Vydia Dinamani is one of the founders of Product Rebels, a company designed to work with product leaders, founders and product teams (at all levels) to fundamentally change the way they work to make fast, clear and effective customer-driven decisions with measurable outcomes. She’s also a partner at Ad Astra, an accelerator designed to help scale and grow startups, early businesses through a strong product, financial and leadership curriculum that pays particular attention to female founders. Overall, Vidya helps teams to build great products and provides practical support and guidance for the executives and founders that lead them. In this interview, she shared a bit of her story and of what she experiences while working with different Product Teams.
Read this interview to learn how to grow in your career, speak up for your rights, find mentors, become a successful executive and a product leader, lead teams and projects with confidence.
By Victoria Loskutova on September 26, 2019
Vic: I’m really happy and very, very excited to have you with us today. Would you please tell us more about your current projects?
Vidya: Sure, I’d be happy to. I’m excited to talk to you as well. So I have two heads, and you talked about Product Rebels and Adastra.Ventures. So at Product Rebels, we help teams build better products by helping them understand the foundations, or what we call the groundwork, of understanding the right problem to solve, the right person to solve for and then being able to understand what’s most important to build. So with these three pieces in place, we can get to a much better solution for customers. And we do this through a 12-week boot camp program, where each week you do a little bit of online and then you practice on your product and then you work with us. So that’s really fun on the Product Rebels side and we tend to work with medium and big companies and teams that are really building products at scale. At the Adastra.Ventures side, I work with startups. I work with completely new to the world of products and small teams, and primarily female founders. So we have an accelerator that we take women through a pretty standard program of how to build your business. But we layer on implicit bias training. So we help female founders and CEOs understand how they have to show up differently because they are women. So those are the two things that I do day-to-day.
Vic: You have a very impressive professional profile. But we all know that nobody starts from leading positions. So what were you driven with, what helped you to grow consistently year after year in product management, who inspired you, who supported you?
Vidya: Yeah, that’s a great question. So I’ve started my career off technically, I started off actually as a software developer. And I found myself drawn towards more the customer problems. So I took the call and started working more towards understanding the product. But you’re right, I didn’t jump there. What I did was I said “yes” to opportunities. And I said “yes” to things that I didn’t really know how to do. And a couple of examples of this is I, you know, I was the chief architect of a pretty large organization. And I went into that role thinking about back-office systems and integration, because I thought: “I can ask good questions, I can bring teams together, I have really good experts around me”. So I said “yes”, even though it was sort of scary. And then I went into business operations, I’ve never done that before. But again, the same sort of skills that I had, had a really strong leader that asked me to join their team. And I think that’s, I would say, what’s really inspired and supported me — looking for those people that you really want to work with and work for. And then not really worrying too much about the job that you do. So I’ve taken a pretty interesting route towards product management. I did all these other things before I found myself leading customer experience development. And there, I had product managers and developers, and research and UX and all sorts of people coming together to develop customer experience. And doing that I found myself leveraging all the different skills that I’ve learned along the way, and then really always kind of going closer and closer to the customer. So that’s kind of been the journey and so I think what’s helped me grow, to answer your question, is by saying “yes” to opportunities to work with really great people. And then you learn from them and they take you with them and they open the door to new and better opportunities.
Vic: There is a saying that it’s great to work with people that you want to hug. Do you agree?
Vidya: I love that! Yes, I totally agree. You know there’s nothing better than actually really respecting and enjoying and wanting to hang out with the people that you work with, and especially really respecting the person you work for. And again, just not leaving your career or a sense of how you supposed to progress in your career determine this, but the person you want to hug — I love that I’m going to use that, Victoria!
Vic: What are your key principles in managing and leading teams? You sound very positive, and I think it is an amazing atmosphere. I read all those reviews you have on LinkedIn and all those team members are just so happy working with you.
Vidya: Oh, that’s very kind. You know, as I’ve grown through my career, at the end of the day, the more senior you get, really the biggest job you have is looking after your people and helping them, and doing that in a way that really respects them, but also helps them grow in the areas that you believe are important. And I think that honesty and partnership make you respected, and again, those kind words that you said. So really my principles are: quick feedback all the time, just communicating and never letting the team wait for some sort of standard meeting. So being interested, being completely involved and then following up — these tethers saying it’s a say/do ratio. So if you say something as important, people watch you whether you do it or not. And if you say these things like “My people are important” and “I really want to give feedback”, and then you actually don’t do it, then people don’t believe you. So with this say/do ratio I am very careful about what I commit to, what I say, that I will do. And then I 100% follow up with the things that I said I would do for my people. So I think there’s just a sense of trust, that say/do I think it’s just really critical. And it’s great for the rest of your life as well, not just for building teams.
