Lead(H)er - Alison Elworthy, VP of Operations at HubSpot
“Going down the business route, it took me a while to figure out what I was passionate about and where I fit in. But I’ve realized it’s okay if you don’t know what you want to be when you’re in high school or college. The way you figure it out is by trying a bunch of different things,” said Alison Elworthy, the VP of Operations at HubSpot.
Alison went to a small suburban high school where she grew up dancing and playing sports. She loved math and science, specifically AP calc and physics but she didn’t really know what she wanted to do with her skillset.
“At the time, I wish I knew more about engineering. I had no idea what engineering was and it probably would have been a great fit for me. But because I had passion for math and science, I thought, going into medicine would probably be a good idea”
Alison attended Tufts University and started freshman year on the pre-med track. She quickly realized that even though she loved math and science, the doctor route wasn’t the path for her.
“I did horribly and I really didn’t enjoy the classes. I realized that pre-med was not for me but I ended up finding two new passions during that time—business and entrepreneurship.”
Switching directions, Alison decided to change her major to human factors engineering where she took half her classes in psychology and the other half in mechanical engineering. She also joined an entrepreneurial leadership program where she took marketing and finance courses.
With her newfound knowledge of user experience, Alison accepted an internship at Fidelity Investments as a UX specialist.
“Fidelity had a pretty strong network and pipeline of hiring Tufts grads who were in my program. At the time, they had this huge lab where they would do a ton of user testing on their trading platforms and different websites like 401k.com and Fidelity.com. I also got to do a lot of interesting research in making our websites usable for our blind customers.”
After graduating from Tufts, Alison joined Fidelity full-time and worked there for about three years as a User Experience Specialist. She gained a great deal of experience creating, engineering, and measuring customer experience across Fidelity’s products but she also realized that she didn’t love working for a big company.
“It’s harder to have a really big impact at a larger company. After a few years there, I decided I wanted to pivot my career and try something new. Business school seemed like the next step so I decided to go to to the Tuck School at Dartmouth.”
The summer between her first and second year at grad school, Alison decided she wanted to do an internship in Boston.
“I really wanted to use that opportunity to take a big pivot and get my toes wet in the tech/startup scene so I organized this huge tech trek to Boston. I interviewed with Brian Halligan, the CEO of HubSpot and ended up getting the internship. At the time, Hubspot was probably about 150 people and I was really excited to be an early employee. That summer I worked on a pricing and packaging project. At the end of the internship, they offered me a full-time job.”
By the time Alison finished her final year of business school, HubSpot had already doubled in size. Instead of being assigned to a specific position, Halligan told her to meet with all the executives to figure out what projects she wanted to work on. She ended up taking a position as a Marketing Operations Manager, which she ended up being very fond of.
“At the time, HubSpot was generating tens of thousands of leads. My job was to go through and figure out the volume of these leads and make sure we were routing the best leads to our sales reps. I learned to love the operations side of things, which I had never had experience with. I also started working closely with sales, which was pretty interesting.”
“On the flip side, I realized that I’m a terrible marketer. I knew I loved operations and I was kind of interested in sales. However, marketing was not for me,” Alison laughed.
Knowing she was interested in operations, but not with the company’s marketing function, HubSpot decided Alison would be great at running Sales Operations. Although she was hesitant, they assured her she could return to her previous position if the role didn’t work out.
“Sales ops ended up being one of my favorite roles. I learned how the business worked, how SaaS worked, how to change sales behavior, and how to have a direct impact on the bottom line. Going back to what I studied, I did a lot of math. During my year and a half in the role, I came up with a whole new operating plan for our sales team.”
In 2014 when HubSpot was gearing up to go public, Halligan started to shift to more of an externally facing role and needed someone to help with internal operations. He offered Alison the Chief of Staff role, giving her the opportunity to work directly with the COO.
“We were growing as a company and when you scale, it’s important that you invest more in the glue which keeps the organization tight as you grow in size. I was the first one in the Chief of Staff role and it was a really great match for my skill set. I ran a lot of cross-functional projects, owned our internal operating system, making sure we hit our goals and worked on our IPO. It was a great opportunity and although the role was supposed to rotate, it became my full-time job.”
HubSpot now has over 1,700 employees with seven different offices worldwide. Coming up on three and a half years as the VP of Operations, Alison enjoys the constant challenges, working cross-functionally and executing new strategies.
Rapid Fire Questions
BS: How do you manage stress?
AE: Exercising, unplugging, spending time with my family and vacation. My husband and I love food and wine.
BS: How many cups of coffee do you typically drink in a day?
AE: 1-2 and never past noon.
BS: What do you like to do in your free time?
AE: Every free moment I have, I’m with my husband and my two kids. That could be running around outside, going to swim lessons—you name it.
BS: Where is your favorite spot in Boston?
AE: I love the South End. We used to live there but we moved into the suburbs about a year and a half ago. It has great parks, amazing restaurants, and I love the community feel.
BS: If you had to choose one thing, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment?
AE: I know this is cliche, but my kids. I think being a mom is crazy. I can’t believe I created two human beings, and it’s my responsibility to raise them to be responsible people. That’s a big accomplishment.
BS: Ten years ago, is this where you could have seen yourself?
AE: No, I don’t think so. At that point, I was a year or two out of college, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wouldn’t have predicted that I’d be in this type of role.
BS: What one piece of advice would you give to a recent college graduate?
AE: Try a bunch of different things. It’s hard to figure out what you want to be when you grow up and I think a lot of people don’t really know their path—I didn’t know.
I tried working at a big company, and I realized I didn't love it. In college, I was passionate about business, and I tried something new. That didn’t work out. Even at HubSpot, I thought I was going to love marketing, and I found out that I’m a terrible marketer. But through that experience, I started to carve out my path in operations.
The bottom line is, figuring out if you don’t love something or something isn’t a good match is just as powerful as figuring out what matches or fits. Just be flexible!