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Women in Business: Q&A with Nicole Alvino, Co-Founder and SVP of SocialChorus

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Nicole Alvino is the Co-Founder and SVP at SocialChorus. She is responsible for designing solutions to meet customers' specific marketing and business objectives. Formally, she was CEO and Founder of Dermalounge, a consumer skin health brand and early adopter of advocate marketing. She has an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business, has traveled to over 60 countries and spends her free time chasing her two young sons.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My experience at Enron laid the foundation for the leader I am today. I logged about 10 years of work experience in the four years I was there, and then my bosses went to jail. It was painful and disheartening to see some of the people I looked up to become criminals. Originally, Enron had a corporate culture of excellence and a true dedication to changing the world. Then, hubris took over. As Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind showed in their book Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, company ethics and decision making went from grey to black fast.
After feeling betrayed and misled by the leaders of Enron, I vowed to follow a more entrepreneurial path where I'm part of running the company, so I can control the ethic and values. Today, transparency is a huge part of my leadership style and that's probably because I was so disheartened by the lack of transparency and honesty at Enron. From an ethical standpoint, I think leaders have a responsibility to be transparent. In my leadership, I have found transparency builds trust, and when employees have that trust and understand where their leaders are coming from, they'll work hard to achieve the company's vision.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position as the Co-Founder and SVP of SocialChorus?
After Enron, I was done with corporate America. After several months traveling through the South Pacific, I went off to the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB) and focused on meeting entrepreneurs and investors. And that is how I met Greg Shove, my co-founder and the CEO at SocialChorus. I pitched Greg on investing in Dermalounge, a line of upscale skin health centers that I started after the GSB. He didn't invest but he asked great questions and offered sound advice so we stayed in touch in a mentor and friend capacity.

Marketing success at Dermalounge was all about word-of-mouth. It was 2005 and the early days of social. We were an early Yelp adopter, and recognized the potential of social media for trusted communication and endorsement. While running Dermalounge I got excited about the idea of merging offline word-of-mouth and social to mobilize customers as advocates. During our quarterly chats, Greg and I began to talk about the idea of bringing word-of-mouth to a scale that was never before possible. So, Enron led me to the GSB, which led me to Greg and Dermalounge, and our marketing strategy at Dermalounge became a starting point for SocialChorus.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Ha. Having a healthy marriage, being an involved mom and being an inspiring leader at SocialChorus are all important to me. I even make time for some personal interests. It's all a matter of picking and choosing what's most important to me in the moment. I try to be 100% present and focused on what I'm currently doing. I don't try to play with my kids and check email simultaneously - that's not fair to anyone. When I get home, I leave email for when my kids are in bed.

Boundaries help. I try to leave office by 5 (it happens about four days per week), and I'm blessed to have a husband who's a true partner in life and raising our children. Sadly, at the moment, exercise tends to fall to the bottom of my priority list. I choose family and sleep instead. I do try to make weekly appearances at yoga and SoulCycle, but if I can't make it, I try not to beat myself up or judge myself. I have found that a lack of judgment also helps with overall balance and wellbeing. After all, if we feel we are balanced, aren't we? Actually, if I have any 'secret' strategy, it's seeing my Chinese healer/acupuncturist every week, and I do find a way to make time for him - at least 3 times per month.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure as a business owner?
As a business owner, big client wins and watching an amazing team excel have been the biggest highlights. Intel and 3M - two of the world's most innovative brands - have begun their fourth year working with SocialChorus. The fact that Target, Kia, Nestle, Clorox, Microsoft and dozens of category-leading brands have also chosen SocialChorus to power their Advocate Marketing is such a highlight. I love that I get to work with the marketing leaders at these brands.
Another highlight is being able to hire the best people. I want to hire people that are smarter and better than me. That's how I can build a team of A players. I love being able to mentor and inspire others to do better than ever they thought imaginable.

My biggest personal challenge was stepping down from CEO and an operational role at Dermalounge in 2008. I wanted to continue to build and grow our skin health brand and my partners did not. I decided it was time for me to go build and grow another business and let someone else run the day-to-day at Dermalounge. Though it was incredibly hard to step down from a business I had invested blood, sweat and tears building, looking back, it was an incredible lesson in learning how and when to move on gracefully.

What advice can you offer those seeking to establish their own business?
Starting a business will be the hardest thing you ever do, but it can also be the most rewarding thing you do. First, remember that media success stories are the .01% of ventures. No one told me that when I got started.