Vic: Yeah, I think with such principles it’s really, really comfortable to work and the atmosphere is really healthy at work. Did you have any mentors, who helped to take your career to another level?
Vidya: Yeah, you know, I was thinking about mentors recently, because I’m doing something for some younger folks actually at a high school level. And what I want to share is that these certain people, definitely, have very much helped me whether they’ve been bosses, or they’ve been people that are really good friends. So there are two things that I actually wanted to share. But the first is, you don’t actually have to know your mentor for them to be a mentor. And that sounds strange. But I think that there’s a couple of people that when I think about an organization that I spent a long time at, and they never knew that they were my mentor. They just had no clue, if you ask them, they’d be like “Who is she?”. But I looked at them, I followed them, I read what they did, I watched any sort of media coverage and they really inspired me. So I picked mentors that just really spoke to what I appreciated and inspired me and I wanted to aspire to. So I want to share this idea of mentors… just pick people that you admire, and then call them your mentor and that’s who they are. So I know that it’s kind of weird, but it really works. And it’s a lot easier than trying to find someone you know and then have this kind of like weird relationship. The second thing that I wanted to share about mentors is that I actually have what I call a personal board of advisors. And so this personal board of advisors to me is the group that I go to for really important decisions, whether that’s my career, family, whatever the aspect it is. So if you think about the go-to people, and if you form a group that you think is balanced and have people with every sort of different ideas, different responses and different opinions, they advise you. So instead of, again, a specific mentor, I have a board of advisors that consists of my brother, my husband and then I’ve got two or three friends. And one of them is a lawyer. Another one is a small business owner, another one works in a corporate, and another one is an investor and someone who’s very involved in the business. So very different backgrounds. Some of them know each other, some of them don’t. But for me, it’s my go-to group for advice. And so I use them as this kind of group mentor. And I think about them first. I mean, going toward big questions, so I get three or four different opinions. And I can think through it, they help me think through it. And again, I think from a mentorship perspective, they also can point out, like where maybe some gaps in your thinking. Maybe there are some opportunities that you haven’t actually considered. So those two pieces put together along with the traditional mentorship I think can be really powerful because you have access to them. You don’t have to stress about trying to find someone, and you don’t have to develop this maybe definitive, a little bit inauthentic mentor relationship, which I see happening sometimes. So for what it’s worth, those are two things to consider.
Vic: Yeah, and those people are also the ones that you always want to give a hug to.
Vidya: Hmm, I think there’s a theme here, Victoria, that next time we see each other we’re going to have to hug each other too :)
Vic: Definitely! Vidya, is your 12-week boot camp for rebel leaders made to support beginners or already experienced ambitious product managers?
Vidya: Yeah, that’s it. That’s a great question, Victoria. And I have to tell you, that it’s both. And so let me explain that. Because for the product managers out there, they’re going to be like: “Wait a minute, who is she solving for? Who’s her persona?” These are two distinct personas that we think about: The first is a team of people who are not yet product managers. And that can be someone who may be as a product owner. Maybe it’s from someone from a QA or development, customer service, someone who’s interested in product management. And so our 12-week boot camp really gives you an overview of everything that a product manager should do. And that from a just personal learning perspective really infuses customer learning and a customer-driven approach into someone who is trying to understand product management for the first time. It’s also really good for teams of people who’ve never really done product management. We’ve had several clients who have very good luck in their discipline. The last client I’m thinking of they’re all from marketing. And what we did was we worked with them to help them transform into a product management team. So great people didn’t understand what they were supposed to do as product managers. And we were able to do that in 12 weeks. The second group is this sort of bigger companies with people have been doing product management for some time. Why it’s so important to work with them in the 12-week boot camp, is that experienced product managers build the experience from all these different places. So depending on which company you’re at, you might have a slightly different approach or a very different way of bringing your ideas, your templates, your deliverables to the company. And so what we try and do is infuse this foundation of customer-driven product management into everything that they do. We can take an experienced product team and at the end of 12 weeks, they’re talking in a consistent language, they all use the same taxonomy to mean the same thing. And they have a set of templates and shared practices. Now they all have a common language for working. So we found it’s actually really effective for both.
Vic: Do you remember the most impressive transformation?
