Ascending to a leadership position can be a long, drawn-out process — especially as a woman. If we want more women in leadership positions, we must start sharing our knowledge, experience, and advice. As a woman in the executive suite, Michelle Arieta knows this first hand. She sat down with Sivan Aldor, Founder of Inclusifi, to talk about her background, jobs, ascension to leadership, and her struggles.
Michelle Arieta: How did you get to where you are today? Talk a little bit about where you are today and how you got there.
Sivan Aldor: I am Israeli. I was born and raised there. I have an undergrad in industrial engineering, and I was kind of the odd person in my cohort that liked statistics. Then I started teaching it and fumbled into a master’s degree in statistics. I ended up at the University of Pennsylvania, and I finished a Ph.D. there in statistics. But during that time, I realized I didn’t belong in the academic world because there were a lot of mismatching values.
I decided I wanted to get out of academia, and I ended up in a Silicon Valley startup called The Climate Corporation. I joined that company as a researcher and ended up spending five years there. During year two, we went through a giant acquisition. I grew up there; I moved into leadership roles after my first year there.
After five years, I had a moment where I realized that the role I was in was no longer developing me and wasn’t something I wanted to continue to do. I didn’t have enough impact on products, and I felt a mismatch of values again. I ultimately left for a tiny company called Wellio, where I wanted to develop my technical and engineering skill sets. After two years, the company was acquired by Kraft Heinz. I led and grew a team of machine learning engineers, MLOps and data scientists. Last year, Kraft Heinz decided to close that group, which I embraced as an opportunity to recharge and reflect on my career.
Now I have a startup called Inclusifi. And the goal of Inclusifi is to coach teams on having inclusive and effective communication using data and communication science. I think my path has led me to this moment where I’ve seen enough teams that struggle with poor communication, ultimately leading to company-wide culture issues. Sometimes it’s individuals, sometimes it’s groups. Sometimes it’s just different types of power dynamics. I think we could use data to help ground conversations of coaching, as opposed to how it’s done today, which is very, “he said, she said,” kind of ideas and narrow knowledge of how to coach on these types of issues.
Michelle: What other moments were pivotal in your career? You talked about how you didn’t belong in academia because of a mismatch of values, so you made this jump into startups. What were a couple of pivotal moments?
Sivan: The move to the U.S. was a big change. It changed the trajectory of my career completely. My entire extended family is still in Israel.
At Climate, there were endless moments of key decisions. I think I can make a bigger impact as a manager than as an individual contributor, and I have strong values of how I want to lead people and build teams. Also, saying goodbye to my first job was very hard, but it was the right decision. Learning how to let go was a difficult skill to master. I don’t know how Inclusifi is going to turn out. I’m still scared and excited about this part of my career journey.
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Michelle: What advice would you give to young women entering or looking to enter into leadership?
Sivan: First of all, there are many ways to be a leader, and managers are only one way. People management is not for everyone. That’s something that I try to really cultivate in my teams. I believe in the idea that people can be leaders without directly being appointed to become a manager. Leadership has many forms and shapes. If you want to be a leader, you have to understand that it comes with responsibility. You’re going to be more exposed, you take on more responsibility and risk, and you can be rewarded by having more impact.
If you want to start growing as a leader, you can take on projects that are less risky. Coach, mentor, and reach out to people, ask them if they want to meet regularly to talk through their challenges. You could do things like that will make people gravitate toward you, not because you’re the manager, but because you help them. You exhibit leadership qualities without necessarily having that title. And I think it can be more powerful than being appointed as a manager. At the end of the day, if you want to be a leader, you need people to follow. If they want to follow you naturally, that’s amazing. That’s true leadership for me. You have no authority over anyone, but people flock to you because they believe and trust you. They trust your values. They trust your knowledge. They want to learn from you and get your advice.
I think that different ways of leadership are important because not everyone wants to be a manager, and that’s fine. The hardest transition to becoming a people manager was learning how to preserve my energy. I had to learn how to read “rooms” more effectively so I could help people while managing my own emotions and energy. When someone wants to become a manager, I’d say find a mentor, someone that you can talk with about your day-to-day struggles.
Michelle: What role did mentorship play as you ascended as a leader, specifically as a woman?
Sivan: I look for mentors who can teach me and who walked similar parts of my path in my career. The tech sector is still men-dominated so most of my mentors are men. However, I have diversified my mentors so that I can learn from different perspectives.
For example, I had a mentor who was very stoic as a leader, and I’m very emotional. It was nice to see how he would approach a problem that I approached and see a different way of handling this particular kind of problem. Over time, I also met a leader who was very emotional as a leader. Talking to him was therapeutic — it helped me realize it’s okay and a strength to have emotions.
It’s beneficial to have someone who has a similar background. It could be gender, ethnicity, age, education, or economic background, just something you can relate to. I think women leaders go through a different path than our counterparts; we struggle with additional challenges they often don’t deal with.
There were moments I was told not to be my authentic self. “When you go into this meeting, don’t ask too many questions, don’t make faces.” I don’t think many men have had that kind of criticism or feedback before a meeting. “Don’t be your authentic self. Could you just for this meeting be a little quieter?”
