November 21, 2017
By Claudia Torregrosa and Omar Zahr
Natacha Mainville is a seasoned engineering executive and a fintech veteran who has assembled and led teams in resolving pivotal challenges in the domain for over fifteen years. For the last few years, her passion for innovation and transformation resulted in her leading a team of over 150 engineers and technologists through an AI ready, mobile-first technology stack overhaul for one of the largest insurance providers in Canada, an organizational transformation with over $100 M in scope.
As a member of the board of IVADO – an organization leading a $400M AI-driven interdisciplinary initiative bringing together Université de Montréal, Polytechnique, HEC, McGill and many others – Natacha believes in a world with more young women in STEM and in leadership positions. She actively seeks opportunities to champion this cause through mentorship, discussion and outreach.
Having recently joined TandemLaunch as Chief Innovation Officer, Natacha is assimilating her experience and values in the creation of technology companies from the ground up. She provides executive guidance and is actively involved in product engineering, team development, project planning, market validation, generating traction and all other aspects of building successful consumer technology startups. Each of our executives brings new perspectives to our incubator, and so we took some time to learn more about her journey to TandemLaunch.
Tell us about your early career!
Technology and entrepreneurship have pervaded my life from a very young age. My dad is a serial entrepreneur who has predominantly built technology companies. For as long as I can remember, our basement has been repurposed into a science lab.
It was only natural for me to study Computer Engineering at Polytechnique. After several internships in various divisions, I was hired immediately after graduation by ING Group. I started as a Process Engineer and quickly made my way to a Release Engineering position. I loved the adrenaline related to deploying new features in production for ING’s millions of customers. In this type of position, rapid decision-making is key, and focusing on solutions rather than placing blame is crucial. Demonstrating these attributes helped me progress quickly into management roles where I lead development, release and QA engineering teams. I then found myself moving into project and portfolio management roles as I wanted to develop profound understanding of our business and our entire product cycle. In hindsight, this decision to explore all facets of our business paid-off.
A pivotal opportunity arose when I was tasked to lead an e-transformation program with a substantial, $90M+ budget. The traditional insurance industry runs with high operating costs as they must provide broker support, call center support, and many other high-cost labour-intensive services. Enhancing the self-service web platforms meant a significant reduction of the operating margins, while delighting our customer with 24/7 service.
Following the successful completion of this transformation, I was offered a director role. To be honest, I hesitated: a director was much more involved in broad administrative tasks and I feared it would distance me from technology and the firefighting of the front line I loved so much. At the time, I was also starting to think about a family and wondered if the level of responsibility associated to a director position could be balanced with raising a young family. I was fortunate enough to have a mentor at the time who guided me towards accepting the role.
Sometimes you’re offered an opportunity that doesn’t fit neatly into the roadmap you’ve built for yourself. Ultimately, I reached my goals by accepting those opportunities. You might need to step sideways or take risks and accept uncertainty to access the next step up.
How did you keep moving up into senior leadership?
In 2011, the Intact Financial Corporation acquired AXA Canada for over $2.6 billion. The convergence of these two entities would result in me taking on one of the largest challenges of my career up to that point – a $100M+ technological overall of the entire technological stack for IFC’s personal lines to prepare us for the emerging mobile and AI driven world and provide the velocity to compete with newcomers to the industry. Incumbents are particularly at risk of being disrupted by new lean, agile, tech-first players such as Lemonade and Trov. Large players in this space have often grown through acquisitions, and therefore carry a legacy that hinders their capacity to adapt rapidly. They also traditionally rely on innovation coming from their traditional core – actuaries, marketing, product development – and have yet to fully tap into the strength of technical innovation.
An endeavor like this was extremely rare in our industry. When your foundation is risk management, innovative endeavors can be inadvertently stifled due to the inherent risk in new ideas. The project would be built at the interface of the AXA technology team and IFC, two very large and formidable work cultures. I heavily researched the concept of company culture at that time, studying both large companies and startups. I found a solution in stitching together concepts from both worlds.