Vidya: Yeah, oh, I’ve got so many great stories about women CEOs. Let me tell you about one woman. Her name is Kate. And she was a professional executive, doing really well in her career. She was an operations doing really well and then she got cancer and went through this pretty horrific experience. And in her research, because, again, she is an incredibly smart executive, she’s a grad from Stanford Business School… She went through everything, and she found that going through chemotherapy, there was a way that she could keep her hair. But nobody ever talked about it, nobody really knew about it. And it was incredibly expensive. So if you were in a position where you’re so unfortunate to be hit by something like this, you would just automatically think “Okay, I’m going to go buy wigs” and so forth. Well, what she wanted to do after (thankfully, she’s a survivor) she’s in a really good place, she left her job to start a new business founded by the passion, and actually some anger about the fact that this wasn’t available to the millions of women who have to go through this, and men, actually. So she founded the company. You know, she has never built a tech device, she’s never built directly this kind of software. But what she wanted to do was to make an affordable solution for people going through chemotherapy that allowed them to keep their hair. And so she created the business model. She understood that she had sort of a business case. So when she came to us, she was looking for money. And so she went through the program of our accelerator with a thought, that she wanted to get ready for investment. And what happened through the course of our accelerator program is understanding where her passion came from and in some way shifting into a really specific understanding of the problem that she wanted to solve, but also the potential. So we built out a product roadmap and a vision for her that was much bigger and much broader than anything she started with. We’re also using all the design principles that we know, got her to focus on a prototype. And so what she did, she stopped looking for money, and she focused on actually getting something tangible that she could deliver out to the world. So that’s what she has right now. She is an incredible founder. She’s got now this working prototype that now she’s in a position (and this is six months later) that she is raising. I have dozens of stories like that. There’s just an amazing woman and what we did with her was focused on the business, the problem. And I’m a product person so I’m really focused on “What are you solving for?” And it can’t just be the broad definition, it has to be really specific. And then how do you create a product with a minimal viable product (what we actually refer to as minimal viable WOW), because you want to absolutely prioritize and focus on one thing that’s incredibly important to your prospects. And so with that, and with that laser focus, and that programming that I talked about, which is really implicit bias, understanding herself, understanding how she came across, being able to frame and speak to her story, we were able to get her in position where she’s actually in the middle of a very successful raise. So I’m very proud of her. So that’s one story.
Vic: I’m very proud of her too! This is a very impressive story. Thanks for sharing. And you know, what I like about our time is that this is such an incredible thing that we have so many opportunities now to change the world, including technologies. We really have all in our hands and it’s just an amazing power.
Vidya: I totally agree. I think this is an amazing time to be in product. I think there’re so many opportunities and so many tools. I think the shadow of that opportunity is trying to focus and understanding how to prioritize, and this is true for all of us: there’s always too much to do. There are always more features, there’s always more things that we can build and develop and launch. It’s how do you really create the discipline to focus on what’s most important that will delight your customers. And so that’s (again, I’m just bringing it back from a product perspective) I think, the hardest thing in the sea of endless opportunity that we’re lucky enough to be part of.
Vic: My next question will be about your discipline and how do you maintain life and work balance?
Vidya: So I have three kids, and you can imagine that, you know, with two different jobs and three kids, the discipline is really being very deliberate. So my calendar is really important, I put everything on there. And I try and literally leverage it. It’s like a third, a third, a third. So a third is my family and that’s the first layer that I put on my calendar. And then the second and third are these two other businesses that I run. And, you know, I’m in a fortunate position, because I’m a partner in both companies, I get to drive what I get involved with, and we get other people to support in terms of developing and launching the programs and the bootcamps. But really, it’s started with how do I want to spend my time and a level of how do I allocate the resources which is me and my time and energy against the things that are important. So family and friends, business one, business two — and that’s really how I balance work/life.
Vic: People describe you as an extremely successful leader, energetic, positive and professional. We all know the famous song of James Brown where he sings “This is a maaaan’s world” (Victoria’s singing, both laughing). Do you experience difficulties and struggles in your career as a female leader and as a woman of color?
