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How She Got There: Avantika Agrawal, Product Manager at Birchbox

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Name: Avantika Agrawal
Job Title and Description: Product Manager at Birchbox
College Name/Major: University of Pennsylvania Engineering & Wharton School of Business

What does your current job entail? Do you have a favorite part?

Avantika Agrawal: So I am the product manager at Birchbox. Currently, my focus area is the mobile app and also our subscription growth, so growing subscribers to our Birchbox products. Prior to this position I didn’t actually have experience working as a PM (product manager) but I’d had quite a bit of experience that definitely contributes to the kind of work I do here. I graduated from college with a dual degree in computer science engineering and business, and I think that combination of skill sets definitely lends itself really well to the PM role. I think it’s good to be technical, it’s good to have a little bit of an engineering background but at the same time having a strong foundation in the basics of business and strategy and management is always helpful. I think that a lot of people in that program did want to go into the product management field. My favorite part I have to say is the customer research. I remember the first day we had customers in the office; it was just, it was amazing. We had these amazing customers who would come in without expecting any incentive just to give us feedback and they had such useful things to say, whether positive or negative, and I think the fact that we prioritized getting their feedback, testing things out in front of them, even going out to our stores in person to show them new things we’re working on, I think that was a really great part of the role. There’s a lot of product managers who just go ahead and build a product based on what they think is right and I think we try really hard to make sure we test it with customers before anything goes out.

Is there such thing as a day-to-day routine for you?

AA: I think at any given time I probably have two to three projects, like I’m working on a couple of different projects at a time, so it’s usually touching base with each of the teams I work with on each of those sides, so there’s a cool part of the role: things like vision, strategy, coming up with road maps, depending on where you are in the life cycle of each of these projects you might be doing that. A very big piece of the role at Birchbox is understanding our customers and doing research and reaching out to them and so, you know, almost every week, we’ll have some customers in the office who we can ask questions about how they’re using our app or have them test out anything we’re working on. I think that to me is really unique about Birchbox where we really have this focus on the customer and the customer coming first. There’s obviously working with other stakeholders in the company so we partner really closely with engineering and design teams so if I have an idea for a new feature they’re probably the first people I go to to figure out technical constraints and, you know, design and ideas, and then there’s also launch and measurement, analytics like – not even just before you launch, but especially after you launch to make sure you don’t just throw the product over the wall, as they say, you’re also thinking about how it’s doing and other ways to optimize it and if it’s performing well and constantly keeping tabs on it. Depending on where each product is, I’ll touch on a lot of these things over the course of a day or two and then it’s really just continuing to do what it takes to get the product out the door and then after that I can make sure it’s performing well.

What was your first entry-level job in your field and how did you get it?

AA: I spent the first two years out of college working as a consultant at McKinsey & Company learning a bit more on the business side of things. But I wanted to stay close to emerging technology and innovations in the space so I worked with their business technology office actually. I consulted with a number of companies over the two years, from project managing to strategy to organizational design to digital marketing. So, spent two years as a consultant and then after that I wanted to get back into the tech industry and so I moved to Google in a more analytical and data science-focused role. I think it was a really exciting role in the sense that to be an analyst, to be a data scientist at Google, you get to have all of those terabytes of data at your fingertips, get to find interesting consumer insights that could then inform your product team or marketing teams or sales teams. So it was a great experience, I think it really built off the analytical experience I had at McKinsey but also provided closeness to technology that I wanted to get back. So that brings me to Birchbox! From Google, I was very interested not just in the analytics side of things, but I really wanted to get closer to product development, actually launching a product, which involved the elements of all the roles I did previously so analysis, data science is a very part of what we do, but also strategy road maps, stay close to management, all of those things that I got from McKinsey. 

What words of wisdom (well-known quotes, an anecdote from your boss) do you find most valuable?

AA: I’ve been lucky I’ve had a lot of really, really supportive and great mentors over my career. I think our first CTO, as I mentioned, she was a woman, and her name was Liz Crawford. She was, I’d say, one of the most inspiring leaders I’ve met, especially being a female CTO. She definitely was somebody I looked up to and one of the things that was unique about her leadership style was that she was very authentic and very – she stayed true to her style. She was a very soft-spoken person, she wasn’t, you know, perceived to be very aggressive but when she walked into a meeting, regardless of how loud she spoke, you knew she knew what she was talking about. She commanded an audience, she had that kind of presence. And you know, for me, I think I always had the issue where I feel like I’m not as confident, I’m not – I need to be speaking up more in meetings, I need to be louder, I need to make my voice heard, which is definitely true, but I think one advice she gave me was that you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room to be seen as a leader. I think, be true to what your style is and you can come up with your own leadership style. It doesn’t require you having a change of your style of communication as much. If you’re confident and you know your stuff, I think you can be seen as a leader and she demonstrated that in a really, really impressive way, so she was inspiring and I think that I’m trying to follow in her footsteps as much as I can.

What do you look for when considering hiring someone?

AA: I think for a PM role we try to look for people who aren’t – I think a lot of bigger companies usually have very, very strict criteria, like you need to have an engineering background, you need to have at least “x” number of years of experience, I think, where we have a little bit more flexibility on is we really want to see that all-rounded skillset. Maybe you don’t have an engineering background but you’re really interested in getting technical and you really want to learn, I think we’re willing to overlook that if you’re well-rounded in some of the other areas. So if you’re analytical, if you have really good vision and product instincts, if you can – if you want to be customer-centric and you want to work closely with design, we really look for that well-rounded skillset. I think that’s one, the second I think is just be scrappy. I think being at a smaller company, especially coming from places like Google, as I said, the role often deviates from the role description. You’re often put into positions where there is more ambiguity. There isn’t a well-defined process for things, you’re often in uncharted territory, and people have to be able to navigate that if they want to work and be successful at small companies. So I think we look for people who have experience doing that or are comfortable in that kind of environment or seem like they’d be self-starters and could figure things out and aren’t really waiting for things to be handed to them. I think that’s just generally a trait we really would respect, especially on the product team.

What advice would you give to a 20-something with similar aspirations, especially in a field primarily dominated by men?

AA: That’s a great question. It’ll be natural to feel a little bit intimidated and a little bit outnumbered in a room and feel like you might not be good enough. I think just remembering that you’re there for a reason and that it’s nothing to do with your gender, it’s because you are qualified and you can make this happen. I think just reminding yourself of that can help you get the confidence to overcome some of that intimidation. The other thing I’ve seen a lot with women across all the companies I’ve worked with is that sometimes you hold yourself back a little bit, we don’t ask for what we want, and I see that a lot of times, thinking about promotions, career advancements, like not really going after that job or not really asking for that promotion because we think we’re coming across as too aggressive or we think we shouldn’t be putting ourselves out there as much. I’d say just don’t be afraid to ask – the worst thing that can happen is, I think usually it just leads to a really productive discussion. The best thing that can happen is that you actually get what you want, the worst thing is that you might be seen as a little ambitious, which is never a bad thing. So ask for what you want, really go after it, don’t be intimidated even if you are not in the majority.

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