Q&A: Meet Kirsten Spoljaric, Zipwhip’s New SVP of People

Kirsten Spoljaric

We were thrilled to announce Kirsten Spoljaric as Zipwhip’s first-ever SVP of People last week. We sat down with her to talk about her early impressions of Zipwhip, find out what a People function really does and learn about some of her biggest initiatives in the role.

Q: Can you share more about your background and what you were doing before you came to Zipwhip?

A: Most of my background has been in helping software and technology companies build and scale their teams. Early in my career I started on the retail side working at Nordstrom, and that’s really where I built my work ethic. I learned how to sell, manage and understood the critical role the HR and People teams played in influencing and driving teams forward. I knew from my first interaction with Human Resources that I wanted to be a leader in this field. I also did a lot of college recruiting into different buying programs on the retail side in the early days of my retail career. After that I was bit by the tech bug and worked for a handful of startup companies ranging from online benefits platforms to online car sales companies, always focused on the importance of culture and diverse teams. Then in 2006, I co-founded Mashery, which is an API management company. We started in the Bay Area in SMB and then moved into mid-market and enterprise. We then opened offices globally, expanding to New York, Boston, Seattle and India. During such growth and expansion, the team and culture became more critical than ever.

In 2013, Mashery was acquired by Intel and our HR and Talent teams began supporting the Intel Services Division, which focused on bringing together the different cultures from several acquisitions, a division of 700+ employees. Hank Skorny, who is the chairman of the board here at Zipwhip, was the head of our division and that’s how I got to know him and learn of the opportunity at Zipwhip. It was a unique role for me in that we had the ability to take the special growth and diverse culture that we had inside Mashery and work to replicate that inside the Intel services division.

Working for Intel for a few years inside a growing division was a great experience and I was able to help with key initiatives such as competitive compensation benchmarking and the implementation of new employee onboarding programs. I then helped support another acquisition of Mashery into TIBCO Software Inc. I decided at that point in time that I really wanted to go back to earlier-stage companies, so I stepped back into my HR business consulting company that I had started around the same time we started Mashery. I started with Zipwhip first as a consultant before being won over to join full time.

Q: HR job titles have evolved over the past several years, and not everyone knows what an SVP of People does. What is a “people” function and how does it differ from HR?

A: There’s still debate in the industry, but I think that particularly in a tech company a “people” function is much more encompassing of culture and how we think holistically about culture and human resources. I think this is truly what HR should have always been, but I think the HR function gets labeled more administratively. I still kind of struggle with all the titles, frankly, because SVP of People sounds like I manage all these people when I don’t. My job is to support each and every person in the organization, from a human resources perspective, but also a culture perspective.

Q: What are some of the big goals of the People function for the next year?

A: From an infrastructure standpoint, we have to make sure that we’re set up on the HR and People side so that we can grow and scale the business—that includes an HR audit first and then prioritizing initiatives out of that. Another big focus for us will be scaling our talent and staffing processes and infrastructure to drive diverse hires, employee engagement and retention. I’d really like to see us expand as a company in our diversity and inclusion programs. I’ve seen the benefit of working with a very diverse team, particularly at the leadership level and it’s something that’s very important to me and the Zipwhip leadership team. We strive to get there, but we ALL have work to do here to make it happen. My team will help lead this focus.

Q: We’re growing rapidly as a company. How do we ensure we get the right people into place to maintain the kind of culture we want?

A: It’s hard when you’re growing so fast, but I think it starts with slowing things down to develop the right process and having the team aligned on our mission and values, then building this into our hiring and screening processes. Being clear about what roles we have open and what we are looking for, not just in the requirements of the job but also the culture attributes that we want that will impact the culture in a positive way. With every new and current employee there is the opportunity to influence culture. We want to be sure this is a positive influence. We also need to look at every role and map every role/hire to our values. We don’t want to miss the culture component. One of the things I’ve seen work well in the past was engaging culture influencers within the company in the hiring process. Culture influencers are people who exhibit the culture you want and make the company better, they understand your culture and help drive and improve it. Those people should be part of the interview process. With a new applicant tracking system, we’ll be tracking our hiring programs better, but we will also need to invest in training and development with our managers, employees and hiring teams as well.

