San Fran Recap: Changemaker Chat with Obi Felten

Obi Felten joined us last week at the March Changemaker Chat. Obi is Head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world at X, Alphabet’s moonshot factory.

“Tackle the monkey in the room first,” is a phrase that we may have not known before the March Changemaker Chat, but after the evening with Changemaker Obi Felten, that saying took on a whole new meaning! Obi emphasized that you can’t build a business to do something different without different opinions, so that means taking on the most difficult aspects of a project first, and being open to things you don’t expect. She shared some incredible insights, and below are the key takeaways from the evening.

How you deal with failure is really important. While at Oxford University she felt initially overwhelmed by the challenges presented. A friend tried to comfort her and said “you don’t have to stay.” This motivated her to tough it out and learn from the challenges. At 27, Obi was given her first big break while working at eToys during the first dotcom era. She pitched the idea of setting up eToys Europe in Germany, set up an office, hired 30 people, localised the website and set up operations. The dotcom crash hit, and a week before the official launch eToys’ board of directors decided that they weren’t going to move forward with the European expansion. The German website never launched, she had to fire all 30 people, and she felt she had hit rock bottom. Through this and other failed projects she worked on throughout her career, she learned that the world doesn’t end when a project or company does – but it’s important to learn from failure and not to not be afraid of it. Read more about how to face the fear: How to kill good things to make room for really great ones.

Find your tribe. It can be hard adjusting to new environments, but when you find the people who you click with, form that connection! After she moved to the Bay Area from London, Obi found a group of kick-ass women who are survivors’ of the tough Silicon Valley culture and support each other. Read the full story in her blog post Yes, Silicon Valley is Still Awful to Women.”

On Networking: Obi recommends reading “Act Like a Leader; Think Like a Leader” by Herminia Ibarra. You need to build your network before you need it, and give before you can ask. Don’t have lunch with your team or work friends everyday, have lunch with somebody from outside your team or company at least once a week. Expanding your network will likely get you your next gig. Additionally, expand your sphere by doing side projects to tap into your creativity and meet others.

Stop comparing yourself – less might be more. A few years back Obi was Director of Consumer Marketing for Google in Europe, Middle East and Africa. From the outside the role sounded glamorous, and she loved many aspects of it but not all. For example, she oversaw media planning and buying, which was process heavy and making her miserable. She hired a head of media and handed that part of her role to him – he not only loved doing the work she hated but did it better too! She highly recommends CAPP Strengths Profile, a tool to learn your realized strengths, unrealized strengths, learned behaviors, and weaknesses. Having an understanding of these helps you find a role or project which leverages your strengths, doing what you do well and enjoy.

Your mentor doesn’t need to look like you. One of Obi’s most influential mentors early in her career was Richard Duval, a middle aged British man who worked in insurance, and later became an entrepreneur launching the UK’s first online bank egg, a project Obi worked on as a young strategy consultant. He helped her figure out that she needed to get out of retail, even though she had worked very hard to land her supposed dream job as a head of ecommerce of a major retailer – one of the most important lessons in her career that planning ahead doesn’t always work out. Obi finally decided to quit her job on honeymoon, after her husband had planned their entire wedding because she was too busy launching her ecommerce website.

Be open to the unexpected. Serendipitously, upon her return from honeymoon, she had two voicemails waiting for her. The first was from eBay to run product management, the other from Google to join marketing – even though she had never worked in marketing before. She chose the latter and ended up launching Maps, Chrome, Android, Google+, and more.

Obi quoted advice she got from Ruth Porat, Alphabet’s CFO. Rather than asking your sponsor or mentor to help you get a specific new role, ask them, “What’s my highest and best use?” That puts the onus on the other person to be creative and help you figure out what your next role should be think about your strengths. It may be very different from the next step you would have chosen for yourself.

On legacies: it’s the people she’s grown, not the things she built. In the past, Obi would have said that her legacy are products she has launched. Upon reflection, she decided it’s not the things she built, rather it’s the people. She regularly looks at her kids in awe watching them turning into real, thoughtful people. Her legacy circles around the people she hired into their first jobs, helped get a new role, or helped figure out that they should do something else that is more aligned with their passions. One woman she is particularly proud of is Kathy Hannun, who was a shy marketing manager when Obi first started working with her, and is now the CEO of her own startup Dandelion which spun out of X in 2017.