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Most Creative People

The Women Leaders Driving Lyft's Impressive Growth

Fourteen of Lyft's top 30 executives are female, including two big new hires. Here's why that matters to the fast-growing company's future.

[Photo: courtesy of Lyft]

While new Lyft CMO Kira Wampler was an intern at Intuit during business school, two female executives at the company came back from maternity leaves to huge promotions, running large parts of the business. Wampler had an offer to work at Intuit after graduation, but explored opportunities at other companies that were recruiting her. "I would ask them, can you give me an example of someone in your organization who is roughly this age, who has roughly this number of kids, who just had a promotion?" she says. "Very few could do that." Knowing that she wanted to grow both her career and her family, she returned to Intuit, where she worked for six years as an early leader in word-of-mouth marketing.

Kira Wampler

"If you see leaders in your organization who are able to succeed as whole people, that gives you the confidence that you can do that, too," she says. "We want to keep as many of these great leaders in the workforce and in our companies, bringing rich experiences to make our products and our services better."

Wampler joined Lyft in December from her most recent post at Trulia as part of the ridesharing company's expanding executive team after a year of reported five-fold growth in rides and revenue. This month, Lyft's top-level hires also include VP, Product Tali Rapaport, the former director of product development at Groupon. The arrival of Wampler and Rapaport means that 14 of Lyft's 30 executives at the director level and above—or 47%—are women, and these include leaders in engineering and operations.

Tali Rapaport

In a Silicon Valley culture that has a serious gender diversity problem, and a corporate America where the top 100 companies' executive committees were recently found to be 83% men, Lyft's executive gender balance is significant. Beyond important issues of equal opportunity, there is a wide range of well-documented reasons that having more women leaders is better for business. For Lyft in particular, where 60% of riders and 30% of drivers are female, gender diversity in decision making is critical to the company's experience-based growth strategy.

"One of the areas where I see a lot of changes is that the technology businesses that are growing today often have women as prominent users," says Rapaport. "I got to know Lyft as a user before knowing it as someone who's working on making it better. It's easier to be a great leader in a product space when you can anticipate the needs of your users."

Both Wampler's and Rapaport's first priorities at Lyft are closely related to driver and rider experience, which Wampler calls "a more human environment" than other transportation options. The company has worked hard to build a casually quirky, inclusive image that positions riders and drivers as peers (the biggest icon of this vibe, Lyft's big pink mustache, has just been downsized—it's a way-too-easy metaphor for the increased influence of women on Lyft's culture, but we'll put it out there anyway).

As Lyft's first CMO, Wampler's job is of course to communicate the company's mission, and that mission is explicitly gender-inclusive.

"Our vision is for every ride to be a Lyft ride, where we fill every seat in every car," says Wampler. "We've achieved that vision when the mom in the minivan is Lyft enabled, because technology has removed any friction for her to pass by my house when I need to get to the BART station and that's on the way to where she's going. But it's also the sense of humanity that [Lyft co-founders] John [Zimmer] and Logan [Green] came up with—sitting in the front seat, the fist bump, these rituals. For every ride to be a Lyft ride, we have to fill every seat, and you can't do that if you're only sitting in the back. And by the way, she's not going to pick you up if you only want to do that, she's already chauffeuring other people."

In her work on Lyft's product, Rapaport identifies three transportation pain points that will be a priority: streamlining users' commutes, keeping rides affordable enough that the service can be used regularly, and coordinating rides for third parties. And just as Wampler's minivan mom represents the ideal Lyft driver, Rapaport connects the third use case closely with the needs of families. "Whether a mom can call a Lyft for a kid, or someone can call a Lyft for a parent to take them to the doctor, it can really be a flexible, affordable way to get around that I think solves some very acute pain."

Aside from questions of how to provide optimal service for a diverse user base, Lyft and its main rival Uber are under ongoing fire for the potential safety risks of the ridesharing model for both passengers and drivers. The safety of women riding or driving alone is a particularly important issue—and another big reason, says Lyft's VP, People Ron Storn, that "it is important that we have strong, smart women making decisions for this company's direction." He also notes that having talented female leaders "helps recruit at all levels across all functions" and "has helped differentiate from the competition."

