See It to Be It: AnswerConnect CEO (w/ Natalie Ruiz)

Amy C. Waninger welcomes AnswerConnect CEO Natalie Ruiz to the show this week to discuss her career journey, AnswerConnect, and more. As always, check the links in the show notes to find out more about Natalie!

You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

Check out AnswerConnect’s website.

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Voice-over (00:00): Living Corporate is brought to you by the Liberated Love Notes podcast, part of the Living Corporate network. The Liberated Love Notes podcast, is a starting point, integrating self and community affirmations into your daily practices. The Liberated Love Notes podcast center on the experience of black folks, existing in white systems, and speaks to overcoming imposter syndrome, disrupting injected, and internalized forms of oppression, embodying an abundance mindset and building a healthy racial identity. Check out the Liberated Love Notes podcast, wherever you listen to podcasts. Hosted by Brittany Janay Harris.

(00:49): [musical prelude]

Amy C. Waninger (00:49): Welcome back to See It To Be It. My guest today is Natalie Ruiz. Natalie started her career with Answer Connect in 2006 as a temp-to-hire sales person. Now get this, she’s now the CEO, as of 2015. She found unmatched opportunities to grow in this organization and she got promoted to the CEO spot from a temp-to-hire position. Just what, nine years earlier.

Amy (01:17): She says this role has been one of the greatest adventures of her life so far. And the unconventional path to her success fuels her to continue to challenge assumptions about what work, success, and the concept of balance look like. She writes and publishes a series on Medium. Highlighting powerful women, mentors and part of her aim is to leave people in places better than she finds them. I am so excited to have you on the show today. Welcome Natalie.

Natalie Ruiz (01:44): Thank you so much for having me, Amy.

Amy (01:47): So this is one of those stories that I love, because it shows number one, great talent can come from anywhere. Don’t assume that where people start is where they’re going to end up. But two, it shows that, you never know where you’re going to go in your career until you get there. So tell us about that.

Natalie (02:08): Exactly, exactly. I often say so. Well, I don’t think on anybody’s life plan, career plan, vision board, Answer Connect, wasn’t there. Virtual telecom, virtual answering service that wasn’t on there. But I think that’s the lesson. That is, if everything had gone exactly according to plan, my life would look really different. And I’m so grateful for the plot twist that brought me to this point.

(02:36): When I found Answer Connect, I was young. I had gone through, like I mentioned, all of these plot twists that brought me to a place where the expectations I had were pretty low. I needed a job. I needed a schedule that worked with my life, and something that wouldn’t be as stressful as some of the other jobs that I’d had before. That was really it.

(02:59): And interestingly, even with such low expectations, after a couple of days, I actually called the temp agency back and said, I need you to find me something else. And that was because I walked into this place and I had no concept that it was really a startup. And so, coming in, I expected that they had it figured out. And therefore, when there was no onboarding, there was no training. There was no goal setting. I didn’t know who my team was or my boss was. And all of these things, it was like red flag and alarm. And so, that I realized that the jobs that I had had at that point, had painted this picture that, if it wasn’t working, that was my problem.

(03:44): Because of course, the bosses knew everything. That was the mindset that I had at that point. And, important for me to give credit where credit is due, because I happen to have a chance encounter with the founder of the company, who was then, the CEO. This is on maybe day two or three, after I’ve already thrown the pass out to the staffing agency. You get me out of here. And he asked me, he said, Hey, you’re new here. How’s it going? And I think we all know what the quote unquote right answer to that question is.

Amy (04:20): I’m guessing that’s not the one you gave.

Natalie (04:22): It isn’t. Which was as much of a surprise to me, maybe as anybody else. So once I opened my mouth, it was the flood gates. Everything was coming out, and I thought, well, as I’m saying these things. Like, you have no goals and there’s no onboarding and what is that? And what is this? I come up for air, and this was the best plot twist, because he said, thank you. Can you help us with any of that?

Amy (04:52): Oh, awesome.

Natalie (04:54): Yes. So I’ve always worked. I’ve always had jobs, but I’d never, it at least that I can remember, been asked to step outside of that job duty, that level, that thing that I was hired to do. And strategize, think, solve the problem that wasn’t there. Especially at that point in my career, I didn’t have a fancy resume. I didn’t have any credentials that made me the person on day three, to ask this question.

(05:22): So I said, yes. And I didn’t quit that day. And it kicked that can down the road. I didn’t quit the following week either. And I saw that some of the things that I actually mentioned in that conversation, got brought up at a meeting. And I thought, oh, that’s interesting. So I decided to see it through. And that has been really the core of my career journey.

