Women in Digital: Christa Quarles

Christa Quarles, CEO of Alludo (formerly Corel), details her journey from Wall Street to tech boardroom, and shares what the industry must do to enable more women to succeed.

Posted 9 January 2023 by Christine Horton

Did you enjoy school?   

I enjoyed school and as a student, I was definitely driven to succeed. I’m one of seven siblings and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, as a kid, my large family provided strong motivation to stand out. Overachieving was a way to build my identity. Whether it was academics or extracurriculars, school was something I could really throw myself into. 

What qualifications do you have?   

I have a BS in Economics and German from Carnegie Mellon University and went on to receive my MBA from Harvard Business School.  

At the start of my career, I didn’t necessarily envision myself going into tech. Of course, life has a way of taking you down interesting paths. My first foray into the tech world came while I worked as a financial analyst covering tech. That piqued my interest in the tech industry and I’ve been all in ever since.  

Has your career path been a smooth transition, a rocky road, or a combination of both?   

My career path has been an interesting one, and while it has been rewarding, it hasn’t always been easy. My first career was in banking on Wall Street in the mid-1990s. As a financial analyst covering the tech space, I went through the boom and bust of the dotcom era and worked with companies going through IPOs.  

Eventually, I realised that I no longer wanted to sit on the sidelines. I made the move from being a tech-adjacent employee on Wall Street to a full-fledged member of the tech world. That meant leaving my role in Equity Research at Thomas Weisel Partners and joining Playdom as chief financial officer. After less than a year, Playdom was acquired by The Walt Disney Company, where I spent almost four years in the gaming division, eventually becoming a senior VP. From Disney, I joined Nextdoor as chief business officer and then OpenTable as CEO. This journey eventually took me here to Alludo. I also currently serve on the boards of Kimberly-Clark and Affirm.

It has been an exhilarating ride and I’ve learned a great deal about myself along the way. I started my career in a hyper-aggressive environment very much like what you see in the movie Wolf of Wall Street. This world often left me feeling like there was only one acceptable model of leadership. And with my desire to fit in, I was never truly able to bring my full self to work. Anyone who has been in this position will tell you how exhausting it is to pretend you’re someone you’re not.  

I’ve since discovered that I’m a much better leader when I can bring all parts of me to the role. Leadership is not one-size-fits-all. There are so many types of effective leaders in this world. We need all of them to drive business ahead.  

What specific challenges do you see women facing in the industry?

You can’t discuss women in tech without addressing the serious issue of lack of representation. Currently in the UK, women only make up 19 percent of the tech industry. Barriers have been holding back women from the start—ranging from lack of encouragement at school to fighting against peoples’ inherent biases and myriad other issues. 

Without question, I believe that “you need to see it to be it.” I can’t overstate how important it is to have mentors and leaders to model yourself after and look up to. When you see more women represented, more women participate. If you’re interested in tech, I encourage you to seek out supportive, like-minded friends, colleagues, and allies to support you on your career journey. My professional support system has helped me tremendously.   

What is the best career advice you can give to others?  

It’s so critical to know yourself and what you enjoy doing. Don’t be afraid to change jobs in your quest to discover your passion. And once you discover what you enjoy, put in the effort and work hard at it. Aim to become an expert in that particular thing. 

If you’re a young person starting out, find a company that cares about you as a person. Make sure the company values different types of leadership. I strongly believe that diversity is key to better decision-making and ultimately better results, and I wouldn’t want to be part of a company that didn’t embrace diversity of thought, identity, and experience.     

Lastly, I think it’s critical to build meaningful relationships throughout your career. Whether you’re just starting out or you’re at the peak of your career, everyone needs and deserves a place to ask questions and receive advice. Don’t wait until you’re in a crisis. Build those relationships now so you have trusted people to turn to. 

What would it be if you had to pick one moment that had the biggest influence on you?  

There’s certainly a stage of my career that stands out. As I mentioned, my time on Wall Street was fundamental to me making the move to tech. Working as a financial analyst, I was surrounded by CEOs from a variety of organisations. I got to see the role in action, first-hand. It was an incredible crash course in how CEOs operate. Exposure to different mindsets and approaches was invaluable in shaping the type of leader I wanted to be. 

I also had a boss during this time who gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever received. He said: “Always manage your own P&L.” And by this, he meant keep an objective, numbers-based record of your value and achievements. Never leave someone’s perception of your value up to chance. There’s power in having undeniable data to demonstrate your worth.   

From where do you draw inspiration?  

I draw inspiration from the incredible minds I’m exposed to every day—people with whom I work, books I read, or one of the many podcasts I’m listening to. Kimberly Scott and her book Radical Candor had a profound influence on the way I approach leadership, communication, and building authentic working relationships. I read Adam Grant’s Think Again and couldn’t stop thinking about the value that constant curiosity brings to us as people and leaders. There’s so much power in asking if the stories we tell ourselves are true. 

On the personal side, I would classify myself as an accidental CEO. I didn’t set out to be a CEO, but I was able to envision it because of the women who’ve come before me and have served as representation and a huge inspiration. Sue Decker stands out as a big influence on me. Sue was a research analyst just like I was. She left to become Yahoo CEO and then joined boards of top brands. For me, there was such power in that representation—in seeing someone who shared one part of your career go on and do something else. Getting her advice was extremely valuable. It is great to have people who have experienced your current chapter and can look back at it. It helps us go beyond the first-person perspective we have of ourselves.   

