Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Kathy Biro Speaks to Columbia University School of Business Alumni

Kathy Biro, MBA, 1979, founder of Digitas, spoke to the Columbia University School of Business Alumni Association in Boston, MA on Tuesday, November 13, 2012. She said when she began she was described as "the most powerful woman in Boston's technology community." She explained, "I was the only one."

Kathy Biro, Founder, Digitas

Biro said she only needed reading glasses since she was a student at Columbia Business School. That's what Columbia did to her. Because of men at the university she had to choose her words more carefully. She explained that there was a limited range of options for women in the professions. She thought engineering was cool, even though she still does not know what engineering is. Do the engineering students at SEAS have any clue?

For her career, "typing was important." She was one of the top 100 students in New York City high schools. NYU's engineering school recruited her. She said neither of her parents graduated from high school. She studied marketing and finance at Columbia. 

Her original company was called Strategic Interactive Group. She wondered aloud how she went from being an English major to an online service company. In the 1980s marketing online services was unheard of. She said she anticipated the internet, as a means to serve "the internal desire to create one's own context." 

Giving free career management advice to the gathering Biro said goals and a specific written plan are essential. One must keep one's plan always in mind. "What is the plan?" "Where will you work on the plan?" What is the timetable?" She urged that whatever field you work in you should be at the "epicenter" of the discipline, like a "heat seeking missile." If you are an accountant work at an accounting firm, not an advertising firm.

She explained how "basic" the technical people were when she began her company. She called them "garage band" types, who ate uncooked frozen pizza. She said they were unable to have a conversation and more or less grunted. She said the customers were able to spell interactive but could not "land the plane." That's where she came in, describing it as "creating legitimate intellectual capital." But she said, "We were not cool. We did not go to meetings." 

About five men attended the talk, at the Communispace Corporation on Atlantic Wharf in Boston, with about 30 women. [I say "about" because these days with self identifying gender one cannot be certain at first or even second glance.] Biro refused to include her "women only" anecdotes because of the men present. I asked her twice and she refused twice, because none of the men present knows "the secret handshake of women."  In April, 1995 she had no employees, no computers, no PR strategy, no prospects and no web site. She seemed to attract "insane people." [She did not realize she was also a pioneer hiring persons with disabilities in professional positions.] "We had the belief that anything was possible because it was a new industry," she explained. "In a consulting business clients buy your confidence. You have to have a lot of guts," she added. She said they "doubled in size every couple of months," and "we made a lot of mistakes." 

She mentioned the secrets of "hyper growth." If she had to do it over it would be slower growth. But that is easier said than done. Biro called Digitas "a powerful marketing firm," which went public in 2000. She said it was the same day that President Clinton described technology as a "bubble." It was good for Digitas. She said her goal was to retire at 50 after creating something that lives on after she left. It appears she was extremely successful. She described briefly her tenure as an Adjunct Professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. There was a man there who did not see the outside of the school for eight months. He traveled underground through Tuck's famous tunnels.

Repeating what other successful people say, she urged the audience to "focus on what you want to do. The money will come," she added. [That may work for others but it never worked for me. No matter what I tried over the last 42 years since I left Columbia, I ended up wondering what I did wrong.] 

[I was unable to counter relentless character assassination that continues today. At this event one man said to me,"You're retired." Retired? They began telling people I was "retired" when I was in my 30s. I never had an opportunity to resume my career after I left Columbia. It had something to do with the crime family that runs Massachusetts. I call it the Bulger crime family that runs the Boston FBI office; the source of many years of terror in my life. One element of character assassination for 30 years, was "He's a retired drug dealer." Another for 30 years, was "He's a racist." That did wonders for my economic, social and political lives.]  

Another Biro rule is "work should not be medicine." Don't take a job because "it is good for me. Do what you are good at," she said. That sounds like the Greek notion of "arete" translated roughly as excellence. It means doing what one is good at, to the best of one's ability.

Every job should add to "resume enhancement," Biro suggested. Resumes should be updated regularly even when not looking for a job. "It is OK to zig and zag," she said. When one becomes "senior management," one often realizes "I'm not making plan." Thus one should focus on passion, not a paycheck. [That may be good advice but it often leads to not eating well and having uncomfortable cribs.]

She insisted "Don't be afraid to think big thoughts." She did not explain what that meant. I studied philosophy and I've been thinking big thoughts ever since. Does God exist? Yes. No. Those are "big thoughts." Was Obama was thinking such big ones, when he revealed to the voters that he would begin lowering the oceans and healing the planet? Some thoughts are easier to say than to do.

She mentioned a lesson she learned late, that business leaders need to have "an exit plan." Few do. "You need people to take your place. You need a strategy to get out." She urged the audience to "embrace technology and change." She added, "technology is the new literacy. You need to embrace rapidity of change. Don't fear change."

"Be willing to take risks. Embrace it or be left behind."

Biro: "I have a reputation. Most of it is true."

"Can you get yourself and others excited?" [I can't remember if she made that exclusive to business.]

One young woman said she worked for a founder company led by two men and then one led by two women. She asked if Biro thought men lead differently than women. Biro said she does not think men and women lead differently. [Biro did not comment about left-handed women versus right-handed men.]

She discussed briefly measuring the outcome of advertising. Food manufacturers coupons are one way to measure the effectiveness of advertising. The companies that issue the coupons can count how many are redeemed. It is one reason why there are so many of them and why they will be around for a long time.

For some businesses it is not as easy to issue and to distribute coupons as it is for food companies. Except that with the internet, companies can and do issue coupons for discounts on their goods and services. It requires some effort to find many of them, but they are available.

Near the end of her talk she brought up the subject of languages. She explained that "marketing companies and technology people speak different languages." That is true not only for communication between marketing and technology. Lawyers, doctors, power repairmen, construction workers, all disciplines have their own specific usage of words. They can mean many different things depending on where they are used. This creates a need for people who can understand the different usages and who have the ability to communicate between groups of specially trained persons.

No comments: