As technology continues to impact all sectors, women have been instrumental in empowering the tech space and have acquired coveted positions in leading organizations. Increasingly, women entrepreneurs are contributing to the technology space with an extra dose of grit, perseverance, and strength of purpose.
One such tech leader is Donna Wilczek, the Vice President of Product Strategy and Innovation at Coupa. Donna is an energetic software executive with more than 15 years of experience in both fast-paced and large technology companies. She is a dynamic leader with a particular passion for working with colleagues to make customers wildly successful. She engages this passion for customer success through such vehicles as the Coupa Executive Advisory Board, of which she is an executive sponsor. She is also an inventor with three software patents created with her Coupa colleagues.
Born and raised in a working class neighborhood blocks away from Midway Airport in Chicago, Donna could never have imagined a career in the heart of Silicon Valley as a leader at a NASDAQ-listed company. As a child, she was surrounded by people who made their living through manual labor and sheer hard work. Naturally, she began on the same path but her love of learning changed her course.
“Growing up, extreme hard work was at the center of everything I saw, but learning was at the center of what I loved. Starting at the age of 14, I spent many summer mornings working on a factory floor packing tea boxes and trying to be faster and more efficient with every pallet that went out the door,” said Wilczek in a recent interview. “After my morning job ended, I would then go to work at a video store. But I had a book ready to read in any spare moment.”
Even though Donna was a straight A student, her love of knowledge propelled her to spend the money she earned on after school classes.
“To this day, my mom teases me that I must have been the only 15 year old around that had a goal of using their personal earnings to pay for tutoring to get even more A’s.” But it was also Donna’s mom that inspired her to strive for excellence and who encouraged her that she could do anything she put her mind to.
Donna’s very large immigrant Polish family and extended family demonstrated the true meaning of community. “My parents and relatives helped everyone and always looked out for one another,” said Wilczek. “I was the middle child with five siblings. My two older sisters were incredibly supportive and I did everything I could to help with my three younger siblings.” This combination of grit, hard work, love of learning, empathy, and a focus on results would prove to be the very foundation of her success. In our interview with Donna, we talked about these critical success factors.
The Spirit of Innovation
Donna fundamentally believes that “none of us is as smart as all of us.” She brings a collaborative spirit to problem solving, engaging customers, end users, colleagues, and other experts around the world, diving in and turning over every rock to understand both the big picture and the details of the market and its problems. When asked about her views on tech innovation she shares “It starts with a People are the center of business. The more you genuinely care about making the other person successful, the more successful you will be deep passion for solving problems and empathy for the people experiencing them. You need to truly care. If you dig in on something you deeply care about and set your sights on understanding every angle of the problem, it makes it easier to create an innovative solution.”
Donna finds tremendous joy in helping others succeed. She is a firm believer in the exponential impact created when you lift, encourage, and support one another. In her words, “This is how 10 people can execute as 100, or 100 as 1,000; it creates an exponential impact of every individual. As we grow as a company, the key is infusing this spirit by modeling this spirit daily and creating a community filled with people (both colleagues and customers) wanting to win together.” Donna also encourages men to understand and embrace the value of diversity and to support women leaders. When men and women are united in this goal, an environment is created in which women can more smoothly and effectively rise to leadership positions and be successful in these positions.
Shooting for the Stars
With Coupa since 2011, Donna has held a variety of key leadership roles that have helped propel Coupa from early startup days to a public company with $260 million annual revenue. Donna spoke to us about the principle of striving for excellence. “When I was a little kid, my mom instilled in me that nothing is impossible. It’s no wonder I thrive on working with my colleagues to reimagine and create our industry’s future. The lofty shared vision creates a huge sense of purpose. Over and over I find that my mom was so right – get rid of self-limiting thoughts and shoot for the stars.”