Jennifer Warawa, Executive Vice President of Product Marketing at accounting and HR software solutions company Sage, can be described with a number of seemingly-opposing titles: do-it-yourself entrepreneur and global corporate leader, numbers-driven accountant and creative marketing mind, Most Powerful Women in Accounting honoree and social media influencer (check out her daily insights on Twitter!).
After owning her own mid-sized accounting firm that she built up from her college years, Warawa began working at Sage following years as a customer evangelizing Sage’s products at the company’s international conferences. Finally, Sage lured this entrepreneur into its global footprint.
Hype talked to Warawa about how she fell into the world of accounting to help her father in a crisis, her number-one piece of advice for anyone building their career, and why this small-town Canadian absolutely loves living in the South.
What is your full scope of duties of Sage?
We have about 270 products around the world. As the person who heads up product marketing, all of those products fall under the commercial guidance of my team. There are about 150 people in product marketing in the 23 countries that we’re in, and they all report into my operation. We’re responsible for market strategy, commercial strategy, pricing, go-to-market, competitive and market intelligence.
Talk me through your background — how did you transition from being an entrepreneur to working at a global company?
I got into accounting a little bit by accident. When I was in college, I was trying to determine what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Both of my parents are entrepreneurs and my dad’s accountant was leaving his company. And he goes, hey you’re in college, you can do this. And I was like, well I’m not actually taking accounting; but sure, I guess I could. I grew to realize that no matter what I actually wanted to do, the numbers are so important. Unless you understand what’s going on with your financials, you can really get in trouble. I’ve always been entrepreneurial, and this was a good place to start with entrepreneurship.
I was always looking for ways to make money. Even in college, I had a business making $30 bucks an hour typing people’s papers for them. So I started learning accounting, and someone asked, I see you doing this for your dad’s company, could you give us some advice? They were in an audit and I ended up saving them a lot of money. So I thought, okay I’m doing this, I’m starting my own firm. I had about 15 people working for me when I sold my firm to come work at Sage.
And how that came about is I started going to Sage conferences when I owned that firm. I was doing what, at the time, were really innovative things — I was using Go-To-Meetings to talk to clients and do remote consulting. Nobody was doing that at the time, they were driving all the way to clients. I was charging more, working remotely and fixing the problems faster. So Sage asked, could you teach this to other people? I started speaking at all the conferences and doing customer testimonials to explain how I used the software. I was at a conference one year, speaking to the General Manager of Sage Canada’s business, (I’m Canadian and that’s where I was at the time) and she told me, I’m making some changes to my team and we’re moving things around — and I’m thinking it’s so strange that she’s telling me all about their internal processes. But she eventually said, I’m telling you this because I want you to come work for us, I want you to run our Canadian Accountant business.
What did you say?
Honestly, I said, “oh, no, thank you!” I loved working for myself, I loved making my own decisions, and this was a huge company — I thought about all the red tape and the corporate atmosphere. And she said, well why don’t you just come to one meeting, for one day. And I go thinking there’s no way I’m going to take this job.
Well, after 8 hours of meetings, of person after person selling me on the job, I figured out that it was totally different from what I thought. They told me about how entrepreneurial the job was, about how I could bring my own ideas to life. I realized this was an opportunity to change what the challenges I had with Sage when I was on the partner side and make new ideas come to life. I ended up taking the job. I sold my firm, I took over the Canadian Accountant business, and eventually the North American Accountant business, and six years ago I moved to Atlanta.
Why did you move here?
My manager spoke to me and said, we love having you at Sage, but we think it would be so great to have you working in an office, any office. Our main office was in Vancouver, we had one in Irvine and then Atlanta. I’m not really a California girl — I’m Canadian and it’s just not me. But I love the South. I loved the people, I loved the culture, I loved the atmosphere, I loved everything about the South.
So I went home and spoke to my husband and the next day I called her to say, “I’m moving to Atlanta!”
Tell me more about why you love the South so much.
I’m from a small town, less than a hundred thousand people. Everyone knew everyone. What I’ve found about the South is that people are just really, really lovely. I mean, you’re at Costco and you go to pull something heavy off the shelf and 5 people jump to help you.
