Name Dropping is a Q&A series that aims to elevate the stories of leaders who identify as women or nonbinary leading in the tech space. The idea came from Angela DeFranco, a former VP of Product at HubSpot, who said one way to be better allies is to name drop underrepresented voices in discussions of achievement, inspiration, and disruptors in tech, instead of referencing, time and again, the same set of (often male) leaders.
This edition of Name Dropping features Emily Levada, Chief Product Officer at Embark Veterinary, a global leader in dog genetics that offers a best-in-class canine DNA test to help educate pet owners about their dog’s breed, health, and ancestry.
When did you realize you loved product development? Can you describe your career journey?
I’ve always been a technophile, but my path to product development wasn’t linear. I grew up a “theatre kid” and, in college, I double majored in theater production and psychology. My first job out of school was as a Production Manager at a professional theatre in Washington, D.C. During those years, I worked with creative and technical teams to deliver delightful experiences–and also managed to learn how to write SQL by leading a ticketing database migration. At that point all I knew was that I thought it would be fun to work in “technology”, but I didn’t really understand what that would mean or how to make the transition until I went to grad school for my MBA.
At the Yale School of Management, I had an amazing career counselor named Ivan Kerbel who helped me realize that my role as a theatrical Production Manager was directly transferable into the role of a Product Manager in tech. For example, a lot of my role as a Production Manager was about translating between different functions and aligning conversations and work in order to produce a phenomenal product. And it turns out that the conversations that happen between a set designer, carpenter, and scenic painter are very similar to the conversations that happen between a UX designer, back-end engineer, and front-end engineer. In addition, the theatrical rehearsal process is an iterative prototyping process not all that different from agile software development.
I was very grateful to have had the opportunity as an MBA to figure out how to align all of those skills I had learned in the theatre to opportunities in tech, and I began my tech career with an MBA internship in a product management role at Amazon, working on natural language processing of customer review data. Then, I spent nine years at Wayfair, where I gained experience across a variety of disciplines, including supply chain management, merchandising, and ecommerce product management. By the time I left Wayfair, I was managing a team of 25 product managers and designers.
What inspired you to join Embark Veterinary?
First, for anyone who isn’t familiar with Embark Veterinary, we’re a global leader in dog genetics that offers a best-in-class canine DNA test to help educate pet owners about their dog’s breed, health, and ancestry. There were a number of reasons that the right move was a transition from ecommerce to dog genetics.
The most straightforward part of what led me to Embark, was that I wanted my next move to be an executive-level role at a growth stage startup with an interesting and compelling product and business opportunity. And, of course, I wanted to work alongside great people. When I learned about the opportunity at Embark, I could see how my background in consumer ecommerce, understanding of hypothesis-driven product approach, and experience scaling teams would all be a great fit for the role.
But the Embark product was a really attractive combination of two things that I love – dogs and science! Most people who only know me from Wayfair probably wouldn’t realize how important those two things were. I’ve always been a dog lover, so much so that I stopped skiing with my family on school vacations in high school and college so that I could spend my time working at a dog-sled touring company. But I also come from a scientific family – my dad is a physics-major-turned-physician and my sister took the scientific route in school and got a masters in neuroscience. We are all around science and sci-fi nerds. So the idea of working on a scientific product was intellectually very appealing. It’s been fascinating coming up the learning curve on genomics and working with (and for) scientists. And it’s also really fun having dog owners, breeders, and veterinarians as customers. They’re so passionate and it’s a wonderful feeling to be able to make the science easily digestible and give our customers tools to better care for the dogs in their lives.
Emily Levada with her rescued Maltese, named Banjo, and dog "brother," a Goldendoodle named Maxwell.
What are you most excited about in the coming months and what are you hoping to achieve?
There’s so much happening! We just announced new research about a genetic mutation we discovered that enables us to test for early-onset adult deafness in Rhodesian Ridgebacks. It’s the first-ever canine health discovery using commercial genetic testing data, and will help Ridgeback breeders virtually eliminate this devastating condition in their breed. We’re optimistic that this is the first of many discoveries as Embark’s growing database (which just recently hit 1 million dogs!) fuels our discovery engine and helps us achieve our goal of extending dogs’ lives by three years within the decade. We also recently launched Embark for Veterinarians, which represents a new best practice in canine health where genetics help inform proactive clinical care plans. This product not only empowers veterinarians to improve patient outcomes through patient-specific guidance and earlier interventions, but it also strengthens the bond between veterinarians and pet owners at a time when veterinarian industry burnout is at an all-time high. As a product person, it’s always exciting to talk to, learn from, and develop for an entirely new customer base.
With so many things going on, I’m trying to be intentional about setting priorities and helping create focus for my team as we enter a new fiscal year. Knowing that there are great new ideas being thought of every day, the way I try to think about opportunities isn’t “does this add value,” but rather “does this add more value than the other thing we could be focusing on?” We’ve been in a hypergrowth moment through the last year. When I joined in March 2021, Product was a team of six PMs. Now my team is 28 across product management, design, analytics, program management and more. So in the coming year I want to really lean in to bringing focus and figuring out how to build best practices and rituals for this larger team.
