Up Close and Personal with Instagram COO Marne Levine

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On meandering with a sense of purpose.

Marne Lavine

Name a prestigious, impactful job and chances are Marne Levine has done it. From her seven-year stretch at the US Department of the Treasury to being invited to work alongside Harvard President Larry Summers or later, mapping out Barack Obama’s very first day at work as part of his presidential transition team, it’s the type of career path this accomplished American prefers to call “meandering with a sense of purpose”.

That sense of purpose has been the yardstick which each career jump has been measured against; including the move Marne made to Facebook as vice president of global public policy in 2010 and then, in 2014, into her current role as COO of Instagram, where the lack of professional parameters was “exciting” enough to lure her out of her first true love of policy.

From advisory and board member roles in a seemingly endless list of not-for-profits (including Sheryl Sandberg’s Leanin.org; Women for Women International, which assists women in war-ravaged countries; and LIFT, which aims to help families break the cycle of poverty), it’s a wonder Marne even has time to appreciate the platform she so passionately serves. But it turns out there’s a place for that too in the company’s latest initiative, #MyStory, which encourages women to visually recount their unique life experiences.

“There [are] so many women who have a passion, have an interest, and they start using their Instagram to talk about that passion or interest and suddenly that turns into a business. And that is a life-changing thing for them because they might not have ever imagined that they were an entrepreneur,” says Marne.

If there’s anyone who can attest to becoming something you might never imagine, it’s Marne. Here, she shares her story so far.

My father was an ophthalmologist and my mother had been trained as a speech pathologist early on, but as soon as my father had gotten his practice off the ground, she really focused on raising us. She was extremely active in the community, she focused a lot on charitable organisations, philanthropy and community activism, so I definitely got that from her early on. We had this joke that if volunteerism was an Olympic sport, she would’ve won the gold over and over again because she was just that person in the community. It was a very supportive environment.

From a very early age, I developed this real passion for politics and policy. I just loved it from the time I was a senior in high school. I did a senior project with a local elected official and I focused on solid waste management – I was given the nickname ‘trash queen’. It was also at the time that Michael Dukakis was running for President for the Democratic Party and I got crazy interested in that election. When I went to college, I had one poster on my wall in my dorm room and it was a Dukakis/Bentsen poster, which looked very different from the Prince and Wham! posters that other people had. I kind of knew that after college I wanted to go into politics or government in some way. So when I was graduating, it was the ’92 Presidential election and I got on the campaign. After Bill Clinton won, I moved to Washington and found a job at the US Department of [the] Treasury. So that’s how it started. There was a time where I thought I’d go into corporate recruiting when I was in college, but I had some gut feeling, a feeling that that wasn’t sitting right, and that feeling was that I wasn’t actually following my passion at the time.

[When Harvard University President Larry Summers asked me to be his chief of staff], I said, ‘I really need to think about it.’ He had this line which was that, ‘There are people who have launched presidential campaigns with fewer advisors than you had on this one decision!’ I reached out to everybody to find out whether it was a good idea to postpone business school to go and do this, but really the feedback was clear from people: if I wanted an interesting management challenge, this was one. This was a very large, complex, decentralised higher education institution that’s leading the way in many respects on a variety of higher education issues; a lot of things play out on Harvard’s campus first. At that time there was a living wage debate… there were issues about internationalisation and globalisation that were playing out there, so I thought the opportunity to work with Larry to articulate a future vision for higher education and to work in that kind of management structure would be a fascinating challenge – and it most definitely was.

[When I was at financial services company Revolution Money], I was in charge of this new product that we were launching. The new product was peer-to-peer payments and I was really excited about the ability, what that would mean for people in terms of sending money overseas and just the ease it would bring people in their daily life. I remember coming into the office one day and our CEO, Jason Hogg, said, “Today, we’re going to do user testing,” but we were going to do it as employees. So we sat down and we basically took the product we were about to document and everybody started going through the different flows and entering in what was going on. I had never been through an experience like that.

I had never been a product manager before; this was my first time. And then at the end of the day they said, “Okay Marne, so figure out how we prioritise these glitches and which things are launch blockers and what to do.” I was like, “What?” They said, “These are all the bugs that we have,” and it was something like more than 1,000 bugs and I just looked at it and I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’ There were so many things that I encountered in that role that I had never done before.

I talked to my boss about it at the time – he had been at AOL [and] had been around tech companies – so he explained these are all the problems [and] you need to make sure we group them and that we prioritise which ones are the most important ones we need to address before we launch this product. It’s interesting: doing that wasn’t unlike some things I had done, even in government. You look at a bunch of things in front of you and you need to prioritise which is the most important and you need to work with people in cross-functional areas and move something forward, it’s just applying it in a different context.

“Often times, you go into situations and you haven’t had direct experience there, and that can actually be a strength, not a weakness, because you come in with fresh eyes.”

In 2008, there was a really serious economic and financial crisis going on. It was a very intense time. It was a scary time. What we were doing [when I was part of President Obama’s transition team] was working really hard to flesh out the details of a plan because we knew the minute that President Obama walked into that oval office, he was going to be faced with a lot of tough decisions and he was going to need to start acting on a plan immediately. When you’re campaigning, you have the broad contours of a plan but then when you’re really put in the position of governing, there [are] a whole lot of details that need to be filled out, so being part of that experience taught me a lot.

