Former PostRank CEO Carol Leaman inspires at this week’s Girl Geek Dinner in Waterloo, with tales from her experiences with technology startups

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By Linda Forrest

It’s been a busy week, with Francis Moran and me visiting Waterloo and region for a number of events, client and business development meetings. We kicked off our trip by attending the Girl Geek Dinner, which took place Tuesday evening at Waterloo restaurant Oliver & Bonacini.

One of these things was not like the others in that Francis was the only male in attendance; the inverse was just about true the following night at Demo Camp Guelph where I was one of a handful of women in the crowd. But the intimate room at O&B was filled to the brim with interesting, welcoming and friendly women who work in technology. The brainchild of Cate Huston, a software programmer at Google, who upon moving to KW from Ottawa started up a local version of this international concept, Tuesday’s dinner marked the third local iteration of the event, which is also organized by PJ Lowe, and Michelle Kostya.

The speaker for the evening was Carol Leaman, a serial leader of startups, who recently sold PostRank, an aggregator of social engagement data, to Google. Almost as soon as we were seated, it became apparent that many of the women in the dynamic crowd knew one another, thanks to the tight-knit and supportive tech community in the region. But they welcomed Francis and myself with open arms, and it took us just several minutes to establish the (very few) degrees of separation from everyone at our table. We had the great pleasure of sitting with a variety of women, all of whom are working or studying in different and fascinating aspects of the technology ecosystem.

The in-demand event (we ourselves were on the waiting list originally though thankfully were able to squeeze in) was held in an intimate space, which made the night feel rather like dinner at a friend’s house rather than a structured networking event; there were about 25 attendees, including the speaker and three organizers, seated at three long tables. Our speaker, Carol Leaman, knew many of the attendees, some having worked for her, while others may have benefited from her contributions to the tech community some potentially through her previous role as Executive in Residence at Communitech. The room was relaxed and attentive, as Carol began her informal talk.

Rather than give a formal PowerPoint presentation, Carol just shared her journey with us in a casual, funny and informative talk. Like most of us, Carol didn’t end up where she planned to; her aspirations did not lie in the technology realm, and in fact, she’s an accountant by trade. But it’s that solid background in finance that has propelled her to a leadership position in multiple companies, many of which she has spruced up and got on track before successfully negotiating their being acquired. In her work at an investment bank, she saw and learned the intricate details of mergers & acquisitions, a familiarity that has served her well as she moved into the technology space. As a person not naturally drawn to technology, she says that she has had a rapid education in the field and said that she still learns something every day.

It was her work as a strategic consultant that lead to her becoming the first Communitech Executive in Residence in 2007. At first, through, she didn’t think anyone would want her advice and it was with hesitation that she sent out notes to small- to medium-sized companies that were members of Communitech, letting them know that her counsel was available. She instantly received about 20 responses and really got to know KW startups over the course of the following six months. What initially was to be a two-day per week gig quickly turned into four because she was in such high demand. When one of her fellow EIRs recommended that she look at PostRank, she took his recommendation as an endorsement of the company and upon further examination of the opportunity, decided to take on a six-month commitment to running the company. At the end of the six months, PostRank’s founder asked her to stay and it was 3.5 years later that the company was sold to Google. While Carol was offered a great position at Google, she decided to instead go to another startup; it’s clear that she relishes the challenge of learning new technologies, guiding their commercialization, and enjoys the corporate culture of a startup environment.

She shared some hilarious stories with her eager audience (beware G6; a $10,000 vasectomy reversal is not a legitimate business expense!) and a great time was had by all.

Inevitably, some familiar issues were raised: what’s it like for a women at the top, a woman in tech… Her very human and very honest responses showed that anyone, regardless of gender, is only inhibited if they choose to be. Her generally positive outlook on life, matched with her willingness to recognize that business success is a team rather than solo effort, her obvious integrity and deferment to common sense in the business environment have helped her reach impressive career highs. It’s clear that she’s well liked by those in the tech community, and it’s understandable why. She’s a down-to-earth woman with an impressive career, who is approachable and supportive of her fellow community members. Her demeanour and attitude is perhaps best described in her own words, “I just have a realistic view of what’s possible. There are good people everywhere and I feel a deep obligation to those people. Everyone ultimately wants to contribute, to be successful, and rewarded. I think that the best leaders help people do what they’re capable of; We’ll figure it out together.” The Waterloo technology community is lucky to have such a level-headed woman of integrity in their midst and it was a pleasure to listen to her speak, as well as to get to know her a bit better personally.

Melanie Baker, a former colleague of Carol’s wrote a great recap of the event on the Girl Geek Dinner website. For her perspective, visit that site.

Image: Girl Geek Dinner

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