Today we’re joined by Elena Gomez, Chief Financial Officer of Toast, a cloud-based, end-to-end technology platform purpose-built for the entire restaurant community. Before Toast, she served as the Chief Financial Officer at Zendesk, where she helped scale the company to over 1 billion in annual revenues. Currently, she serves on the board at Haas School of Business and The Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco.
Elena talks about her origin story, rich culture, what inspired her to go into finance and accounting, and her vast career experience in different tech companies. She also shares why she is deeply passionate about and committed to advancing diversity and inclusion initiatives in the workplace.
One reason why being a Latina and a female is important to her in her career
“I was always looking up trying to see if there was someone that looked like me. And then I realized how important it was that, in fact, I had a responsibility to kick butt in the job, because I wanted to show them that, not only am I Latina and I’m a female, but I’m going to crush the job. I want to do really well for the next generation, so people can see that. Give us an opportunity and you’ll see we’re going to crush it.”
On getting a job that is aligned with your values
“It really helps you every day, because you’re going to spend all this time working 14-hour days, 12-hour days, etc. And so, for me, the fact that we (Toast) could be in communities and, really, our mission-driven company to help small businesses really resonated with me. So, that alignment of your values with where you work, I think, is really powerful if you can find it.”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:00] Sean: Welcome to the OneHaas Alumni Podcast. I’m your host, Sean Li. And today, we’re joined by Elena Gomez. Elena is the chief financial officer of Toast, a cloud-based and end-to-end technology platform, purpose-built for the entire restaurant community, and one of my favorite apps, to say the least.
[00:24] Elena: Good to know. Love it.
[00:25] Sean: Prior to Toast, Elena served as the Chief Financial Officer at Zendesk, where she helped scale the company to over 1 billion in annual revenues, another product that I use heavily as an entrepreneur. And Elena is deeply passionate about and committed to advancing diversity and inclusion initiatives in the workplace. She serves on the board at Haas School of Business and The Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco. And, of course, she holds a BS in Accounting Degree from our very own Haas School of Business. Welcome to the podcast, Elena.
[00:56] Elena: Thank you for having me, Sean. I’m excited to chat with you today.
[01:00] Sean: So, before we get into all that, we’d love to hear about your origin story—where you grew up, where your parents are from. And we’ll start there.
[01:10] Elena: So, I am a half-Mexican, half-Salvadorian. And so, my parents met here in the Bay Area in high school. When they were 18, they had both immigrated here and got married young and whatnot. And I was the third child and the only girl. I have two older brothers. So, that just means I was the baby and spoiled, just so you know. It turned out okay. I turned out okay. I still worked hard.
So, yeah, my parents, classic immigrants, hardworking. And one dream they had was that all their kids would go to college. And so, they hustled and worked. And I have so many stories of my mom and dad working double jobs, whatever they could, so they could save up money for their house, just to get by, frankly, when we were young.
And so, I remember my parents growing up saying, “Hey, you can do anything you want to do.” And this is at a very, very young age. Like, going into first grade, my mom was saying, “You’re just as good as anybody else in that class,” that kind of thing, to later on, as we got older, they were pretty clear we were going to go to college. I don’t think we figured out how we were going to pay for it or anything, but it was clear we were going. It wasn’t a matter of if we were going. It’s really where we were going. And so, I always had that in my head, in my calculus. And so, I just worked hard and I saw them working hard. And so that meant I should work hard. And that paid off in good grades and good work ethic at a very, very young age. And then, my brother, my older brother, went to Cal, actually. So, he is a Cal alum. So, go bears.
[02:50] Sean: Go, bears.
[02:51] Elena: Yeah, yeah. It was interesting, when I got into different colleges, I told them my choices. And my naive first choice was not to go to Cal because I didn’t know a thing about Cal. Then, he had gone and so on. And I thought, oh, I’ll just go to this other school. And he called me and said, “Sorry, but you’re going to Cal.” And thank God because that would’ve been the wrong choice. And I’m so grateful that I ended up at Cal and studied there for four years, got into the Haas School of Business… applied. At that time, you had to come in undeclared and then apply to the Haas School of Business. I thought for a minute I wanted to be an architect. So, I did take one detour and took one semester of architecture class and then realized this was not for me. I went back to business, and ultimately graduated from the Haas School of Business. And from there, I got a job at a Big Six firm. But I’ll tell you, my preparation at Haas was so invaluable for me in terms of getting my first job and then has played out for the rest of my career.
