On the Tech Trail: Walks with Strategic Leaders

6. Navigating Disruption, Transforming People - Tracey Zhen & Yogesh Gupta

July 31, 2020 MassTLC & Matter
On the Tech Trail: Walks with Strategic Leaders
6. Navigating Disruption, Transforming People - Tracey Zhen & Yogesh Gupta
Show Notes Transcript

A conversation between Tracey Zhen (President of Zipcar) and Yogesh Gupta (President & CEO of Progress Software) that discusses Tracey's path to leadership as a women in the tech industry, as well as navigating a disrupted industry during COVID times.

SHOW NOTES
The importance of a financial background  (3:00)

Coaching and elevating women (5:27)

Innovating fast (6:54)

Contributing to more sustainable cities. (10:10)

Managing through change (15:34)

Tom Hopcroft:

Hi, thanks for joining us as we take a journey on the Tech Trail. I'm MassTLC CEO, Tom Hopcroft. This podcast series takes you inside the minds of remarkable leaders to better understand their journeys and to gain insights from their strategic decision making to help us along our journeys. In today's episode, we're On The Tech Trail with Tracey Zhen and Yogesh Gupta.

Yogesh Gupta:

Hello, everyone. This is Yogesh Gupta. I am the president and CEO of Progress Software. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with my friend and Zipcar CEO, Tracey Zhen. Tracey, thank you so much for making time to speak with us. How are you doing?

Tracey Zhen:

Hi, Yogesh. Great to be here today. I'm doing well. Yeah, family is safe. That's all we can ask for in these times, isn't it?

Yogesh Gupta:

It sure is, Tracey. It's interesting, you've had a fascinating career. You were at TripAdvisor. You were in Europe with them for a while. Now, you are at Zipcar. What attracted you to Zipcar?

Tracey Zhen:

I've been very lucky in my career. I've gotten to work for companies that are big consumer brands and also in categories that were really meaningful to me personally, so travel as an example at TripAdvisor and Expedia. I think Zipcar for me was a little bit different. In some ways, the one thing that kind of the thread between Zipcar and my previous experiences is that it was a consumer brand that I was attached to. Because I was a Zipcar member before I joined Zipcar, so I understood the value proposition and what the company was about. But, what really drew me to the company was its mission. Zipcar's mission is to enable simple and responsible urban living. That for me was a very exciting and also very ambitious goal. The next thing was really because it was part of the mobility industry that was, as you know, changing rapidly and going through tons of transformation. So, that was another exciting draw for the role. So far, it's been a very fun and exciting ride for the past three years.

Yogesh Gupta:

Well, that's wonderful to hear, Tracey. So, you came to Zipcar. What was the biggest challenge you faced?

Tracey Zhen:

I've been in my role for just over three years now. When I started, we were effectively starting from scratch. One of my biggest challenges was really about transformation and upgrading our technology stack. We've gone market by market and we're pretty much at the tail end of the platform migration. By the end of this year, we'll be done. So, that's really exciting. It's a big milestone for the whole company. But at the same time, transforming technology also comes with transformation of people and process. So for me, I think the biggest challenge was really more of a broader organizational change management effort that had to go on and it took a while.

Yogesh Gupta:

These kinds of transformations do take time. The fact that you're putting the final touches on it is amazing. Tell us a little bit about your background and how that has helped shape you as a leader, how that has come in handy in being able to run Zipcar and being successful at it.

Tracey Zhen:

Having the financial background has been extremely helpful as a leader. I just think that that's always a good toolkit to have to be able to read and get through financials really quickly. But, I think the training then led me to work for a company called IAC, which I worked with very strong leaders like Barry Diller who ran the company and he was really a visionary. So, I think watching leaders like that work and how they think and operate has been a big part of shaping my career. But I think more importantly, it's been really around taking chances to learn and always improve.

Tracey Zhen:

So for example, I think one of the biggest and most important decisions I made in my personal and my professional career has been moving abroad. I spent six years living in London. I went there for a job for a startup in television. No one's heard of it. No one will probably hear of it because we went 18 months, like many startups, didn't pan out. But for me, it was a hugely important transition because it was my first time living in a foreign country, didn't know anybody and really getting out of my comfort zone, and exploring a different part of the world. London is such a melting pot of cultures, which then led me to my role at Expedia and just working with people of all different backgrounds on the floor, I mean, with English was the least spoken language on our floor.

Yogesh Gupta:

You are one of the few women business leaders in the Boston area tech community. When I came to Progress, our board of directors had all men. Today, we have three out of the eight independent board members are women. I would love to hear your thoughts about women in leadership and what you think people should do to bring women up the ranks into leadership.

Tracey Zhen:

No, you're right. I think the stats are very sobering in some ways. I think the McKinsey does a study every year with the lean in organization. I think women in C-suite roles that work in technology, if you start filtering down, it's in low single digits. Right? I think that for me, it's something that we have to change. But, I think if you think about where the change has to happen, I've been very lucky in my career where I've had mentors along the way that have given me opportunities and pushed me. So I think as leaders ourselves, we need more of that, especially for women, not so much when you're VP or SVP, but more early in your career when you're starting out.

