Huda is currently on an exciting journey, finally starting her own company after having been part of the Toronto startup community – most recently as the Head of Product and Design at Wealthsimple. Our paths briefly crossed at Wave where she worked on the Product Design team, and I was inspired to have met a woman working in a field I had just become obsessed with. By virtue of her existing and thriving in a field I had once thought of as unreachable, she unknowingly pushed me to start exploring the world of product. I was extremely honored to learn more about her journey into Product Design, her learnings as a female minority in leadership, and her hopes to positively impact the tech community as she follows her entrepreneurial calling.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your journey so far.
My name is Huda Idrees and I’m an engineer by trade. I went to engineering school and caught the startup bug at Wattpad, which was my co-op at the time. Since then I’ve worked at startups founded in Toronto, whose names start with the letter W [Wattpad, Wave, and Wealthsimple]; if I was a superstitious person, that would dictate my life but, thankfully, I’m not so it’s okay. I got into the world of Product Design after I convinced Allen at Wattpad that I had to be the first designer he hired. I learned a tonne, mostly on the job, and it’s become a very deep passion of mine – something that my life revolves around very much. And now I’m starting my own thing which I think is going to define me more than any of my past experiences have!
Do you have any people that have influenced you and guided you to where you are today?
I subscribe to this concept of having your personal board of advisors; you collect these people as you go through all your different experiences. So instead of officially having mentors, I unofficially look up to people that are good in certain areas, recognizing that I can’t get all the advice I want in all aspects of my life from them, and just speaking to them in that capacity. And they’ve been fundamentally important in building who I am today.
Matt Mullenweg, the founder of Automatic – the builders of WordPress, is my hero. Matt is a very interesting person who is exceptionally smart, but is very humble. He continues to be CEO of the massive company and still spends most of his time hiring his people. And I think there’s something really special about that – being so humble when you’re so smart is a thing you almost don’t see in tech. So I look up to people like him, and lots of my previous, past, and present co-workers.
What is one piece of advice that you live by, or that influences your daily life?
Learn to ask for what you want. That was the best piece of advice I got from Charlie O’Donnell, a venture capitalist from Brooklyn, in 2011 and I have lived by it. It is almost the first piece of advice I’ll give to anyone else, and it is very powerful because it is a different perspective on what normally happens. We usually think life happens to us, but it shifts the perspective to you being the person that dictates your own destiny – which is kinda cool!
What is one of the best decisions you have ever made?
I had the opportunity to work at Google back in 2011 when I took the Wattpad gig. Google was a big deal – it’s kinda cool now, but it was very cool then – so I actually wasn’t going to take Wattpad. I could have gone and worked in Mountain View, but I took Wattpad instead with the dinky, little office, 2.5 blocks from Finch Station. Best decision, I think. It taught me so much more than what an internship at Google could have taught me. I actually built a team around me, which was so cool for an intern. I was there for two rounds of investments, and I learned so much; it literally charted the map for who I want to be now. And I’m so grateful to Allen and Ivan for taking a chance on me. They recognized that I was very young, and took me on anyway.
In my About section, I spoke about the various barriers I put up for myself. Is that something you relate with? If so, what is the one thing you wish you could stop doing?
I wish I hadn’t listened to people who didn’t matter in the past – and I still do that sometimes. I have this tendency to move when I recognize there’s no more room for me to grow, but sometimes it takes a while to realize that there’s a giant roadblock and that’s why you’re unhappy. And I heard all sorts of things: people look for more than 2 years at a job on your résumé… you’re not ready to be a leader… so many people casting doubt on your abilities when, really, they don’t know. You barely know, let alone other people.
I actually met with a professor about my new business and he said – what you’re saying sounds like science fiction to me. And I think my perspective now has shifted enough that I was like – oh my God, he said it sounds like science fiction; that’s the coolest thing! That’s exactly what I want! So I wish I didn’t listen to people and just tried things out.
Can you speak on your experiences as an undergrad in Engineering, where there is a clear lack of female representation?