Vidya: You know, I think it’s an interesting question, because if I looked for it throughout my experience, I would absolutely identify many examples, whether that was maybe being overlooked for a certain project or assignment, or being in a room where you’re the only woman and everyone thinks why are you there (and thanks for your support staff). And I think that’s probably more true for women of color than even generically, like for many of you out there as women leaders. I’m sure you’ve had the experience where it’s just you. And so I don’t tend to focus on that, I tend to look for opportunity. And I think that going right back to your early question, it’s aligning yourself with the people that you want to hug, the people that you want to work with, and moving away. And I tend to use my intuition and my gut a lot about people and teams, I really just don’t want to have anything to do with. And so I say “no” to those things that don’t feel right. So I think as I’ve got older, I tend to protect myself by just not putting myself in those positions. But instead, I have an incredibly supportive community. I work with clients that I want to work with. And again, I know that this is a very fortunate place to be in. But I tend to be much more positive because of that and not tend to look at those disadvantages. But yes, many, many stories of being singled out or overlooked as both of those things. I can tell you when you’re thinking about implicit bias, and I think this is kind of some of the issues, that I’m really thinking through now… The obvious bias is easy to almost deal with, because it’s so obvious and egregious. It sort of annoys you and you get frustrated. But instead of implicit bias, especially I think for girls (I haven’t done enough research for people of color), but for girls and for women, we just automatically see the world in a certain way. Because right from the minutes that we’re born, we’re surrounded by a world that’s been designed by men primarily, and designed for men primarily. And so it’s really interesting and… just one really quick story about this. There’s a lot of women’s products that are starting to be developed. And there’s a lot of women founders that are trying to propose new types of products, whether that’s for feminine, sort of wellness or hygiene or other. And the people who are investing simply don’t get it. So one of the questions to address this implicit bias that we tell our teams is to say: “Go ask a woman in your life about whether this is important to her.” Because we acknowledge that we are never going to convince the people that have most of the checkbox right now that they don’t understand it. They’d much prefer to invest in a male pattern baldness or something, and all the other drugs and products there are. So we need to figure out how to address that. So as a woman, and as a person of color, I can tell you that it’s on me to face that, ask different questions, point it out, because I can’t wait for the world change.
Vic: Skyler McCurine, also a founder and a leader, left an amazing review on your LinkedIn profile saying that you had great success while moderating a panel with female business owners. How do you support women in your teams and life and who supports you?
Vidya: It’s that balance, it’s back to that say/do. I always start by pointing out, like, what I is really impressive and what’s really unique and compelling, whether it’s about the product, whether it’s about the presentation or it’s about something that they are trying to do. But it’s also, if they’re asking, then it’s also “What you need, where’s the gap?” And instead of it being one of those sandwiches where it’s good, and you put in the bed and then it’s good again, I have a different layer, which is when you start with what’s working, you maybe point out one thing, that’s an opportunity, and then you end with “How can I help you?” Right? So you reach into your network, you reach into the people and the contacts and the resources that you have. And you genuinely say: “How is it that I can support you and help you?” And then it’s up to them to ask. And I can tell you, unfortunately, women are not very good at asking. So one in 10 women will actually follow up and say. Because I will say: “I know this person” or “I can connect you with so and so”, you just have to come and ask me. So send me an email, something that shows that you actually want this. And nine women in this conversation will actually not do it. So ask! If someone actually offered you help, take it. I think we are too concerned with “Oh, they’re going to be too busy” or “Oh, I don’t want to bother them.” We talk ourselves out of this all the time. It’s kind of crazy. So if someone offers you help — they mean it, believe it, take it!
Vic: Do you think that this is already the time when we women should collaborate, not compete anymore?
Vidya: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting question, because there’s this idea that there are only a few spots. And I think there’s a lot that’s been talked and researched about this. And we all grew up, at least I grew up with this idea and hearing about the glass ceiling. And in that room of 12 in the board meeting there is a space for one woman, so we’ve got to compete. Well, our motto, our vision at Adastra is “Get to even”. And in order to get to even, we need a whole lot more women stepping into those roles. And I think the only way we’re going to get there is that if we recommend other people, other women, if we help someone else, I mean we need to be in those networks. We need to be in those places. And there need to be a lot more of us in those kind of areas that can then support the next generation. So I told you I have three kids two of them are girls and I want them to have way more opportunity and not feel like they have to fight for one spot. So if we take away, and I think collaborations is a terrific word, and I would also add to that — it’s deliberately helping someone else, because they will then be in a position that will be able to help others and that network effect will really grow. And we just got to get much better at doing that as women. I think that we tend to network more personally. We tend to network much more from “Do I like you? Are you my friend?” And I’m not saying turn to a completely black and white business. But, think about how you can talk about what you’re doing. I have so many founders who have their work/life and you asked about that earlier. And they never talk about their personal and in their personal life noone in their personal surroundings understands what they do for work. And so we’ve got to actually start bridging that gap. We’ve got to bring our (and maybe it’s a little bit of a cliche), but this idea of your whole self, and then talk about what you do, because you never know who’s listening and who might be able to help and collaborate with you.