As I navigated through my first few months on the program, I was promoted to Vice-President of Software Engineering. I was delighted with this new role as it gave me the latitude to re-aligne incentives, actions and words, to make sure that people were aware they came before KPIs. As our team grew to over 175 players, the full management team, myself included, ensured we removed symbols of powers: we released our large window offices to create common spaces and joined our teams directly in the action. We wanted to encourage servant leadership, empowerment, making decisions where the knowledge lies. We fostered the free flow of information, and encouraged courage and transparency, with frequent “All Hands” meetings. Team Leads had to prioritize their team’s growth, celebrate and take pride in their successes and learn through failures. In one instance we organized a “Shark Tank day” hackathon and provided team with R&D time to explore their innovation ideas. During the event, the full management team took their servant leadership role to the extreme and served coffee, food, and snacks while teams were brainstorming. I wanted to show them we would do anything to support them. This philosophy guided the entire project and culminated in its successful completion of the full foundation of IFC’s new policy administration system and its first few deliveries to our brokers.
Why did you decide to join TandemLaunch?
The internal technological overhaul at IFC kindled in me a passion for culture, innovation and artificial intelligence: the financial industry has a multitude of opportunities to leverage AI to reduce operational costs, and better segment, rate, and enhance user experience.
I connected with the North American AI ecosystem, collaborating with IVADO and securing a large investment from IFC to bring more cutting-edge AI from academia to industry. In parallel, I joined IVADO’s Technology Transfer Committee and Board of Directors. It is through IVADO that I met TandemLaunch’s founder, Helge Seetzen.
It became clear in our meetings that Helge shared my aspiration for more diversity in technology. I found myself very curious about his initiatives for diversity, and how he championed it at TandemLaunch, as well as for the very unusual model TandemLaunch developed.
TandemLaunch is an altogether different creature from the VC firms and incubators I know. The organization is truly global, neither talent nor technologies are confined by national boundaries. The deep technology focus appealed to the geek in me and transported me back to my father’s basement and the oscilloscopes I used to play with when I was a kid. It also feels like a place where I can have a substantial impact. It is an environment where brilliant minds from around the world come together to push the boundaries of technology and build companies!
I was convinced TandemLaunch was the right place for me when I met Soodeh Farokhi, one of the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence. I found her to be brilliant, kind, generous and humble. I wanted to be surrounded by people like her and help them achieve their dream of creating a successful deep tech company.
Diversity and inclusion are topics you deeply care about. How do you think they could be improved in the tech industry?
In no particular order:
While companies are now focusing on diversity in recruitment, I think inclusion should be the next focus. Inclusion means that the diverse groups which get hired should feel comfortable expressing their points of view, knowing that they will be respected and considered during decision-making. That also means organizing activities where everyone is comfortable, regardless of their gender, age, origin, religion, and sexual orientation.
People can’t be what they can’t see. What we should be representing, in the media and in companies, should not be an accurate reflection of the present, but rather what we want the future to look like. For instance, did I ever fear my career could impact my family and vice-versa? Of course, but I had the good fortune to find a wonderful mentor to answer my questions and encourage me to find different, creative ways to find a good balance when my twin girls were born. I would like to have more examples of women who are able to define priorities to combine raising a family and building a fulfilling career.
I am convinced that girls should be encouraged to go in STEM from secondary school –let’s not wait until Cégep or university. Parents should also be part of the conversation because they might not be familiar with all the possibilities that come with being a Computer Engineer, for instance. Outreach and exposing young ladies and their parents to inspirational role models was the focus the Breakfast with Female Role Models in Tech for Young Ladies on November 19 in the Google office. The event was organized by Young Ladies in Tech (YLIT), an outreach initiative I co-founded to expose young ladies and their parents to female role models. See you at the next event!