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Lead(H)er: Vanessa Kafka, VP of Product Management at KAYAK banner image

Lead(H)er: Vanessa Kafka, VP of Product Management at KAYAK

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As the VP of Product Management at KAYAK, Vanessa Kafka has earned a leadership role at one of the world’s leading online travel companies - without a traditional product management background.

Music was an early passion for Kafka. Her parents -- who immigrated to the US from Peru -- gave her an early appreciation for both traditional and modern music and culture. She learned to play the guitar and began writing and performing her own music at a young age. “It’s a great way to go through your teenage years and build up confidence,” she said. “Plus, it’s a great outlet.” Her love for the process of creating and writing music led her to record an album as an independent musician in 2008 called Into Place. The creativity didn’t stop at just writing music, as she also sought other avenues to express her creative energy.

“As a child, I developed my nerdiness by teaching myself the different things I could do on computers,” said Kafka. “As I got older, I spent a lot of time learning graphic design software and web design. I realized that technology was a medium which allowed me to explore my creative side.”

Kafka attended the University of Connecticut and after exploring three different majors in hopes of blending her creativity and her interest in tech, she ultimately achieved an MIS degree.

After graduating, Kafka landed a role at Ernst & Young as an IT Auditor. This role involved working with E&Y’s clients and auditing their IT systems. At E&Y, she built the foundation of her career and was exposed to the inner workings of companies both large and small.

After four years at E&Y, Kafka decided to attend MIT Sloan full-time to further her professional development and explore her interest in tech and business.

The education at Sloan is driven by a hands-on approach to coursework through research projects, so Kafka started working on a project with a taxi hailing startup in the UK called Hailo. The company was interested in expanding into the Boston market and other cities in the U.S. She spent six weeks researching the taxi industry and interviewing drivers in Boston.

What started out as a six-week research project, turned into a full-time role after graduation as she joined Hailo as the General Manager of the Boston market.

From there, she joined Wayfair in a digital marketing role, where she learned customer acquisition strategies and how to rapidly grow a user base. While she enjoyed marketing, she wanted to work on the actual product and get closer to the end-user. She ended up focusing her career search on product management roles.

At the time, KAYAK was just starting to build a product management function, and while she lacked traditional product management experience, she was able to connect the skills that she had gained in previous positions and during her time at Sloan to win over the team at KAYAK.  

“We look for self-starters - people that are smart, driven and willing and able to hit the ground running. That matters more to us than the perfect resume,” said Giorgos Zacharia, CTO, KAYAK.  “Vanessa stood out to us during the interview process as a strong communicator who would work well with the team and add a unique perspective, given her experience working at a start-up and for more mature companies.”

Until then, product was controlled between a collaborative process between engineering and design. She ended up being one of two Product Managers hired into the company.

The lack of background in product management worked to her benefit, as she didn’t have a preconceived notion of what she should be doing every day. Instead, she just rolled up her sleeves and jumped in where she could to help out.

“I was not afraid to do things other people maybe didn’t want to do,” added Kafka. “I tried to find different ways to add value early and build trust and respect with the different teams internally.”

Kafka’s impact was immediately felt and within two years, she rose up through the ranks in the company to become the VP of Product Management. She now leads a global team of 18 people.

When asked about her rapid ascent, she remains humble by saying that she has the same characteristics as most of the employees at KAYAK. She has a passion for solving problems, she is highly effective at managing her time, can work autonomously, and gets energized by working in a team setting with smart people.

When it comes to hiring for her own team at KAYAK, she keeps an open mind and hopes to attract equally open-minded candidates that will be creative, thoughtful and productive.

She is the perfect example of a great product manager, whose resume wasn’t obvious.

The Flexible Dates - KAYAK Inhouse Band
The Flexible Dates

In addition to the traits previously mentioned, she also looks for people who are collaborative and easy to work with. Critical to the role is the importance of getting people to work with you, even though there is no direct management responsibility. Highly effective product managers need to ask the right questions to pull the ideas from engineers and designers, and demonstrate sound judgement involving complex projects.

Not only has Kafka landed a product role that allows her to leverage her interest in tech, but she is also able to keep her passion for music intact too. KAYAK has an in-house cover band called The Flexible Dates, which plays occasionally at Thursday happy hours. Vanessa is one of the lead singers.