[03:56] Sean: To take it back a step, I have two questions. One is, did you grow up with a lot of family around, like your grandparents or relatives?
[04:05] Elena: Oh, yeah.
[04:05] Sean: Yeah?
[04:06] Elena: Yeah, for sure, and continues to be. But that’s something I’m really proud of, actually. So, my grandfather was my nanny. And so, when my parents were doing their double jobs, he moved from El Salvador and he was an accountant. And actually, he’s what inspired me to be an accountant, originally.
[04:24] Sean: That was my second question.
[04:25] Elena: Yeah, he was the one. So, he came. We were living in the outer Mission in the San Francisco area, which is a very Hispanic-oriented neighborhood and a lot of Mexicans. There continues to be very much a lot of rich culture in the Mission District in San Francisco. So, I spent a lot of time on the 14 Mission Muni bus, going with my grandparents in the summers with them. And he would always tell me, “Hey, if you want to have a job, you should be an accountant.” So, I started counting his money. And he would tell me I should be an accountant when I didn’t know what the word meant. He goes, “Just count my money, that’ll help you understand.”
And so, it turned out, actually, as he got older, he started to become blind. And so, he needed me to count his money. And I was seven years old. It’s like, “You have $82.” And I would organize it in his wallet. So, since he couldn’t see, he would know the order. I’m like, “You have four 20s. And then you have a five.” So, it was a really special time, actually, with my grandfather in my life. Super inspirational to me. And he was an accountant in El Salvador and then came here and did some more bookkeeping here. But that’s how I became an accountant, really, because of him.
[05:44] Sean: That’s amazing. So, what did you do after Haas? And how did you end up being the CFO of all these amazing tech companies in the Bay?
[05:54] Elena: Yeah, that’s a good question. So, the first thing I did, if I go back to where I started my career, that I did, I think, right, if you will, is I made sure that I was both good at my trade, good at whatever it was, whether it’s accounting or finance, if you will, but relatable to people. And that really helped me in my interviews. At Haas, actually, Big Six firms would come… I’m dating myself because I think there’s four now, but back then there were six. And they would come to campus. And a little intimidating when you’re 20 years old and you never worked and you got to show up in a suit and talk to work people, at least for someone like me. I didn’t have parents who were in the corporate world. So, this was very foreign to me.
And so, I interviewed really well. And I actually made a bet with the partner who was interviewing me that I could beat him at basketball. And he kind of liked that. And so, he offered me the job. And then we went out and played hoops, which was really just something that probably most of my peers didn’t do. But that really was the beginning of me realizing, if you can be just relatable and real in who you are—and I’m a big basketball person. I was going to Warrior Games way back then, 30 years ago—you can really connect with people. And that connection with people has often played a role in my career—my 30-year career. And so, I started pretty young and at Haas, actually.
So, after Haas, I got a job at KPMG with that partner that I did beat on horse. And so, on the record. I went to KPMG, and then Schwab, and then from Schwab to Salesforce. I just really had a passion for learning how businesses work. And at KPMG, I got the opportunity to see the breadth of companies around me. And I was at the Big Four now, but at the Big Six companies. They often, at a very early part of your career, throw you in with executives. And you kind of don’t always know what you’re talking about, but you have to hold your own. So, it was an incredible training for me, which then got me to Schwab. I spent 11 years at Schwab and really started there as an analyst and left as an executive at Schwab. I distinctly remember getting there and realizing I’m going to learn the business. It’s my first job in, instead of being a consultant, but actually in the company. And I grew so much by working with some amazing leaders at Schwab, one of which was an early mentor for me.
And after Schwab, I took a quick turn to Visa in Foster City and spent about 18 months there, maybe a little less than 18 months, when I got a call for a company called Salesforce.com, which at the time was like, Salesforce.what? I’ve never heard of them, and 1,000 employees or something. And I think they’re north of 60,000 today, but something like that. So, I went and took that job. That really put my career on the map at that point.
[08:59] Sean: Wow.
[09:00] Elena: I thought I was going to take some time off after that. And then I got a call about this amazing company that I work at now called Toast. And I took that job. I’m having a blast. Toast is a restaurant software, but it really connects my career in three ways. One is SaaS, which I learned at Salesforce; fintech, which is very new to me. But I was in financial services at Charles Schwab. And so, it brings that part of my career back. And then leadership, of course, is something I’ve just been working on my whole career. So, all dimensions of my job are coming into for us in this last… not last job, but in my current job.
[09:40] Sean: Since it’s Latinx Heritage Month and you work at Toast, a company related to food, I have to ask, do you have any celebrations from a culinary standpoint yourself?