I was part of that first group that walked into the White House when there was a change of power [during my role as Chief of Staff and Special Assistant for Economic Policy] – that was an incredibly unique thing. I walked in and I had this feeling of incredible awe of how democracy works and how that can unfold. Then, within a few minutes of kind of being checked in and going through the security clearances and things like that, I sat down and people were getting ready to go to inaugural balls and do things like that. The next day was the first day of work and one of the first things President Obama was going to be doing was have an economic daily briefing. It was going to be open to the media and so there was a substantive component to it, there was a message to the whole thing, so we just started at that point. It was fascinating and I feel very proud of what we did during those first years of really working hard to turn the economy and the financial situation around and to improve the lives of a lot of people.

When I got a call from Sheryl Sandberg [in 2010] about coming to Facebook to run global policy, I immediately said no. I wasn’t interested in being considered and the reason was, I didn’t think that I was going to want to do policy for a company. It was through a conversation I had with my husband who said, “Have you really sat back and thought about what it would mean to do policy for a company like Facebook? Where policy is at the centre of the business?” So I thought about what that would mean and about Facebook and technology and human rights, I thought about what that would mean for transforming businesses, I thought about what that would mean for just changing people’s lives and giving people the ability to connect and share. Once I thought about it that way, it was a whole different kind of thing and I opened up my mind to that. Still, it was kind of daunting, but I think people should feel daunted by things that they’re going into – I think they should feel way out of their comfort zone. That’s a good feeling to have.

Working with Sheryl is fantastic, she’s an incredible leader. She’s a really smart, great business leader and has proven herself in terms of developing the business on Facebook and also developing the business on Instagram. She’s also a very values-driven kind of a leader [and] she shares of herself very openly, which is helpful because it gives other people permission to share openly. When you share openly, you’re able to get the help and support that you need. She encourages hard conversations, so that everybody can be the best they can be. She’s very focused on making sure we have a diverse workforce at Facebook and Instagram and across the Facebook families. She’s always looking at me and saying, “Sit at the table. Use your voice and make sure you get your point across.” She does not miss a moment to give somebody that feedback or to encourage them to call [out a] person.

There is no playbook for the role of COO. And that’s probably the case for a lot of roles in technology, it’s evolving so quickly, so one of the things I try to do is come in and look at where the needs of the business are and where they’re going and focus on some key priorities in those areas. I have a really great partnership with our two co-founders, our CEO [Kevin Systrom] and our CTO [Mike Krieger], and they’ve been hugely supportive and welcoming of me into the Instagram family. We sort of set out our priorities and work together really collaboratively but we also divide and conquer and focus on different things, and we can be stronger and faster by doing that. What I was doing in the first year was different to what I was doing in the second year because the needs of the business have been different.

DC was my home for so many years and this week I saw how much it's changing. Did you know that 92% of businesses in the DC area are small and medium businesses? I met with several phenomenal small business owners who have turned their passions into their livelihoods on Instagram. Tyann Hodges of @allureandmore makes wigs and hair pieces for women of all ages, many who are struggling with cancer or alopecia. Her business is not even 2 years old but she has more than 60,000 followers on Instagram and Instagram accounts for 98% of her business, particularly because of video. Our other wonderful panelists Suann Song of @appointedco (so creative!), Meghan Ogilvie of @dogtagbakery (delicious and a real social service), and Jamie Kutchman of @marigoldgrey (beautiful stuff!) are also on a fascinating journey as entrepreneurs. I admire the way they go for it and how open they are to experiment and learn. 📷: @allureandmore

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I gave a commencement address at my alma mater [Harvard Business School] and I talked about the ‘rookie advantage’. Often times, you go into situations and you haven’t had direct experience there, and that can actually be a strength, not a weakness, because you come in with fresh eyes: you’re unburdened by the conventional wisdom, by the way things have always been done, you can ask the right questions, you can point out things that might seem obvious but have been overlooked by others who have seen it for a long time. The issue there is making sure that people feel empowered to actually speak up. Because often times what the person thinks is, ‘Oh, there are a lot of really smart people in the room, they must’ve gotten together and they must have covered this.’ The truth is that they might not have, so speak up and point things out.

The key in careers, I think, is how do you maintain that rookie feel when you continue to be in the job? Asking those hard questions, making ‘why’ your favourite question, [taking] a step back and looking at it with fresh eyes – that can be a challenge. You can get that new fresh perspective by changing industries and putting yourself in new situations again, but you also get it by really pushing yourself to look at it differently and not being pushed into the same way that it’s always been done.

The interesting thing at places like Instagram, [with] the technology, everything’s changing so quickly and the issues or opportunities that come up aren’t necessarily things that people have faced before – so there are no right answers, you figure it out as you go. I learnt that early on: that it’s okay to learn on the job, it’s okay to ask people for help and to try different things. [That] was a really valuable thing to learn early on.

Never before was [the power of images] clearer to me than when Kevin [Systrom] met the Pope earlier this year to onboard him onto Instagram. What the Pope told Kevin was that often people come to see him and the first thing they do is hand him an image, because there’s a language barrier, but the image transcends all of that. It transcends cultures, borders, languages, generations, and you can immediately form that connection. And that is incredibly powerful.

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