Interview: Heather Brunner, the CEO who’s nailing tech diversity

"I believe in building an organisation that welcomes people of all genders, ethnicities and beliefs."

It’s a sad comment on society that in 2015, we were excited to find out that our WordPress hosting company has a half-female leadership team. But with just 18% of Silicon Roundabout tech directors being women – and tech companies loudly complaining about how hard it is to hire women – WP Engine‘s diversity is an achievement, and proof that progress is possible. We caught up with their CEO Heather Brunner to find out how she’s achieved it, how she secured $23m of funding for the company, and what her very cool job involves.

Hi Heather! Please introduce yourself.

I’m in my dream job as CEO of WP Engine. I am a 25-year technology industry veteran, in executive leadership roles for the past 17 years. Growing up as a Customer Services executive, running Sales, Product, Marketing, People Operations and Finance at multiple companies gave me invaluable experience to draw from as a CEO.

I’m passionate about building aligned, global, purpose-led teams. I’m a big economics nerd (my major was International Economics) and lifelong student of global business. Outside of work, I love hanging out with my family and doing yoga.

Tell us about your career journey – how did you get to where you are?

While I was on a study abroad semester at Cambridge University, I joined what was called the “City Club”, a social club for Finance and Economics students. At one of our meetings, a Partner from the London office of Andersen Consulting (now Accenture) spoke with us about how they were bringing the first generation of business automation to life with their large global customers.

I found it all fascinating and spoke with him after his talk. He invited me to come visit their project team at Lloyd’s of London, which I did. I was so inspired by the idea of combining my passion for business with technology that I joined Andersen Consulting three weeks after I graduated from uni, and haven’t looked back since!

You recently secured $23m of funding for WP Engine. Do you have advice for people going through the same process?

You have to approach fundraising from a place of deep research and knowledge in order to maximise your efficiency and outcomes. Every investor or venture capitalist has a primary investment “thesis,” or focus for their investment strategies on behalf of their partners.

It’s imperative that you develop a highly informed point of view on the investors with a thesis aligned to your industry or business. Take on the fundraising research process with the same time, care and discipline you would take to understand your business’s total addressable market or the customer persona(s) you serve.

What’s the biggest problem facing your industry right now? How are you working to solve it?

The rapid pace of digital change and disruption is the biggest challenge facing the industry right now. The changes in media, particularly in social media, mobile and content publishing, coupled with new devices entering the market, has opened a wealth of new and exciting opportunities for organisations. But, at the same time, the consumer has become savvier, more selective and much harder to please.

From our experience, we now know that brands must engage with their current and prospective customers in ever-more sophisticated ways to remain on top. Brands can no longer be passive broadcasters of content: they need to be publishers.

WP Engine supports this with tools such as GeoIP, which enables website owners to personalise content based on location, organisation, connection speed and user type. By making use of this data, website owners can tailor their content to a specific audience and become publishers of engaging content to enhance customer experience.

What are you most proud of in your career and personal life so far?

I am tremendously blessed in so many ways and my daughters are the joy of my life. I aspire to lead a life with purpose, to go after big opportunities and seek ways to contribute to the greater good. My hope is that via my actions, I inspire other to do the same.

WP Engine’s leadership team is half female, which is extremely rare in tech. How have you accomplished that, and what do you think other companies could do to improve?

The diversity of our team at WP Engine is one of our biggest sources of organisational strength. We have tremendous diversity across all dimensions and I genuinely believe that “diversity attracts diversity”. What I mean by this is that when folks see people that look like them with their same values finding success with WP Engine, it attracts them to learn more.

50% of our hiring comes from employee referrals, and they’re referring folks that they think would thrive here. I don’t believe in hiring quotas, and instead believe in building an organisation with purpose that welcomes people of all genders, ethnicities and beliefs to be part of it.

What piece of advice do you wish you’d been given?

For many years I was spending too much energy on shoring up what I perceived as my flat spots as a business leader. With time, I’ve realised that I should have been using that energy to amplify my strengths and help others do the same. Lean into your superpowers, build teams that complement each other and go big!

What are your must-have apps and gadgets? How do they make your life easier?

My connection to the world, our business and my family and friends is via my smartphone. I still remember saving up to buy my first cell phone back in 1992, and it was the beginning of a long love affair with mobile technology! I keep that phone in my office as a reminder of how quickly technology changes.

You must be tremendously busy – how do you balance home, work, and social time?

Some days are better than others, but the hard truth is that it isn’t easy. It requires ruthless prioritisation, personal and family sacrifice and immense patience from everyone. My family sees how much I love what I do and their support is endless for me to feed that passion.

I try to involve my daughters whenever I can in work related events and visiting our offices so that they can clearly see what I do, where I work and who I work with. Having my daughters really understand what I do and why I do it helps them be more patient with my intense schedule.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

We’re going after an incredibly exciting and fast growing market. It’s also highly competitive and dynamic. As CEO it’s my job to ensure we are building a compelling vision to seize our massive market opportunity, a culture that nourishes our employees and a customer experience that creates vocal advocates. This challenge totally fires up me every day!

What’s the best advice you can offer to other CEOs?

Your job is not to have all the answers. Your job is to bring them out of your team. Listen twice as much as you talk.

Want to hear more from Heather? Follow her on Twitter: @HeatherJBrunner.

Images: WP Engine/Heather Brunner


Holly Brockwell
About Holly Brockwell 291 Articles
Tech addict Holly founded Gadgette in 2015, and won Woman of the Year for it. She's firmly #TeamAndroid, has ambitions to become a robot, and beat all other Hollies to her awesome Twitter handle.