Sap Women

Julia White: Why Standing Out from the Crowd is a Woman’s Greatest Strength

Julia White is the Chief Marketing and Solutions Officer and a member of the Executive Board at SAP. With a passion for all things tech, Julia advocates embracing difference as a strength and continuously challenging herself in her work

by Natascha Zeljko | 10 Jan, 2022

Where does your passion for tech come from? I understand that your father had a role in this…

My father was a big influence on my career, but I ended up in technology based on my own journey. My dad was an engineer turned business executive and CEO. Over dinner, we would discuss people management, leadership, and he would even bounce supervisory board meeting ideas off me, which gave me incredible exposure to executive leadership. This exposure certainly played a hand in my journey to being a business executive. In terms of technology, I fell in love with tech while I was attending Stanford University, which is surrounded by technology innovation. During college, I had the opportunity to participate in a project sponsored by Melinda Gates focused on computer and human interaction. We had some good ideas around making computer interfaces more social, but the technology simply wasn’t capable enough at that time. Even though the project didn’t work out, I saw a glimpse of how technology could change every aspect of our lives. From there, I took my first job in the software industry and never looked back.

You mentioned in a blog article titled “Standing Out from the Crowd” that being a redhead always made you different from the rest. Why is this good preparation for someone who is supposed to drive innovation and think outside of the box?

Difference is a strength. I’ve always liked being different, so I embraced that mentality. From business school, where I was one of a few females and an even rarer technology student, to being in deep tech areas as one of the few people without a computer science degree, to being a redhead – I was different than many of the people I would see around me. Instead of feeling like a victim of my dissimilarity or choosing to hide or “cover” my differences, I chose to use it as a strength. I have a unique point of view and if I don’t share it, the group will miss the benefit of having a broader perspective. My father had a plaque in his office when I was growing up that I loved. When he passed away, I put it in my office. It says, “When two people in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” I love that motto and try to live it myself and also create teams around me that have lots of distinctive points of view. Not because it’s easier – but because it leads to better outcomes.

You worked at Microsoft for many years, but in March 2021 you joined SAP, a multinational but still German company. What is the biggest difference in regard to culture, approach, and mindset between this and an American company?

One of the best parts of my experience so far has been the people. I have felt welcomed into the SAP family. So many reached out with kind words and expressed excitement for me to join the company – it really does feel like a family. I am also really impressed with how well SAP works globally. While other companies have international teams, I’ve not experienced such a well-integrated universal approach and mindset. I think it’s easy for US-based companies to see everything US-centric, even if they serve customers worldwide. SAP has the advantage of being more globally minded and inclusive in how we work.

Why is storytelling such a powerful tool?

Storytelling is the most basic and essential form of human communication. Long before there was a written language to pass on, humans told stories. These stories transcend time because storytelling is so powerful. Human brains are literally conditioned to respond to stories over information. As a marketing leader, storytelling is our art form and is the most powerful tool we have. When done well, a story is authentic, memorable, and influential.

In every communication whether it’s a team meeting, an email, or a big keynote, I think about ‘what story am I telling?’ Information told with a storyline is more memorable by the human brain. Just getting a bunch of data is overwhelming – it's the story you remember. And, stories can be simple, yet powerful. The most simplistic storyline – I identify a pain you are having, and then I give you a solution to that pain – is superior to just giving information.

Starting from a young age, you took part in synchronized swimming at a competitive level. What lessons can you draw from this to make use of in your professional life?

Synchronized swimming taught me a lot about hard work, commitment, teamwork, and also navigating subjective judging. There probably is no greater teamwork sport then synchronized swimming – literally eight people matching each other exactly with perfect precision. So, it was a huge lesson in trusting others, betting on each other, building connections, and having fun.

What is the most thrilling thing a job could offer to attract you?

I love three things in a job – a huge challenge without a clear answer, a culture where I am empowered to try new things, and amazing people to work with me. If a job has these three elements, I’m likely interested.

What would be your advice for young talent and newcomers to the tech industry?

First, believe in yourself. The greatest aspect of technology is that it’s always changing, so fresh eyes and fresh minds have huge impact and benefit. This industry always needs newcomers to think differently and reinvent what we’re doing. Second, search out great mentors. They make a huge difference early in your career, particularly – but they are always valuable. Third, speak up! We need new perspectives and ideas, so never feel like you don’t have a voice or haven’t earned a voice in the room.

What does SAP already do very well, and where does it still need to catch up in terms of equity?

At SAP, our employees really want to do what’s right for each other, for the company and for society. We take the time to listen and provide forums and safe spaces for employees to share. Ultimately, the passion and care to do better is there, we now need to make necessary changes and have those changes be more visible. People need to see that their leadership looks like them. Research shows that diverse leadership teams produce the best business results and also are essential to attracting a diverse workforce. As I’ve built up my new marketing and solutions leadership team, I’m incredibly proud that across my L1s, we are 50% female with representation across race and ethnicity. It is the most diverse leadership team I’ve had the pleasure of leading, and it only happens with intention. In terms of being an ally, I view this as an essential human responsibility from anyone who has benefitted from having privilege – and I mean privilege in its many forms including resources, a network, support from others, being given the benefit of the doubt, etc. I believe in allyship in small ways every day and in big ways like being the executive sponsor of Pride@SAP, our Business Women’s Network, and Women in Technology. 

What is the biggest challenge a tech company has to face to stay in the game?

Innovation. Tech is constantly changing and companies need to innovate and adapt. If you are standing still in the technology industry, you die. Our challenge is to continue to reinvent ourselves and not get stuck in the past because we’ve been successful. Ironically, past success is one of the reasons great companies (and leaders!) fail. We need to continually un-learn from our past success, so that we have the right perspective to create our future success.

A person, a book, or a podcast that particularly impressed you.

Brene Brown’s work is amazing and is a must read/listen on the power of vulnerability. The absolute greatest at storytelling for me is Toni Morrison; Any of her books are a study in master-class storytelling. She’s always perhaps the best at incredibly succinct, yet powerful writing. I listened to her talk about how she writes her books and then ruthlessly goes back and edits out every single word unless it’s absolutely necessary. That’s high art.

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