How one Silicon Valley insider got around Google’s leadership rules


Katie Jacobs Stanton knows how to create her own options.

Stanton, a veteran of Twitter, Google, Yahoo and a presidential administration, now serves as chief marketing officer of genetic testing startup Color Genomics. Her professional journey from East Coast to West, and back and forth again, has given her rare insight into the workplace cultures that shape us today.

For its podcast, Fortt Knox sat down with Stanton to talk about the environment for women in tech, and her journey to the executive ranks in Silicon Valley. Here are some key lessons from our conversation:

Outsmart the Culture

Stanton's timing was great, joining Google in 2003 after a stint at Yahoo and a maternity leave. But she encountered some obstacles right out of the gate.

"When I was at Yahoo, I was hired as a product manager for Yahoo Finance, and helped build the site and build it internationally. And so when I came to Google, naturally I thought, 'I can be a product manager here,'" she said. "And Google said, 'No, I'm sorry, you don't have a computer science background.' And I was like, but I just helped build this great product on the web, and I've been there for three years, and I was promoted."

The leadership structure at Google was unmoved. No computer science background, no product management.

But that didn't stop Stanton. She found engineers who would work with her, and brought Google Finance to market. Along the way, she gained a reputation as a person who could ship new ideas.

The #Angels investment group. Pictured are: Left to right, top row: Chloe Sladden, Jana Messershcmidt Jessica Verrilli and Vijaya Gadde, Katie Stanton, April Underwood, left to right bottom row.
Source: #Angels

Move Around

Stanton is from New York, went to college in Tennessee, ditched the East Coast for Silicon Valley in her 20s, and did a stint as director of citizen participation in the Obama administration and as a technology advisor in the State Department before heading back to California. International travel has helped broaden her horizons; she was serving as vice president of Twitter's international business when the company went public. That now influences what Stanton looks for when she's hiring.

"I look for people with international experience, something I believe strongly in. People who speak foreign languages, I think, have always stood out to me," Stanton said, adding that she looks for those qualities even in roles that don't require it. "I think it just brings a different lens and a different empathy, a different perspective to things."

As someone who hadn't traveled internationally when I started my career, I couldn't help but notice that in some ways, Stanton's preference for well-traveled people could be as limiting as Google's preference for coders as product managers. The key, it seems, is to show you can deliver what the job requires even if your resume isn't the obvious fit.

Find Role Models

Stanton was fortunate enough to work for a string of female bosses during her six-year run at Google, an experience that's pretty rare in Silicon Valley's tech scene. She says having women in leadership positions will also be important to the next generation.

"You can't be what you can't see. I think for a lot of girls, not seeing other female professors of computer science, other leaders in business" can be a barrier, she said. "We still have a lot of work to do for women in leadership positions."

She's certainly doing her part.

Fortt Knox is a weekly podcast from CNBC anchor Jon Fortt. Previous episodes of the program can be found here.