Have you ever wondered what CEOs are like or what differentiates them from the many employees they lead? According to Jennifer Zeszut, CEO and Co-Founder of Beckon (a start-up marketing technology company), not much. Though her high school job was dog-walking, it led her to have intimate access to the CEOs of some of the country’s biggest companies. “A first I was so nervous to be around them, but I learned that they’re just regular people.” No doubt this exposure at such an impressionable age was a driving force in shaping Jennifer’s future career, as she has gone on to found and serve as CEO for two companies. Although Jennifer doesn’t characterize herself as a natural born leader (familial anecdotes nothwithstanding), it’s precisely this modest viewpoint that makes her such an effective leader. “I always feel that I’m learning, growing, and striving to be worthy of my role.” Jennifer’s years of leadership experience have taught her that “you should expect to make mistakes. But if you’re honest with yourself about your strength and your areas for growth, then you will grow”.
Today’s career profile might be a little lengthy, but it’s worth reading every single word. From starting two companies to being personally invited by President Obama to make a speech to working abroad in a little cafe, Jennifer has had some incredibly unique life experiences. We are so fortunate to have her share those invaluable insights with us today.
Name: Jennifer Zeszut
Location: Santa Cruz, CA
Current Title/Company: CEO, Beckon
Educational Background: BA in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley; MBA in marketing and strategy from the University of Michigan
What was your first job in college and how did you land the position?
In college I spent my junior year abroad in Paris. Once my French was passable, I decided to get a job at a little cafe called Restaurant Cosi.
All my senses were inspired there, and I immersed myself in every aspect of the business. I befriended the head chef and baker and begged him to teach me everything he knew, like how to cut with properly sharpened knives and the importance of salt in almost every sweet dish. On the job, I did it all, from peeling apples, making sandwiches and prepping food to helping prepare the Franchise Manual of Operations–every aspect of successfully running a Cosi restaurant in one document. The owner had decided to sell his idea to two brothers from America. Those two brothers went on to build the successful restaurant chain Cosi here in the US, and it’s now a publicly traded stock on the NASDAQ. At Restaurant Cosi I learned that small things can become big, and I learned that I loved the inner workings of business
What was your first job out of college?
My first job out of college was as a buyer for the gourmet foods department of Cost Plus World Market in Oakland, CA. The job combined the marketing/brand management skillset I wanted to develop with my newfound love of gourmet foods. I found an amazing boss and mentor there, and learned so much about the economics, rhythm and art of retail and merchandising.
Before college you started out as a dog-walker for a businesswoman who happened to be an executive coach to CEOs. Over time your job description grew broader and you got to work alongside her. What was it like to meet such high-profile executives before you even graduated high school? Do you think this exposure had an impact on shaping your own career goals?
I did indeed get to meet and collaborate with amazing, iconic CEOs like Andy Grove (Intel), Mary Kay Ash (Mary Kay Cosmetics), Dave Pottruck (Schwab), Peter Holt (San Antonio Spurs, Caterpillar) and so many more. At first I was so nervous to be around them, but I learned that they’re just regular people. They had ideas and best practices to share, but they were also curious, open and took time out to learn and grow from each other. At that time I still never saw myself as a future CEO, just a student and admirer of people who are able to mobilize others to greatness.
I learned that small things can become big, and I learned that I loved the inner workings of business.
Tell us about your internship at Procter and Gamble and what you took away from it.
While pursuing my MBA at Michigan I spent a summer interning at P&G as an assistant brand manager. I worked on Mr. Clean and Comet, and it was a great learning experience. I helped produce TV ads and radio spots, built a website for Mr. Clean’s anniversary, oversaw and conducted consumer testing for potential new scents, and built a business plan and ROI model for moving into dollar stores. I learned the “proper” way to write creative briefs and quarterly business reviews, and so many other fundamentals of marketing.
But when I pushed forward this new idea I had, a new direction for one of the brands that was well-supported by data, I hit a wall. Trying to push a formulaic “by the book” marketing culture to try something new was harder than I imagined. I wondered what it might be like to work at a place where new ideas could be put into action boldly and swiftly. After getting my MBA, I decided not to return to P&G and instead accepted a role as a business and marketing strategy consultant working with many of the world’s biggest brands including Mattel, Visa, adidas, Williams-Sonoma, Samsung and more.
You are now the CEO of Beckon, a company that you actually founded. Take us through your average work day.
I’m so tempted to finesse this question and paint a picture of a well-balanced businessperson, health enthusiast, wife and mom. But I’ll resist the temptation to appear more put together than really I am and just tell it like it is.