Vic: What is the most challenging product for you?
Vidya: I’d say, the most challenging product is usually one where you can’t actually access the client. And so we’ve worked with a couple of our clients recently, this is from a Product Rebel point of view. And we’re working with product teams, and the culture is these older products, they’ve been around for a really long time. They’ve been primarily driven by a sales team or an accounting team and they’re the customer facing group. And the product team tends to be the recipient of “Here’s what our customer says.” And that could be in the form of sales requirements or like “This isn’t working” as an account manager translating those needs. And so when it’s like that, it can be really challenging, because when you’re teaching and you’re coaching a customer driven practice, not being able to get first hand to the customer is tough. So in those instances we’ve had to develop a much more slow ability to get them. This could be the course of a year or even longer, where we use proxies, or we might turn around and ask people to tag along to some meetings but not be able to say anything, or perhaps use annual conference to try a few things. When the culture and the top leadership doesn’t really support this, that I think is the most challenging case for a product manager and a product team to be, because it’s really hard to do your job when you don’t have that immediate interaction with your customer. So that is always the most challenging for us because we have to get super creative about how do we maybe do some workarounds. Maybe how do we sort of slowly get ourselves integrated into the system? Because it’s not as simple as picking up the phone and going directly to that customer.
Vic :What is best professional advice ever given to you?
Vidya: I think the best advice I ever got was: speak up early. And what I mean by that is when I was pretty junior in my career, you know, if you’re in the room at all, you’re sitting in the back, and you don’t tend to go sit at the table. And so it’s always like “Again, second guess”, “I know, everyone knows this”, “This is like a dumb question.” (in your mind, author). You sort of talk yourself out of ever speaking. And the longer the meeting goes, the harder it is to actually say something. So an advice that I got really early and it took me a while to practice and kind of get over fear and just embarrassment, it’s be one of the first people to say something. Whether that’s a question or a comment, just get it out there. Because once you’ve broken that ice and you’ve said something and you’ve engaged, it’s amazing what that does. What it does for you is that it gives you confidence, and especially as you do this over and over again, is that confidence grows. The second is people start actually look into you because they are probably thinking that very thing and you articulated it. And the third is that because you established after you’ve broken that ice, you find yourself again, being that person who may be tapped for a new opportunity, someone who’s seen as being willing to take some risks. Ask the questions, take the risks. And so your brand changes along with it. And it’s so simple — that one little act of trying to be in the first two or three people in a meeting early that say something! Ask something, make some sort of comment. And I think amazing things happen. And it certainly did for me. And it’s been a while now, but I don’t mind if it’s a dumb question. I don’t care, people ask dumb questions all the time. But what it does is it has really helped me and I’ve met with an amazing piece of advice, which, in the beginning, it’s really hard to do and it’s really intimidating. But it actually unlocks lots and lots of opportunities for you.
Vic: What other advices would you add for women who would like to become a leader, who would like to become product management rebel and to go kick ass out there in the world?
Vidya: Anyone can become a rebel! Either stand up for your customers, stand up for their rights, talk about your customer in the next meeting, whether that’s with your development team, whether that’s with your scrum team, whoever it is, just bring customer into your conversation. Explain why you made a decision based on what you understood from your customer needs. Put up a picture of your customer next time you present your product roadmap, put up a quote, maybe play a small clip of a video or recording. Bring your customer into your team and that’s how you become a product management rebel. In terms of women who want to become professional leaders, I just say: just put your hand up, volunteer, go do some of those jobs where you’re like “I’m not exactly sure how this fits, but it’s a really good leader that’s leading this, and I’d like to learn from him or her.” And go try some different things. Don’t feel like you’re so trapped in sort of a specific career path. And I understand a lot of working moms, when you’ve got very limited time where you are balancing all of these things. Be judicious, maybe go ask a few people: “What do you think I should get involved in?” If you’ve got bandwidth for one thing, don’t feel like you’ve got to go for it alone, actually solicit other people. And then form that personal board of advisors. Go think about the people that are in your life, that you think are a great group of people to formally advise you, and then make it that you go to them with these important questions. And so I think to become a leader you need to show up, volunteer, get involved, and then just don’t let yourself hold yourself back. Just go for it.
This project was made possible thanks to our partnership with Zalando Tech. #GirlsWhoProduct is a series of interviews with women that have been able to beat the ‘product’ ceiling and get into the profession. Our mission is to inspire, connect and empower more women to get into product roles and help them consider ‘product’ as a venue of personal and professional growth.
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