(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)
Here is my interview with Amit Knaani, an amazing female startup founder and an entrepreneur with experience in building SaaS and FinTech products. Amit is a Co-Founder and CPO of hibob.
What makes you do what you do?
It’s a complicated question of course, but I’ve always been fascinated by how and why people do what they do. Being a product person is a bit like being a naturalist or anthropologist. I want to make products that will have an effect on people’s lives, and I want people to love using them. My professional motivation initially comes from there.
Having spent many years in technology I now have a complete understanding of how technology can work to better and simplify people’s lives. To free them up from the burden of complexity and give them time to do what they really do. Take hibob for example, my latest startup. I have no experience in HR whatsoever, but I know how to build products which take an existing complexity and make it simple, to disrupt existing practices and reinvent them for the next generation. This is now my fundamental motivation.
How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I didn’t start with a master plan to get here! Originally I wanted to be a photographer and I was on track for a Ph.D. in photography and cultural studies. Then, all of a sudden, I understood that this was going to be too theoretical for me. I had discovered the world of online forums and communities whilst working as a photo editor for a news site, I promised myself that my next job would FORCE me to spend all day in online communities, and that’s what happened!
So my way to product management was a winding road, based in psychology and the need to know why people do what they do, how they communicate online, and how it affects their lives; how online text, pictures, and visual entities become a language of their own, and this is still what drives me. I was lucky to get into the product world and I’m still in love with my work.
I’ve met lots of people that have pushed me to be better, and I’m always on the lookout for new techniques and interesting combinations of the above, it’s a never-ending search.
Why did you take on this role/start this startup especially since this is perhaps a stretch or challenge for you (or viewed as one since you are not the usual leadership demographics)?
When I met my business partners I was at a personal and professional crossroads, and I needed a new challenge. Being able to affect the way people manage their employees and deal with the human side of organizations was something I couldn’t resist.
As a single mum it was even tougher to make the decision to commit, but my girls are now 14 & 12, and I had never stopped work to have kids. They were there from the first day of my career and I knew I could do it with them. Also, I’m lucky enough to be working with my best friends, and that’s priceless.
Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industries or did you look for one or how did that work?
I always wanted a mentor but never had one. I’ve met loads of amazing people over the years and have great friends who come from different industries that I can consult with. The one time I had something close to a mentor was when I worked with ooVoo. I became really close to an amazing woman who was the HR for the company. She was (and still is) strong, super smart, funny, and very very supportive. I learned a lot from her.
Being a woman in a very male-dominated industry can be tough. All my bosses were men, and even if they were the best men ever, I still couldn’t find a female character I felt I could identify with. However, I do have an everlasting role model in the funny and crazy Liz Lemon from 30Rock (http://30rock.wikia.com/wiki/Liz_Lemon)! She doesn’t take s*it from anyone, she is a mum, a friend, a boss, a teacher, and a devil all in one. She might look all confused, but at the end of the day, nothing can happen without her.
Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I could talk about my team forever. I’ve always understood there are lots of things I can’t do, and part of being a grown-up manager is to understand your own limitations. So, I’ve always made sure to hire people that are so much better than me. I try to find passionate people, who care like I do. It may be harder to manage them as they demand attention and respect, have never-ending daily challenges, and even create a healthy tension between strong smart people with strong opinions and tons of creativity – but I believe that this is the only way to do it. I’m totally in love with my team, and it’s been like that in every company I’ve worked with.
Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
My team includes four women, my company as a whole is 48% female, and our Chairman (Lady Barbara Judge) is a woman. That wasn’t a deliberate decision – they were just the best people for the job. I believe in giving people opportunities and to have faith in their capabilities, just like those who gave me chances when I was starting my career.
What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I wish I knew the answer! I think it’s all about the people, and my way is to always move between great people. I try to help others and to make them better, and it always comes back to me. I think you should never stop searching and never stop learning- from your industry and from others. Always look around you, and always search for more.
Advice for others?
Currently, I’m a Co-Founder and the Chief Product Officer of bob, a great young startup that aims to change the way that businesses manage their people. My advice? It’s similar to what I wrote above – be kind, be passionate, and never give up. You don’t need a dream, you need to live in the now and love what you do, otherwise, it’s not worth it.
To learn more about bob, please see https://www.hibob.com/.
I am a huge fan and cheerleader of Women Leaders — If you know of an AMAZING Woman Founder, CEO, Leader in Tech or you are one yourself — Write me here.
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