[09:49] Elena: Yeah. I’ve started recently. In the last few years, I’ve started always to kick off at home. I love to make pozole, and we make it often. But to kick off Latin Heritage Month, I always start that night with pozole. And I remind my kids, they’ve grown up and are born here, but I definitely want them to know their roots. And they love pozole. So, we start that night with a nice warm cup of pozole. It’s a good time of year for it, too. Starting to get a little crisp out here.
[10:19] Sean: I guess, for any listeners who may not be familiar with pozole—that’s spelled P-O-Z-O-L-E, if you want to Google it—can you tell them what it is?
[10:28] Elena: Sure. It’s a soup. And it can be made… it typically has hominy in it. I put a little jalapeno in it for a little kick. And it can be made of chicken or pork. We make either. I make both types. And typically, you put a little cabbage on top, a little avocado and a little cilantro. And it’s just an amazing, amazing meal, basically, a soup meal, if you will. It’s a pretty traditional Mexican dish. So, if there are any listeners who are Mexican, they would definitely understand what pozole is. And even myself from Salvadorian roots as well, it was something we grew up eating.
[11:10] Sean: It’s funny… It was not funny, we’ve done Latinx Heritage Month, I think, two years in a row now on this podcast. And I just realized I never even brought up or shared with our listeners why we celebrate mid-September to mid-October. Why is it this two-month span? And the reason is… so, I looked it up, which is why these heritage months are important, because then you learn about the culture and the history.
[11:38] Elena: For sure.
[11:38] Sean: The reason is there are eight Latin American countries whose independence days fall between September 15th and October 15th. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, all on September 15th of 1821. And then Chile is September 18th. And then Belize is September 21st. So, for any listeners who didn’t know, now you know.
[12:01] Elena: Yeah, little knowledge. You’re dropping knowledge on this podcast, Sean. That’s pretty good.
[12:05] Sean: On that note, do you mind sharing a little bit about your passion for advancing diversity and inclusion in the workplace?
[12:15] Elena: Yeah. I’ll tell you a story, a couple things that I’ll share. One is not only being Latin but also being female, both are so important to me. And when I became the CFO at Zendesk, typically, they put your picture on the website, if you’re on the management team, that’s just the thing. So, someone called and said, “Hey, your picture’s up on the website.” And I was two days in, and I was home with my kids. And my daughter, Sophia, comes. And she looks at the website and she’s five at the time. She’s like, “Oh, mommy, you’re famous.” And then my eight-year-old comes to my computer and she’s scrolling on the website. And she sees my picture. And she’s scrolling. And she’s like, “Hey, where are all the other pretty girls you work with?” And it was because I was the one female on the website and all my peers were men. So, in her mind, she’s like, “Where are all your girlfriends? When you go to work, don’t you have girlfriends? I have girlfriends at school. I thought you have girlfriends at work.”
So, it was at that moment that I really appreciated the role I play, not only from a gender standpoint, but from a person of color. Because what she didn’t say was all the other people on the table were also white men. And that’s part of the world we live in. And I would tell you that, over time… and Zendesk is a great example of a company who really cares about diversity. But it’s very hard to do. It takes years and a lot of work and a lot of focus. And so, I felt really passionate there to be the role model and really do what I could to bring more diversity to Zendesk and to, really, not just Zendesk but just the corporate world in general.
And it’s so important because I see how… in fact, another example when I still remember the first or second day I’m walking in the hallways, this was pre-COVID and we were in offices, and I walked in and someone said, “You can’t believe how happy we are you’re here.” Random person, I remember it was a young woman. And I said, “Oh, well, thank you.” I didn’t say why, but I was struck by her. And she goes, “You know what? It’s very weird to see a Latina in this position.” And I was completely taken aback because I just didn’t think any differently, and I should have, because in my career I was always looking up trying to see if there was someone that looked like me. But I hadn’t had someone tell me that ever until that moment. And then I realized how important it was that, in fact, I had a responsibility to kick butt in the job, because I wanted to show them that, not only am I Latina and I’m a female, but I’m going to crush the job. I want to do really well for the next generation, so people can see that. Give us an opportunity and you’ll see we’re going to crush it.
And so, those two moments—my kids looking at my website and this young woman who was Latina telling me—that really inspired me. And then, I got involved with Haas and appreciated that diversity starts in the classroom and in the schools. And anything we can do to get the pipeline of talent into the workplace, we should try to do. And I’ll tell you, even as recently as, gosh, five years ago, I was looking for that kind of mid-level manager on my team, maybe senior manager director. And I told the team I really want to see if I can find some people of color in the slate. I want some diversity in the resumes we’re looking at.
