Untold Innovation Stories: Laura Marino

Untold Innovation: A few minutes with Laura Marino

By: Katie Taylor & Dani Clark

This year at Untold Content, we’re focusing on stories of Untold Innovation. As a firm committed to innovation storytelling from thought leaders across organizations and sectors, we have embarked on a journey to uncover stories of innovative thinking that are galvanizing change and growth in four main industries: tech, medical, science and human impact. We’ve asked you to nominate thought leaders in your field who are driving innovation, and you continue to deliver!

Our next innovation story comes from Laura Marino, Senior Vice President of Lever, where along with her team of innovators, she is modernizing the way organizations recruit talent. Combined with her board member role with Leading Women in Technology, Laura’s industry experience has revealed a key aspect of innovation: building diverse teams. So, get ready to be inspired by our interview with Innovator of the Month, Laura Marino.

P.S. Keep sending in those nominations of others for us to highlight in our Untold Innovation series. You can complete our nomination form or email us with their information.

Laura Marino‘s Innovation Story

Laura is currently SVP of Product at Lever, a fast growing, VC-backed company that is modernizing the way organizations nurture and recruit talent. A senior product executive with extensive experience in product management, M&A analysis, and definition of corporate strategies, Laura is passionate about scaling companies and product organizations. As a member of the extended teaching team in the Stanford Management Science and Engineering Department, she lectures on entrepreneurship and product management. A supporter of women and diversity, Laura serves on the Board of Leading Women in Technology, a non-profit dedicated to promoting women’s leadership. 

UC: Tell us about your field of specialty. 

LM: My official field of specialty is technology because I’ve been leading product teams in software companies in Silicon Valley for a long time. I’ve been helping startups scale and large organizations bring innovative products to market, but unofficially, I would say that my specialty is human impact. 

I am an advocate for women in technology and for diversity—I am a teacher and mentor at heart. In many ways, at my current role as SVP of product at Lever, I’ve had the unique and rewarding opportunity to combine these two fields because Lever is modernizing the way companies recruit and hire talent. And we believe that a diverse employee base is important to increasing innovation. Through our recruiting software, we not only help companies improve the way that they attract and hire talent, but we also help them bring in a more diverse talent pool and track the diversity of their candidates. 

UC: Could you speak a little bit more to the importance of diversity and inclusion on innovation?

LM: I believe that when you bring people together who have diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences, and diverse perspectives, you’re able to get a much richer set of ideas—not to mention, you’re able to more successfully bring those ideas to market. For example, when you are developing a product that has to address a broad market, if you’re looking at things purely from the perspective of your personal experience, you may miss aspects that are very important to a large group of your target customers. Having team members who can see those missing pieces is very valuable. When you build global products, having people who are able to understand the differences between different geographies and cultures is incredibly helpful to guide the products’ success. A team that’s diverse can include complementary skills, generate more ideas, and look at solutions in a much more comprehensive way.

UC: Where does your personal or organizational story of innovation begin?

LM: My personal story began many years ago when as a young woman in Colombia, and I decided to study civil engineering. Civil engineering is a technical, male-dominated career, and I was one out of only four women in my class. I came to the US for graduate school and after nine years of working in civil engineering, I realized that software was where exciting innovation was happening. So, I went back to school and moved into the software industry, working on a broad range of technologies from speech recognition to customer relationship management to HR technology.

While I was very fortunate throughout my career to encounter many male allies who helped me along the way, I could really see how underrepresented women and minorities were in the tech industry. So, as my career progressed, I made an effort to start building balanced teams and to mentor women. Then three years ago, I joined the Board of Leading Women in Technology, which is a nonprofit dedicated to helping women develop the skills that they need to advance into leadership roles.

UC: Tell us a bit more about the need for this organization, Leading Women in Tech, and how it’s grown since you started there.

LM: Leading Women in Tech is very interesting because it’s not just for women in technology. It was started by an IP lawyer, who realized that women had a difficult time getting to leadership positions in male-dominated fields. She put together a year-long program, where expert speakers present on specific topics to help women develop the skills they need to move forward in their careers. Those topics include projecting credibility, developing self-confidence, negotiation and leadership skills, and becoming an agent of change.  Women tend to doubt themselves more than men, and because of that, they don’t step up to challenges. They want to feel that they know everything before they try something new. I would say we tend to be perfectionists. But there’s a lot that we can do with a little guidance and confidence.

The program started in Palo Alto and then through word of mouth it began to grow. Now, we have four different locations: Palo Alto, San Francisco, Seattle, and New York. We want to make it accessible to as many women as possible, so we are bringing sponsors who not only send their promising women to the program, but through their sponsorships allow us to keep the cost of the program affordable for women who are not sponsored. It’s a wonderful program. The other piece of the program that we try to encourage is for women to create a support network. They go through a year-long program together, and they are encouraged to get to know each other and form a long-term support network.

UC:  Well, that is amazing. I want to participate in that program. Could you expand on the impact this innovation has on the world at large?

LM: Innovation has the potential to improve our economy and our society. When I think about the impact of what we’re doing at Lever, we are helping companies grow, and also helping them become more diverse.

Talent acquisition today is one of the most strategic priorities of any growing company.

The reality is that the talent market today is totally different and much more competitive than it was 10 years ago. What used to be a backend process driven by a couple of recruiters has become a concern at the executive level. Lever is transforming the way fast-growing companies engage with talent, using a data-driven, collaborative approach to drive the decisions and to build balanced teams. It helps companies track the diversity of their talent pools by location and department so that they can better target their sourcing efforts.

