By Andy Levinski
Growing up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Shelley Iocona had no role model for working in computer technology. Her dad ran the accounting department of a major grocery chain and her mom ran the household and later, a medical office. But when her passion became clear, her dad encouraged her to channel it into a career.
Iocona began her undergraduate degree at Penn State University but by her sophomore year, she was “yearning for a different experience.” With extended family near Santa Barbara, she applied to UCSB as a sociology major.
Her turn to technology as a career began as a front-end developer for an online media platform and continued with companies including DIRECTV, Yahoo!, and Symantec before launching her own venture, On its Axis, a consultancy for technical, business, brand, marketing and product experts based in Costa Mesa, CA.
Iocona’s practice is based on the tenets of a “lean startup,” the idea that new businesses often fail by starting too large; a social good component baked into every business plan; and a fervent belief that failure breeds creativity and ultimately, success.
How did you anticipate using your major in sociology--and do you, in fact, use your undergraduate coursework in your business today?
Sociology enabled me to major in something really interesting to me and supplement the classes I most enjoyed with others I found more challenging, such as chemistry and physics. Once I realized medicine would not be my path, I explored law as an option and was able to participate in a legal internship through the UCDC program. This internship proved invaluable to me as it helped me decide not to go to law school and to pursue other avenues. For new students, I think it’s so important to understand not just what you are good at or interested in but also the lifestyle you will have based on a selected career.
Was computer technology part of your undergraduate coursework or did you decide to pursue this after graduation?
I wish it were! Looking back at the countless hours spent on our home computer playing video games and learning about how computers work by taking them apart and tinkering with them, it should have been more obvious to me where my passion was. My dad had the insight to suggest getting into the field as I was graduating UCSB and that’s when I decided to pursue a career in technology.
Can you describe your undergraduate experience?
By the time I got to UCSB as a transfer student, I was fully focused on learning and contributing to my community. I was a member of the UCSB orientation staff in 1997 and it was by far one of the best experiences of my life. My focus was helping transfer students onboard and get acclimated to life on campus. As someone who had transferred and relocated, this was a perfect way to help other students and I found it very rewarding.
After that experience, a member of UCSB Admissions recommended me for a social services job in mental health, which was another great way to give back and put my degree to use while still being in school.
Do you know when I landed my first job in technology, my manager shared that she hired me because I am able to work with a lot of different people and personalities! In this instance, soft skills mattered more than technical chops.
In 2007, you received your California Real Estate License. Did it connect with any other part of your career plan or was it a "Plan B" or temporary career detour?
Obtaining my real estate license was my way of “scratching the itch” of entrepreneurship. I purchased my first home at 28 and dabbled in real estate investing as a “side hustle.” Since it was a lot of work to get, I maintain it and take continuing education as required. Although I don’t see working in the business full-time, real estate is a wonderful investment vehicle and as a licensed agent I am able to stay connected to many aspects of the industry.
In past interviews, you seem to rarely refer to the topic of gender in technology. Names like Marissa Mayer who led Yahoo where you worked and Sheryl Sandberg from Facebook are never mentioned. The disparities between genders in the technology field is such a phenomenon. Do you typically not discuss the subject because it was less a part of your personal experience than people might assume?
You know I rarely get asked about being a woman in technology. Clearly this is a frequent conversation in the news media today but it hasn’t been a part of my dialogue. I get asked to speak about starting and growing a business so my focus has been to impart lessons learned and best practices in entrepreneurship and how to be intrapreneurial within the context of the enterprise.
You've written about how failure breeds creativity. Do you have a difficult time convincing manager to allow their staff to take the long view and "learn on the job" when mistakes can be costly in the short term?
What a great question! Early stage startups are much more open to this concept. The larger the company we work with - and the more funding they have - the more challenging the conversation becomes.
My focus with leadership teams is to suggest value-creating pivots and running experiments. The idea is that when you know why you didn’t choose something (a new feature, a new product line, etc.) you have a much better understanding of the value of what you did choose.
Similarly, philanthropy, another pillar of your philosophy and your own practice), requires CEOs, CFOs and board members to take what, at least on the surface, seems like a risk to the bottom line. How do you make the case for giving back from a financial perspective (or do you propose it strictly on moral grounds)?
Giving back is part of our mission and operating with integrity is one of our top values. Clients may opt-out of the philanthropic piece if they choose, although we haven’t encountered that to date.
Financially speaking, our business model helps minimize risk for the executives/clients we partner with because we keep our pricing market competitive. By contributing 10% of the net fee a client pays for our services, we help them to establish or develop a culture and story of giving without the additional direct financial burden.
When did you launch ON ITS AXIS and what was it at the time that you saw as the gap your company would be filling?
I started ON ITS AXIS in 2009 while working at Yahoo. We were over-building our products and had a tough time differentiating in the market. My vision was to help smaller companies learn how to be lean, achieve product-market fit and succeed in the marketplace. Today we serve high-growth startups and large enterprises in their efforts to become more innovative through their products and people.
Can you identify individuals who you consider to have been role models at some point(s) in your life? They could be family members, public figures, teachers, or anyone who had an influence.
The biggest influencers in my life design their life on their terms versus living the status quo. Any person who has gone out in the world and said, “I want to make this better because I care” is an inspiration to me.
Shelley Iocona will be speaking at the Gaucho Grown Orange County Networking Event on May 15, 2019. Register here.