Tracey Zhen:

That's where a lot of the fallout is. It's early in the career, not so much in as a leader. So I think that as leaders, we can all do a better job of coaching and elevating women so that they have the opportunity, like I did when I was very young in my career, to present in front of leadership, to be given opportunities to stretch your skills. Those are all the things we can do as better leaders. I'm glad to represent women in tech community, winning more of us. But, we'll keep going at it.

Yogesh Gupta:

I guess, yes, you're right. We do and I promise to be there with you as we move this ball forward. Transformation requires not only changing technology and platforms and so on, like you've done, but also the people. How has that gone?

Tracey Zhen:

It's gone well. I think that one nice thing about the people, and I think it says a lot about our culture, is that we just want to improve. Right? I think continuous improvement, we use that fairly regularly in the technology world. But, I think the teams and the people that we work with are always looking at ways to improve. So, everyone was up for the challenge, which was good. I didn't really have to convince the teams that staying with an old technology platform was the right thing, so it was an easy sell. But, I think it was also painting the vision for what this new technology could unlock for us in terms of growth and innovation. So, it's all gone really well.

Yogesh Gupta:

When things go well, you get tremendous business benefit out of it. So, what are some of the business benefits that Zipcar is now seeing, given that the transformation on the technology platform has come towards an end?

Tracey Zhen:

It was a little bit of everything, but I think the most important part was really about speed and our ability to innovate fast and scale. So, I think that was the main drive for the change. It was how do we quickly take all the insights from our customers, from our members and really develop them into great features, right? As an example, we recently just launched our Instant Access product and all on this new technology where effectively someone can join Zipcar, take a selfie. They have a driver's license and a credit card. They can join and drive within minutes. For that, we could've never done that on the old technology. So, that's just a simple example of how the value that it's unlocked for the company, but also for our members more importantly.

Yogesh Gupta:

How has COVID-19 now, over the last few months, really changed the way Zipcar is doing things?

Tracey Zhen:

In crisis like COVID, it's in some ways very clarifying on what are your true priorities. Not surprisingly, the impact for the business in a short term has been the types of trips that our members used to take, weekend getaways, going hiking. All of that's come to a halt when the stay-at-home orders were put in place. But, what's really interesting is that we've seen an emergence of new use cases. So, our members are using us. I think the number one with the use case right now is grocery runs or checking in on loved ones. I think we've seen that kind of order in terms of new use cases emerging. So, I will say that the service is still really important and it's an essential service that our members are using to help them get through the crisis.

Tracey Zhen:

But, what we're also seeing is that our members are asking us for new services. So for example, the idea of sharing, people are less comfortable with in this current environment. So, our members are asking us if they can hold onto the vehicle not just for the hour or the two they need, but for five days or for seven days. So, we've really pivoted our offerings in the last month or two just to provide what we call dedicated access. It's gone really well. It's very early. We're just ramping up, but many of our members are now using our service for seven days at a time and signing up for a month at a time. So, that's been a very interesting transition. Again, it gets back to having an organization that is nimble, having a technology that's nimble to allow us to quickly respond to our members' needs. That's been a core enabler of some of the technology changes and upgrades that we've made recently.

Yogesh Gupta:

One of the things that I, as a consumer, wonder about at this point is, do I really need to look at my mobility needs very differently? After all, more and more people are working from home. I'm able to do all my work from home as is everybody else in my company, but we haven't gone into the office for months. Even when things go back to being normal again, the question is what is next? In terms of what is next, I see that there's a tremendous opportunity potentially for a company like Zipcar to say, "You know what? I think you guys don't need to own a car." I have a Zipcar actually fascinatingly just across the street from where I live in Boston. If I'm going to go into the office one day a week, why do I really need to own one? So, I think that this could actually be potentially, from an outsider's perspective, a phenomenal opportunity for Zipcar.

Tracey Zhen:

Our ambition is really to take cars off the road, right? When we think about our mission as a company, it's really about taking cars off the road, hopefully contributing to more sustainable cities. Maybe the crisis has changed this a bit, but congestion and carbon emissions, that's been a big, big problem that many cities are facing. For every Zipcar that we put on the grid, we take away the need for 13 personal cars. So, that's been a really interesting and powerful statistic that we hold on to as a company and as a mission. Maybe commuting patterns are going to change, so why own a car? The burdens of car ownership, not only is it expensive, but it's also not very good for the environment. I think perhaps this pandemic in some ways is forcing people to rethink.

Tracey Zhen:

In your case specifically, do I need to own two cars? Do I need to pay for two parking spots? I think obviously our very savvy urban night members are also thinking the same thing and coming to us and say, "You know what? I actually don't want to own a car or I've never owned a car. Whether I need to use your service for two hours to go to the grocery store or maybe I'm thinking about having to commute a couple of days a week, maybe I use a service for two days a week." So, we're really trying to provide services that's an alternative to car ownership, which will be not just good from an economic standpoint but also from a carbon reduction standpoint.