There is very little gender parity in engineering, and it carried through to the tech world. The good thing about engineering school, as astoundingly bad it was on gender parity, was that it was a very close-knit community, and we all really had each other’s backs, which I really appreciated. After the initial shock of being the only woman in most classrooms, you start realizing that everyone’s just an engineer. Although, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t cases of drive-by sexism; at the end of the day, the engineering field does feel like a man’s world which means you kind of doubt yourself a little bit when answering questions in class ,or wonder whether you’re going to come across as stupid. But overall, I loved going to engineering school. If I were to pick another best decision, that would be it!
You have had the experience of working at a number of start ups at an early stage where you had to build a team from scratch. What was that like for you?
Building teams is a lot about emotionally intelligent leadership. You’re constantly trying to figure out a puzzle in your head: how the team you’re collecting, or the one person you are embedding into an existing team, is going to fit in, where you can play up their individual strengths, and where they can learn. So as an interviewer, when I started bringing people on, interviews were very intimidating for me. I think recruiting is one of the hardest things because you have to get people to buy into your mission, and it’s very expensive to let them go later. Initially, it seems like you’re never going to find anyone, but once you start bringing people in pieces start to fall into place. There’s obviously room for lots of error, which is why it’s terrifying – I’ve seen and also personally made lots of hiring mistakes, and they cost you so much that it’s not worth it. I would much rather you not hire someone you’re doubtful about than hire them and then have to let them go later on, or have them completely destroy your culture that you spent forever building. It’s not worth it – don’t do it.
Having been female leader, what advice would you give other women in a similar position or who aspire to be in a similar position?
It’s tough – anyone who says it’s not is fooling themselves. It’s rewarding in some areas, but it’s largely frustrating. You become the de facto representative of women, and it’s annoying that you have to have these awful conversations with people who don’t get it; you get white CIS males telling you sexism in tech doesn’t exist and believing it. I had to once sit down a teammate and explain to them why using the word “hoe” in an official company blog post was wrong. So you’re constantly in the spotlight for having to do or say different things. For me, I had to sit at the intersection of so many minorities that it just got really taxing. And only a small part of that was being a female leader. On top of that, you layer being a visible minority and being a young person – it’s amazing how many people would completely dismiss you because you are so young! Michelle Obama once said that your disadvantages are your greatest strength, and I agree with that mentality because you learn so much more than somebody who hasn’t had to go through what you have.
You also learn to be more empathetic. One of the most inspirational people I know – Raghava – who is an artist, TED talk speaker, and curator living in the US, taught me this concept of empathy not being binary where you have empathy or you don’t. It’s more about learning how much you can hone, train, and grow your sense of empathy – it’s a muscle that you have to constantly use. As a leader, you’re in a position to really train your empathy muscle. And what I’ve seen from female leaders in the past is they have a head start on their male counterparts when it comes to empathy and emotional intelligence in leadership. It’s something of huge colossal value that you’re bringing to the table.
So people are going to look up to you, and you have to bear that burden, and sometimes you have to be the voice of all women or minorities you represent; but with great power comes great responsibility. I wish it wasn’t like that, and I hope to dedicate my career to changing that for women in the future.
Taking that step to quit and start something of your own. Was that always the plan?
It was always the plan. I come from a family of entrepreneurs; my dad started his company when I was born, so there’s a running joke about what he loves more in our family [laughs]! So I’ve always wanted to do it and when I joined Wattpad, I finally found my area and got that I was meant to start a tech company. But this was a long time coming; I wanted to do something in the field I’m focused on forever. I graduated and I was literally looking for this – even when I was in school, I was looking for this. So, it was a long time coming, and I wish I’d done it sooner!
Now that you are moving from being an employee to an employer, what are the fundamentals you are focused on as far as building a culture and building your team?
Ken Goldstein coined the motto: “People, Product, Profits. In that order.” I want to care for the people first, and that’s where the empathy and emotional intelligence kicks in. You need to take care of your team and make sure they’re working on stuff that’s important to them, and makes them happy, while still working towards the company mission. Then you can care about building a functional, fast, and then pretty product. And then every company should focus on thinking of a revenue model and embedding it early on.
There’s also a lot of literature written on how culture is everything, and I’m very mindful of that. It’s important to bring people who are respectful of each other and of celebrating differences. If you do not have the capacity to celebrate your differences, you’re not building a culture that’s going to withstand the test of time. You’re probably going to be a place where people come and leave – a place to get experience, not a place where you build and grow people. And if you’re reading this, and are in a position of leadership, please pay attention to the professional development of those reporting to you or those around you. So many companies don’t do that and it’s ridiculous because you can keep people around for longer when you can professionally curate them and their skills.
