Interview by Ray Tsai on February 4, 2015
Even in the chilly evening wind, Alena greeted me with a warm smile and offered her hand with a “Nice to meet you!” outside Cosi near Madison Square Park. Once inside, we settled at a table with two cups of coffee, and I started recording our conversation. Alena laughs and says “I’m really not that interesting, but I’ll try my best!”
Alena Chiang is the Head of User Acquisition at pymetrics, a New York startup that has created a neuroscience-based online recruiting platform. While planning the TAP Tech Tour later this month at pymetrics, TAP-NY found out about Alena’s background in sales at General Mills before attending Columbia Business School and joining pymetrics.
We sat down with Alena to learn more about her experience making the transition from six years in corporate sales to startup marketing.
TAP-NY: So can you tell us a little about your background?
Alena: Of course. I was born in Texas, grew up in Vegas, moved back to Texas, and went to UT Austin. Post-school, I moved to Arkansas to work for General Mills in the Sales division. They have a sales rotation program, so I got to live in a bunch of places I normally wouldn’t have. It was really fun, and I liked it a lot.
T: Did you know what you wanted to do when you were in school?
A: I double majored in marketing and biology. During my freshman year, I thought I was going to be pre-med, and later considered being a dentist. I soon realized I didn’t really want to do either. When I got into the business school at UT, I decided to major in marketing. That ended up being what I do now, so it all just worked out.
T: How do you feel about your time working at a corporation?
A: Sales is really interesting, and I learned a lot. I would say most of what I use now actually came from my sales job. Sales gives you a good exposure to pitching to people. You get to understand a lot of what drives how people behave, which is very useful. It also taught me a lot about analytics and how important it is to make data-driven decisions.
My client was Walmart, and you learn a huge amount of things when you work for a large corporation like Walmart. While at General Mills, I was always very interested in the marketing side of things. Within the consumer packaged goods industry, you get to work with a lot of very strong brands, like Cheerios, Hamburger Helper, Green Giant, and Betty Crocker. And marketing is what drives these companies – companies like Pepsi and P&G. Marketing is the boss. So I knew I wanted to do marketing. And in order to do that, I had to get my MBA.
T: Why do you say you need an MBA to go into marketing?
A: So actually within the CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) industry, that’s a thing. For General Mills and other large CPG companies, marketing positions are generally reserved for MBAs. So in order for me to advance, I knew I had to get an MBA.
T: So after business school, you started working at pymetrics, right?
T: Were you looking for jobs in general, or were you targeting startups?
A: So when I applied to school, I wrote my essays on “this is what I want to do with the rest of my life, and this is how an MBA is going to help me.” Then I got to school, and I realized I don’t want to do any of that stuff. There so many other awesome things out there I hadn’t even considered. So that was really an eye-opening experience for me. I didn’t want to work in a big corporation anymore. I wanted to do something smaller.
So after I graduated, I got married, and decided to find a job at a startup. I was one of the many people who didn’t have a job when they graduated, which was really stressful at first. But it worked out. Jess Barrett, a classmate I went to Columbia with, recruited me into pymetrics!
T: Can you gives us an overview of pymetrics?
A: pymetrics is a neuroscience-based recruiting platform. Our two founders did their postdocs in neuroscience at MIT. Then our CEO, Frida, went on to Harvard Business School and realized that the recruiting process was broken: simply looking at resumes is not a good way to evaluate people. So she called up Julie, and they created pymetrics to revolutionize the way recruiting is done today.
pymetrics offers a quick and fun series of neuroscience-based games that tell you what your strong traits are. After playing twelve or more games, you get a personalized report that tells you what your cognitive traits are – basically, how your brain works. Based on your strengths, we suggest some industries that you’d be compatible for. On the other side, we have companies within those industries coming to our platform and looking for candidates to hire. So that’s how we match people up. We say we’re like LinkedIn meets OKCupid. Come check us out at www.pymetrics.com!
T: Can you tell us about what you do at pymetrics?
A: Right now, I’m in charge of user-acquisition, which means getting people to play games on our site and attracting high-quality candidates for companies to come in and recruit. I do a lot of campus work via a campus ambassador program. I do our PR, outreach, press, and content marketing. I do basically anything to get people on our site!