Yogesh Gupta:

Anything we can do to improve that truly can be amazingly positive. So, have you begun to see any data, any facts, anything that basically would make us think that the world is moving and maybe using this opportunity of the COVID-19 in a positive way to have a better world going forward that we've had?

Tracey Zhen:

We've been doing a lot of surveying recently just to understand where consumer sentiment is going to be in this new normal. We did a survey recently where we got 2,000 urbanites mostly. What we were pleasantly surprised to see was that Zipcar ranked third in terms of their comfort level after walking and cycling. These are some of our members, so there's a little bit of bias there. But, it was just more of a check in with our members to say, "Hey, given that the world has changed, what are your attitudes towards using the service?" Right? So I think for us, we're in this very interesting time where we're really thinking about what is the breadth of service offerings that we want to have available to our members. It's a few minutes to join. You get in, you jump in and you drive, and you're back. Right? You don't think about insurance. You don't think about parking. You don't think about gas even.

Tracey Zhen:

The disruption where we really want to go after is about car ownership. That sounds very bold. But I think that amidst all of this crisis, the challenge that we see around the cost of living in a city, the sustainability challenges we mentioned earlier, consumers are more and more less focused on, at least in the younger generation, ownership of things. Right? People pay for access for everything now, for music, for a TV, for clothes even. So, why own a car? We're no different. So, I think that's what we're really thinking about is we see consumer attitudes changing towards more pay-for-access models. We see the demand changing for instant access. I think all of that really bodes well for Zipcar and the future of mobility and where we see ourselves playing longterm.

Yogesh Gupta:

To have such longterm positive outcomes will be phenomenal for Zipcar. But I'm sure in the short term, there are some serious challenges that you faced and your organization has faced. What have you seen there when it comes to the near term?

Tracey Zhen:

The short term, I think like many other companies in the transportation sector, with COVID, you're just triage. Right? You're in triage mode. You want to make sure your employees are safe and you want to make sure your members are safe. The problems around the cost of owning a car, the ownership of the vehicle and the impact they have on cities, those big problems don't go away. Maybe congestion will come down a bit as more and more companies like ours are thinking about, well, do I need to go in, right? Is remote working viable longterm for my organization? I think many tech companies are now saying, "We don't have to go back in 2020 even." So, I think I'm very optimistic, perhaps a little bit biased as well, on what I think the future holds. But, I do think that we can't really lose sight of our longterm strategy and our direction.

Tracey Zhen:

I think a lot of times with these disruptions in business, I think from my team and I, when we talk about all this, what are we doing short term and does that change our longterm views of the business? I think the answer is no. Any way we look at it, we're like, "No, still trying to solve this very big problem of car ownership." We're still going after that market. Owning a car is the second most expensive household item. It's that mindset shift that I think that's the heart problem. Perhaps this pandemic is actually going to help people rethink whether or not they need to own a car.

Yogesh Gupta:

You're absolutely right, Tracey. And so, I'm sure things will change when it comes to the consumer landscape and our attitudes towards car and mobility, and getting from point A to point B in a way that is effective, safe, reliable and secure. So, I am looking forward to this wonderful new world. One question that I always wonder about and I like to ask folks like yourselves is if you were giving advice to all the audience that we have, our audience is entrepreneurs, they are folks who want to be running companies, if they're not, how would they are, they want to start their businesses, what advice would you give to them in terms of being a good leader?

Tracey Zhen:

One of the biggest challenges as a leader is you're constantly managing through change. Perhaps, COVID is a very extreme example of change and disruption, right? I think that you have to always think about what can I do as a leader to make sure that we're weathering this change as best as we can. It really comes down to communications and transparency in those communications. The advice I would give for any, whether you're running a small startup to a large organization, that the importance of regular communications and transparency to your organization around the good and the bad. Sometimes, you have to say, "Oh gosh, I have to repeat myself over and over again." I think yes. My advice is that yes, when you're sick of repeating yourself, you're doing a good job. So, I think that would be my advice. It's really communicate, communicate, communicate.

Yogesh Gupta:

That's really good advice, especially in times like this, but I think even at all times. It has been such a pleasure chatting with you, Tracey. I have really enjoyed our conversation and I am sure so has our audience. Thank you so much for making time during this tough period to be with us here and have a wonderful day.

Tracey Zhen:

Likewise. Thank you so much for having me.

Tom Hopcroft:

Thanks for joining us today on the Tech Trail. We hope you've picked up some new insights to help you on your journey. Please tweet your key takeaways with #techtrail and be sure to subscribe to get the latest episodes. Special thanks to our production partner, Matter. We'll be taking our next journey with Bill Wagner and Donald Levine. I look forward to seeing you out there on the Tech Trail.