Taking small steps towards big impactFeatured

My name is Paola Neira, I’m Colombian and I’m the Product Manager of the Dispatch Algorithm at Rappi. Rappi is the fastest growing start-up in Latin America and the first Colombian unicorn. It is an on-demand delivery app and it is backed by Sequoia Capital and Andreessen Horowitz. Dispatch is at the core of what Rappi does: fulfilling orders. The 20+ people team of which I’m a part is composed of software, machine learning, operation research engineers, data scientists and me, the product person. We are in charge of the "matching" algorithms of orders and couriers, the routing algorithm that selects which orders will be “bundled” together, the travel time and prep time estimation models and the simulation and experimentation environments that we have created to iterate and test our hypotheses. My work is highly technical nowadays. My product is focused on optimization and predictive algorithms and I work very closely with the engineers of the team in designing new features, debugging, testing, etc. This is ironic because I actually studied economics, which has absolutely nothing to do with what I’m currently doing. How did I end up here then? And how is it to be a female working in tech in LATAM?From LATAM to Dubai to NYC and back to LATAM When I decided to transition into tech, I was working at Dubai at a venture capital firm. I was earning 8-10x more than what my friends were earning and was flying around the world staying in hotels like the Four Seasons. However, I’m very much a millennial and was constantly asking myself if I was creating as much impact as I would want to in society. As I continued to meet founders I kept being more and more fascinated by the ability that they had to build solutions and create so much direct impact into peoples’ lives. This all led me to resign and go to learn how to build things. I enrolled in a coding bootcamp (Fullstack Academy of Code in New York) and spent a good amount of time learning to code from scratch. I still insist that coders are like magicians. Whatever they come up with, they can build: there are no boundaries. It felt very powerful to be able to build things, I built a few funny projects here and here if you want to have a laugh, but I felt what made me unique was that I also had experience regarding investment decisions, value creation plans, and had some business sense (if that’s a thing). Fast forward, that's how I decided I wanted to become a Product Manager - so that I could consolidate both experiences. I don’t think any child's dream is to become a product manager. It's a curious role that you get to fall in love with as you discover various aspects of product development. I personally think it's one of the most exciting jobs. You get to find real problems, help design solutions, see them come to life, and do whatever it takes to see your baby become a reality. You watch in amazement as your baby becomes a teenager when you start piloting and an adult as you start scaling. I am currently very happy with my transition decision. I see how every single day we give work to thousands, if not millions, of couriers and shoppers in LATAM, who otherwise would be struggling to provide for their families. I earn much less than most of my friends in finance now, but the incredibly complex challenges I have to solve with my team everyday compensate for that. For the foreseeable future, I plan to continue to grow in product. What things I’ve been through that can be of use for others In my career, I’ve faced plenty of rejections, especially while I lived abroad and was considered a minority. I got rejected because I was a female, because I was not a native speaker, because I had an accent, because of multiple reasons which, in many situations, didn’t even have to do with my gender or ethnicity. I was just simply not considered to be good enough to do certain things. What ALL of them have taught me is that I need to continue to push for what I want. It reminds me of something that a mentor of mine once told me: “You need to want something to be successful, but the more you want, the more likely you are to be rejected. So success and rejection come hand in hand.” When in doubt, remind yourself of Jack Ma’s story. LATAM is still full of traces of the “machismo” culture and finance and tech are industries where you can find this most often. “Machismo” implies pre built assumptions about women: being nice is considered flirty, makeup and heels are mentioned as tools to use for certain work (i.e. negotiations), being direct and straightforward is considered “bitchy”, being sensitive is considered fragile and unprotected (causing men to be considered best to call the shots), beauty is seen as a reason for success and promotion, etc. Every region has its own challenges, but what is ultimately important is that we continue to speak up and work together to overcome these difficulties. As cliche as it sounds, we need to be part of the movement that continues to ask for respect in all conversations. I’ve dealt with many comments that have been very painful and I feel it’s my duty to keep educating people around me to help stop this cultural indifference and prevent further people from feeling offended. One last learning I would like to share is the importance of always feeling confident and comfortable with myself. I’ve dealt with impostor syndrome multiple times, especially when I first learned how to code. As time has passed, I just get more convinced that it's just a mental limit that we put on ourselves. There is never a person in the room that knows the answer for all the problems. Everyone has questions and what is important is to be confident about what you know and what you don’t understand. It is likely that the rest of the room had the same question but was just too embarrassed to ask. How does this translate into your everyday life? NEVER be afraid of asking, be humble and acknowledge what you do and you do not know, and just push until you’ve understand what you need. Abilities are just repeated experiences. You have to ask to understand, and understand to experience. This also translates to going after things that you consider greater than yourself (never limit yourself to the specs in a job description), don’t feel embarrassed about speaking about your achievements: this is not egocentric. It is actually generous to share your knowledge with the rest of the world. Never consider yourself less because you are not technical enough, since every person has the power to become highly technical. It just requires time and discipline. Ultimately, it is up to us to decide where to put our time and energy as we see our greatest areas to add value. And keep asking to get to where you want to be faster.
silviaem's profile thumbnail
Hey Paola,I'm glad Elpha featured your story. You honestly sound like a very nice person to know!This is a bit off-tangent, but I'm really curious :) - what's your take on the environmental issues we're facing? How are you thinking about these in relation to the delivery business/products?Cheers,Silvia
paolaneira's profile thumbnail
Thanks! So as a society we just need to understand better the network dynamics. The reality is the violence coming from the drug war derives from the demand we have created, and the policies around it. The environmental issues are the same thing. So it all comes down to having the appropriate incentives in place to generate the behaviors we need in order to make the society better. When thinking about business/product, I usually have the same mentality. Ultimately whatever we deliver ends up affecting human beings. So for all the features that I’m looking at I keep asking myself, will this shape the behavior of agents so that we are going towards a better network. These types of questions allow for long term consideration always.
silviaem's profile thumbnail
Hey Paola,Agreed, having a big picture mindset helps to figure out how to promote "good" behaviours.I guess my question was more on whether you guys include such environmental concerns somehow into, say, your routing algorithm(s) or the business model?
Rache's profile thumbnail
"It reminds me of something that a mentor of mine once told me: “You need to want something to be successful, but the more you want, the more likely you are to be rejected. So success and rejection come hand in hand.” When in doubt, remind yourself of Jack Ma’s story."Loved this statement. It's so easy to forget that 'you miss every shot you don't take' doesn't mean you won't miss the shot. In fact, the more shots, the more misses. Hopefully that miss ratio declines over time and we get better at handling the misses and celebrating the successes.
paolaneira's profile thumbnail
Absolutely, resilience and persistence are everything! Its a matter of reminding ourselves that everyone has gone through these rejections to get where they are, we just have not seen them.