Kelly Coffey and Angela Benton
How Two Leaders are Trailblazing and Innovating Around Company Culture.
Produced by WIRED Brand Lab for City National Bank - As part of a series of one-on-one conversations with business leaders, City National Bank CEO Kelly Coffey and Angela Benton, founder and CEO of consumer data company Streamlytics, discuss the optimism, communication, and empathy critical to success as business leaders.
It’s not easy being first. Leadership today requires optimism, communication, and empathy—whether you’re a serial technology entrepreneur or the head of a major financial institution. These talents are critical to success, and never more so than in this era of global pandemic and grassroots demand for social change.
So believes Kelly Coffey, CEO of City National Bank. In a series of personal conversations with business leaders, she delved into the challenges founders face today—and what it takes to overcome them. A wide-ranging discussion she enjoyed with Angela Benton, founder and CEO of consumer data company Streamlytics, revealed how their own optimism, communication skills, and empathy have shaped their careers as business leaders.
Both women are pioneers: Benton created the first accelerator for minorities globally, while Coffey is the first woman to serve as chief executive of City National in its 67-year history and one of just a handful of women CEOs of the top 50 U.S. banks, according to data from the Federal Reserve.
Benton started her accelerator, NewME, in 2011. At the time, few of the denizens of Silicon Valley she encountered saw the point of bringing support and capital specifically to founders of color. “[Being first] is glamorized in a sense, but it’s very hard,” Benton says. ”We had to build infrastructure and change minds that diversity was actually needed in the technology industry.” Changing minds is truly difficult, she adds. “When you are a change agent, or you’re trying to really innovate, it’s inevitable that you’re going to be first.”
This requires a special kind of personality, the two women agree. “I have a theory that entrepreneurs need to be optimists,” Coffey says. Adds Benton, “You consistently have to see the glass as half full—like time and time again.” Such a positive attitude gives rise to curiosity, the ability to take advantage of opportunities before others spot them, and the strength to take action while others are still poking around.
Benton’s optimism paid off, both for her (she sold NewME in 2018) and for the industry. The climate for minority entrepreneurs in tech has improved in the decade since she founded the accelerator. “There’s a lot more capital being deployed now. There’s a lot more founders of color who are in and out of Silicon Valley. There are a lot more people who are just working in tech,” she says.
Still, she adds, when you look at “how much capital in general is deployed into high-growth technology companies, and then what the makeup of those founders are, we still have a long way to go.” While Black and Latino founders have raised more than $15 billion since 2015, $2.3 billion of that during the first eight months of 2020 alone, their share of total venture capital raised remains stubbornly below 3 percent, according to the data platform Crunchbase. Plenty of opportunity in minority-owned companies remains to be discovered by investors.
Benton’s ability to spot overlooked markets led to her next business success, as well: the launch of Streamlytics in 2018. She had used her gift for communications to start producing different kinds of streaming content, allowing herself to be creative. But when she sought hard numbers to inform some of her content decisions, she couldn’t find much data on what people were streaming on various media platforms. “That led me down the rabbit hole into data privacy and data ownership,” she recalls. “I had developed a skill to notice gaps and markets. So I noticed a gap … [in] streaming data, and then I also noticed this huge area around data privacy and that many of the laws were changing.”
After a quiet launch, the business took off in 2020, with both the implementation of the California Consumer Protection Act, which lets consumers request their own data from platforms, and the explosion in streaming media as the world stayed home in the face of Covid-19. Streamlytics offers tools that pay consumers for access to their streaming data while providing content producers with ethical access to data about audience demographics and habits.
Similarly, Coffey followed her own curiosity and entrepreneurial eye for untapped markets to build her career in finance. “I didn’t necessarily come in wanting to be a CEO or wanting a specific job. I came in wanting to learn a lot,” she says. She said yes to opportunities others overlooked. That optimism paid off in her career. “I took a group that wasn’t making any money and made it money,” she says. This is a tough path, she adds, “and it keeps you challenged. But that’s what makes it interesting.”
Both of these leaders rely on their communication skills to build and maintain strong corporate cultures, focusing on a sense of mission and purpose. This can be a big challenge as a company grows. Culture is, Coffey says, “the foundation you build on, and at City National it’s our secret sauce.” She encourages an atmosphere in which everyone on her team focuses on clients—their activities, their needs—whether this means introducing new technology or simply getting someone on the phone.
Such partnership with clients requires empathy, and it’s especially potent in working with businesses, which need more flexibility and expertise as they expand. “The nice thing about what I do now is I get to spend a lot of time with clients,” Coffey says, “But I also have to make decisions on strategy, technology, operations—and I like that. I like both sides.”
The two CEOs agree that taking a deliberate approach to culture and communications is a particular strength of female leadership. “Especially in technology, which is heavily male and we’re dealing with ones and zeros, I do think it’s very important to make sure that as a woman leader we’re bringing…that level of thoughtfulness to a lot of the things that we’re doing,” Benton says.
Coffey, in turn, describes her communication style as collaborative, saying, “I like to listen and get all the feedback, and then I’ll make a decision.” This approach serves leaders especially well in uncomfortable or difficult conversations, in which showing empathy and respect to others not only promotes a sense of inclusion but can lead to better business outcomes.
For founders like Benton, empathy provides insight into funders’ motivations. She recommends that business leaders choose only those strategic partners that align with their business mission and values. Sure, innovators often feel pressure to accept any and all investment offers. But they must “be fine with walking away from money that’s not a good fit,” Benton says. She defines this as when “the ethics of the investor may not be in alignment with yours, or you can clearly see that they’re looking for an opportunity that can only benefit them.”
Pay attention to that kind of mismatch, Coffey advises. When an investor’s interests or timing are not aligned with a company’s, founders are “forced to do something that they don’t actually want to do,” she says.
Her advice isn’t just for founders. At every stage of a leader’s career, Coffey advocates building strong relationships with people who share their ethics and foster their growth. Leaders on the rise need “a group of senior men and women who actually help to sponsor the next generation,” and even those already at the helm need partners who can spur them forward. Whether you call them sponsors, mentors, advisors, or allies, she says, “you need a few people who make you understand your value.”
*This was shot in accordance with the Covid-19 guidelines set as of the date of filming.
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