Maggie was the first female CMO in SAP’s history and one of the few Asian-American leaders at the company. Diversity was a key element in her thought leadership program. It was from her that I first heard the term “to pay it forward”. She put it into practice wherever possible, giving women and people of colour a voice, a platform, opportunities for promotion, and visibility.
After leaving SAP in 2017, Maggie established Tenshey, a tech-enabled startup with a mission to advance diversity and leadership through executive coaching. I suggest to Maggie that it would not be a stretch to say that Tenshey is the embodiment of what she stands for. She nods in agreement: “I really believe in equality. And I also believe that if everyone is given the same opportunity, people will rise to the occasion.”
Now Tenshey has a handful of employees on the core team and coaches on five continents. The company won an innovation award from The Diversity Journal in December of 2020 and Maggie has just published her first book, “Decoding Sponsorship: The Secret Strategy to Accelerate Your Career and Launch into Leadership”.
You were in the corporate world for years. What was the lightbulb moment for you when you decided to become an entrepreneur?
I never dreamed of being an entrepreneur myself. But then in 2017, after I left SAP, I thought what do I want to do next? What is the next thing that is going to connect with my personal purpose? And one of the key things that always make me happy was seeing the next generation leaders grow. So the lightbulb moment for me was when in September of 2017, I was invited to speak with a class of executive MBA students at Cornell, for the Johnson school, my alma mater. And one of the questions was, were coaches, mentors and sponsors a big part of your growth. And I said absolutely all of the above.
I’m like, this is it, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to start a business to help more women and minority leaders to get an executive coach as they climb that corporate ladder.
Where did the funding come from?
I self-funded Tenshey. There are no other investors other than myself, and that was by design. One of the decisions I made was that because this is truly my passion project, I really want the company to go the direction that I see fit. And so from that perspective, I feel like it is better for me to continue to be the sole investor of the company, so that we can grow as fast or not as fast as we like, as long as we are focusing on our mission.
What are you most proud of?
When I see our one-on-one coaching members, or members of our sponsorship programs for women having their own lightbulb moments, and seeing them really take advantage of the opportunity that their companies are giving them for the development and taking charge of their careers and seeing them grow – those are proud moments.
Talk to me about the tension between maintaining quality and growing the business. Is there anything that you wouldn’t sacrifice?
I would not sacrifice our mission. Because the most important thing to me in founding Tenshey was our mission to advance diversity. I always go back to, what is the core mission, what is it that we want to be known for, and how do we drive inclusive leadership. If I have to choose between growing faster or staying true to who we are and what we do, I would choose the latter every time.
It’s early days with Tenshey. But have you thought about an exit strategy? Or is there some way you’re combating founder dependence on your business?
Let me divide them into two. When I think about my exit strategy, I would say, to your point, this is still very early days, and we have a lot of work to do to on our mission. So this is not necessarily something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. What I spend time thinking about is how do we continue to make an impact?
Founder dependence is something I think more about. Can I take a vacation for a week or two without any problem, can I step away from the business for a month? There’s a part of me that thinks we need to continue to build the brand so whether Maggie is going to be part of it or not, it shouldn’t matter, because our mission will continue to live on. And at the same time, in the early days of your business, of course, it is going to be very dependent on the founder. As you continue to grow, hopefully the brand will come first instead of the founder.
Who are some of the executives, world leaders or public figures that you really admire?
Indra Nooyi, former chairman and CEO of Pepsi is someone I absolutely admire. I have seen her speak at events. I mean, that authenticity, and the humour that comes through, I’m super excited about reading her book.
Bill McDermott, you know, CEO of ServiceNow, and who was my boss at SAP, I mean, Bill always taught us that trust is the only human currency. So whether you’re working with people in your function or working with business leaders, building trust is really the first step to do business.
Stefan Ries, another colleague of mine at SAP is a tremendous business leader.
Jeff Storey, CEO of CenturyLink, who was then CEO of Level 3. And he is also another leader that I was very fortunate to get to work for, because of his integrity and always focusing on the customers.
My next question is about what you stand for. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say Tenshey is the embodiment of what you stand for.
That’s absolutely right. I wouldn’t be sitting here speaking with you and talking about my career journey if I didn’t have people who were before me and pulling me forward. I believe that I now have the responsibility to pay it forward, to help the next generation leaders to grow and to really give my voice to the causes that I feel strongly about, including diversity.
What kind of investment tips do you have for other solo business owners, who maybe have not self funded their businesses?
You have to be absolutely passionate about what you do. Having the passion is not for the good days, it’s for the bad days. You want to be so connected to what you do that when the bad days are here, you can conquer them.
The key thing is, every step of the way, think about what milestones you need. Honestly, most of the time, people are not only investing in the idea, they’re investing in you as a leader. So you want to be prepared for what you have achieved and what you’re going to achieve with the money you’re going to get.