Your company is growing fast. What is your approach to scaling impact and building a great team?
When it comes to scaling, there are two must-dos that come to mind. The first is that I always try to hire people smarter than me. There is no substitute for having an all-star team. And the second is to be intentional about crafting a strategy that leverages the core competencies of the company and prioritizes learning really valuable things.
As for building a great team culture, I find it’s very helpful to give people a shared language around core values or important frameworks. For example, I worked with my team a few months ago to draft a set of Embark Product Principles. I have a belief that at its core, product management is about managing tensions. For example, the ever-present tension between speed-to-market and completeness or quality. Or the occasional tension between what is best for customers and what is best for the business. So to write our product principles, I asked my team to brainstorm what tensions existed for them as PMs and Product Designers at Embark. Five themes emerged and each theme became one of our Product Principles.
Our Product Principles help the team better navigate the tensions they face and have language to talk about why they are doing what they are doing. For example, one of our principles is “We translate seamlessly between world-class science and a compelling customer experience.” That means that our product designs and implementation must respect the complexity of our genetic science, while still meeting the customer where they are. So if anyone (including me) asks someone on my team to ship a product that doesn’t hit the right balance between those two–either oversimplifying or “dumbing down” the science or not effectively informing and educating the customer–the principles give the team clear guidance and an easy way to push back. We even printed our principles so people can hang them up at their desks!
You do a lot of public speaking about building trust through psychological safety and inclusion. Can you share more about this passion and what advice you would give to other leaders on this topic?
I learned about psychological safety before it was a well-known concept because I had an MBA classmate named Julia Rozovsky who was on the People Analytics team at Google that first identified psychological safety as the number one predictor of team performance. As I learned more about psychological safety and the original research of Amy Edmondson, who coined the term, I realized that the most impactful takeaway for my work was that when you have both accountability and psychological safety, the outcome is learning and growth. Most people think that accountability and psychological safety are opposite ends of the spectrum – that psychological safety somehow means going easy on people or being touchy-feely. But it doesn’t. You can create psychologically safe spaces–where a myriad of diverse opinions are voiced, where people admit to failure, and where conflict is resolved proactively and productively–and simultaneously set high expectations that hold people accountable to delivering results. By doing so, you can create environments that are risk tolerant, resilient, creative, and diverse. And where you accelerate learning as an outcome. When you learn the most valuable things to learn, the business wins will follow.
And the piece of advice that I find myself giving other leaders most often is that psychological safety fails silently. I say it this way because good tech leaders know that in any resilient system you never allow silent failures. But then I see people leaders commonly make the incorrect assumption that if no one on their team is voicing complaints or expressing negative emotions (fear, anxiety, shame, etc.), then they must be doing a good job at psychological safety. That’s absolutely not true. When people lack psychological safety, that means they will feel unsafe providing feedback and will stay silent.
Because of this dynamic, learning to effectively solicit criticism (and being able to non-defensively accept and act upon it) is the most important first skill to develop in order to be a leader who creates psychologically safe spaces for your team. Even if you can find one person who is willing to be open and honest in providing criticism, that can be enough to begin turning the flywheel of psych safety in your organization. So, I would encourage every leader to start small and build a relationship with at least one employee who you regularly ask for criticism. For more tactical tips, I’m a huge fan of Kim Scott (author of Radical Candor and Just Work) on this topic and regularly reference her tips and tricks for soliciting criticism when I speak.
Emily Levada’s Embark team builds spaghetti towers as part of a team-building exercise.
In addition to your leadership role, you’re also a Core Member of Underscore VC Core Community, an early stage venture capital firm in Boston. What have you learned from supporting the entrepreneur community?
I love Underscore for their focus on enabling entrepreneurs to learn from strong operators in the Boston community who can provide them with support and advice. I enjoy watching that early process and helping entrepreneurs clarify and synthesize their goals. I also continue to be amazed by all the talent in Boston, and it’s so fulfilling to meet and learn from such amazing people. Of course, I also have to shout out the WayFund, a group of current and former Wayfairians on a mission to support 100+ Wayfair alumni founders. Boston has such a vibrant startup community!
Who’s one woman or nonbinary person in technology you’d like to name drop and why?
I’d love to name drop Lindsey Bleimes, who I worked with on and off across 8+ years at Wayfair. She was the only female engineering director at Wayfair for some time, and grew her last team there from 85 to 400. She was also a fierce advocate for women in tech and a huge source of support for me personally. When she left Wayfair, she moved to Brazil to take a role as VP of Engineering at Nubank, now one of the largest neobanks in the world, helping to alleviate financial disparity in Brazil and beyond. Lindsey is bold, courageous, and an incredible champion for other women, especially in tech.
Know another woman or nonbinary person whose name we should drop? Tweet us at @HubSpotLife with ideas.
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