This month’s The Graduate features Jolawn Victor, MBA ‘09, Chief International Officer of Headspace, Inc, where she oversees Headspace’s international operations and expansion. Headspace is a mindfulness app containing guided meditations and sleep-casts that promote a better mind and overall well-being. Her career began in engineering, followed by an MBA at Stern that pivoted her to marketing, and she ultimately transitioned from consumer packaged goods to technology. Jolawn’s global C-suite executive role now is the culmination of her experience spanning numerous industries, markets, and continents. I had the pleasure of getting to know Jolawn from not just a career standpoint, but from one that anyone (especially women) can find inspiring in making your mark in any room you step into.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
Thank you for meeting with me, Jolawn! Could you give a brief overview of your career and how you decided to go to Stern?
Unbeknownst to me, I was creating a general management (GM) career track for myself. I started in engineering, I worked in marketing for close to a decade, and then I became a product manager. Those three things make for a really great GM, and I started in a GM role in 2019. It’s really only been the last three years of my career, but it feels like everything kind of led up to looking after teams that are multifaceted, multifunctional, and cross-geography. My teams have always been dispersed over at least three continents. The amount of thought and cultural diversity is just next level.
To take it back to the beginning, I’m from Minnesota originally and I basically had three criteria for my undergrad experience: I wanted to go to school someplace far away, someplace warm, and someplace more diverse. Atlanta very quickly rose to the top of the list because I wanted to be an engineer and Georgia Tech seemed like the perfect school.
Whoa, I am also from the Midwest and ALSO had the same criteria for college and went to school in Atlanta as well!
Yes! (Laughs) But my parents attended HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) and they were like, “you have to go to an HBCU so that you have the proper foundation before you go into the business world!” I ended up settling on the best of both by doing a dual degree program: three years at Spelman and two years at Georgia Tech. I did a ton of really heavy semesters, taking 20 plus credits, and I graduated with degrees in physics and electrical engineering. What was great at the time was there were all of these government grants and scholarships, because there were no black women majoring in physics. There still aren’t, and so my undergraduate degree was pretty heavily subsidized.
I went to work as an engineer at General Mills. I loved the fact that people were so intimate with the product that they actually consumed it. Going to grocery stores and shopping with me is a very different experience – I’m looking at labels, I’m looking at how things are packaged and how the store looks, I mean the whole nine. I got to the point where my husband was like, “I cannot go to Costco with you anymore, because you’re just working instead of shopping.” (Laughs)
After three years working as an engineer, I had this amazing mentor that said, “I think you would love the other side of the business like strategy and marketing and finance.” He encouraged me to go to business school and told me all about this consortium called Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), which is a phenomenal program that basically helps people of color get into top 10 business schools. So I went through the consortium and became a consortium fellow.
My husband and I were married at the time with one kid. We decided to go to business school together and applied to the same three schools. I remember going to one of the admitted student events at Stern, and there was someone in the bathroom who couldn’t get her suitcase to close. All of us were in the stall sitting on her suitcase trying to help her to get it closed, and I was like “these are my people.” It’s about collaboration and teamwork and trust and openness, and in experiencing all of that at once, I fell in love with Stern from day one.
My husband specialized in finance, so it was perfect; finance and marketing were all over the city. I came out of Stern working at Pepsi in marketing and did that across all of the different marketing functions. At that point I told myself, “Okay, I can be in consumer packaged goods for the rest of my career, or I can make a change.” I felt like once I had been a director for a couple years, I was either going to be pigeonholed into one industry forever or could make the change. I decided to try technology and that’s when I joined Intuit as a product manager. Then I stepped into a GM role and moved to Sydney. I managed teams in South Africa, the Philippines, India, London and California.
And now Headspace is the latest chapter! One of my old bosses at Intuit ended up being the CEO of Headspace for a short period of time before a merger and she basically said, “I want to scale the international business, will you come help me do that?,” so I moved from Sydney to London. And now I look after workplace well-being and lead the sales and marketing team for B2B Headspace outside of the US.
Very cool that you ended up all over the world. I feel like Stern does that to people, just because you start here, and then you start seeing the whole world. Your journey has been so interesting and also Headspace is a great app; I use it intensely. As Chief International Officer – what exactly does that entail, what does that mean?
I lead sales and marketing for all of our markets outside of the US and Canada. The UK, Germany and Australia are our priority markets. Basically, we sell Headspace to companies that want to have happier and healthier workplaces. We help people get onboarded to the app, teach them how to use it, and how to stay engaged. We do a lot of education and thought leadership in the market as well – this week I spoke at an Economist event about psychological safety. People come to us to understand how they can deal with the real life problems that have been amplified as a result of the pandemic.
I feel that it’s so necessary for corporations because there are so many ways to define a healthy workplace, and it’s not just compensation or nice perks, it’s understanding your employees’ emotional wellbeing, work-life balance, and things like that.