T: Do you think a lot of your skills came from your corporate days?
A: Yes and no. I think being at a startup requires you to be strategic. It’s great if you could just tick through a to-do list, but you have to be aware of the overall strategy. You constantly have to ask how your current tasks fit into the overall plan. That’s something you generally do not learn at a huge company until you’re much higher up.
In a startup, you decide what to do, how it gets done, and how it’s evaluated. You don’t have that type of ownership in a large company.
T: Are there any other major differences between your startup experience and your corporate experience?
A: Uhh, I really think that everything is different (laughs).
T: Let’s start with what you like about startups.
A: I think what I really like about startups is how flexible it is. At first I was really nervous, because it’s like you’re released into this wild unknown. You have no idea where to go, what to do, and what to say. And you start to realize, that’s how it is. There’s nothing. There’s no status quo, no historical behavior, nothing – and you can literally do whatever you want.
Once you get over the fear of “oh my god, what am I doing here?”, it becomes very empowering. Mistakes happen, and that’s okay – that’s expected of you. In the corporate world, there’s a very set job description for each position that you take. You are just one cog in the wheel, and you have very set boundaries. If you have awesome ideas, that’s great. But they’re probably not going to go anywhere, because that’s outside your realm of control.
I think that’s what I really like about being in a startup: the flexibility, the freedom to do whatever and figure things out.
T: Is there anything you don’t like?
A: It would be nice to have some structure sometimes. I sometimes wish I had someone to tell me what do when I’ve reached the end of my expertise!
T: What do you do in those situations like that?
A: I call my old manager (laughs). I basically just call people who I know have done this before. I talk to a lot of my professors in business school. That’s something that’s really good about business school: all of a sudden, your network is huge. You know somebody who does anything. “Do you know someone who does sustainable power in Africa?” Actually, I do. I know lots of people who do that! That’s a great part of business school. If I don’t know something, I know someone else who does.
But there are good things about working in big corporations. I would say right out of college, there was no way I could have done a startup. I just wasn’t mature enough. I didn’t have the skills necessary to adapt so quickly.
T: If you could go back and start from the beginning, would you have done the same thing?
A: I would have done the same thing. For me, General Mills was a great place to grow up and mature and learn thing about the professional world. There’s a polish you get working with larger companies. Startups are very casual, which is great, but if you don’t know any other environment, it’s harder to develop a professional mindset.
People like to say corporate – it’s so hard and slow-moving. But there are a lot of really good things. You have so many resources at your disposal. We had access to any database that I wanted at General Mills – any sales materials, past marketing trends, consumer reports, anything I needed. At startups, we have to be scrappier because we don’t have as many resources. But if I didn’t know the things I learned at General Mills, I wouldn’t know to dig for such information. My professional path has actually suited me very well.
T: Just for reference, how long did you work in corporations?
A: I worked at General Mills for 6 and a half years, and then I went to business school.
T: Six and a half? (stares)
A: Yeah, I’m pretty old. At pymetrics, all of the people that I work with are super young!
T: You look 23.
A: (Laughs) That’s not true. It’s okay – I’m not ashamed of being old! Old people are cool too sometimes!
T: Do you have any advice for anyone trying to do a startup, whether they’re fresh out of college or three years into their current job?
A: The one thing about working at a big company is you get very comfortable. I was very used to my daily routine, and I never thought to think outside of my bubble. At a startup, you always have to think outside of your own realm of knowledge, because that’s how you learn things.
If you’re thinking about going the startup route, I would say start by reaching out to your own network and forcing yourself to talk about your ideas, or what you want to do. People will give you direction and tell you some of the things that they’ve learned. Get hungrier. When you work at a corporation, you get very content and fat and complacent. If you are thinking about doing the transition, you have to train yourself to be really hungry.
Get outside of your comfort zone and ask to meet people. Look up people on LinkedIn that are doing interesting things. Even if you don’t know specifically what you want from them, talking to people outside of your day-to-day routine really opens up your eyes. It makes you realize that there are so many amazing things going on around you, and you have no idea because it never intersects your current world. I think the main thing is to just reach out.
Responses have been edited for content and length. Opinions expressed are the views of the author/subject, and do not necessarily reflect the views of TAP-NY or its parent organization(s).