(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.)

Today’s interview is with Paola Bonomo, a tech investor. Paola has been a member of Italian Angels for Growth – the leading group of business angels in her country – since 2009. She is also active as a Non Executive Director at AXA Assicurazioni.

In 2015 and again in 2016, Paola was recognized as one of the Inspiring Fifty, the fifty most inspiring women in European technology.

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What makes you do what you do?

What drives me is helping new companies succeed. We live in the middle of an unprecedented disruption where new business models are created each day and a small team can seize the opportunity to radically reimagine a product, a process, a business. As angel investors, our group contributes not just capital, but also and perhaps above all our skills and our network. My main driver every day is meeting entrepreneurs, coaching them, helping them grow; and I often end up learning from them.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?

I had to make a major change in my life to pursue my dream of working in the digital industry. In 2005, after a long consulting career, I left McKinsey, where I had grown and become a partner very quickly, but where I would no longer progress enough to satisfy the Firm’s “up or out” rule. I have worked since then both at digitally native companies (eBay at first, more recently Facebook) and at traditional companies who needed to reinvent their customer experience (Vodafone). I would say that it took being humble, being willing to learn, and also to relearn each day. The Web I learned as a marketer in 2005 is no longer relevant today: the mobile revolution has gone full circle, browse and even search are no longer the dominant interaction modes, it’s all about scrolling feeds and communicating (placing orders, transacting) via chat. Video on mobile simply wasn’t a big thing three years ago, now it’s the future of creating and sustaining brands. So don’t go into this industry if the speed of change makes you uncomfortable!

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 joined Italian Angels for Growth, the group only had a handful of women members. Today we’ve grown: we’re still only 15% of the group, but we have a Vice Chairwoman and many women active in screening and investing. Another advantage of joining an angel group is that, while in the real world I am somewhat of a veteran, in the investing world I am still considered on the young side!

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 had a senior partner I considered a mentor while I was at McKinsey. After that, what I did ended up being too new for experienced mentors to understand, and I really had to start charting my own course.

How did you make a match if you did and how did you end up being mentored by him?

At McKinsey, the match happened quite naturally, based on a string of successful projects together, especially in the telecommunications industry. Several years later, he became a published author and I was behind the scenes of some of his books as an early reader, offering suggestions on working drafts and people for him to contact and interview. If I ever write a book, I’ll get him to read the drafts!

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?

I’m always on the lookout for bright young people. Sometimes it’s connections through mutual friends: I recently became an advisor to a fintech startup because I was introduced to the founder by a friend from Florence and I introduced him in turn to a London-based investor. The only way to keep those relationships going is really through loyalty, commitment, and always thinking about what would make sense for the talent. And because startups often fail, hold up the good work that they did and give them a second chance.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?

I am consciously very much of a diversity supporter, for many reasons including eradicating groupthink and fostering better team performance; at the same time, I’m also aware that, just like almost everybody else, I do harbor some unconscious bias towards those who do not share my particular type of privilege. I try to identify such bias when it happens, in myself or those around me, and bring it out in the open.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?

Great investors are those who’ve had successful exits in their portfolios – I’m still working my way towards there. In general, being a leader isn’t about what you do, it’s about what you can get others to do. Remember that the smartest followers often get to choose their leaders. How do you get chosen? So, for example, if you’re investing in a hot startup, the founders probably have more than one option when it comes to whose money they’ll take. Think about your value proposition very clearly: what can I do for the company that will get me this deal? How can I inspire them towards what they don’t yet know they’re capable of? And if I’m the lead investor, but I’m not funding the whole round, who else do I want to invest together with me? Finally – just like in this example – you may lead when the founders need direction, and you may follow when the business is firing on all cylinders. If you get hung up on titles, labels, decision-making powers and so on, that’s a big distraction from truly leading.

Advice for others?

I’d like to see more women with the courage and drive to start a business and get it off the ground. I’m also concerned about the relative lack of women in the STEM education pipeline. In the European Union alone, by 2020 we will have 800,000 tech jobs to fill that don’t exist today: surely we don’t want to leave them all to men?


To learn more about AXA Assicurazioni, please see https://www.axa.it/.

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