Snowflake’s Chief Marketing Officer Denise Persson is no stranger to challenge. She began her career at Genesys, where she became the VP of Global Marketing at age 27. There, she opened offices in 25 countries and helped lead the collaboration software company through a successful IPO and acquisition. Before joining Snowflake, she served as CMO for Apigee, an API platform company that went public in 2015 and was acquired by Google in 2016. Denise also served as the CMO at ON24, a digital experience platform widely used by B2B companies. Last month, she helped them through their IPO as a board member.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, we sat down with Denise to discuss ways to address the gender gap in tech, the importance of working through fear and welcoming opportunities, and how she embraced the #choosetochallenge mindset during her successful 20-year-long career at high-growth tech companies.
How did you get into technology marketing?
Denise: “I grew up in Sweden. After going to university in Stockholm, I thought that I would go into a large company – that’s what everyone did back in those days. But a friend of my sister talked me into joining this French startup that had just opened up an office in Stockholm, called Genesys. During my 12 years there, I opened up offices in 25 countries around the world, I was a part of the acquisition of 14 companies, and I had my first IPO experience. I relocated six times, and I became the VP of Global Marketing just five years into the job. That opportunity changed my career, and my life, in a bigger way than I could have ever imagined.”
Where did your interest in data come from?
Denise: “Data has always been a part of my career because I’ve been in SaaS marketing since 1996. Those days, leads came in via fax or a phone call, and you had to enter them into an Excel spreadsheet. The thing about data in marketing was that you always wanted more of it, but you never could get what you wanted. Back then, IT sat with the key to it like it was the Holy Grail. They couldn’t give you the key for so many reasons – there wasn’t a user-friendly way to access the data, or it was a security issue. You always had to request a report, and you got it a month later, but by then, the data was too old. That’s why Snowflake was so compelling to me as a marketer. With such easy access to all of the data in one place, you could finally get a complete picture and know what’s working and what isn’t working. Today Marketing and IT work hand-in-hand as partners freely sharing data.”
How did you find your place in the business world?
Denise: “I put a lot of work into it. In the early days of my career, I read every single marketing book out there. I educated myself as much as possible. And by being empowered with information and knowledge, I became more confident. But I had to invest time in that – there are no shortcuts to confidence. We all get in these situations where we don’t have confidence and are uncomfortable. The way to overcome that is to go out and do the work. You have to be a lifelong learner and want to invest in your personal development.”
Could you share a pivotal moment in your career that shaped you?
Denise: “I think the moment that had the biggest impact on my career was when I was with Genesys. The CEO said to me, “Denise, I’m going to appoint you to VP of Global Marketing, you start in five days, and you have to move to Paris.” I was only 27. But I thought, the worst thing that could happen is that I’d have to fly back home and live with my mom. So I said yes. I think it’s important to say yes to opportunities when we get them, without hesitation. Be prepared for some discomfort and fear, but when you get the opportunity and someone else believes in you, you’ve got to do it. I’ve felt fear many times in my career, but I’ve never let it stop me. The biggest risk you can take is to not take any risks in your life, because there is no reward without risk. The best things in life are on the other side of fear. You just have to walk right through it.”
What advice would you give to people who are planning their careers?
Denise: “You need to find ways to play off your strengths and do things that you’re passionate about instead of focusing on things that are going to look good. That’s just going to make you miserable. I didn’t really plan my career – I just always said yes to opportunities that played off my strengths. My mom was a teacher and my dad was a construction engineer. I had no exposure to business or technology, so I didn’t know much about that world until I got into it. Also, you need to be willing to try new things. Always look for new challenges. I want my life to be an adventure, and I’m always looking for new learning opportunities. Being at high-growth tech companies – that’s where you get those opportunities. It might not be for everyone, because you need to be able to change every single day. You need to move fast and be incredibly flexible. But it’s about finding the right match that works for you.”
How do you balance being a CMO with having a family, especially this past year with the pandemic and having children home?
Denise: “I have to prioritize all the time and choose what matters most in every situation. My husband has flexibility in his work, which is very helpful. But there are moments and situations you can never miss. At the same time, some things might not be as important, so you need to prioritize. On my team, that’s the reason why we are so focused on aligning around goals. By focusing on the key things that matter, we can do all the other things we need to do in our lives. You can’t be overwhelmed by all the small things. Every day, I look at my calendar and consider, ‘what can I take off my calendar and handle more efficiently?’ I think everyone needs to learn how to do that.”
Women are still underrepresented in tech. What can we do to attract more women to careers in the industry?
Denise: “Women in tech need to serve as role models for other women. I salute women who are out there talking about working in tech, and inspiring other women to get into tech. You don’t have to be an engineer – there are so many roles. Also, people have misconceptions about working in a startup. They think you work 24/7 and there’s no way you can do this with a family. That’s not accurate. If you’re going to prioritize the things that matter, you can make it work. I also think that mothers are the most effective people in the world because we have to tell people that we don’t have time for certain things. We prioritize incredibly well.”
As we close, what’s your advice for marketing leaders who want high growth in their own companies?
Denise: “You have to build the best team and to accomplish that you want the best people. The best people are everywhere, in every group – with a diverse set of skills and mindset and who are willing to bring out the best in others. The most successful companies are those that promote diversity and gender equality. It’s important to embrace the strength of diversity, across the board.”