My day typically begins at 4:45 a.m. when my alarm goes off and I get dressed while my family sleeps (my husband and three children ages 11, 9 and 3). I reset the alarm for 7 a.m., when they need to get up, and head out the door before 6 a.m. so that I can make the hour-plus drive to the office before most of the other commuters get on the road.
Up until about 9 a.m. I have the office all to myself; it’s my time to think, plan, write and prepare for my day. But once 9 a.m. hits, I’m typically in back-to-back meetings until 7 p.m.: website redesign meetings, launch planning prep, review the script for the new video, client calls and meetings, sprint (product development) planning, board meeting prep, etc…
I arrive home around 8 p.m., where I receive three glorious children and an amazing husband with open arms. I help the kids finish homework and make the boys calm down, brush teeth and get their jammies on. I often lie on the floor of the bathroom and talk to my daughter about her day while she takes her before-bed shower. They each get one-on-one snuggles in bed and usually I’m falling asleep in their beds before they do. My husband will come rouse me from whichever kid’s bed I fell asleep in and we may do a quick hot tub/star gaze or watch a Daily Show together before he puts me to sleep in our own bed. And then I do it all over again the next day. Except for Wednesdays! We have a work-from-home Wednesday policy across the company. That day I can be a “regular” mom and make lunches, take kids to school the morning and greet them when they arrive home.
You should expect to make tons of mistakes (I did and still do). But if you’re honest with yourself about your strengths and your areas for growth, then you will grow.
Prior to Beckon, you were also the founder and CEO of another company, Scout Labs. Clearly, leadership and management skills are among your strengths. Do you think this was something you honed over time or are you a natural born leader? What are some ways our readers can improve upon their leadership and management skills?
I always feel that I’m learning, growing and striving to be worthy of my role, so “natural born leader” is never something I would say about myself. That said, my parents and earliest friends could tell you many stories of me “running things” from a very early age. I suppose I’ve always been a mobilizer of forces, putting forth a bold vision and recruiting everyone around me to join in (yes, student body president in high school). My mom likes to retell a story from when I was four years old: I was bouncing off the walls, running and screeching all over the house, and my mom, exasperated, yelled, “Little girls are supposed to sit still!” to which I replied, “Well, I’m the leader of the ones who don’t!”
But wanting to be a leader and actually being a good leader are two very different things. You should expect to make tons of mistakes (I did and still do). But if you’re honest with yourself about your strengths and your areas for growth, then you will grow.
Every successful business starts with an idea. Tell us how you were able to transform your ideas into two successful businesses.
Most great new ideas come from being a master of a particular domain and perceiving a very big pain point that exists within that domain. For example, if you’re a young woman dating on dating sites and you just hate giving out your real phone number, then you perceive a pain point. You might have an idea for temporary phone numbers that can disappear whenever you choose.
As a marketer, I perceived some very big pain points that revealed big opportunities. For Scout Labs, the problem was that brands wanted to connect with consumers, but consumers were flocking to social media sites. Brands needed tools to “scout” for consumers and connect with them on their turf.
For Beckon, the pain point is that as a marketer I’m sick of being data rich and insight poor. There needs to exist one place where all your marketing data flows in order to be able to have visibility and insight into what’s working across it all. We need to understand how marketing activities drive business impact. When you realize something just has to exist, then you go build it.
I do feel strongly that you need to be a master of a domain and have true experience of a pain point in order to build a successful new product. If someone came to me and asked me to be the early stage CEO of a company solving a big pain point for some IT security issue, I would pass, because I haven’t experienced that pain and don’t have sufficiently strong intuition about that problem to be a visionary leader.
President Obama invited you to Washington, D.C. to talk about your expertise in entrepreneurship. Tell us about that experience and the importance of entrepreneurship in propelling the US forward.
I was invited to attend the kick-off event for a White House initiative called Startup America. I thought I was just attending as a member of the audience, which was exciting enough. But when I checked my phone en route during a stopover in Texas, I saw an email that asked if I wouldn’t mind giving a short speech about why we should support entrepreneurship in America. That was a late night, needless to say.
But my speech was well received and my sled-dog analogy has followed me to this day. If you’re interested, here’s the short speech in its entirety:
“I am the founder of the technology startup Scout Labs, located in San Francisco. Scout Labs analyzes social media and tells companies (or governments!) what people love, hate, want, wish, think and feel — right now, in real-time, all around the world. We entrepreneurs are a strange breed. We work around the clock, and then sleep on the floor if need be. And when we do sleep, we dream about our startups. Clearly, we do not do this for the money — too often most of us work for little or no pay.
