Stacy Brown-Philpot: Hire Leaders, Leave to Take Risks

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Stacy Brown-Philpot: Hire Leaders, Leave to Take Risks

The TaskRabbit CEO is used to being the first — and blazing a path for those who will follow.
Chess board
Find a job that offers exciting risks, suggests TaskRabbit CEO Stacy Brown-Philpot. | iStock/JDawnink

When Stacy Brown-Philpot took the helm in 2016 at TaskRabbit, the venture-backed online marketplace that matches freelance labor (called “taskers”) with local demand, she became the first black woman CEO of a tech company in Silicon Valley. At the time of the announcement, TaskRabbit founder and CEO Leah Busque said Brown-Philpot “is someone who knows how to scale and build the kind of strong partnerships we need to really grow.”

Stacy Brown-Philpot | Courtesy of TaskRabbit

Brown-Philpot grew up in Detroit, studied her way into the Ivy League (The Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania) and did a turn in investment banking, where working on tech deals piqued her interest in the valley. She earned her MBA at Stanford in 2002, and by 2003 she had joined Google as a financial director. She then became a senior director of Google’s global consumer operations and an entrepreneur-in-residence at Google Ventures.

Along her paths, she focused on filling the pipeline with diverse candidates. She founded the Black Googler Network to attract, develop, and retain black talent at the company; she joined the board of HP Inc. at the invitation of Meg Whitman, whom she met at a party for women executives at Sheryl Sandberg’s house; and she’s on the board of Black Girls CODE, the nonprofit that draws girls of color to programming, engineering, app development, robotics, and other STEM fields.

Brown-Philpot spoke to Insights on her way home from the airport after a multi-day business trip to Chicago, pausing the conversation just long enough to greet an exuberant child screaming, “Mommy!” as she walked through the door.

How does your own sense of values manifest in your leadership style?

I think that many of my lessons have been around being authentic as a leader, being fully who I am as a person and allowing that authenticity to shape my leadership style. I was a different leader when I worked in India with Google. Earlier I joined companies that shared my values and now I get to shape a company that reflects my values. I’ve learned to connect the individual to the collective we are trying to create.

I value honesty and integrity, and character means everything to me. My favorite quote on this is from Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” That is the true representation of a leader.

How is TaskRabbit a meaningful part of the sharing economy?

I like to focus on TaskRabbit as a job creator, a place and a platform for people to earn a living income and choosing a more flexible way to work to earn the money they need to achieve the life they want to have. Every day, I meet someone paying for their grandchild to go to college or saving money to go to school — there are a whole bunch of reasons, and we’re just creating everyday work for everyday people. Without the power of technology we wouldn’t have been able to create this platform for that to happen.

You’re coming up on a year as CEO. What’s gone right?

One of the things that’s gone right is we’ve doubled the size of the business by investing in the mobile product. We’re now half mobile, more than double than before. We took the experience and learned what the customer really wants and invested in the technology that really works for her. You can post a task in three clicks.

We’re hiring for leadership, and I want to know: Is that person going to be a strong person in my organization? Can they be thoughtful, can they take an idea and run with it and figure out how to make something happen?
Stacy Brown-Philpot

At the end of the year we had an opportunity in the form of a partnership with IKEA; it launched in December 2016 in London. They really wanted to tackle the UK first and expand from there. You can add the service to your cart and have someone come and put your furniture together.

They came to us on a tour of Silicon Valley, and they were very interested in meeting with different interesting companies. We sat down with their group membership. We had already done thousands of IKEA furniture jobs and it helped them with their customer satisfaction. They realized we should work more closely together.

Looking at your career and your involvements — from being on the board of Black Girls CODE and launching the Black Googler Network — it’s clear that mentorship is an important part of what you do. How did being mentored play a role early in your career?

Early in my career, I wasn’t mentored. I grew up in Detroit and everybody who was successful there was a doctor or a lawyer. That’s why I spend a lot of time with women or girls who look like me, to say, “Here’s another choice that can be equally as interesting and important.” I had a lot of male mentors in my career, and then at Google I worked closely with Sheryl Sandberg, who was the first female mentor I had. There were people who helped push me and nudge me, and nobody told me about coding or tech when I was young enough to pursue it. That’s why I focus on young girls in school, to let them know it’s a valuable choice.

But you also didn’t start out in tech.

I was working in investment banking at Goldman Sachs and was excited about working on tech deals, with one company being sold and one going public and [I thought], “Wow, these companies are creating a lot of value.” That’s how I got fascinated by tech. And coming to Stanford Graduate School of Business was the perfect way to learn how Silicon Valley works and how tech companies are creating value and the meaning of entrepreneurship. It has the power to change lives further than you can imagine. At Stanford GSB, you feel it in the school but it’s also the essence of Silicon Valley. That’s when I decided I wanted to be a part of this work, and this is where I wanted to begin the next phase of my career.

That next phase took you to Google, where you had a long run as an executive before you decided to leave. How hard was that decision?

I like to think I had to break up with Google. It was a good boyfriend, but I felt like, “Can I be in this relationship forever?” I wanted to take risks and grow as a person. It wasn’t that such risks didn’t exist at Google, but they weren’t the ones that most excited me at the time. It was hard. I still miss a lot of what Google represents. I’m a huge fan.

How do you keep your physical and mental health strong?

I swim twice a week. I started swimming because my second pregnancy was very hard and my OB said, “Try swimming.” I wasn’t very good at it, but I got better and it’s very relaxing. We also have meditation time once a week at TaskRabbit — Thursday at 3 p.m. when I’m at the office I sit in a room and meditate with other people.

What kind of advice do you have for the MBAs coming up through Stanford GSB right now?

We’re hiring for leadership, and I want to know: Is that person going to be a strong person in my organization? Can they be thoughtful, can they take an idea and run with it and figure out how to make something happen? Are they good at leading others and managing? As a manager, my No. 1 job is to hire the best people and develop them. It’s really about the team and the people you build around you.

TaskRabbit is in 19 cities and in the UK and it’s a growing part of the sharing economy, but there’s been some unfortunate news recently about other companies in the space — specifically, the piece written by Susan Fowler, the former Uber engineer, about the harassment and discrimination she faced during her time there. What are your thoughts on what she wrote and how the company has responded?

I think the power of community is a real thing, and what Uber has built is a company powered by the people who make the business work — the drivers, riders, and people who participate in the sharing economy. These things have happened at other companies, and it almost never makes it to this level, but the expectations of companies that touch our lives are extremely high. We have a responsibility to take care of the people who work for us. I’m proud [Fowler] had the courage to say what she said and write what she wrote and that the community has supported her.

Stacy Brown-Philpot won Stanford GSB Black Business Student Association’s 2017 Tapestry Award.

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