Second, I would advise entrepreneurs to expect high highs and low lows. When you're at a highlight, it's amazing. When something bad happens, the lows are lower than imaginable. To deal with the roller coaster, find mentors and a community of people to help you along the way. Remember, you always learn more from your own and other people's failures than successes, so surround yourself with people who have been through both the high highs and low lows.

Third, hiring and firing are the number one most important jobs you have. My advice is hire slowly and fire fast. Don't just fill jobs--make sure you find the right fit. Choose people who are bright, interested and eager even if they don't have specific skills. Skills can be taught, but raw passion, integrity and ability are harder to create. If you're sure an employee is the wrong fit, you're probably six months too late. If someone is failing in his or her role, there are only three options: 1) train them to fill role 2) put them somewhere else, or 3) let them go.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The biggest issue is women who feel pressured to leave the workplace because they can't find a situation that works once they have a family. We need a fundamental change in maternity leave policies, childcare options and flexibility to keep more women in the workplace throughout their careers.

Some industries are worse than others. What I witnessed at Enron, for example, was senior women weren't married, didn't have kids or were divorced or never saw their kids. I saw the men ridicule women for wanting to be home for dinner. I specifically chose to leave finance because of what I experienced there in my early 20s.

I know so many amazing women from undergrad and business school who have left the workforce since they couldn't find a solution that would work for them and their family. As such, we have a highly educated pool of underemployed, talented individuals. It's a real shame.
Women bring a collaborative and creative perspective, and diversity of opinion that companies need to reach the best decisions. Keeping women in the workforce is critical--having more women in leadership roles will benefit the business world as a whole.

What are your thoughts on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In book and movement?
Sheryl's book and movement are incredibly inspirational. She's bringing women in the workplace to the forefront of discussion worldwide, and pushing women to consider their choices. I love the idea of leaning into your capabilities based on what you want to do. Not everyone has to be COO of Facebook, but she's saying look, you can do what you have always wanted to do. Women need to hear that from a well-respected business leader, mom and wife.

I think the Lean In movement has strong implications in the developing world where women have less access to education and opportunity. I've spent time working with women in Kenya and Ethiopia and they are so thirsty for inspiration to energize them. I welcome a world where women have access to education and opportunities to continue to work once they have a family and allow all women to feel they can lean into their potential and feel confident in their lifestyle choices.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has defined who I am today. Early on, mentors helped me see what I want or didn't want in my future. For example, one of my boss's at Enron--who didn't go to jail--was a mentor. I looked up to her and respected how she rose in the company. She was definitely left out of 'the boys club' though because she wanted to get home to see her kids every night. Sadly, she's the only female mentor I've had in the workplace. Now, I am incredibly lucky to have an amazing group of women from the GSB who are mentors. But, the lack of traditional female mentors in my own career certainly motivates me to be a mentor to others.

My co-founder Greg Shove has been an incredible mentor too, and I respect him from a personal and professional standpoint. Even though he didn't fund Dermalounge, he served as a mentor throughout the experience, and he helped me recognize that what we were doing with social and word-of-mouth was valuable. Without his mentorship, we wouldn't be building SocialChorus together.

Mentors play multiple roles. They can help you navigate the lows, give you a reality check or talk through critical decisions. If they've made similar decisions, they're great sounding boards. Mentors can also celebrate successes with you, and a lot of mentees forget that.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Like many others, I admire Hilary Clinton, Maria Shriver and Queen Noor, who have taken risks to do amazing things and have inspired others to challenge norms and change the world.

However, I have the deepest admiration for people I actually know since their experiences are more tangible to me. A friend from undergrad, Ginger Baker, moved her family including two young children to Rwanda to build Visa's mobile banking business there. One of my best friends from the GSB, Kara Nortman, left her C-level position at IAC to start Moonfrye, a company focused on creative interaction among families. She raised her Series A while 7 months pregnant and launched her product when her third daughter was 2 months old.

Since I know Ginger and Kara, I know they are great mothers, wives and business leaders, and I know just how much they contribute to their communities. I admire them and feel honored to call them my friends.

What are your hopes for the future of SocialChorus?
My hope is that we continue to expand our leadership in Advocate Marketing software, while Advocate Marketing becomes a huge category. SocialChorus has 40 of the Fortune 500 in our customer base, and I'd like to see that number get to 100 this year. I hope we continue to attract top talent, build the best product on the market and help brands engage their customers, employees and partners to do their most powerful marketing for them. I know we will continue to lead SocialChorus with passion, integrity and transparency and inspire our team to continue to achieve greatness.