Why do we do it? Think of us as sled dogs — born to run with new ideas. To make a difference. We don’t wait around for someone to create a job for us. We are job creators … But just as important as the number of jobs we create is the kind of work we create. We do work that we love.
It is passionate work. Fun work. Work with purpose. I am raising kids who see their mommy loving what she does every day.
It is productive work. You want to increase America’s productivity? Come walk the halls of any of our companies, and you will see people wearing 10 hats, doing whatever it takes to see our ideas thrive. It is astounding what we accomplish in a day.
And it is deeply connected work. Starting a company is forming a new family. We are connected to the idea and to each other in profound ways. It is a bond and a sense of community that is often lifelong.
This is the kind of work this country needs.
We are entrepreneurs. We are sled dogs. Support us. Connect us. Finance us. Make it easier for us to do what we do. Let us run. I promise, we will pull America forward.”
You have been recognized by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, FastCompany, TechCrunch, and also been named “Top Technology Innovator of 2010.” You got your start in marketing, so how did you transition into technology? Was it something that ever intimidated you?
I am a visionary CEO, not a technical CEO. Essential to my success is my co-founder and CTO, Jochen Frey. He was with me at Scout Labs and we’re sticking together to build Beckon. It’s a powerful partnership (and friendship) and I feel very lucky to have the chemistry we do. I am not a technologist, but I’ve worked for software companies, Internet companies and the digital consultancy Razorfish, so I’ve been in and around technology for a very long time and I tend not to be intimidated by my lack of programming experience. You don’t need to do it all. You can’t do it all. What I do know is what marketers need. On the basis of that I can envision, I can lead, I can sell, I can introduce us to great brands, I can inspire, I can attract great people, I can raise money and I can write, speak and create thought-leadership for our company. That’s plenty. I often feel like I’m the LEAST important person in my company. Our programmers, product managers, implementation leads, sales team, analysts – I’m so impressed by them. But again, it takes a team.
I’ve never once thought about moving up a ladder. I do my thing, I throw myself into it completely, I only do work I love, and good things tend to happen.
Your resume is filled with titles like “Director” and “Vice President.” What skills and attributes have played the biggest role in your success so far? Did you have a strategy for moving up the ladder?
I’ve never once thought about moving up a ladder. I do my thing, I throw myself into it completely, I only do work I love, and good things tend to happen.
Here at the Everygirl, we like to think that no dream job is out of reach. What can you say to the Everygirl who wants to build the kind of impressive resume that you have but doesn’t know where to start?
I’m all for planning your general career trajectory, but stay open. Say yes when unexpectedly inspiring opportunities come your way, even if they appear to take you off the course you thought you were on. Seize challenges and don’t be afraid to fail. With my first company, Scout Labs, I was so scared to mess it up. But to take the pressure off, I just kept telling myself, “It’s just CEO boot camp. Training wheels. Just think how much you’ll learn.”
What advice do you have for our readers who may be considering grad school? What was your experience like and how do you think grad school benefitted you?
I very much enjoyed my MBA years at Michigan and I have friends and a network that will stick with me my whole life. But my advice to anyone considering grad school is this: Only make that substantial investment if you KNOW you need to have an MBA. But if you aren’t quite sure what you want to be when you grow up, investing that kind of money and time (which you can think of as lost earnings) may not be the best idea for everyone. Business school will only open up MORE doors and MORE choices and can confuse you even more. So know before you go. For what it’s worth, as an employer, I couldn’t care less if you have an MBA. I need you to have GREAT work experience. It trumps fancy degrees or schools every time.
What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?
Don’t be in such a rush! I was 23, going on 40 (and 15 going on 30 and 10 going on 16 and …). Try to make college last longer (as opposed to getting out of college and into work as quickly as possible!). You will be a professional person with kids and family soon enough, and for the rest of your life. Savor waking up any time you want in the morning. Enjoy lazing around on weekends with no soccer games or kid birthday parties to attend.
Jennifer Zeszut is the Everygirl
Follow your passion.
Earl Grey tea with soy milk (or almond milk if I’m making!).
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
I have a long list of amazing people I intend to meet one day, but if I had a free hour to spend with any one woman in the world, I would choose my 10-year-old daughter. I work so much, and even family time is so easily dominated by my raucous boys; I can never get enough time with her. It would be so fun to just leave work one day and pick her up early from school to have lunch together. We would either go to the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco for high tea (we both love tiny food and tiny dishes!). Or we’d just go sit on diner stools and eat burgers, fries and milkshakes.
Aiden or Big?
I had to ask someone on my team who’s much hipper than I am what this string of words refers to! Which may be more telling than the answer to the question. But the love of my life and partner in it all is a philosopher, writer, poet and musician if that helps…