[15:54] Sean: The pool, yeah.
[15:54] Elena: And we couldn’t find it. We could not find it. And that just was so disappointing to me that I’m not going to give up on trying to help bring more diversity into finance, into the workplace, and into all aspects of corporate life, because while we’ve made progress and we’re having a lot of dialogue, there’s still a lot more we can do and a lot more we should be doing. And one person at a time is going to be how the change is made. And so, that’s why I feel like, even if I make a little bit of change, that’s great. And then I pass that on. And so, that’s why I’m passionate about it. And then, as I’ve mentioned, I have two daughters. My husband is a Mexican. So, they’re Latino descent, Latinas that will be in the workforce in 15 years, 10 years, little more like 15. But they’ll be in the workforce at some point, and I don’t want them to be the only Latina in the room. I want them to have someone that looks like them in the room as well.
[16:58] Sean: I think these dialogues were really important, because when my co-founder and I started one of our companies, this was last year, it is top of mind for us from who we bring on as potential partners to, obviously, the pool of people that we look at for employee candidates, all the way to our advisors, because the status quo is so easy to just obviously connect with people or bring on people that you know, right? People that look like you. And for us… My co-founder was an Indian male, and then I’m Chinese. I’m Asian. It’s easy to just find more Indians and Asians. And immediately right off the bat, we said, no, we can’t just default to the crutch to that. We can do much better.
[17:50] Elena: That’s amazing. That’s awesome.
[17:51] Sean: As a young startup, because if we don’t start now, when?
[17:56] Elena: Yeah. And I’ll tell you what, just the point I just made, you guys making that conscious choice one person at a time is really how it works. Not to knock, there’s obviously broader campaigns and broader initiatives that people do, and I love those, those are great, but also, the collection of all these micro-decisions that you and your co-founder are making, that I’m making when I’m hiring someone, the collection of all that also together is going to have an impact. That’s pretty cool.
[18:29] Sean: Yeah. Like you said, it’s about making sure the applicant pool is diverse, what you’re selecting from is a diverse pool of people. Of course, we’re going to hire the most qualified person out of that pool, but making sure that the pool is diverse. I think that’s really important for people to understand.
[18:45] Elena: That’s where it starts, yeah, absolutely. Were you successful?
[18:49] Sean: Oh, yeah, very much so.
[18:51] Elena: Right on.
[18:52] Sean: So, Elena, one of the things that happens once in a few people’s lifetimes, if not multiple times, is taking a company public. Would love to hear your story of taking Toast public—during the pandemic, too.
[19:09] Elena: Well, that’s right. I keep forgetting that, that little minor thing called the pandemic. So, look, it was a wonderful, amazing experience, if I reflect on my career, Super Bowl of sorts for me in my career. And you work hard in your career for lots of moments. And this was a moment for me, “pinch-me moment,” I would say. But it was hard work.
And I think a couple lessons I learned along the way, both personally and just professionally, really have a lot to do with resilience, of course. Whenever you’re on a path to taking a company public, A, there’s lots of work, lots of decisions you need to make, setbacks, things that set you forward, and so on. And so, you really have to have conviction about the opportunity to weather all of the different things that are going to come by and present themselves as you’re on the path. And so, I still continue to have that conviction now that we’re public as a company and just how we can transform the restaurant industry and so on. And that’s the story we told on the path, on the road to IPO. And there’s so much more about that, but just the idea that we can really help small businesses and restaurants thrive, in particular, at a time when they really needed support. That really felt unique.
And so, the other lesson for me personally is, to the extent you can get in a job something that you feel is aligned with your values, it really helps you every day, because you’re going to spend all this time working 14-hour days, 12-hour days, etc. And so, for me, the fact that we could be in communities and, really, our mission-driven company to help small businesses really resonated with me. So, that alignment of your values with where you work, I think, is really powerful if you can find it.
And then, on the path to IPO, another learning for me is making sure you have the right people around you to get there because, if not, you’ll find yourself doing a lot of the work maybe or the quantum of work that needs to get done for an IPO to happen, there’s no scenario that a CFO can do it alone. It’s not the way it works. And so, really be mindful that you have the team. And be meticulous about picking that team. And that applies even outside of the IPO timeframe, but of course amplified during that time frame. So, that was another learning, or maybe reinforced something I already knew.
