Outliers: Maggie Leung of NerdWallet

May 20, 2016

11:01 am

Outliers is a new series that serves to spotlight underrepresented voices in the tech and entrepreneur world.

With entrepreneurship on the rise, it can be hard to find a place that spotlights the work done by incredible entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds.

Maggie Leung is the senior director of content at NerdWallet, a personal finance website that helps consumers make informed decisions. At 47, she’s overcome stereotypes and industry shifts to lead a cross-country team of nearly 90 staff writers and editors. Here’s what she had to say about ageism, success, advice for new entrepreneurs.

How did you find yourself in the tech & startup world?

Leung: “I customized my ideal job description and spent months researching the job market. I saw an opening at NerdWallet. I did due diligence, interviewed, got a good vibe and proposed a bigger role than advertised. Our CEO said yes. I’d worked in mainstream news for about 20 years. I passed up a promotion at CNN to see what I was made of. I wanted to help build a business. I wanted an opportunity to use all of me, not just a subset.”

You manage content at NerdWallet. How has your role there impacted how you see representation in the field?

Leung: “I see similar problems with diversity in tech as we saw in mainstream news. The key difference: I had the autonomy and resources to build a team from scratch at NerdWallet. I hired diversely.

We cover personal finance. Our different perspectives help us better serve consumers. Our readers are seeking clarity on topics ranging from student loan refinancing to retirement planning. Our team reflects that diversity.”

In what ways do tech and social media practices play a role in NerdWallet’s success?

Leung: “We’re an all-digital company. We’re figuring out how best to leverage social media. It’s a challenge to make personal finance share-worthy on social.”

What is the community and culture like at NerdWallet? Do you think diversity has an impact on that?

Leung: “We work exceptionally well together. That includes 20-somethings through 60-somethings; men and women; people from various ethnicities, socioeconomic and professional backgrounds, sexual orientations; our employees in San Francisco and our telecommuters all across the country. That’s because we screen carefully for the ability to collaborate, adapt and relentlessly improve.”

Ageism is a huge problem in tech. What are some ways that we can have more wide-scale impact on combatting ageism?

Leung: “Three key ways: 1) deliver results; 2) produce a multiplier effect; and 3) create awareness.

1. People in business and tech respect results. If we hire diversely and outcompete, [then] that’s proof.

2. Meanwhile, I’m looking to build a multiplier effect. I make sure that everyone works well together. As our millennials rise in their careers, they’ll have had positive experiences with older colleagues. That will influence how they hire and manage. That’s what happened with me.

3. All of us should be talking about age discrimination. Why: If you plan to stay alive and keep working, you should care about ageism. It’s a nice to daydream that we’ll all cash in our stock options and retire early. There’s no guarantee that will happen. You probably want to be employable as you age.

For hiring managers and recruiters, it’s important to recognize that a startup mindset is about adaptability, initiative, and drive. Those characteristics cross generations. It’s about temperament, not age.

For older workers: you’d better prove your worth. How you do that: help less-experienced colleagues develop skills; learn and adapt; keep an open mind and realize that experience can help as well hurt, depending on circumstances. Being alive longer doesn’t mean we’re automatically smarter or more qualified. Younger colleagues can offer fresh perspectives, add new blood and help teach.

I wouldn’t want a team of only older employees or only younger employees. In both cases, that would cost us in ideas and perspectives.”

And finally, what advice do you have for new entrepreneurs and startup founders?

Leung: “If you produce any service or product that requires intellectual capital, you’d better realize that people are core to your success. If you don’t build your teams and culture well, you’re going to risk being crushed by competitors.

Managing well is a skill that’s learned over years. Beyond adding my core content skills, I helped reshape our culture. When I joined, we were a small startup led by millennials who hadn’t managed before. Our CEO jokes that I was NerdWallet’s first grown-up.

The team I lead is our company’s largest, most far-flung and diverse. We have nearly 90 people, yet we’re cohesive and happy. That’s because experience taught me how to hire, how to build a strong team and how to help develop careers — all while delivering relentlessly. We contribute heavily to NerdWallet’s bottom line.”

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Cameron is a tech and culture journalist, comic book enthusiast, and lives near New York City. A graduate of Stockton University, she's using her words to shift the world of online journalism, one byline at a time. When she's not writing, she can be found reading sci-fi novels, collecting succulents, and planning her next obnoxious hair color. Cameron is an editorial fellow at Tech.Co. Send your tips to cameron@tech.co or tweet @BlkGirlManifest.

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