(05:46): It’s been this ability to see something that I have an opinion, or insight, or an idea on, and be able to lend a hand in, polishing it up or changing it. And I became completely addicted to that. It’s baked into our culture. It’s who we are. Again, I didn’t have a glowing gold aura around me, when the founder and then CEO asked me this question. That’s just who he is. It’s a learning culture.

(06:15): And so, in 2015, when there was this conversation about me becoming CEO, I will admit at a massive surge of imposter syndrome. I actually thought maybe it was one of those really sinister movies. Where, this is the person is going to get put into this role. I suddenly forgot, all nine years of me helping this company grow, and change, and evolve, and thought, I don’t know. I don’t seem like a CEO, but much like that first question, my first week, if somebody offers you the opportunity to become a CEO of a company that you’ve worked at for nearly a decade, you should say yes. And I did. And I’m so glad I did.

Amy (07:03): Yes. Because they don’t make that ask lightly. They’re not just looking around going, you know, one body we can throw into the most important seat in our company. They’re looking for real talent here.

Natalie (07:14): Yes. It was an ongoing and lengthy conversation. And I think that was for everyone to get acclimated to what the idea really meant. Because it was a founder CEO, going to a position where he would remain a founder, who was involved, but really hand off those specific CEO duties. And so, I’m really grateful and eternally privileged to have had that happen.

Amy (07:40): That’s amazing. So tell us a little bit about Answer Connect, what it is that you do there and how that whole process works? Who do you help and how do you help them?

Natalie (07:50): All right. So small businesses, the people who are running them, owning them, they’re wearing all the hats. And when the phone rings, they are the founder, the receptionist, the appointment desk, the everything. And that means that small business owners need some help. And what we do at Answer Connect is provide that help to small and mid-sized businesses. We provide an answering service, virtual reception contact center to really help small businesses ensure that they don’t ever miss a phone call, a client who’s visiting their website, an opportunity for an appointment, as an extension of their office. So we’ve got live people around the clock who can sound like they work for that small business. And then, all of the technology to make sure that those small business owners can connect with their business from anywhere.

Amy (08:46): I think that’s brilliant. And Natalie and I were talking just before we hit record. And I said, I’m going on vacation next week and my to-do list keeps getting longer and longer and longer. And I’m not exactly sure how I’m going to actually pull my car out of the driveway in the morning. Because the closer I get to five o’clock the more requests keep coming in. And she said, and who’s going to watch your phones. And I was, don’t even talk to me about phones. So I’m feeling maybe there’s some serendipity in our having this conversation right now. Because I do have other vacations planned that I do not want to have to answer my phone during.

(09:21): But, talk to me a little bit about the size of the company, because it sounds like you’ve got an operation that can scale to meet demand for a lot of different clients, of different sizes, of different complexities, of different types and industries. So what does the footprint of your company look like?

Natalie (09:40): Well, it’s interesting that you say footprint, because our footprint is actually very small. Because in 2007, we transitioned to a remote first, work model. So the footprint, the impact on the environment, all of that is pretty small. But, we are a pretty large company at this point. Well, large compared to my early days, at least. When I came in, we had maybe 30 people and we were all in one physical location. We’ve got over a thousand people now, and we have expanded not just throughout the United States, but we have a Canadian arm of our business, and a UK arm of our business.

Amy (10:16): That is amazing. And they’re all employees. They’re not?

Natalie (10:19): Correct. Yes. And that’s a big deal. So they’re all employees. So therefore, they get all of the benefits. They’re part of our culture. We also have an arm of our business that helps with the business support and development that’s in India. And all of us are able to connect with each other through technology, stay in the know, work asynchronously, which to me is magic. Because when I get off for the day, somebody else’s starting. And then, when I come back, there’s things that are happening.

(10:51): And it’s interesting, what’s happened in this past year, plus with the pandemic because we’ve been working from home for a long time. And we have gone through the bumps and the lumps to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. But for us, we had an opportunity to just lean in harder, on our culture, and what we knew to be true. But now, a year plus later, we’re seeing so many businesses that jumped into the deep end when it came to remote work. And now, they want it to, and luckily our business is able to help with that.

Amy (11:26): I think that’s fantastic. So let me ask you a little bit about this journey. Here’s how I came in and here’s where I got, but can we talk a little bit about he chapters in the middle, all the steps. Because I’ve got to think even at a small-ish company, I know there are only 30 employees when you started, but you’ve, in the same amount of time that you’ve moved up to the top spot. You’ve also tripled a hundred of your staff. It’s a lot of growth. So talk to us a little bit about that path. What did that look like? From the onboarding here sucks. Can you fix it? I can try. To now you’re running the place.