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced to date?  

I think many of us would agree that the last two years have been incredibly challenging, both professionally and personally. I joined a new company as CEO six months into the pandemic. I needed to get to know a new business and people I’d never physically met. Like so many companies, our people were still adjusting to the realities of pandemic life. Remote work was thrust upon everyone unplanned. 

So, I spent the first year putting the chess pieces in place. The first step was introducing a new vision for our company and our people. I needed employees to see and feel the people-first transformation that lay before us. I brought in some of the most talented execs I have ever worked with to reshape our leadership. We made a number of strategic decisions about the path forward and communicated with clarity and transparency. 

This amazing company has a wealth of technology assets and incredible people. We were setting out to deliver the next generation of applications that would offer a new way of working for not only our employees, but also our customers and the world of knowledge work as a whole. 

Two years later, the chess pieces were on the board and we were ready to play. This spring, we expanded our Parallels product offerings with the acquisition of Awingu, a remote access platform that enables secure, anywhere, anytime access to the apps businesses depend on. Then in the summer, we made the move to become a remote-first workplace, giving our employees the freedom and flexibility to work where, when, and how they work best. In September, we brought these connections together as we rebranded the company as Alludo. Alludo let us reintroduce ourselves and our offerings in an entirely new way. A nod to ‘All You Do,” Alludo embodies the new vision of productivity we deliver to our people and our users. 

These successes represent an incredible evolution in how we operate, our employee experience, and what we offer our customers. Unquestionably, the pandemic has been an extremely challenging time. But through it all, I am so impressed with my team and the transformation we’ve achieved.

What qualities do you feel make a good leader?  

I’m a big believer that culture is how people make decisions when you’re not in the room. And the only way a leader can shape a culture and build a successful company is to lead by example. For me, it comes down to a few fundamental beliefs.  

First, it’s critical to recognise the need to offer psychological safety within your organisation. If you want every employee to bring their best, they need to feel safe in speaking their mind and taking risks. Diversity is essential—different perspectives and ideas drive creativity. And it’s critical that everyone feels their voice can be heard. 

Secondly, leaders need to be brave enough to adjust to the new world of work. Pandemic living gave people flexibility like never before. To be clear, that genie isn’t going back into the bottle. If you want to retain the best people and empower them to deliver their best work, you need to get comfortable with giving them freedom. The era of 9-5, cubicles, and old-school office work is over for today’s knowledge workers. Managers who realise this are already ahead in the game. 

Third, understand that employees expect their leaders to be ‘real’ in a way that hasn’t been a focal point until now. The idea that ‘business isn’t personal’ is a joke. The truth is that business has never been more personal. Your people want to know what you value, believe, and stand for. Authenticity and transparency are critical. 

For many leaders, these concepts may cause an identity crisis of sorts. They may feel uncomfortable to lead in a world where you can’t peer over every shoulder, count hours on the clock, or micromanage every detail. But leaders who can change their point of view, value results over inputs, and see the people behind the effort will reap the rewards. 

What would you say are the biggest tech-based challenges we face today?

As the pandemic forced us all to work apart, one of the biggest tech challenges we all faced was how to continue connecting in a remote world. Technology use exploded overnight when collaboration tools became the only way to work together and get things done. 

And while the pandemic turbo-charged our progress on this front, the journey is far from over. The freedom and flexibility people gained in this new world is here to stay. And the future of work demands tools that make working remotely safe, engaging, and productive. Our recent collaboration survey found that a startling 41 percent of enterprise employees have left or are considering leaving their jobs due to poor collaboration tools. People told us that poor collaboration continues to waste at least 3-5 hours of productivity each week. Clearly, this issue is far from resolved.   

What can be done to encourage more women into the industry?  

This is a question I get asked frequently, and there’s no magic wand that can make this a reality overnight. But there are things companies can do right now to make a difference. 

The first step is to simply recognise that diversity and inclusion aren’t just nice to have—they’re fundamental. A report by McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians. It’s time for tech companies to stop saying that they are committed to women in tech and to actually take action. If you know something is proven to make your business stronger, why wouldn’t you do it? 

Next, dig into the data to identify where you can improve. And then once you know, there are a number of steps companies can take to correct it. Implement blind resume and hiring processes. Offer flexible work arrangements. Ensure that working from home isn’t inequitable or a disadvantage at your organisation. Create a culture of psychological safety where everyone feels they can speak up and bring their wholes selves to work. This last one is particularly critical. True diversity requires people to feel safe in being true to who they are. 

The bottom line? Creating a more diverse and people-friendly workforce depends completely on your leadership and values. This is 100% a leadership issue. 

Give us a fact about you most people wouldn’t know.   

I’ve practiced Iyengar Yoga for more than 22 years and I’ve found that it has brought an incredible clarity and presence in my life. When something in life starts to feel all topsy-turvy and I need to think it through, I’ll just go and stand on my head! Five minutes upside-down, and I’m grounded and ready to move forward.