Kavitha Mariappan

Inspirational Woman: Kavitha Mariappan | Executive Vice President, Customer Experience & Transformation, Zscaler

Meet Kavitha Mariappan, Executive Vice President of Customer Experience & Transformation at Zscaler

Kavitha Mariappan

Kavitha Mariappan is Executive Vice President of Customer Experience and Transformation at Zscaler. With more than 20 years of technology and go-to-market experience, she is responsible for driving transformation and innovation across all facets of the company’s business, customers, strategy, products, and operations.

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

I was born in Malaysia but moved to Australia when I was very young, where I grew up and completed my tertiary education and early career.  I learned from an early age that I had a deep desire to explore, challenge, and build the world around me. I became naturally curious about the engineering of the world and realised I really enjoyed tinkering with toys, devices, you name it. I studied engineering at university, where I was one of nine female engineers in a class of 300+. Early on in my career at Philips Electronics, I was selected to attend a two-year “Emerging Leaders Program” in the U.S. I was one of eight candidates selected and the only woman.

Currently, I’m the Executive Vice President, Customer Experience and Transformation at Zscaler. In this role I drive global transformation and innovation across all facets of the company’s business, customers, strategy, products and operations, with a strong focus on customer experience, advocacy and business value. This role was created specifically so I could guide the company towards our “north star” – the customer and purpose-built technology.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I started my career as an systems engineer and architect and then very quickly pivoted into a field-facing role. As a systems engineer, my job was to take what came out of R&D and make it consumable to my customers. I started to realise we were continually building products without actually listening to our customers, so  I moved from Australia to the U.S. to take a product management role and learn first hand how and why products get built. When we build technology, it must be purposeful and consumable, otherwise it won’t deliver outcomes. This led me in time to embark on a role that was very unorthodox for an engineering and product leader – I took a marketing job.

Now at Zscaler, I run an entire organisation built out of former customers who have actually deployed our products, including  former CIOs, CISOs, CTOS, customer programs leaders, and executive connectors from all around the world. I brought together people who can talk to our customers (and our future customers) about why and how embarking on their secure transformation journey is critical to success. We do that with the empathy of having walked in their shoes.

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

The road has been lonely at times being the only woman in the room, or the only woman leading a team, and critically, the only woman in a boardroom. But I never let that stop me. There weren’t many role models who looked like me when I started my career journey, but I relied on my resilience and sought out great mentors. I have always been an advocate for change, and I believe strongly that you must be the voice for the voiceless wherever possible.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

 I’ve been able to have many standout experiences on my journey so far, including building and leading highly motivated and result-driven teams that deliver revenue growth across multiple business models – enterprise sales, SaaS and open source monetisation. I’ve shaped the go-to-market strategy at high-performing startups like Databricks, and led engineering and go-to-market teams at major companies like Cisco, Riverbed and Zscaler.

One recent achievement is my role as chair of Zscaler’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee and executive sponsor of Women in Zscaler Engage (WIZE), an employee resource group that helps co-workers advance their careers and professional development, I gain a lot of fulfillment from supporting women at Zscaler and across the industry by providing access to the tools, coaching, and community they need to advance professionally. We’ve helped grow Zscaler’s women employees by 60 per cent and women engineers by 46 per cent in the last year.

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

Thanks to my father, I was introduced to math and the sciences at a very young age. Because of his influence, my interest in STEM subjects developed, and I ultimately studied engineering at university. My desire to understand how things work, to both build and deconstruct things, drove my interest in technology. I’ve always sought to be a problem-solver, and my career in cybersecurity derives from that: What can I do to help the industry reduce business risk?

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

Be authentic. The one thing I’ve learned early on in my career in tech is that you are better off being yourself. Focus on who you are and harness your individuality and talent. It will be less tiresome and you’ll find that everyone will appreciate you more for it.

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

There is still work to be done for all of the progress that women have achieved in recent years. Women lead more Fortune 500 companies than ever before, but they still represent only 7.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs. The gender wage gap persists, and maddeningly, true wage parity may be a century away.

As corporate leaders, we have a responsibility to address such inequities. Aside from the ethical and moral purpose of such an effort, it’s just good business. Accenture has reinforced what should be accepted, common-sense knowledge: the more equal a corporate culture, the greater the innovation. Report author and Accenture Chief Leadership and Human Resources Officer, Ellyn Shook, outlined strong cultural inclusivity almost as a corporate superpower, calling it “a powerful multiplier of innovation and growth.

Leaders that want to foster the same type of innovation and growth can take action now to establish their own cultures of inclusivity.

Research by Catalyst suggests that “Women are over-represented in support functions like administration, while men tend to be concentrated in operations, profit and loss, and research and development—all viewed as critical experiences for CEO and board-level positions.” Corporate leaders must recognise their own companies’ blind spots and take action to amend them. It’s no simple fix, but it can start with aggressive diversity recruiting, establishing mentoring programs for women employees, institutionalising pay equity, and ensuring that all voices — especially those that have been traditionally marginalised or diminished — are heard and amplified.

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

The percentage of women in cybersecurity is only 24 percent, and while that stat is a slight increase from previous years, more can be done to attract, mentor, and retain more women in the industry. Under my leadership, Zscaler launched an official mentoring program with resources for both mentors and mentees. The future of technology is bigger than speeds and feeds – it’s often about the impact individual companies have on their employees and communities. Technology can unlock the power of society’s collective potential and creative ability, by sharing knowledge and promoting diverse thinking from different backgrounds. Together, we can continue to innovate and solve business problems, but we must also use our abilities to solve real, human challenges of today and tomorrow.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

 One of my favorite books of all time is Legacy by James Kerr, about the New Zealand rugby team—The All Blacks. It’s a business book that weaves in the Māori culture and constantly comes back to the burning question of “what is the legacy you’re going to leave behind?” It’s about being a good ancestor and planting trees you’ll never see. It isn’t about instant gratification or investing in quick returns, but instead about what you’re doing for others, and the seeds you will sow for future generations to reap. It’s a book about leading a team or an organisation – but, more importantly, about leading a life.