Bela Stepanova

Bela Stepanova is VP of Product at Iterable, a leading cross-channel marketing platform, where she’s been able to nurture her passion for building enterprise products with design and data science at the forefront. 

Bela has spent the last 14 years building products, used by millions of people across the globe. Prior to joining Iterable, she worked as a Sr. Director of Product at Box, where she led the Web product teams and founded Box’s Growth team. As a product leader, her biggest passion is people—from bringing a user-first mindset to B2B products, to building diverse teams and investing in the next generation of leaders.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I’ve spent the last 14 years building products, used by millions of people across the globe. As a product leader, my biggest passion is people—from bringing a user-first mindset to B2B products, to building diverse teams and investing in the next generation of leaders.

Prior to joining Iterable, I worked as a Sr. Director of Product at Box, where I led the Web product teams and founded Box’s Growth team. Before that, I ran product and engineering teams building large-scale financial platforms for Accenture clients. I also spent a few years helping global non-profits create and execute their CRM & e-commerce technology strategies.

I’ve been VP of Product at Iterable for 11 months now, where I’ve been able to nurture my passion for building enterprise products with design and data science at the forefront. This has been an incredible year of innovation for us. Our most recent product launch, Brand AffinityTM, is the first-ever intelligent personalisation solution to help marketers better measure customer sentiment.

Using AI technology, Brand Affinity is designed for marketers to transform customer communications based on their interests and engagement levels. The platform provides understanding  of customer sentiment at scale, helping marketers create effective messaging strategies. This was an exciting technology challenge to work on. And I’m incredibly proud of our team’s accomplishments and our impact. One particular example is near to my heart—by leveraging Brand Affinity in their customer journeys, dgtl fundraising doubled conversion of engaged prospects into regular donors for Alzheimer’s research.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Not in a traditional sense. To me, there are three major ingredients to a great career: trajectory of learning, opportunity to make an impact and most importantly the group of humans to share the journey with. I find that if you are able to bring those three aspects together, everything else follows.

When it comes to intellectual fulfillment, I continuously ask myself: do I have a big challenge to tackle and do I have an opportunity to have a meaningful impact? I love building our product at Iterable. From a reach point of view, we operate at one of the largest scales any software product can—collectively our customers interact with billions of people around the world. This kind of challenge keeps me excited to wake up every day—from the technology side to the product design possibilities. I get to work with our team to bring the latest and greatest of AI and data science to life, make our customers’ lives easier via design decisions and re-imagine the ways technology can unlock human creativity.

And most importantly, it is all about people. At Iterable, I found a group of people who believe in each other, what we are trying to accomplish, and live every day with shared values of humility, balance, trust and growth mindset. The connections we make every day can define the rest of our careers and how we come together colors every single experience as we learn and grow together.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

No journey is without obstacles. I’m sure everyone at some point of their career experiences working with someone who has a style they are not used to, having to negotiate their salary after finding out they are underpaid, or being on either side of a potentially tough situation like an organization restructure. A lot of times there are no perfect solutions, but looking back across many challenges, few lessons are constant: be human first, know your data, act timely and be transparent.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I started coding when I was 12, and I love everything about building products and the positive impact that technology can have on our lives. But investing in people is by far my proudest achievement—giving opportunities to people from different backgrounds to break into tech careers, coaching women how to advance past what sometimes could feel like a neverending mid-level of career, finding the superpowers in people and ways to make those shine by pairing them with the right opportunities.

So much in a career can rest in having the right exposure—someone to open just one extra door for you, to push you out of your comfort zone, to help you lean into your talents and believe in yourself. I learn a tremendous amount from people I mentor and my teams. It is the most fulfilling experience to see them shine. There is only so much one can achieve on their own but if we invest in each other, the impact is exponentially higher.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Curiosity. Early on in my career I have worked in a number of different industries. I also learned about the different aspects of building products by taking on a variety of roles from software engineering to technical operations and product management. All the zig-zags in my path helped me find my passions, and also taught me what I’m not best at. And as a result, I always look at building teams like a puzzle—complementary strengths of team members being individual puzzle pieces. Diversity of thought, passion, experiences, and backgrounds is key to building the best products.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

A career path is never as straightforward as resumes might lead one to believe.  Be true to what career ingredients matter the most to you and pursue that, without letting social pressure push you in a different direction. Whilst compensation and titles definitely have merit, don’t forget about culture, learning opportunities and the ability to make an impact. And as LinkedIn might have proved to us, we are all only a few connections apart—invest in your relationships with people along the way.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

When I first started programming, my mom introduced me to the only software engineer she knew for inspiration. This was in a small town in Russia in the ‘90s, so he might have been the only one. When she left the room, he told me I shouldn’t study computer science because I am a girl. The first career counselor in the academic setting I’ve ever met, also told me as much. Perhaps this doesn’t happen as often now, but succeeding in an environment where you are a minority can be hard. The best thing that ever worked for me is creating my own “board of directors.” Everyone needs a group of people who pull you up, believe in you, challenge you, and remind you of your passions and strengths to help you succeed.  This group doesn’t have to include only women, or even only people in tech, as long as they are in your corner and support you every step of the way.

What do you think companies can do to support the progression of women working in technology?

Improving the representation of women in tech should be a key priority for 2021. As we strive to see more women at the top, diversity and inclusion must be at the core of every business. There are a  number of things that companies can do to support women to progress, such as offering flexible work schedules, having great paid maternity leave programs, offering ongoing personal development training and having an executive team that’s intentional and assertive about increasing female leadership. It is also important to create accountability around equal pay and advancement opportunities  for women and overall equality in the workplace.

At Iterable, diversity and inclusion is integral to our ethos, and I’m proud to share that we have just been ranked no.6 in Girls Club’s Top 25 Companies Where Women Want to Work.

What do you think companies can do to support to progress the careers of women working in technology?

Create inclusive environments that support and inspire women and people from all backgrounds. A few examples come to mind: Women are more likely to be successful in environments that are collaborative, to speak up if there are other women in the room, to apply to jobs that don’t use biased language in job descriptions, and to get promoted in a culture that values not only outcomes but also how people worked with others to get there. Creating an inclusive workplace is not a one-time campaign or initiative; it is a fundamental value that requires intentionality and accountability all across the organization.

There are currently only 17 per cnet of women working in tech, if you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

In my first job out of college, I was the only woman engineer in the company. And since then, there were times where I was the only woman executive in the room. And I found that so many women who were trying to get into Product roles at the time were holding back from asking for help until there was a woman in a leadership position. It is just as important for companies to look at the percentage of historically underrepresented groups in the leadership positions as overall. When there is diversity at the leadership level, magic can happen.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, eg podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

There are many wonderful women in tech groups that specialize in specific roles within tech. But it doesn’t have to be only women’s groups. I’d recommend combining that with events that focus on particular aspects of tech—many companies host events and webinars that deep dive into topics like building for scale, conducting user research, learning API best practices, designing AI products, using data science to make product decisions—practically anything you might want to learn. Those are usually free and can be found via services like Meetup or Eventbrite, or by subscribing to newsletters from tech companies in the field of interest. Many VC firms also publish insightful podcasts where experts share their experiences and market developments. Last but not least, if you have an opportunity, invest in workshops and programs taught by practitioners. For example, I’m a Reforge alumni and found it to be a career accelerator at a time when I took on a new professional challenge. I absolutely love being a part of their workshops now as a guest speaker.

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