In a uniform of black jeans and combat boots (her workday look chosen to save decision-making for the office), Jess Lee looks the somewhat unlikely CEO of a company that was acquired by Yahoo in 2015 reportedly for around US$230 million. But then, Jess has never bought into what ‘should’ be done.
Recruited to Google thanks to a pizza party, then to Polyvore after she sent an email to the company for suggestions for site improvements, it was her swift yet steady rise through the start-up ranks that now sees her sitting in the CEO chair.
Here are a few lessons we learnt from the grounded, generous leader on her unorthodox journey to the top:
On trying new things
“I wasn’t really sure what a product manager even was; I was planning to be a software engineer,” says Jess of her interview with the now-CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Meyer. “I actually [told] her: ‘Hey, I don’t know if I want to be a product manager, I don’t know if I want this job’. Probably not the best thing to say in an interview.”
“[She said] when she looked back at her life and her career, she always tried to take the more challenging path, because even if you fail, you would grow and learn something at the very least,” says Jess.
“I was like, ‘OK, that’s great advice’, so that’s why I ended up going to Google.”
On getting sh*t done
“You can’t go into [a start-up] with the feeling of, ‘This is beneath me.’ Everything just needs to get done, and someone has to do it,” she says of the early days at Polyvore. “So, I wrote code at the beginning. There were dishes and I was like, ‘I’ll just wash them’. Anything that needed to get done. Someone needs to write a blog post, I’m not… a very good writer but someone needs to do it, so that’s just what happened.”
On honesty and leadership
“My style of leadership is to be pretty transparent and up-front about what I do and don’t know, and to say, ‘Look, if I don’t know, your job is to figure it out. You have full freedom, power and flexibility and I’ll support you and clear roadblocks, but you own it.’”
On nurturing talent
“In Silicon Valley, so many people have aspirations to run their own company one day. So I thought, you know what I’ll do? I’ll make the internal running of the company as transparent as possible so that people can learn all that stuff.
Every month at our all-hands meeting, we’d review our P&L [profit & loss statement], and explain, ‘Here’s how you read a P&L, this is how the business is doing’, [for] every department. That way you could learn all the nuts and bolts of how to build a company, how to run a company, you could understand the strategy of different pieces and how different department functions work.”
“Well, that will happen, but that will be a point of pride actually if one of our team members went on to build something even better than Polyvore, or the next Google or Yahoo,” Jess says. “That would be awesome if I were part of their journey and they might look back on that and think maybe I taught them something, that would be cool. That’s actually a win for me in my mind.”
Read our full interview with Jess in Issue 38, on stands now.