Q: What are some of the challenges Zipwhip faces that you hope to address?

A: I think when you’re growing very fast and everyone is committed to moving fast, communication can break down in departments. As a leadership team, we have to make sure that we’re continuing to communicate appropriately and share what is happening within each group and be clear on how we’re supporting one another. For me, I think it’s continuing to engage in each department so that I can help with organizational design and change management as well.

At a company in this stage, a lot of employees want to understand what’s next for them: what are they striving for, what’s their career path and development look like? I really hope to be instrumental to helping develop this for each team and role.

Q: What steps do you think we can take as a company to further both gender and racial diversity?

A: There are a number of different things we can do to further diversity inside Zipwhip. First, it starts with engaging our current team in their ideas and opportunities; that’s why we recently kicked off the Women of Zipwhip forum. But it’s, of course, not just about gender diversity. We’re working hard to attract diverse candidates for every position inside the organization. Our Talent Team and managers are champions of this and the Leadership team modeling this in our recruitment processes is important. We won’t get there overnight, but it’s something we have to stay focused on. In parallel we need to make sure we have an environment that’s inclusive to all backgrounds and experiences. The leadership team really cares about this initiative. I’ve had the opportunity to establish diversity initiatives and programs that I’ve seen really make an impact. Awareness programs around unconscious bias training and growth mindset, for example can begin the dialogue internally around diversity, then you can build from there. I plan to bring more of this and work with the Leadership team to make these important investments here at Zipwhip. We are also fortunate to have a great support from M12. Lisa Nelson, a Zipwhip Board member, has made some great connections already in our community to strengthen our diversity programs. We plan to leverage the M12 diversity program sponsorship that they provide their portfolio companies.

Q: What is your advice for women trying to make a career in tech?

A: Every individual, male or female, comes to an organization with their own history, so I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all situation. For me, I always stayed focused on my goals, remembering what I set out to do and aligning with those that had similar goals and values. I have found mentors with shared values to be extremely beneficial–both female and male. Finding those who see your strengths and can help build those up, be your advocates and support your professional growth is what it’s all about. You have to find the right mentors and invest in those relationships. I always encourage women to get to know other women inside the company and also seek external mentors. Know though that this can take work and you might cycle through a few before you find the right ones. I also don’t believe in putting up with bad behavior. I work to address real-time issues immediately and not allow them to fester. Finding the right female and male mentors in tech can give women a great support system.

Q: What do you like the most about your job?

A: I love this team. When I first came here and met with John Lauer, I was immediately impressed with what had been built to date, and as he described the culture and the team it really aligned with how I like to grow a business. As I’ve gotten to know the employees, other Founders and the Leadership team, I know I can work well with this team and have an impact. The culture at Mashery was so strong and we worked hard to build and develop the team, which led to strong growth, employee engagement, and retention. I was looking for another group that had similar qualities, and when I stepped in here and got to the know the team, I saw similar passion and engagement. People here care so much. They care about our customers, they care about one another, they want to get better. That’s a big part of why I joined.

Q: What do you like to do for fun outside of work?

A: I have two boys, a seven-year-old and a three-year old, so they keep me very busy outside of work! Spending time with them and my husband is my number one priority during my free time. Aside from that, I really enjoy doing hot yoga and have been working on meditation as a way to balance the fast and sometimes stressful pace of tech. I recently read Tools of Titans and was struck by how many successful people from entrepreneurs to athletes have a strong meditation practice. My husband meditates and keeps telling me I’ll find the right practice. Since “turning off” work can be a challenge, I am trying to find more balance through meditation.

Q: Anything else you want to tell us?

A: I look at Zipwhip as this amazing recipe of a huge opportunity in the marketplace, combined with a talented team of individuals. I think now is the right time to go full-speed ahead and take Zipwhip to the next phase of growth, and I’m really excited to be a part of it!

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