Kristin Sverchek

On the internal issue of parental leave, which always arises in discussions of female recruitment and retention, even Lyft is still figuring it out. General counsel Kristin Sverchek will be Lyft's first female employee to take maternity leave this month, and worked with HR to help formalize the leave policies that she and new parent employees to follow will use. The result was three months' paid maternity leave and three weeks paid paternity leave, paired with existing unlimited vacation policies that allow employees to work with managers to create customized plans. But it's not just about the work-life and parental leave policies in the books—as in Wampler's early experience at Intuit, it's critical that a company's culture doesn't see being a parent as an impediment to advancement (a common issue for women that does not tend to affect men).

"Although today's law school classes are well over 50% female, this gender diversity is not well represented in either corporate law practices or in-house at startups," says Sverchek. "Much of this is self-selecting, because women do not get supported in 'having it all'—raising families and holding high-profile careers—and there is considerable attrition." She says that having significant female leadership at a company like Lyft "helps to retain top talent by prioritizing support for an appropriate work-life balance, and to avoid that self-selecting attrition. This sort of positive feedback loop greatly inures to the company's benefit." Two of the newest members of Sverchek's legal team are, in fact, new moms.

Komal Kirtikar

Komal Kirtikar, Lyft's director of local and product marketing (and formerly its director of retention and trust & safety), points to another benefit of gender balance in company leadership: workplace culture.

"My career started in manufacturing ops; I had a heavily male peer group who were mostly twice my age," she says. "My approach was to build trust with my coworkers by 'being one of the guys' and having a 'thick skin'—to the extent of even laughing along at jokes that I felt were inappropriate. While this did allow me to gain their trust and collaborate with coworkers successfully, I wasn't being my true self. It wasn't until I reported to a well-respected female plant manager that I learned by her example how to build rapport and lead without compromising my own values. She didn't tolerate inappropriate male-centric banter and was able to steer conversations in the direction she needed them to go."

In her role as director of retention, Kirtikar led one of the largest teams at Lyft, tasked with the all-important challenge of building trust between the company and riders, drivers and other constituents. "More than half of my direct reports are female, and as they grow at Lyft, it is important to me that they maintain a strong sense of self-confidence," she says. "I have found this is especially important at key times such as negotiating major contracts for the business, self-promotion internally for a raise or promotion, or when presenting a new idea to the team."

Veronica Juarez

Leadership diversity and the range of perspectives it enables also empowers companies in dealing with external constituents who may be adversarial. Veronica Juarez, Lyft's director of government relations, has the difficult job of managing relationships with the government and regulatory agencies in the company's current or potential markets, many of which have been highly resistant to ridesharing over concerns of safety and protection of existing taxi and car service markets.

"In a year and a half, we have built an incredibly diverse 22-person government relations team, nearly 40% of whom are women," says Juarez. "We are able to be as effective as we are because we have built a team with diverse perspectives and experiences who can relate to the stakeholders we engage with daily." Last May, Juarez led Lyft's particularly contentious arrival in Austin; relations with the city were rocky during the launch, but ongoing discussions and rider demand has kept Lyft operating in the Texas capital.

"Many of us worked together to see us operational," says Juarez, "but I distinctly remember working closely with our director of communications, director of trust and safety and Austin launch team—all women."

Storn says that Lyft has no specific programs or policies in place for recruiting and retaining women, but that the company "works to create an environment that caters to all backgrounds and genders" and believes that "female perspectives are critical in shaping the direction, mission, vision, and values for a company built on trust and safety in each community."

"When we're talking about new ways of doing something, whether it's a new way of taking a picture, a new way of managing your finances, or a new way of getting from point A to B, there is an old way," says Wampler. "Getting the new way adopted is classic crossing the chasm. You don't cross the chasm because the same 10 people who always do the new thing just keep doing the new thing. You cross the chasm because you get to early majority, and that means a more diverse set of people whose perspectives drive better adoption."

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