Natalie (12:12): So I began in the sales department and my heart still has a huge portion of it that lives with sales, and will forever, because that’s a huge driver for any business. And so, getting a chance to work in the sales department was amazing. And getting a chance to be intentional and selective about how do we help people? Who do we help? Why do we help them? And that value proposition, it built into me the desire to really want to help these businesses solve their problems, see them thrive, learn more about entrepreneurs and side hustles and just the myriad of interesting opportunities that are out there. But as a sales person, I became one of our top salespeople at the time, which led me to lead the sales team, and then grow it. It was very, very small when I started. So we grew it.

(13:04): For my personal journey. I was curious, so we bring customers in, how do we take care of them after? And so I just followed my curiosity and got into the client services and account management side of things. Learned that. Ended up being able to lead that department as well. But again, piece of my heart is still with sales. So we did this kind of mesh of sales and service for awhile. I realized that I have some weaknesses as well, as a leader. And luckily we were able to appoint some great leaders who could help scale those things. So, I knew at that point how to bring in customers and how we took care of them, and how we built their account. But I wanted to figure out how do we make sure that the associates who are handling these calls have what they need.

(13:51): So that led me into the recruiting, and the training, and the operation side of the people management. Followed that curiosity. And when we had the arm that was building our software, I work in tech, but I am the really best like normal person, user tester. So I would get the beta builds of things like our mobile app and our desktop app. And I would be the person who was in the ear of our development team saying, I don’t see where the button is. And they’re, Natalie really, it’s right there. And I’m, well, if I can’t find it, our customers won’t find it. And got to work in that aspect as a liaison with our tech. And it’s progressed through there. I will say, our company has never been great at titles. And so, people will sometimes ask what was the path?

(14:39): And I’m, I don’t remember what any of these titles were. We were such a small company at first, there was like choose your own adventure. And I felt like some of the titles were akin to if you were ordering off the Taco Bell menu. It was, I’m the Supreme Chalupa of whatever. And we’re trying to get our act together, but I got to learn with the company. And just follow in my mind, what it meant to do a great job.

(15:03): So to do a great job for our customers, that was kind of where I came in. And then I got passionate about doing a great job for our people. And then making sure that the tools that we had were amazing. And that has just continued leading me through to then, thinking about the footprint that we make with our company. And we, as a remote first company, recognized that we care about the environment. That’s built into us.

(15:30): I live in Portland, Oregon, we’re very green eco-conscious area. And with that in mind, we were, well, how do we become intentional about that? And we have built in paid giving back time, for all of our employees. So that they can work from anywhere, but ideally get involved in their communities. And then as a company, we give monthly to organizations who plant trees around the world to further offset carbon. And so, again, the journey, the chapters in between, it’s all been iterative, but it’s been following curiosities, learning as I go, and then deciding, well, if I’m in a position with some power, how do I use it in an intentional way? So that it’s not just through osmosis, that good things are happening?

Amy (16:19): I think it’s so important that we as leaders and I mean, we, the very broad we, and leaders with a small L. Because leadership is an attitude. It is not a job title. I think that we, as leaders need to focus on who is it that we are, and how do we be that on purpose?

Natalie (16:38): Yes, yes. When I look back, I think one of the things that has kept me here, this long, even in the earlier days, that ability to speak up, to be heard, to have my opinion. Even though it wasn’t matched with a fancy degree, or a fancy resume, respected. It allowed me little by little to bring more of myself to work. And I think you’re absolutely right. As a leader, that is now my responsibility to be very intentional, if those aspects are things I want to pay forward, then I need to really do it.

Amy (17:20): And you mentioned earlier that when you were approached about this role, that your imposter syndrome kicked in. And I’m curious, this is something that we talk about a lot on the show, because a lot of the folks that I interview, and I myself, am a first-generation professional. A lot of folks listening may not have had parents who went to college or who worked in offices, the cube farm was new to them. And I’m curious, how did you work through that process? Was it an iterative process like your career, or was there one big aha moment that you thought no, I’m in the right place?

Natalie (17:58): I sure wish it was an aha moment. And then it never resurfaced. That would be great, but no, sadly, it’s iterative. And I would say it surprises me. It sneaks up on me even sometimes now. But, at the time when I officially accepted the role of CEO, like done thinking about it, done thinking that some evil movie plot. Yes, I’m taking it, it’s done. I literally took my laptop, angled it so nobody else could see what I was Googling. And looked up what does a CEO do?

