June 13, 2018

Lead(H)er: Elisabeth Carpenter, Chief Operating Officer at Circle

“I’m the daughter of an architect. I’ve always had it ingrained in me to build things, and I just didn’t want to build buildings. I wanted to build companies,” Circle Chief Operating Officer Elisabeth Carpenter said.

Elisabeth attended undergrad at Harvard University, where she earned her BA in East Asian Studies. After graduating, she took a job in Goldman Sachs’ analyst program, which she landed by sending hundreds of letters to Goldman while she was still a student at Harvard.

“I wanted to get a job in either investment banking or consulting to get a sense of how businesses work and operate from a high-level. I got the job because someone who had received my resume gave it to their friend at Goldman. I remember standing in my dorm room at Harvard and getting this call from a woman who asked me a string of questions in Japanese. I answered all her questions and the next thing she said was, ‘We’d like to fly you down to New York. Can you come tomorrow?’ I flew to New York a few days later where seventeen people interviewed me. I got the job on the spot, which was totally crazy!”

Her job at Goldman taught her how to analyze information and be extremely detail-oriented. It was also Elisabeth’s first introduction to working with different types of people.

“A place like Goldman, at least back then, was incredibly hierarchical and male-dominated. There was also a lot of focus around face time. In other words, you had to be in the office even when you didn’t have a lot to do. On the one hand, it was pretty hideous, but on the other hand, it taught me a lot about hierarchy, respect, and how not to be as a manager. It was tricky, but I grew a Teflon skin.”

During her time at Goldman, Elisabeth spent time in LA. While there, she got the media bug and decided she wanted to work on the business side of TV and film.

“I was determined to get a job in media, working for one of the big production companies, one of the big rights holders—you name it. I decided to go to business school at Harvard. Over the course of business school, I sent hundreds of letters to anyone I could find an address for because I had no background in media and absolutely no network.  All I needed was one person to say yes. I didn’t need hundreds of jobs. I just needed one.”

Again, her letter strategy worked. Elisabeth landed an internship at HBO. Although she worked in a closet all summer, she learned a lot and was able to leverage her experience to find a full-time job at News Corporation in 1995.

“I ended up moving to London working for Rupert Murdoch's office, another job that I got from sending a letter. I sent a letter to somebody in New York who happened to have a friend from business school in London who took a look at my letter and decided that I should be the person who replaced him.”

Elisabeth had a great opportunity to work on every news corporation in Rupert Murdoch’s interest outside of the newspaper business. She worked on anything from getting sports rights to the Olympics to looking at partnerships with television companies in Ukraine.

“It was an incredible job, and it taught me a lot. The people I worked with, Rupert and his number two in Europe, were really tough because they threw stuff at me that I had no prior experience doing. They had a philosophy that certain people do a better job stretching into a role than a person who’s done the job forever because they don’t bring any luggage with them. They have no pattern recognition, but as a consequence, they automatically think outside the box and do a better job because they have no preconceived notions about how anything is done.”

She spent nine years traveling the world in the TV business, but with aging parents and her roots back in the U.S., she decided it was time to move again.

“Coming back to the U.S., I ended up choosing to live in Boston. I really liked the entrepreneurial spirit and supportive venture capital community. I thought it would be a particularly excellent place to kick off the U.S. leg of my professional journey. Shortly after arriving, a friend of mine from business school introduced me to Jeremy Allaire, who had an idea for the company that would eventually become Brightcove. Jeremy was trying to ‘democratize video on the web,’ which was essentially enabling the average consumer to see videos on the Internet.”

Although it may not seem like it now, this was a revolutionary idea in the time before YouTube. Brightcove took the limited technology that was available and pushed it to its limits, ultimately enabling hundreds of broadcasters and consumer product companies to communicate through video on personal computers.

“I thought the idea was really cool, and Jeremy and I hit it off. I happened to catch him when he was writing the first plan and raising his first round. He gave me a job [in 2009] to build up the global sales team as employee #3, which was extraordinary because he put me in a role that I had no business being in. I had never sold anything in my life, much less run a whole team and build it up!”

Despite having no previous sales experience, Elisabeth succeeded in her role. She built a global sales team, including the different functions of account management, customer support, and professional services. Within four years, they were making tens of millions of dollars in revenue.