I loved the office, the weather, the city. You can live in the suburbs, but you can get downtown so quickly. You can be big city, you can be in a smaller town. I really think it’s a best-kept secret — the first time I flew in I thought it would be a concrete jungle. We flew in and I was like, wow it’s really green and beautiful here. When Canadians come here, they’re really surprised.
Talk about what it was like to move from owning a company to working at Sage. What skills have you had to bring over?
Every skill I have. One of the things we do at Sage is year-end leadership reviews. For a couple of years we’ve had to answer a question: what skills do you have that you feel Sage is not tapping into? And every time I’ve been asked that question, I say “not one.” Every single skill I have is being leveraged every day.
The entrepreneurial instinct here is very, very strong. You can come up with a big idea and make it happen next week — and here I have the resources to make it happen. You wear many hats here and every week is different. In a business like this, that’s changing so rapidly where you need to adapt, that entrepreneurial instinct is necessary to succeed.
You have an accounting background, which many think of as being a non-creative role. How did you translate that into a very creative entrepreneurial role and into your current role in marketing?
I think the challenge with accounting is that most accountants just describe the numbers in the way they present themselves. When you tell that to a business owner, the owner is like, I don’t get it. They leave the meeting saying, I don’t even know what that means.
So in my accounting firm, we were not the number-crunching tax people. We did a lot of really interesting consulting — on profitability, on how to develop into new markets. We tried to figure out what was the story that the numbers were telling about the business. If you can tell that story to the business owners, it makes complete sense. The marketing side of me, the entrepreneurial side of me, helped tell the story of the numbers once the accounting part of me figured out what they meant. And honestly, it was super fun.
What’s your view on the status of women in tech?
When I got hired at Sage, the person who approached me originally for the job was a woman. And then when I took over the North American business, I started reporting into another manager who was also a woman. So I felt like there wasn’t a problem.
But you know, I was at a tech conference earlier this week and there was a dinner at night for the speakers. And I look around the room — there’s 80 people — and there’s about 8 women. I found out later that 3 of them worked for the company presenting the conference. So it really still is a problem. You think it isn’t, but you get to an event like this and you realize it still is an issue.
What I’m trying to figure out is, what exactly is the problem? I feel like part of it is actually in women’s minds. It’s the limitations they put on themselves. So part of the solution is women saying, I can actually do this. I can go into a men’s world— for example, my dad was in the manufacturing business. These guys would come in and ask about buying a trailer. I would talk to them and they would ask me questions they would never ask a man— they were testing me, and I would step up. I like that challenge. But a lot of women don’t feel the same way. So I want to explain to speak to female entrepreneurs that one thing they can do is just go in assuming you’re equal to everyone else, because you are, and you can do it.
What’s your number-one piece of advice?
Something that I know about myself, and this is the entrepreneur in me, is that if there’s something that needs to be done, I’ll just do it. I’ll go make it happen. I’ve been like that my whole life. When people see you doing that they think, well if she’s already doing that, we should get her to do that for a living and we should get her to do that for us. I never stay in the box of only my responsibilities. Even when it came to speaking at the Sage conferences, there were a ton of other people doing what I was doing that could have spoken. But they wanted to be paid or they made it complicated, whereas I said, I’m already there — so, sure, I’ll do that. And if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t be here.
Every time I’ve had a door that opened, it’s because I’ve volunteered for things outside my box. Every time I’ve stepped in, it’s turned into more. If you want to do something, just start doing it. Shadow someone, volunteer for something, just give yourself an opportunity.
What skills do you look for when you’re hiring?
I have the three C’s — communication is always super important. We’re a matrixed organization, so I look for collaboration. Even in a startup, if you’re relying on yourself or just your team to get something done, you’re pretty screwed. Collaborating, tapping into others resources that are not your own and determining how to use them, is critical. And the third one I just added a week ago. Someone asked the chairman of Sage the exact same question, and his answer was curiosity. It’s when you ask questions and you inquire into things that you get to the heart of the problem. When you think you know everything, that’s when you really get stuck and you really have an issue. Curiosity is a game changer.