Here’s a great cover of Pyro by Kings of Leon:

Or… Love Song by Sara Bareilles:

Brianne Shelley is a Contributor to VentureFizz and an Account Representative at BlueGrace Logistics. Follow Brianne on Twitter: @MuddleandMix.

Images courtesy of KAYAK.  Flexible Dates photo credit: Jason Brillon.

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KAYAK searches other sites to show travelers the information they need to find the right flights, hotels, rental cars and vacation packages.

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Marketing Maven Jill Balis on the Industry's Evolution & Predictions for What's Next banner image

Marketing Maven Jill Balis on the Industry's Evolution & Predictions for What's Next

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Jill Balis, CMO of The Grommet, knows a thing or two about marketing. She’s got more than 20 years’ experience in the space, and her resume is peppered with impressive companies: Publicis, Orbitz, RetailMeNot, and Boston’s own PillPak - to name a few. 

Over the two-plus decades she’s been in marketing, she’s seen the industry evolve leaps and bounds. Like any successful marketing pro, she’s adapted: learning new trends, diving into the latest platforms, and evolving her approach in-line with the demands of tech and consumers alike.

Recently, I sat down with Balis in her Somerville office. We discussed digital marketing’s evolution, what big trends marketers ought to prep for next, and a bit about what she’s working now with The Grommet, too. Read more in the interview below.

Kaite Rosa: You have over a decade of experience at dotcom startups. How has digital marketing evolved throughout your career?

Jill Balis: I started in digital marketing in 1998 - a lot has changed since then! One thing that has been so amazing is the continuous evolution - marketing is always changing and that’s what keeps it fun and interesting for me.

The biggest change I’ve seen is just how much more complex marketing has gotten. When I first started, there were a number of digital channels, but not as many as there are today. There wasn’t as much data available then as there is today, and it just wasn’t as sophisticated.

Over the years there has been a proliferation of new channels. Social media in particular has changed digital marketing tremendously. Each platform is different and has its own nuances. You have to have so much more knowledge on how they all work and understand the differences between them.

When I started, there was one device category. You had a computer. Now you have multiple device categories and a variety of screen sizes within those categories. You have to think about these in the context of where people are. It influences how you target them and how you get your message to them. Conversion rates are different and ad sizes are different across devices. And, it’s difficult  to tie cross-platform behavior together. If someone sees you on mobile but then buys from you on desktop, it’s not easy to tie that together. So, the variety of devices has added a lot of complexity.

Then there’s content. People are consuming so much content across all these devices and platforms. To break through, you have to have great content and it’s more important than ever. Today, people are tired of being disrupted. So the big question is about how to make marketing a native experience and how to integrate our brands and products in a way that’s helpful - not disruptive. It’s more and more important to be integrated.

With the evolution of digital marketing and changing media consumption habits, I’m wondering how much longer people will refer to it as “digital marketing”. I don’t think we’re too far away from the term “digital marketing” becoming irrelevant. There will continue to be offline channels of course, but even traditionally offline channels like TV and out of home are becoming digitized - streaming  digital billboards, etc. - so eventually I don’t think we will need to distinguish between “digital” and “offline” - it will just be marketing.

KR: Along the same vein, how has customer acquisition evolved? What are some of the most noteworthy changes?

JB: A lot of my experience has been with performance-based acquisition marketing, especially earlier in my career. Within acquisition specifically, the skill set to be successful has evolved. Having to be familiar with so many different platforms, knowing which will drive the right customers, and understanding the lifetime value by channel has gotten more complex, so marketers need to be more analytical than they ever had to be. You need to track every source, measure customer lifetime value, your churn rates, whether you’re spending on the right people. It’s not always easy, but there’s no excuse for not doing it. With the proliferation of data, there’s more expectation that you’re finding and investing in the right customers.

Another thing that has evolved is conversion rate optimization (CRO). I think of CRO as the new SEO. It used to be, “How much traffic can we drive?” SEO is still important of course, but now there’s greater emphasis on getting the most value out of that traffic. Whatever channel the traffic is from, there’s more focus on ensuring a great user experience - and that’s obviously critical for customer acquisition. Once you get them to the site, you need to convert them as quickly as possible.