“It was this incredible ride, and it all started because somebody thought I could stretch into a role even though I didn’t have direct experience. I was able to apply experience dealing with different personalities from my prior role because when you’re selling, you’re dealing with tons of personalities, and you have to figure out how to adapt. You have to think about how they learn, and how they process things through hearing, speaking and seeing. There are all kinds of things you have to deploy if you’re trying to collaborate with very different personalities.”

In hiring, she found success in one key lesson from Mr. Murdoch himself.

“I quickly learned that I needed to hire people who were smarter than me. This was another thing that I learned from Rupert Murdoch; he consistently hired people who were smarter than he was and was proud to say that.”

After Brightcove, Elisabeth decided to take a year off and devote herself to nonprofit work. This eventually led her to her next job at EverTrue in 2013, a SaaS company that focuses on enabling nonprofits to be better equipped to raise money. She became their Chief Operating Officer and was there for three years.

A few years into EverTrue, Jeremy, the founder of Brightcove, approached Elisabeth and asked if she wanted to be the Chief People Officer at his new company: Circle.

“When Jeremy approached me and said he’d like me to be Chief People Officer, it was kind of crazy for two reasons: One, I’d never done it before. Two, why would someone who was a Chief Operating Officer become a Chief People Officer? Most of my friends said I was out of my mind and that it was, at best, a lateral move but most said it was going backward. I really kind of resented those comments.  People are the most important aspects of a company. Without the people, there is no company!”

Elisabeth was excited about the job, but she knew she didn’t want to be a Chief People Officer forever. However, she liked the way Jeremy described the job and knew that she wanted to get into fintech, especially crypto.  

“In 2016, there were a limited number of consumer companies in Boston and certainly a limited number of fintech consumer companies. Circle was crypto as well, which was the biggest lucky strike. I was fascinated by what they were doing. The team really wanted me to be their Chief People Officer because they loved the fact that I haven’t done it before, but I’d managed tons of people. I joined, I knocked it out of the park, and I’m now their Chief Operating Officer.”

She calls the COO role her “favorite job to date.”

“In every job I’ve had, I’ve learned a lot, but this one blows the other ones away in terms of learning about the actual industry itself because it constantly changes. It has its own vocabulary and its own way of thinking about things. Not only is Circle a great company with great people in a great industry, but the amount of learning and mind-bending is phenomenal.  It’s just so exciting.”

Rapid Fire Questions

BS: What do you like to do in your free time?

EC: That’s a really funny question. I don’t really have any hobbies! But I really love to bake and I also love getting outside.

BS: How do you manage stress?

EC: By taking lots of deep breaths and reminding myself that it could always be worse. No matter what is going on in my life, it could absolutely be worse. I try to keep it real.

BS: How many cups of coffee do you typically drink in a day?

EC: None! I drink tea. I drink one to three cups of tea in a day. I’m already Type A enough that if I did more, I’d be bouncing off the walls.

BS: Where is your favorite spot in the Boston area?

EC: I love walking by the Charles. I love anywhere along the Esplanade, it’s just beautiful.

BS: If you had to choose one thing other than family, what would you say is your greatest accomplishment?

EC: I think what I did for sales at Brightcove put me on the map.

BS: Ten years ago, is this where you would have seen yourself?

EC: No, because the world of crypto didn’t really exist. I wouldn’t have even thought of it!  Working in finance is something I never thought I’d do again, but a role like this is exactly what I was shooting for.

BS: What one piece of advice would you give to a recent college graduate?

EC: Find a job that connects to your actual passion somehow. You have to spend most of your day with people you don’t love. It’s 85% of your day and 85% of your year. If you’re going to spend time with people outside the people you’re actually in love with and your family, you darn well better have something almost spiritual that connects you with the job you have. If you’re just going to be punching a ticket, you’re not going to feel fulfilled. Somehow, your job has to be connected to something that you deeply care about and that you want to be apart of.

I’ve met so many people who, at the end of their career, look forward to retiring because they just did their job to make a paycheck. Some of these people earn millions of dollars a year, but they’re so incredibly unfulfilled because they couldn’t care less about what they were working on. If you spend the majority of your time just to get a paycheck, you’ll never get the time back. You’ve got to do something linked to what you’re passionate about, or what’s the point?

Brianne Shelley is a Contributor to VentureFizz and an Account Executive at ezCater. Follow Brianne on Twitter: @MuddleandMix.