Finally, I think being mindful and self-aware of your own strengths and weaknesses, and surrounding yourself with people who are going to stop you from completely screwing up, is important. In the moment it’s really hard, and those people are the worst to you, but appreciating those who bring that difference of opinion helps you become a more holistic person.
Can you speak on maintaining a work/life balance, especially now with you focusing on creating your own company?
It’s fine to work hard, but I think most of us are very present hedonistic – we care about the short-term, and we don’t recognize that we are completely burning ourselves out or stunting our own growth for the foreseeable future. So I’m a huge believer in prioritizing yourself and your health first, then worrying about work. I’m known for taking yoga breaks in the middle of the day – I will get up and go to a class because that’s what helps me be the best version of myself in the moment. I think we always need to work to become the best versions of ourselves, and focusing on self-awareness, mindfulness, and on self-love is a large part of that.
What advice would you give the younger you?
To trust my instincts more. In retrospect, I’ve had very good instincts – and I have a hunch that most people have really good instincts that they just don’t listen to. I wish I’d trusted my instincts more.
What is your definition of a feminist?
I think it’s someone who recognizes that women are also people. Feminism is about recognizing that we are people and giving us the same respect, opportunities, and so on. So really, it’s a human rights movement at the end of the day.
Have you faced any challenges particular to the intersectionalities that constitute your personal identity i.e being a young, colored, visibly religious woman.
Yes, absolutely [laughs]! I’ve faced a tonne of challenges and in hindsight they were bigger than I realized at the time, which is probably good because it helped me cope with them. I’ve had to be the only person who calls out instances of sexism in the workplace – behavior which I now label unethical, because, really, it’s an unethical thing to do – and it’s unfortunate. I’ve heard people say that I’m either just filling a quota, or am there because I’m of ambiguous ethnicity. I’ve been in rooms where people are trying to speak on your behalf, when they don’t fall under any of the categories you do, almost silencing you implicitly. Not being considered for leadership is another one; most people don’t want to and if they do, it’s so that they can look diverse for the outside world. So I’m constantly battling in my own head – doing unpaid acts of labor – questioning why something just happened or why someone said what they said. And the more intersectionalities you lie within, the more questions and unpaid labor you’re doing over and over again. It takes a toll on you! And often times you have to work way harder than any straight white dude has to, yet you’re probably not going to get as far as they will, because we are trained to promote people who are like us, and look for leaders in people who are like us, and there is surprisingly little you can do about it. It’s unfortunate, and we need to be able to speak up and fix it; you have to be that person that has a voice and takes up space, and now I know that.
What are the things we can do to promote female leadership/advancement?
Having women pull up other women, and having people who are privileged pull up people of lesser privilege, is very important. They need to work on bringing on and training these people, giving them a voice, giving them power, empowering a lot of their decisions, and backing them up. Usually, all your startup leadership is made up of white dudes, or Asian males, and I’ve seen some instances of females wanting to be the only female so they will not pull up others as a result, and that’s a mistake. I was actually an intern and I got trained at Wattpad. So really, without knowing, what Allen was doing was trying to fix the problem of lack of female engineers. People say that we don’t have enough female senior talent. But guess where the senior talent comes from? It’s from schools! What if we could bring on more interns or people and train them up?
I think people understanding the very value of having diverse teams and leaders appreciating that someone who calls you out, or is different from you, is actually very beneficial for you, is also important. We also need to focus on culture; if you have a toxic culture where people are not reprimanded for unethical behavior, good luck trying to attract females to your company.
Do you have any book or blog recommendations that have inspired you as a woman in tech?
There’s a book called The Tao of Leadership – it’s a translated piece of work. It’s super thin – you can read it in one sitting. It’s my favorite, what I call a meta book. You know those songs that you could apply to every aspect of your life? It’s like that, but in book form. So I love it; I think it’s very simply written, and it touches on very hard concepts in a very light way so you have to sit and absorb it, but it’s my favorite. It has been for a long time.