The last change I want to mention is that the focus of attribution analytics and moving away from last click attribution. Last click is complicated by the fact that people are across devices. In the past, companies made short-sighted decisions by looking at last click, and channels driving higher funnel traffic weren’t getting enough credit. Today, investment strategies are smarter. We have a better view of the entire customer journey and how we get them through the funnel, so we’re better able to optimize our investment strategies across the entire funnel.

Driving efficient customer acquisition is still challenging, but we have more sophisticated tools and data than we had in the past to help us make better decisions.

KR: When it comes to marketing, what do you think are some of the next big things on the horizon?

JB: There’s a proliferation of connected TVs and content creators like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu distributing what content people watch and where they watch it. Because of that, the increase in on-demand TV, and the fact that more people are watching on digital platforms,TV advertising is going to become a lot more like digital advertising.

Brands won’t be buying ad slots in a TV program anymore. They’ll buy targeted audiences similar to online video and display today.

TV measurement will change, too. Measurement will become much more similar to digital, where we track that person all the way through to purchase. All this is probably going to take time, but we are getting closer. Digital marketers are going to be well positioned to make that change, whereas traditional TV advertisers will likely struggle.

Additionally, native ads continue to evolve. People are tired of being disrupted. More and more brands are going to be integrated into the content itself. Social influencers will continue to grow because it’s more powerful for someone you trust, respect and admire to say how great your brand is - than to say it yourself.

KR: What are you working now at The Grommet? What’s been your biggest challenge to date? What are your top goals this year?

JB: I don’t see us as having a lot of challenges - but we have a lot of opportunities.

The Grommet has launched over 2K products and many are now household names - like Fitbit, SodaStream, and Bananagrams. We’re really proud of the impact we’ve made for independent makers and how many people we’ve helped to discover amazing new products, but we still have tremendous growth potential.

I’m here to help accelerate our growth, do it efficiently, and introduce even more people to The Grommet so we can be a more powerful product launch platform for our Makers. One of my big priorities is to diversify our channel mix. Historically, The Grommet’s marketing has been heavily dependent on email. We are now testing and scaling additional channels and finding a lot of success, especially on social. We’ve had great results on Facebook and Pinterest so far, and we’re looking to expand on that success and test additional channels and platforms.

We’re also focusing heavily on increasing customer loyalty and advocacy. We want our customers to continue to come back, and to tell their friends about us. Getting there includes customer segmentation and personalization.

KR: You’ve worked for some big brands: Publicis, Orbitz, RetailMeNot, and more. Many of these brands are known for their innovative, disruptive approaches. Is that what drew you to these companies? If not, what did?

JB: I’m definitely drawn to companies with a strong purpose that I connect with and that also have a lot of opportunities for growth. Those two things combined are hard to find. When you do, it's so rewarding. You’re excited about the work you’re doing and the impact you can have - both on the business and on the values that are important to you. That, to me, is the best combination.

That, and having great people to work with. The Grommet team is about 60 people. I really enjoy companies this size, and I also enjoy experiencing the growth. But, when it gets to be hundreds, or thousands of people, you lose the personal connections in the company. When you don’t know who people are when they walk by, it changes the dynamics. It becomes less personal, less familial, and more corporate.

KR: Tell me about your leadership style. What sets you apart from other CMOs?

JB: I’m not the flashy CMO type. I bring a very analytical, performance-driven approach to marketing, but am also a strong believer in the power of brand to influence consumer behavior. To me, the convergence of acquisition and brand-building is key to a successful marketing organization. The two are interdependent and both are essential to driving sustained growth.

I really enjoy building and leading high-performance teams. I’ve always had high expectations of myself and my team, because I want us all to be successful. It’s important to me that my team feels supported, and that I help them develop and achieve their professional goals. To that end, I encourage people to get out of their comfort zones and take risks. I see my job as trying to remove barriers - to get out of the way when my team doesn’t need me, and provide guidance and support when they do.


Kaite Rosa is Director of Content & Marketing at VentureFizz. Follow her on Twitter: @KaiteRosa

About the

We launch undiscovered products & help them succeed; we call them Grommets. Products with a purpose invented by Makers with stories. Buy Differently.

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