When I coach and mentor other women, they often bring those moments to me, and we discuss how to handle them and allow themselves to be true to who they are. Women get interrupted more in meetings, and sometimes our voice carries less weight. I think fewer men experience this in similar positions. Unfortunately, even if they are your best allies, they were never in your shoes and sometimes don’t have great advice.
Having a woman coach or a mentor has helped me. They can sympathize with and understand me more easily. They’ve been through these moments. They have their way of coping with those moments. It may not be my way of coping with that moment, but at least they understand and give me more perspective.
Michelle: How do you delineate between a coach vs. mentor? How have you used them differently in your career?
Sivan: A sponsor is someone who, in key moments, will bring your name to the table and advocate for you and your career in different roles. They may not even be your boss; they may not even be in your team; they just know of your work — know you in some way — and will advocate for you.
My coaches have always been external to the company. They don’t know a lot about the company. I can bring stuff to them that is much more abstract. They’ve helped me in different ways. Mentors are deep in the trenches with me; coaches are more like let’s elevate this conversation. Think more about strategy in your career, strategy in the way you’re communicating with other people.
Michelle: How do you overcome situations where you’re not being taken seriously?
Sivan: At the beginning of my career, I wouldn’t recognize that I wasn’t being taken seriously at the moment, only in retrospect. In those moments, I’d give feedback during 1:1s to the person I felt was not respecting my voice. Now I’m super aware when excluding behaviors displayed toward me or others. When I see or experience these behaviors now, I will call people out at the moment or directly after the meeting.
I know it’s not easy for people to take this advice. It’s hard. But when someone interrupts me, I say, “Hey, you’re interrupting me. You need to stop interrupting me.” No matter what feedback you give them, some people will never change their ways. They either don’t care, or they enjoy making other people feel less than them.
The majority of people are genuinely not trying to be jerks. I admit that it has taken me a few years to get to that level of awareness and ability to tell the CEO that he’s interrupting me and needs to stop. But if/when you can get there, it’s amazing. There’s something very powerful about putting a mirror in front of someone doing it and telling them, “hey, you’re doing this. It’s not okay, stop.”
Michelle: In your experience, what are some tangible changes around diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Sivan: First of all, there is DEI fatigue, especially from people who are not in leadership teams. I think there’s fatigue because most DEI tactics and strategies are top-down and long-term, making it hard for a person that’s not the executive to see and feel the impact.
Most companies start tackling DEI issues with recruiting. Those solutions are long-term because your DEI goal is to ultimately improve culture, but hiring is a slow-moving process and by itself is not enough to get you there. The complementary tactics include events and discussions that help your current workforce improve. These can include ERGs, workshops, education events relating to different social groups, etc. These tactics are more targeting your today’s experience. For example, they may make you feel like you’re not the only woman in the company, but they are not enough to improve your daily work experience because you’re still the only woman on your team.
I think these two types of tactics create some of the challenges with the current DEI approaches. They either are long-term top-down, or they’re short-term less impactful on your day-to-day.
There are some fundamental things that advanced companies do that make a difference. One is putting transparency and accountability as values. To drive real change, companies drive internal and external transparency around where they are in their DEI journey regarding progress and setbacks. Along with transparency comes accountability, where leaders across the company have clear goals around how they are personally responsible for improving their teams and the company’s culture. Will it help the day-to-day life of the person on the team? Maybe. But having these two values does help the company as an organization move forward. Everyone recognizes where they are, where they want to go and how leaders are held accountable.
The one last thing that advanced companies are doing is thinking of DEI as a holistic problem that spans the workforce, vendors, and customers. These companies empower the DEI leadership (sometimes alongside the ESG leadership) to grow a more inclusive and diverse workforce to build a robust and impactful business.
With Inclusifi, I wanted to build a bottom-up approach that would help the top-down approach. The goal is to coach teams on more effective and inclusive communication. Ultimately, even if you have a group leading DEI efforts, they’re not going to single-handedly change the company’s whole culture. Culture change is everyone’s business and responsibility. Inclusifi is empowering teams to improve their micro-culture today using science and data
Michelle: I think there is something to this idea that people are tired, and employees are tired because they think that companies aren’t doing enough for DEI. I don’t think it’s that they’re not doing enough. It’s that they’re not seeing the results. I always said, just solve your corner of the world, don’t boil the ocean, you can only solve what’s in front of you.
Sivan: I think that’s the issue with current DEI approaches. Improving macro-culture indicators takes months to years. Employees are rightfully experiencing fatigue because they don’t feel like they are empowered to solve the whole thing and that can cause a lot of frustration. However, sometimes they’re empowered to start solving their team’s issues. So, solve the way you talk to each other, solve the way you behave toward each other. Have honest ongoing conversations on what’s working and not working in the way your team is behaving and operating. That may not scale to everyone in the company, but that will immensely improve the way your team members are feeling today and tomorrow; that is amazing leadership. You lead by example with how you want your culture to look.