How to build cross functional empathy, cultivate trust with founders, and do what scares you with Domitilla Caputo, Head of SAP.iO Foundry SFFeatured

I spoke with @Domitilla, Head of SAP.iO Foundry San Francisco, SAP's accelerator for B2B enterprise startups part of a global network of equity free startup accelerators. Through SAP.iO Foundries, startups accelerate their growth through integrating with SAP solutions, accessing coaching from the SAP team, and connecting with SAP customers and partners. Domitilla moved from Italy to Vancouver where she first worked at Arc’teryx, a high performance outdoor equipment company, supporting a wide range of companies, from retailers such as REI to small businesses. She began meeting entrepreneurs both in and outside of work and was incredibly energized by their daring missions and ambitions. After spending a few years in Vancouver, Domitilla moved to San Francisco. Being finally in the heart of Silicon Valley, she started engaging with the startup community. Meeting entrepreneurs, learning about their stories and the various challenges they face, made Domitilla want to support founders more directly, which led her to SAP.iO Foundry San Francisco. Domitilla recognized the importance but lack of support for early stage startups in downstream go to market strategy, that is, selling to large enterprises. She also noticed that technical integrations were key to building strong products with easy customer implementation but was another area that early stage companies lacked expertise is. Through her work at Foundry, she has been able to support founders in both these areas through general sales coaching, technical integration support from the broader SAP team, and strategic connections to SAP customers and partners, all without taking equity from founders. Domitilla shared her advice for career growth, leadership, building trust with founders, supporting diverse founders, and public speaking. Find ways to work cross-functionally as much as possible. Through proactively seeking out interdisciplinary projects, you are more able to learn a diverse array of skills and build a broader and stronger network of allies from every part of the company. SAP, for example, has a fellowship program to support employees in achieving this. Through the fellowship, employees have the opportunity to work on a different team for a few months either part time or full time. Ask to shadow people. Even outside of more formal projects or workstreams, if you notice someone in or outside of your group working on something interesting, ask them about it and even ask to shadow them! Get credit for your ideas. Especially for people from underrepresented groups, it is crucial to get proper attribution and recognition for your contributions. When you are working on a team, make sure people are aware of the impact and value you created. When someone compliments you for your contributions, ask them to mention it to others or to your manager. Keep a running list of the projects you completed to be able to concretely point to your achievements in performance reviews. While it may feel awkward to stand up for yourself at first, you deserve proper recognition for your ideas and execution! Lead by doing. Have the experience of doing your team member’s jobs at least once. In this way, you understand what their job requires and how it is done, and you can have greater empathy for their challenges. You can also better provide advice and build trust with each team member as a leader having literally been in their shoes. Understand people holistically. We only see what meets the eye, but everyone has a unique story and battles they are fighting at home, in their personal lives, or just generally outside of work. Never judge or make assumptions and seek to understand people holistically. Even if you do not know the exact details of their lives outside of work, remind yourself that they have one, respect their boundaries, and have empathy for everyone’s unique identities. Show passion. When speaking and working with founders, show genuine passion for their work. Founders take an immense risk in forgoing the easy path or salaried jobs to be able to build something new in a space they love, and they appreciate people who are able to share this passion with them. Be genuinely interested in founders’ success. Being authentic truly shows through actions rather than words. Show up for founders every day, proactively make helpful intros, share useful resources, demonstrate excitement for them at each of their milestones, and check in regularly in a value added way. Show founders that you are on their team and want to see them achieve as much as they do. Be transparent. Acknowledge your limits, whether it is your time commitment, buy in from the broader partnership or your company around a possible deal, or your ability to help and expertise in a particular area. Founders will not fault you for your inability but inaccurate portrayals break trust. Advocate for founders when they are not in the room. It is relatively easy to praise founders (or anyone) to their face, but advocating for founders internally and externally when they are not present showcases your true belief and confidence in them and their business. What you do and say for founders when they are not watching is almost always more meaningful for them (should they hear about it through the grapevine) and impactful for their business. Partner with aspiring communities. Many communities are focused on and only involve people who have already broken into a particular industry. While it is of course important to connect with and support these people as well, what actually levels the playing field are partnerships with groups of people aspiring to be in the industry. It is often disproportionately challenging for people from immigrant and/or minority groups to break into competitive industries. Working closely with them directly or through community partnerships helps to create a strong and more diverse pipeline into key roles. SAP.iO, for example, launched their No Boundaries initiative to comprehensively support underrepresented people in their entrepreneurship journeys. Do things that scare you. Domitilla had always been afraid of public speaking, so when she moved to Vancouver, instead of shying away from the task further, she joined the Toastmasters Club. They were looking for 2 leaders, one in finance and one in public relations. She had significantly more experience with finance and felt more comfortable in that space, but she felt that the PR role would be more challenging for her, so she instead volunteered for that. Through her involvement with the Toastmasters Club, she was given opportunities to publicly speak. Her first speech was incredibly nerve racking and challenging, but each time she did it, it gradually became easier. Now, she is completely comfortable with public speaking and has been able to leverage these skills in her leadership at SAP.iO. Just ask. The worst thing that can happen is the other person says “no” but even in that case, you are never worse off than you started. If you want an opportunity, just ask; you truly do miss 100% of the shots you do not take.