And then there’s a lot that happens in that last six months. So, you share your story with investors, and they give you some feedback, and then you share it again and you get more feedback. Those are all great lessons as well, because you think you can tell your story in one way. You have a narrative and they say, “Well, I have this question.” And so, you’re constantly refining the story and maybe refining the narrative. But for us, we were lucky in that our conviction about the opportunity and the narrative was largely intact from at least when I joined in. So, I joined in May. We went public in September. So, for about five months, I pretty much had no life. That’s all good. Ate a lot of bread. Just kidding.
[22:35] Sean: Ate a lot of toasts.
[22:37] Elena: Yeah. But you know what’s also very cool, actually, is being in tech, you can work at a software company. I worked at Zendesk. I worked at Salesforce. And you understand the product because you work there and you spend your time talking about the product all day long when you work. But for Toast, I get to go see it out in the wild. Every Friday night, I go out to dinner. Tonight, I’m going to go to a Toast restaurant. And I love to ask the waiters, how do you like Toast? And I hope it’s a good answer. It usually is. But when it’s not, now as an executive or even an employee, I want to make it right for that restaurant. So, that’s also fun, is to see it in the wild. And it’s really relatable to my day-to-day life. I’m a foodie, so I like going there.
But I’ll tell you that the understanding of your product is such an important aspect of being a CFO or an executive, no matter what company you are. And it just happens that I get to go to restaurants and see it in action. But equally, when I was at Salesforce, I really wanted to understand. I wanted to use Salesforce every day. So, I really understood the value of the product. Very similar at Toast, I want to go see it in action. I want to see the waiter using it. I want to ask him, does he like it? And that’s just a part of being a well-rounded executive, that I would encourage anyone, as they’re thinking about their career path, the importance of you getting as close to the customer as possible to understand the product is incredibly important.
And so, I did that as I was going on the path to IPO, because when an investor was going to ask me, “Tell me about the value proposition. Tell me how restaurants use it,” I wanted to share some stories, which I did. Like, hey, I talked to a waiter and he used it this way. And making that come to life was so important. And they, too. A lot of our investors say, “Hey, I was at a Toast restaurant last night, and the guy was using it.” So, that was also helpful. It was fun.
[24:33] Sean: That’s neat. I do have to ask, were a lot of these roadshows virtual, or did you get to do them in person?
[24:39] Elena: It’s a great question. We did them all virtual.
[24:44] Sean: Wow.
[24:45] Elena: We did them all virtual. Can you imagine that? The old days were you would fly to New York and you’d go from office to office to office. So, we did a week of roadshows. I think we counted over 80 meetings over, maybe, six days.
[25:00] Sean: Jesus.
[25:01] Elena: We did it twice. You do what they call a test-the-waters roadshow when you initially share that you’re on a path. And then you did the final roadshow right before the IPO. And I think, across those there’s probably over 100 meetings. They were all virtual, until we got to New York the day before for the actual IPO. And actually, I had not met my teammates until New York, until a day before we were going live. So, I had been working with them for six months, or five months, getting ready to go public.
[25:33] Sean: Remotely.
[25:34] Elena: Remotely. So, we took the company basically public via Zoom, and then we showed up to ring the bell, of course. But it was all virtual.
[25:44] Sean: That must’ve been a special moment.
[25:47] Elena: For sure.
[25:47] Sean: Well, I guess, to tie it all back to your family, we’d love to hear, how did your family react?
[25:54] Elena: So, my brothers are super happy. So, the thing is, when you’re going public, you can’t tell anyone until moments before. So, I didn’t actually tell my brothers until the morning because I couldn’t. But my mom, I did tell. Although, my guess is she called my brothers and told them. But anyway, I called my mom. I was in New York. I think I may have told you the story. And I call her and I say, “Hey, mom, tomorrow is the day. And so, get on the TV in the morning. I might be on TV.” And I’m having this really proud moment like it’s my Super Bowl. I’m excited. I’m going to ring the bell. And she says, “I got to get the Safeway coupons because there’s a sale on yogurt tomorrow.” And in that moment, I was very humbled, and I was reminded, to her, I’m still her little girl, her hija. And I’ve got to remember that. So, it was a sweet moment. She was very proud of me at the same time.
[26:55] Sean: That’s beautiful.
[26:57] Elena: It was a good moment.
[26:58] Sean: That is beautiful. Well, thank you so much, Elena, for coming on the podcast today. It was a pleasure having you.
[27:04] Elena: Thanks, Sean, for having me. Take it easy.
[27:12] Sean: 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.
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