Lead(H)er: Lorraine Vargas Townsend, Chief People Officer at Mendix
Lorraine Vargas Townsend gets her adventurous spirit from her mother, who immigrated from Colombia and always encouraged her children to explore the world. A single mom who cleaned hotel rooms, she saw business trips as the epitome of the American Dream, and Vargas Townsend had no problem taking as many of those trips as necessary in support of her own career.
“I can trace all of my big career moves to a time that I raised my hand and said I’d do what no one else wanted to do, which was either travel 60 percent of the time or move to another location,” said Vargas Townsend, now the Chief People Officer at Mendix.
She moved from her hometown of Austin to Nashville for Dell, then took a job with Schneider Electric that eventually resulted in a move to Paris with her wife -- despite her recent purchase of a house in the Nashville area. By the time she left that company, Vargas Townsend was the vice president of HR for a more than $2 billion euro business unit.
Back in the states, Vargas Townsend continued her career in human resources at TE Connectivity in Philadelphia and then athenahealth in Boston, becoming Mendix’s Chief People Officer in March 2019 after the company was acquired by Siemens.
Throughout her career, Vargas Townsend has focused on cultivating growth and building efficient, scalable processes. To aid in that goal, Vargas Townsend and her team use Mendix’s app building platforms to create apps that streamline the recruiting and other HR processes.
“It’s all about helping people grow their careers,” Vargas Townsend said. “We’re going to find ways and paths to help you get all the different skills that you need to get to your own version of career utopia.”
She’s also deeply committed to amplifying company cultures and ensuring that they stay true to their roots as they evolve. Company culture changes with each new hire, and particularly after an acquisition, so Vargas Townsend is constantly evaluating how a company’s values fit into the recruiting and promotion processes and how to ensure people feel welcome in their workplaces.
“If you include and invite everyone, then diversity is an outcome of that,” Vargas Townsend said. “So we need to create the greatest place to work, where everyone feels valued and heard and invited to participate in strategic decision-making that creates the culture.”
Human resources processes can often be impersonal and painful, making it difficult to reward the people who are working so hard to help company culture evolve in the right direction. Vargas Townsend believes that performance reviews are particularly troublesome.
“It’s not a human experience,” she said. “The whole thing is engineered by HR people who don’t understand that the whole year-end salary planning process doesn’t motivate anybody. Even your highest performers don’t walk away happy.”
Using Mendix’s own technology, Vargas Townsend hopes to build an app that can help humanize it all. She envisions a performance review process where base salaries would be tied to market rates, with bonuses given out incrementally after employees complete major projects or contribute meaningfully to the company’s goals. That way, employees are directly rewarded for their most impactful work, helping create a better company culture in which everyone knows the value they add.
“I want us to lower the typical ‘HR tax’ and be focused on outcomes over process,” Vargas Townsend said. “People who are happy get to higher levels of performance, and our rewards should be reinforcing all the right stuff with the right people.”
Quick Q(uestions) and A(dvice)
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
I’m a crafting nerd. I like to sew, and I have a two-year-old, so I’m obsessed with her Halloween costumes and her birthday. I’m always on Pinterest and going to sewing stores to look at fabric. She’s going to be Frida Kahlo and a ballerina for Halloween, so I’m going to find at least two parties to take her to and show off.
What are your strategies for managing stress?
I recently took a self-assessment survey on this, and apparently the things that relieve my stress the most are when I take action. My stress relieving thing is to complete some stuff on my to-do list or do something physical to help myself feel like I’m in control of some things. I didn’t realize that was my default thing for a while. I tried massages and yoga, but none of that works for me. It has to be something a bit more intense, but I’m glad I have that insight now.
How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?
I’m Colombian, so of course I drink coffee -- I have between four and six Nespresso pods a day.
What’s one of your favorite places in the Boston area?
When people tell you to close your eyes and picture something that makes you feel relaxed, I think of the Public Garden. I love the willow trees and the swans and swan boats. It’s funny because in Austin, there’s a similar park called Mayfield Park, so I feel like those are my two anchor points in the world. Those, and the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris -- those three are all sister parks for me.
What do you consider one of your greatest accomplishments?
My proudest accomplishment right now is being able to be a really good mom and be a really present executive at the same time. Somehow I do feel like I’m rocking the whole work-life balance thing. I think that’s a bit rooted in the fact that I’m a two-time cancer survivor and I put my personal health and happiness ahead of every single thing except for my daughter -- in fact, I think I put us on equal importance. I found that balance really hard in my last job, but now I feel like I’m really stepping on the right fulcrum of the seesaw.
How does where you are now compared to where you thought you might end up 10 years ago?
I would say 10 years ago, I was moving to France and I just had no idea what I was about to do. And now, I’ve traveled to 38 countries, I’ve had a baby, and I’ve actually settled down in a place that I actually plan to stay in -- I can’t imagine leaving Boston, which is weird. I was blindly following my sense of adventure 10 years ago, and now I am making deliberate choices, which I never anticipated.
What’s your advice for recent college graduates?
Say yes to the thing that scares you the most. Just be comfortable with being uncomfortable, because right out of school is the time that you want to do it. If I had to do my career all over again, I’d do it exactly the same way. And it’s because I was just saying yes and didn’t let fear stop me from anything.