Lead(H)er: Alo Mukerji, Chief Operating Officer at coUrbanize
Alo Mukerji’s magic number is 40. In just about every job she has held, Mukerji had managed to join companies that had about 40 employees or fewer when she began working for them, and that has made all the difference in her fast-paced, product-management focused career.
“I didn’t want to be in a particular box,” said Mukerji, who is now the COO at coUrbanize, an app that facilitates better communication between developers and the people in the community in which they are building new projects. “For someone with my skill set on the market research side, you first understand the market, and you can influence the way you’re making decisions about those needs if you can learn that early and start building out the platform from there.”
After receiving a degree in industrial engineering at Columbia University – a time that Mukerji calls one of her favorite periods of her life – she became a consultant at Accenture, then took on a product management role at eRoom Technology, a company that made collaboration software. The role was broad, allowing her to take on marketing and business development, set up partnerships, and begin exploring other areas of business management.
Despite how much she enjoyed the position and its variety, expiring GMAT scores and a strong desire to avoid retaking the test prompted Mukerji to leave and attend MIT’s Sloan School of Management’s new product and venture development program. Then, she landed a job at a company that would eventually become a huge player in the industry: Constant Contact.
“That job, I feel, just made my career,” Mukerji said. “I was the second product person there.”
But a team of around 40 soon bloomed to almost 1,000, and Mukerji began searching for a newer, smaller venture after six years.
She had gotten her first exposure to market research and pricing at Constant Contact, both of which would become true passions of her career, and began pursuing those aspects of product management more fully as a consultant. It was also an opportunity to perfect her client relationship techniques, which are often overlooked in her field, Mukerji said. But something was missing.
“The frustrating part of consulting is that you have no control over the execution, especially as a product person,” she said.
There’s no better way to affect that execution than to build out your team, and Mukerji had the opportunity to do just that at Buildium, which she joined – naturally – when it comprised about 40 employees. It was, as she said, her sweet spot, giving her a constantly-changing environment to influence in her own way.
“Getting to know a market and the customers and the people in it and using technology to solve their issues and their needs – that’s what I really look for,” she said of her goals at Buildium.
Realizing this desire to help people through products prompted Mukerji to reconnect with Karin Brandt, the CEO at coUrbanize, which whom she had kept in touch in the five years since they first met in the Techstars accelerator program. The years of connection paid off, and Mukerji soon joined coUrbanize as its COO. At the time, she was one of seven other employees in the entire company, which has now grown to 10.
“This was an opportunity to be a part of something earlier stage that was a lot bigger than just technology,” Mukerji said. “[coUrbanize] was very, very passionate about building better communities, building better cities.” For someone who comes from a family of urban planners – Mukerji joked that the topic was a common one at holiday dinners – it was the perfect fit.
As the COO, Mukerji sees her role as one that directly impacts both the business as a whole and the CEO, with whom she works in a partnership to support the vision and goals laid out for the organization.
“Who knows where it all ends up?” Mukerji said of the next five years of her career. “I’d love to continue being in this kind of role, helping an inspired leader get to another stage regarding their vision of what they want to do with their product.”
She’d also love to continue developing products that make a difference in people’s lives and to be a visionary force of her own when it comes to directing new businesses.
“In a company, the product is, in my biased opinion, the center of the universe,” Mukerji said. “If you’re able to build a better product, it makes every other function easier.”
SC: What do you like to do in your free time?
AM: My workday is pretty intense, so when I’m home I like to unwind with my teenage daughter. We watch a lot of TV, maybe too much. We enjoy watching Stranger Things and Riverdale. Live music and tennis would be next on my list.
SC: How do you manage stress?
AM: I’m a planner, and stress for me is either something unpredictable or change. My general approach is trying to collect information that helps me answer the open questions that I have, and that tends to make me feel better. If that doesn’t work, I whack a tennis ball or do yoga.
SC: How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?
AM: I drink one cup of coffee. I prefer Coke to coffee, and I prefer Coke to water, so that’s my caffeination.
SC: What is your favorite place in the Boston area?
AM: I love the waterfront downtown, where our office is. There’s a stretch down by the Boston Harbor Hotel that’s probably my favorite. My team will tell you, we do walking one-on-ones in the summer, sometimes involving frappuccinos.
SC: What is your greatest accomplishment?
AM: When I was at Buildium, it’s the first time that I got to build a team. I think there was a moment probably a year or so into it when I felt proud about the mix of people that we had on the team. Hiring is a real art, and it’s the diversity that makes the best team. We had some tenured folks, new folks, people from different functions like research and UX and product, we had a mix of introverts and extroverts, different viewpoints, various skill sets. When we had balance the team accomplished the best things. It would be rather boring if we were all the same or came from the same place. For me, the most satisfying thing is enabling people to grow professionally and personally and making progress with very limited resources. That was a great moment, being in it together with good people and complementary skill sets, so I keep that in mind every time I’m building a team and making hiring decisions.
SC: Is this where you thought you’d be in 10 years?
AM: No, no definitely not! Ten years ago I had a two-year-old. It was like, “Oh, I’m going to start my own small business!” That didn’t quite work out. The truth is this is better than anything I had imagined. I really love what I do. I think working with products and technology that make a difference, working with great people who have very strong values and are truly mission-based, having this role where you can impact the business and work with an inspirational leader – this is better than anything I had imagined. Even from a startup perspective, the stage that coUrbanize is at, where you’ve got the product market fit and you’re on a trajectory and have customers that can give you feedback and help you make the story better – I get to do so many things here, and I’m not in a box. I feel very fortunate where I’ve ended up. Whatever the path may have been, it’s as it should be.
SC: What’s your advice for college graduates?
AM: This is what I wish someone had told me. You’ll have choices in your career, and my advice is to always choose by the quality of the people in a company. Technology and market opportunity are of course necessary, but it’s the people interactions that make or break an experience. Choose people that are genuine, whose values align with yours, who support you and make you better. Definitely pick a good manager and a good team over money or titles or even the product. You are with these people over eight hours a day, and it’s a whole lot more fun if you can connect with them. It increases your chances of accomplishing great things together, and when you’re a manager, it’s important to care about your team personally. Along those lines, pay very close attention to the leader. Everything about a company, from culture to functional focus, comes from the leader. It’s the leader and their vision that motivate the team. Strong leaders are apparent on their values even as organizations evolve. That’s what makes them effective.