Why networking is this Silicon Valley exec’s secret weapon

From tackling toxic culture against women to making and taking opportunities, ForeScout Technologies CTO Julie Cullivan outlines what success in Silicon Valley looks like.

To the rest of the world, Silicon Valley is wonderfully weird. While the Valley may be a playground for next-gen tech, frolicking unicorns and eagle-eyed investors, it has its own problems. The darkest cloud hanging over the Bay Area is toxic elitism, and its inherent biases that alienate talented women at various levels.

According to Silicon Valley veteran and cybersecurity expert, Julie Cullivan, toxic culture against women is something more prevalent among the Valley’s young start-ups that grow with abandon, than long-standing businesses that have scaled over the years.

“I’ve been in Silicon Valley and in tech since I graduated from college, and I can tell you that there are a lot of behavioural issues among start-ups. I’ve never felt that super-negative energy I do see coming from some of these smaller start-ups in particular,” she tells GrowthBusiness. It’s the start-ups with grow really quickly that tend to forget to build a strong, inclusive company culture, and this can spiral out of control as the start-up scales, similar to what has happened with companies like Uber.

Some things you learn with time, some things go with who you are as a person. Start-up entrepreneurs either don’t have the opportunity to address these issues early on, or perhaps aren’t equipped to manage issues like this. Some of it is learned over time, like how to treat others, what’s ok, and what’s not ok.

“It’s crucial for advisors on boards to support start-ups and guide these young leaders. It doesn’t matter how great a product is, or how big the market is. It’s about creating a team and a culture that is inclusive”

Beyond the bubble

Cullivan adds that women who haven’t faced discrimination in the Valley tend to be in a bubble, surrounded by inclusive, open-minded colleagues and strong leadership. “I have always worked with people who don’t operate that way, but we’re in a bubble. Sometimes you might find yourself witnessing behaviour you’re not comfortable with. I say find your moral compass and what works for you. As we’ve seen with some inspiring young women speaking out, you have to take ownership for what you’re not comfortable with, and understand there are always options and always a choice. You’ve got to do what’s right for you.”

Cullivan took on a pivotal role at ForeScout Technologies, a US-Israeli pioneer in agent-less cybersecurity, as senior VP of business operations and CIO; her second C-suite stint in recent years. ForeScout is one of 15 unicorns in cybersecurity, which in itself is a $1 trillion-market set to balloon over the next few years. A recent IPO and sky-high valuation aside, ForeScout’s strength lies in its strong senior management team.

“I just came off a really exciting four-and-a-half-year journey in a high-growth security company, which was my first CIO role as well. I was asking myself, what’s next for me from a career perspective? I was lucky enough to engage with some folks that I had worked with in a prior life. They were looking for somebody to take on a broader, operational role, in addition to the CIO role, to help them take the business operations function to the next level as they scale. It’s an exciting challenge, to support the fast growth of a company,” she adds.

Formerly EVP of business operations and CIO at FireEye, Inc., Cullivan was a member of the executive team that set the company’s strategy. She helped scale FireEye from a private company with $80 million in revenue, through its successful IPO, to a global publicly traded company with revenues of over $700 million and a $2.7 billion valuation, and is now on a similar path at ForeScout Technologies.

“As much as I’d like to think it’s my background and experience that led me to these opportunities, sometimes I also think that the right timing and the right network and being able to put those two together played a big part”

Go hard or go home

Cullivan partly credits the power of networking for her success in Silicon Valley precisely because it’s so underrated. “Do not underestimate the importance of engaging and building a strong network. This is something that took me a while to learn,” she explains.

“We’re really lucky in Silicon Valley. There are some very strong ‘women in leadership’ and ‘women in tech’ organisations out here. I encourage younger folks, particularly women that are coming up in their careers, to take advantage of these events. It’s really easy to at the end of the day to say ‘I’m going to go home, I’m not going to make the effort to go for that event’, but you have to find the energy to do it because that’s where you make those career-defining connections. It may not be immediate, but you will have relationships you can leverage when you need it the most.”

“I have found the support that I get from the community really keeps me going, and it helps me connect with younger women as they coming up in their careers, which I absolutely love doing. It’s easy not to do these types of things, but I really encourage women to engage, reach out and, to quote the term, ‘lean in’. You really need to do that if you want to grow.”

“Take responsibility for your own career”

Cullivan stresses the importance of networking also because it requires a high level of proactivity and passion. Only people with ambition and genuine passion would put in the time and work to network after work. It’s that fire that can help women scale corporate barriers, says Cullivan. “You’ve got to want it, and you’ve got to be willing to raise your hand and take risks,” she adds.

“We often say we’re not ready, but you’re never going to be ready for whatever’s next. You just have to go for it. You can’t wait for others to make it happen for you. You really need to take responsibility for your own career and your own opportunities.”

“If you’re in a situation where you’re not getting those opportunities, it’s your chance to ask ‘is this the right place for me’? It takes a while for people to understand that you are responsible for your own path. Yes, you’re going to get support along the way from sponsors and others, but they can only help you get there. But ultimately you really need to have a strong desire to make it happen for yourself,” Cullivan explains.

External support from the company should be a given, whether through training programmes, or through female role models at senior levels and male advocates actively sponsoring and supporting women in the business. “One of the things I’ve really enjoyed the most coming in to ForeScout is the environment and the support I feel everyone in the organisation has. There’s a real effort around women in leadership,” she adds. “The team is really focussed on encouraging younger women to grow and expand in their careers, so the rest is up to them.”

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for GrowthBusiness.co.uk from 2016 to 2018.