Amy (18:35): Thank you. Thank you for saying that out loud. This is how you do it. This is how you figure it out. Well, I wanted to be a speaker and I Googled, how do I be a speaker? How do I speak at conferences?

Natalie (18:50): I Google everything. I Google everything. And so as I was, you know, hiding my screen in case anybody saw that this newly promoted CEO; the good news was, everything that was on the list I was, oh yeah, I’m doing that. Oh yeah, I know how to. And so I think that was maybe step one of vanquishing some of the imposter syndrome. Was lall right, I’m in the right camp. And it was just little by little. It took me too long to be able to introduce myself, Natalie Ruiz, CEO at Answer Connect. It took me a while. I would kind of ugh. And I think imposter syndrome can go by a lot of different names, limiting beliefs, self-doubt, whatever. But it’s also this fear of who does she think she is? And I had to get over that. And I’ll tell you a quick story.

(19:47): Because what really helped me finally, say it with my chest. Was going to a company event where I got to speak in front of a group of our employees. And again, I was a temp. I worked in almost every department in some capacity. I feel like I’m just like everybody else there. I am. I understand what they’re doing. And that’s how I’m wired. So after we got done talking about what we were up to and what was coming next. And this woman came up to me and said, can I talk to you for a second? And she said, when I started with this company, I wasn’t sure that it was going to be for me. And when I found out that we had a woman CEO. And then I found out that the woman CEO was Latina, II got really excited and I wanted to see what might be possible for me here too. And I immediately felt so many different emotions. On one hand, I first felt like I wanted to tell her [inaudibl 00:20:56] it’s just me. But then I thought, absolutely not. Absolutely not. I have a title that wields power, and a platform, and I need to get over myself, and do something with it. And so that was the turning point for me.

Amy (21:18): That’s amazing. And I’m so glad you didn’t take that away from her. Because it’s huge to see representation at that level of people who are not usually represented at that level. And it’s really huge for people who, you kmow, this is how we come up through the company,. If you look up and you see someone who’s like you. Or you at least see someone who isn’t like everybody else.

Natalie (21:44): Right. You, see a spark of possibility, that success can look different than the cookie cutter that so many of us grew up thinking was the only path.

Amy (21:56): And so that is beautiful. Natalie, if there are people out there listening, like me, they own businesses and are, man, I’d like to not have to answer my phone on vacation. What is your target like? Is it really solo preneurs like me? Is there any job too small?

Natalie (22:17): Not really. I really don’t think so. We have some folks who work with us and we are their safety net, just in case. And so, we are there, we’ve got information and scripting and we’re ready should the phone ring. And it does every once in awhile, and that’s valuable because they know what the cost of potential businesses. And so if everyone is on the phone, they already have a receptionist, or what have you. We’ve got solo preneurs, we’ve got small mid-sized businesses. We have a handful of really large enterprises. And that’s always interesting and exciting too. But the bulk of our business is in that small, medium size.

(23:01): But really, working with Answer Connect scaling business, giving a 24 by seven solution that could be professional. You know what it’s going to be every single time. They’re not going to catch you in your car, on the beach, in front of another client. It usually could cost less than your cell phone probably does every month.

Amy (23:22): That’s amazing. So I am, I’m excited to talk to you about this more off of the podcast when we can actually have a real discussion about specifics. But Natalie, I want to thank you for being, first of all, proactive in finding us. And asking to be on the show because I would not have found you otherwise. And I think you’re delightful. And also a wonderful, just a wonderful career story about what’s possible when you stick your neck out a little bit and take on a little bit more responsibility than somebody maybe would have given you by default. And, oh my gosh. Wow. Just to, to be in that position of CEO of a thousand person company, having started as a temp-to-hire. I think there’s a lesson here for everyone that, where you start and where you finish, there’s just so much space in the middle.

Natalie (24:19): I hope so. There is for me. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve started really trying to tell the story. The more I tell it, the more I recognize that it needs to be told. It’s not about me doing a victory lap. It’s really about showing that there are multiple different ways to grow and to have paths to success. And I think it’s really important. The things that sometimes we shrink back from, or maybe we’re ashamed of. Where we didn’t love that we worked in hospitality before this, or we didn’t love that we had this. I sold cars before I did this, by the way. And everybody hates used car salespeople. But actually, those skills really gave me unique insight and perspective. And so, whatever life has thrown at you use that. It makes us unique. It makes our voices worth listening to. And I think that’s the lesson that I’m hoping to help facilitate.

Amy (25:21): We’re just going to leave it right there. Thank you, Natalie, so much for your insights, for your candor, and for sharing your lessons with us.

Natalie (25:28): Thank you. Amy.

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