Through my participation in Leading Women in Technology and my teaching, I am encouraging more women and minorities to take on more prominent roles in areas that have traditionally been limited for those groups. With women and minorities more involved in leadership, companies will be better at coming up with innovative solutions to problems, so I see this as an effort that has a continuing impact.

UC: Could you share a little window into what it looks like to be tracking metrics for talent recruitment and diversity and working in this new data-driven approach?

LM: Working at Lever has been an amazing experience because Lever itself is an incredibly diverse company. Our CEO is a woman. Over fifty percent of managers and over forty percent of engineers are women. I have never had a team that had so many women engineers and product managers, and I think it’s because of the culture. It’s not just diversity in terms of women representation—we have diversity across every aspect: ethnicity, culture, and gender. This impacts the way we think about the candidate experience and about balanced teams. And through our product and our thought leadership, we help our customers build those diverse teams.

Companies today cannot just wait for people to apply to their job postings–that doesn’t work anymore. Companies have to reach out to people who may not be actively looking for a job, but who would be the best fits, and who would contribute to the diversity of their team.  Our product allows companies to reach out and establish a relationship with those passive candidates. It also tracks diversity across the various sources of candidates, at every stage in the process, and for every company department or location. Not only can companies make sure that they are bringing a diverse set of candidates early on in the funnel, but also that the diversity remains as the candidates move along in the process.

The data-driven approach extends beyond providing visibility into candidate diversity. It also helps recruiters and talent leaders track how they are doing against their hiring goals, understand hiring velocity, identify parts of the process that need improvement, collaborate with hiring managers, and ultimately ensure a great candidate experience.

UC: If we zoom out a little bit, with Leading Women in Tech, you’re working with quite a few startups and then inside of a company like Lever you’re utilizing startup energy to activate innovation in a larger corporation. Is that how you would describe it?

LM: Participants in Leading Women in Technology come from companies of all sizes and from a variety of disciplines. Typically, the women who join the program are about five to ten years into their careers–they may be working for a startup or maybe part of a larger organization. They want to develop the skills to move up in that organization and be able to have a bigger impact.  Several of our sponsors are large companies. We have Microsoft and Amazon as sponsors in Seattle, Pfizer in New York, and Adobe and Autodesk in San Francisco. I believe that those companies know that more diverse leadership increases innovation.

I personally have had the chance to work at startups and at large organizations, and I believe that there is an opportunity for innovation in both. As I mentioned, I started my career in speech recognition back when that was a completely new technology. And I worked on that technology as part of a startup and later as part of large organizations, including Microsoft, that were driving innovation in that space.

Now at Lever, I am helping drive innovation in a different space.  Lever is a growing startup with over two hundred people. Our customers range from large organizations to young companies that are growing very fast.  One of the unique things about the product is its ability to support companies that are going through really accelerated growth and are doubling the number of employees in one year.

UC: There’s a lot of conversation about the keys to innovation, whether that’s in a small startup or in a BigCo. Could you speak about what, in your opinion, are some of the keys to innovation, especially in new product development?

LM: I do believe that innovation is a team sport. You sometimes hear about people who are very bright and have incredible ideas, but even those visionaries need a team to execute and bring those bright ideas into reality. In most cases, you have a group of people that work together and come up with good ideas. They can identify problems that exist in the market and think about innovative ways to solve those problems.

Going back to the advantages of diversity—I believe that if you build a team with people that bring different experiences and perspectives, you are more likely to, first of all, generate the best ideas and secondly, to actually turn those ideas into a reality. Innovation requires people who are looking at what’s happening in the market with an open mind and with empathy. And people who are passionate about making a change. In most cases, it’s not about finding the one bright person to be the visionary for the future. My advice is to build the right, balanced team to help you identify opportunities and execute against them. 

UC: What role do you find that storytelling plays in the process of innovation?

LM: Storytelling has a huge role, not just in innovation, but in bringing concepts and ideas to a place where people can relate to and validate them. You may have a great idea, but unless you’re able to articulate it in a way that people can actually understand it, you won’t really be able to validate if people care about that idea and get them excited about it.

Early on, it’s valuable to present your idea in the form of a story that engages the user in imagining how the future will be different for them, thanks to your idea—how it will make their life better.

As a product person, I’m self-aware that I easily focus on “Oh, the product can do this great thing,” but it really doesn’t matter what the product can do. What matters is what the benefits are for the user, for the customer. The best way to really explain that is by telling a story from the perspective of how the product changes things for the better, changes the day-to-day life of somebody who is a real user, a real customer.

UC: We have just one last question: what is one piece of advice you would give to these future innovation teams or innovators?

LM: I already mentioned that innovation is a team sport, so I would focus on building the right team and giving them space and ownership. I would also say that innovation requires a lot of listening and observation and a lot of humility. Go out to the market and listen to and observe your target customers. Listen to their problems and opinions, observe how they do things because that’s how you’re going to start getting the feeling of what is needed. People will not tell you what you need to build, but they will tell you where they are having pain points. Also, observe changes that are coming, be it technology, culture or regulations, and identify new needs that those changes will create.  The ability to observe and listen is a really critical one. 

Thanks for reading Laura’s innovation story. You can read more about our Untold Innovation Stories series in our Untold Innovation Stories kickoff post.

And, don’t forget to nominate an innovator in your sector. Complete our online nomination form or email us.

*Interviews are not endorsements of individuals or businesses.

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