Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Magdalena Yeşil might be known best as a founding board member and first investor of Salesforce. Born and raised in Istanbul, she says growing up as a Christian kid in a Muslim country was great training for navigating Silicon Valley as a woman: “I learned how to adjust to being other.” Along the way, she met Courtney Chakarun, a customer-centric marketing expert who is now the chief marketing officer of eXp World Holdings. Together with SUCCESS Editor-in-Chief Cecilia Meis, Yeşil and Chakarun look back on first jobs, mentorship, inclusivity and all things women in the workplace.
Cecilia Meis: Magdalena, how did you first arrive in Silicon Valley?
Magdalena Yeşil: I came to the U.S. to go to college and spent my first year in Chicago. Then winter came. I wasn’t used to cold weather coming from Istanbul. So I applied to two California schools: Stanford and Berkeley. When they asked, “Why do you want to come to our esteemed university?” my essay was, “Because it’s warmer there than where I am.”
CM: You ended up at Stanford and switched paths several times, ultimately landing on electrical engineering.
MY: I applied for a master’s in electrical engineering. I got in. When I graduated, I realized, “Wow, all the companies that I want to work for are actually across the street.” So that started my career in Silicon Valley.
CM: And how did you get into venture capitalism?
MY: My first job was being a semiconductor design engineer. Every time there was a wave of innovation, I jumped on it. I was an immigrant. I had nothing to lose. I was willing to take risks. I was very willing to kind of pack my bags, if you may, and go to the next startup. After my first decade, I became an entrepreneur. I founded three companies in succession, and the third one was a very odd concept now known as pay-as-you-go. The VCs who had been interested in investing in market pay invited me in to join them as a venture capitalist. So that’s how I got my start in venture capital, completely coming at it with virtually no strategy, just basically bouncing into it.
CM: What was the dynamic like for you as a woman in that role?
MY: I was the solo woman in leadership at my firm, but there were lots of women who were in supporting roles. One of the things that I really enjoyed was actually hanging out with what was called then “the non-professional women,” that was an eyebrow-raiser for my partners, but in many ways, I got so much support from fellow women because they actually loved having someone in that partners meeting who was one of their own. In my career, I have never differentiated women, regardless of their roles. I believe that one of the things, as women, we need to do is, each time we take a step forward, we have to extend our arm and pull someone else up. And that has given me great joy.
CM: Do you feel like there is pressure in being in that singular female executive or leadership position to be a role model for others?
MY: You’re absolutely right. And I think that’s not just with gender. I think if you are the only Armenian or if you’re the only Asian American, or if you’re the only whatever other category, you do feel extra pressure because you are in some ways representing a group. So it’s not just you winning or losing; you’re winning for your team. But at the same time, it gives you extra motivation because you can’t just say, “Well, I’ve had enough,” or, “I’m not going to fight that fight.” You cannot be tired. You cannot give up. You have to keep pushing forward.
CM: How do you take care of yourself when there may not be an existing support structure available to you?
MY: If you’re the only woman, which I’ve had multiple times the experience of being, the best self-care is actually creating allies who are men, because you cannot look for allies who are women. They’re not there. So, in fact, finding mentors who are male, finding allies who are male, finding people that you can confide in, people who will actually look out for you, having that has really been the differentiator for me. As far as self-care, I think that’s pretty minimal for me, grooming or yoga or doing all those things you were supposed to do. I mean, frankly, I had two kids and a career, so if I could take a shower, that was a victory.
CM: Courtney, you learned a lot about advocacy from Magdalena. Your meeting was a near miss as you tried to attend a signing for her book, Power Up: How Smart Women Win in the New Economy and ultimately missed the event. Compelled by the topic, you tracked her down for a one-on-one meeting and invited her to speak to share her message on empowering women.
Courtney Chakarun: That was an aha moment for me. Magdalena was clear in our first conversation: “Here’s advocacy. Here’s how it works when you engage with the right leaders.” In my experience, most people [especially women] don’t feel comfortable voicing expectations and a clear ask. Magdalena was one of the first women I’ve met that was crystal clear in her intentions and edifying leadership lessons that might seem unconventional.
CM: Magdalena, can you give some examples of these types of situations?
MY: We don’t only want a bunch of women just talking to each other. So the decision I made for myself was, I’m willing to fly anywhere, speak to any company, but I want the leadership at that company—the highest ranking leader in that location—to actually come and open the conversation. If I can get that, everybody in the room, men and women, are going to get the message much more clearly than my speaking. So that was the thinking. And it worked.
CC: Magdalena sets the intention, makes the ask and has high standards. What is unique is that she also provides context on why it’s important to start at the leadership level to seek advocacy. Context is a gift—it takes time and energy to share your thought process and how you arrived at these learnings and experiences. And Magdalena has been generous in sharing her path to becoming a successful entrepreneur and investor.
CM: I know you’re talking about humanizing the boardroom to better work with people from all different walks of life, all different personalities, all different backgrounds. What about with leadership?
MY: Leadership sets the tone. And a leader who is willing to listen to people who speak their mind is usually a very powerful and very secure leader. The leaders who are trying to massage the messages, edit them, censor them, are usually leaders who feel that their position is not as secure. So it’s wonderful to work with leaders who are self-secure enough to say, “Share your thoughts. Tell me what you think. Give it to me the way it is.”
CM: You both have had powerhouse careers. You’ve certainly experienced your own fair share of having to advocate for yourself. What advice would you give to a 22-year-old getting ready to launch her first big career job?
MY: My big piece of advice is spend more time with your boss; get as much time with your boss as possible, because the boss has a lot more influence on your career at this stage than anyone else. So if you feel intimidated, get over it—spend time with your boss.
CC: Communication is critical, and substance counts. I think in today’s day and age, with social media and filters and everything cosmetic, it’s tempting to prioritize sizzle over substance. If you are passionate about your platform and sharing success, you don’t need to use a fancy presentation as a crutch or distraction for lack of conviction or domain knowledge.
Substance and integrity go hand-in-hand—it is what builds and sustains your reputation, provides proof points and is a testament to the value you are adding.
CM: Last question: How do you define success?
MY: I think I define success if the day is successful. I define success in small chunks, and a day is successful when I go to bed and I feel like, “Yeah, that day feels good. I feel good about what I accomplished.” Usually I’ve only accomplished 3%, 5% of what I wanted, but I don’t do success in big chunks. I do success in very chunks. That keeps me going.
CC: Success, in my mind, is where you have collective wins. Some of the most rewarding personal and professional experiences were overcoming obstacles and challenges with a team. Success for me is bringing people together, gaining consensus and socializing a vision. That is a recipe for a win across the board. There is abundance. Success is not a zero-sum game, and when I find a way for multiple people to win, that’s success to me.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. SUCCESS magazine is a subsidiary of eXp World Holdings. This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos courtesy of Magdalena Yeşil, ©Mike D’Avello and courtesy of Courtney Chakarun.