About fifteen minutes into the question and answer portion of the Nashville Girl Geek Dinner hosted by Emma, a participant boldly asked the question I didn’t have the guts to ask: “What is it that you do exactly?” The intimate crowd responded with warm laughter, the sound of collective relief: finally someone asked.
Director of Talent Acquisition, Christine McPherson, and Engineering Lead, Jean Soderkvist didn’t seem to be surprised by the question or regard the ambiguity as a marketing oversight. Emma is a tech company providing a marketing and email software for businesses. But this description doesn’t do justice to the nuances of the company. So much of Emma has to do with the culture it fosters within the company, for its customers, and throughout the community.
McPherson playfully explained, “Our competitors are companies like MailChimp, but we are cooler and friendlier.” Friendliness is one of the qualities which has remained a part of the culture amidst the several phases of the company’s growth. From its humble beginnings in 2002 to the renowned company it is today, the emphasis on respect and collaboration remains at the heart of the culture at Emma, and is arguably the key ingredient for its success.
The culture of kindness is evident in the company’s hospitality towards the community, their client testimonies, and the employees’ experiences. McPherson explains that one thing that will never change is Emma’s commitment to hiring kind people, a habit which has contributed to the individualistic yet collaborative spirit of Emma’s employees. Several employees in the crowd echoed this experience, which seems to have trickled from the top down. Not only does leadership have one-on-one meetings with each of the employees, CEO Clint Smith knows all 188 of his employees’ names.
Retaining a culture of kindness while paying individual attention to employees, however, is not something that has come easily. Various transitions in the company and vast changes in technology have presented Emma with some expected growing pains. Tech is a rapidly-changing industry and maintaining employee and client relationships can be a time-consuming task.
Emma, however, non-negotiably prioritizes respect over ease. In the hiring process, for example, Emma goes out of its way to be bold in searching for underrepresented groups. Diversity and inclusion are paramount to Emma, even when the development demand seems to be outpacing the search process. In answer to many of the expected questions surrounding women in the workplace, McPherson says that she does not cower from going out of her way to find the best talent in the hiring process. “I have no problem saying ‘no, we need to interview more women’ in the hopes of finding another awesome lady to work with,” she explains. While the women concede that there is still work to be done, Emma stands out from most tech companies with a 60%-40% ratio of men-to-women.
While Emma’s values take precedent, changes in tech, scale, and development have required some negotiations in favor of efficiency. For example, after bootstrapping their way to the top without investors for a decade, Emma accepted investor funding for the first time about three years ago to stimulate development.
One of the ways the company has managed to juggle employee interest with industry demands is by splitting employees into development teams, a change that allows Emma to actually shrink as it grows. Shrinking into smaller teams encourages participation and collaboration in every member, but it also provides a more efficient way of predicting needs and development potential. The downside of the change is that they can make the company feel more like a corporation.
Soderkvist and McPherson believe that Emma’s maturation is not only beneficial for the growth of the company, but also for personal and professional growth. They both agree that confidence in the workplace is not something that found its way in overnight, eradicating all self-doubt and anxiety. For Soderkvist, experience has provided a leveling perspective, allowing her to see that a bad day isn’t the end of the world or her career. McPherson echoed this insight by reminding the crowd that a certain amount of detachment is helpful in looking at the bigger picture since “even Emma will not meet all of my life goals, because it shouldn’t. And that is OK.”
The Nashville Girl Geek Dinner was a night in celebration of questions. Aside from inviting all to ask these inspiring leaders questions, the practice of asking questions was repeatedly encouraged in their answers. While the rapid changes in the company and industry have meant that employees must be agile, Soderkvist says that there is a fine line between adaptability and knowing when to ask questions. Luckily—or perhaps by design—the culture at Emma welcomes questions of all kinds with open arms, abundant appetizers and delicious wine.