On Episode 15 of The Disruptive Mindset Podcast we had the pleasure of speaking with Denise Garth, the Chief Strategy Officer at Majesco, about her experience as a woman in tech leadership. She is also an InsurTech Influencer who has been making waves in the space for several years. She also talked to us about her background and the women who inspired her at an early age, as well as her advice for her younger self.
You’ve been an early trailblazer for some of the women in insurance, despite coming from a difficult background. How did that come about?
My background really shaped my future, but I defined it. I’m the eldest of five, and my parents separated. When I was in kindergarten, my mom took me and left my brother and sister with my dad. My dad ended up getting custody of me, which was really unusual back then, because fathers never got their kids – that was always the mother. My grandmother was a farmer who lived in a trailer house on the farm, and she grew up through the Depression. She basically became our mother and really took care of us as my dad tried to farm. It was when I was in middle school that my dad ended up remarrying, and he married a teacher. She had a great influence on us, particularly for myself and my sister – she really gave us a view as to what we could do. My grandmother and my stepmom were both extremely influential to us. They were strong women who faced challenges, and had to live and work in a man’s world.
When I went to college I thought I was going to be a doctor. I was in pre med, and it was right when computers were coming out. I switched my degree to maths and computer science, with a minor in business. I was one of only a handful of women at that time, both in pre med and maths and computer science. When I graduated, I ended up taking a job at a small mutual insurance company in Iowa. They were in all 50 states with a captive agency force, and they did all lines of business. It was a great experience because it was a smaller mutual, so I had the opportunity to do a number of things. But it was the strength of those two women that really gave me the view that I could be and do anything I wanted to be.
How have you experienced being a woman in the business?
When I started my career 10-15 years ago, I spent a lot of time in the US, London, Europe and China. I went over to Japan with IBM once, and I remember we got a cultural orientation where they said, ‘Denise, just be prepared because women are not considered equals here. You’ll be seen as a second-class person’, which was really odd. What happened is that we got up and our chairman of the board introduced things and then our CEO did too. I was the first speaker after that and I talked about strategy. They were all flabbergasted. There’s an article about me written in a Japanese newspaper because I talked about strategy and it was unheard of.
When I spent time in China, I saw the complete opposite. In China they want every resource to be a part of the future. Women were in leadership roles all across the organisations that we were working with. It’s different in different markets. I still wear my dark suits, but I bought more brightly coloured shirts – in fuchsia, lime green, everything – so that I stood out. That was my thing; between the bright colours and jewellery I stood out from the dark suits that were expected at the time.
You have to find your way in those different markets. For me, people found that I was pretty open and honest, fairly direct and engaging, and I have a distinct laugh. I’ll go up and talk to anybody and everybody, and I think people warmed up to that. It was because of my personality that I was able to go in fearlessly and say, ‘I’m doing my job, and they have to do their job’. There’s just a mutual respect in that.
What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?
My first thought is to know yourself. Know what you like, your strengths, your values, your goals – both personal and professional – and know when to double down and when to walk away. Be willing to challenge and lead, be open to the possibilities and risks and be curious. I did not take a traditional path going up the hierarchy of management, I kept moving off into all these different angles. But I think my background has proven that it’s okay to push boundaries, think outside the back box, and do things to change the status quo.
Be curious. You have to ask ‘why?’, and you’ve got to see where curiosity leads. And never say never. And read, read, read. I’m a lifelong learner, so I read everything. I subscribe to a lot of stuff on a professional basis, but I also read heavily on a personal basis too. When you have that diversity of reading, it creates a level of creativity and curiosity that is really important. I would say be yourself and set examples for others. That’s what I was doing with my bright colours.
Create a nurturing network. I connect with people immediately from events and discussions, etc. And people reach out to me all the time, and I’ll reach out to my network. Every job change that I’ve had has come from my network. And then finally, surround yourself with good trusted people, both personally and professionally. I mentioned my husband, but I have a close group of professional friends that reach out to each other on a regular basis for insight and advice or help. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. Find that handful of people that you really trust, who are loyal, respect you and will tell you the truth, whether you want to hear it or not.
If you want to hear more from Denise, tune in to Episode 15 of The Disruptive Mindset Podcast here.
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