Have you yourself always meditated or done thought work or, if not, when did you start?
I think different cultures define meditation differently, and so growing up as a Black American where faith is really important to me, meditating on scripture has always been a part of my life. I would say the whole point of meditation is to help you to be more mindful, and I think mindfulness is something that has already been a constant part of my life. I take the time to listen to my body. I bring compassion into the workplace, like by telling my team, “You can take a mental health day, no questions asked.” I think that there are aspects of mindfulness that have always been present in my life, but do I sit down and meditate for 20 minutes a day? (laughs) No, but I do have a favorite sleep-cast [on Headspace] that knocks me out every single time. I think meditation looks very different to different people. The long answer is yes, but not always necessarily the way that you see in our app.
Definitely, I think I used to reach for it a lot more frequently when I was experiencing more anxiety, but then once you figure out how to balance day to day life, I realized oh it’s a great tool to go back to if you need it.
I could speak with you all day but we only have a few minutes left! Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome, while in business school or throughout your career, and could you give examples?
I’ve been intimidated in different environments, but I think especially being a woman of color you literally have to be better than everybody else just even to be invited to the table. I don’t think that I ever feel as though I don’t deserve to be somewhere because I know how hard I’ve worked to get there. I think what’s different for me is having the audacity to speak up and to step out and to be bold and to take risks, and to do those in an authentic way. I’ve always felt like I definitely deserve to belong where I am, but I want to understand what my leadership looks like. That’s the journey to figure out – how do you “be you,” how do you inspire others, how do you lead? And how do you do that in a way that’s true to your values and your core beliefs, but that also brings people with you?
That’s very valid, and I also think women of color who have probably experienced that know what you’re saying. There’s a legitimate sense of imposter syndrome in that maybe they do know that they have worked so much harder to get to where they are, but then they’re wondering, “How am I here if it’s so stacked against me to begin with?”
Absolutely. I was at an event where the CEO of Xerox, Ursula Burns, was speaking, and she said when she would enter a room people would be like “Oh, you know you’re one of the first black females to run a Fortune 500 company, so you must be excellent, you’re so amazing.” It was almost like they created this barrier that you had to be so amazing to just even enter the room if you were a woman of color and she’s like, “I went to the same schools that you did. Same degrees, I had the same pedigree as you did, and you’re not the most excellent white male on the planet.” So she really wanted to normalize that you don’t have to be in that top 1% in order to let another woman of color in at the table.
And you just wonder what’s really underlying the reason why more people who are like me and look like me haven’t been in this exact position before?
What is the most challenging thing about your job, and what do you love about it?
I think the challenging part is that for a lot of people mental health is still taboo, it’s still stigmatized. People aren’t comfortable talking about their mind. It is just a body part like everything else, and it controls everything that we do. That part is still challenging. I think people are like oh like that’s her thing. And I respond, “If you’re a person, especially if you lead a team, it should also be your thing.”
The part that I’ve enjoyed the most, and we’re just starting to make better grounds for this, is the thought leadership piece. People will come to me as though I am an expert. I’m actually really great at sales and marketing and leading a team, it just happens to be in this space [of mindfulness and wellbeing] and people will ask me things like, “How do you prevent burnout, how do you create resilience?” I am a student of that, just like the rest of the world is. It’s been super fun to go on that journey and change my vocabulary.
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?
Recently it was one of my goals to be on a board of directors, so I’ve been going on this board service journey. I heard this woman say that when she’s preparing for a board meeting and she’s reading all the materials to write down her questions, she noticed that the “why” questions like “Why did you do this, why is it like that?” can be very confrontational and defensive.
And so, she changed the “whys” to “what and how” questions, and I was mind blown, that’s amazing.
Incredible, to reframe and not directly attack, even if it wasn’t intended that way.
Rapid fire round: what are your favorite apps, other than Headspace, for any purpose?
Right now I’m loving Woop and there’s a customized stretching app I use for mobility called GOWOD. You do an assessment and the app tells you where you’re least flexible. Just eight minutes a day, and it’s a great app.
Favorite wind down song and pump up song?
Gavin Turek – The Distance is a great wind down song. For pump up – there’s always Beyonce’s Run the World (Girls).
What is your favorite city to live in and your favorite city to visit?
I really enjoyed living in Dallas and Sydney. Though Sydney was in lockdown, so I’ll need a do-over on Sydney. And my favorite cities to visit are Paris and Singapore.
Last question: your favorite memory of Stern?
At an event this woman spoke about widening her global perspective and all of these things that she had learned after she had left Stern. I was just so impressed by the Stern alumni. We just have an amazing Stern network. There’s a group chat with 15 of the alumni from my year that’s over 10 years strong. I just love Stern’s strength and connection even after we leave.
Well, I wish we could have spoken for two hours and heard more of your stories! Thanks so much for your time, Jolawn.