoga, dance classes, pilates, whatever. Over zoom with friends, watching videos. So, a lot of that. And then also some kind of house projects that I had never had the time to get to before. So right now I’m painting the backsplash in the kitchen.
[00:18:56] Ellen: Awesome. I actually have my yoga mat right next to me. I did just some of that. Cool. And the second question I have is what content are you consuming right now? It could be a book, TV, shows, movies, anything.
[00:19:10] Anna: Yeah. So, books I’m reading User Friendly. And I’m also reading Ali Wong’s Dear Girls. It’s just a fun reading.
[00:19:16] Ellen: Yeah. I recently saw her in SF
[00:19:19] Anna: Oh, really?
[00:19:20] Ellen: It was, it was good. I really like her, so let me know how the book is.
[00:19:26] Anna: Yeah, it’s great. I think it’s the way she pitches it as she’s writing kind of to her daughters. So yeah.
[00:19:32] Ellen: Awesome.
[00:19:33] Sean: And then the last two are what is your best productivity hack?
[00:19:38] Anna: Mm. I think honestly something that’s really worked well for me is whenever something is daunting or I want to procrastinate on it, I force myself to write the first draft. And I kind of tell myself that this is just the first draft. You know, it doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be good, but just like get it done quickly and then you can build on that.
[00:19:56] So good procrastination avoidance.
[00:20:01] Sean: And lastly, what’s your favorite thing about Berkeley Haas? It could be anything.
[00:20:05] Anna: So, I think some of my favorite memories, I mean, I guess like a more serious or like career related one. When we were working on Homeslice and it was still kind of early days, we were part of this incubator called The House and we were kind of part of a cohort with a bunch of startups who, you know, were pretty far along and like had a product that they were already shipping.
[00:20:24] And so we were part of the same demo day as them. I mean, we were still really early, you know, we didn’t have a platform, we didn’t have any engineers. We were still kind of like trying to get to product market fit. And so, we had our pitch day, which we were super nervous about and we’re like, there’s no way.
[00:20:37] And we ended up winning first place. And, you know, getting some money and some other stuff that came along with that. And that was just like such an amazing moment that I’ll never forget, like celebrating with the other kind of co-founders and being like, Oh my God, this is actually real. Like, this could be a real thing.
[00:20:52] Which it totally was not in the end, but for awhile it was and so that was amazing. And then I think, yeah, I think just from a social standpoint, a lot of the tracks and the trips that we took were just really unforgettable and memorable and I still think back to them all the time, you know. When we were in India with some of the classmates that were from there who put together this amazing trip for us, when we were in Havana, just like so many different trips and memories that are just very, very memorable.
[00:21:21] Yeah. It sounds like an MBA. Yeah.
[00:21:24] Ellen: All right. Now I kind of wanted to do my MBA. Well thank you, Anna, and thank you for your time.
[00:21:32] Anna: Thank you guys.