Podcast Episode 32

Tech Advocacy and Leadership

 In this engaging podcast episode titled “Tech Advocacy and Leadership,” Sonia Couto, a prominent figure in the tech industry, shares her inspiring journey from an accounting background to a strategic tech leader. Sonia discusses the nuances of strategic decision-making, sharing her experiences in operations management and overcoming obstacles in product launches. Listeners will gain valuable insights into adapting to changing business landscapes, pivoting with purpose, and building client-centric innovation. Sonia’s approach to incorporating direct client feedback into product development is also explored, introducing the concept of a client board that influences the product roadmap. This episode is a treasure trove of practical wisdom, fresh perspectives, and actionable strategies for tech entrepreneurs to fuel their business growth. Tune in and discover the keys to successful tech advocacy and leadership.

Sonia Couto - Managing Director of Konverge Digital Solutions & Founder of MenuSano

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Ryan Davies: This is a podcast show dedicated to shining a spotlight on tech innovators, entrepreneurs, founders, and the compelling narratives behind the movements they’ve established. I’m your host, Ryan Davies, and I’m hosting today’s discussion on tech advocacy and leadership with Sonia Couto. Sonia. Thank you so much for being here.

Sonia:  Thank you for having me.

Journey into the Tech Industry

Ryan Davies:  When we talk about advocacy and leadership. I think I have found the dream guest today for our listeners; Sonia is a self-initiating and hyper-driven individual who is a business visionary strategic leader and sits at the helm of two award-winning software products, MenuSano, and Field Eagle. She is the managing director at Konverge Digital Solutions. She’s a highly results-driven leader, really known for getting things done and driving initiatives that lead to strategic partnerships and growth within Canada and internationally. She really dives into the product’s vision development and overall growth and has been the recipient of several awards and accolades with excellent leadership in the software industry. She currently sits on the board of Hacker Gals Nonprofit for girls grade six and up to be able to break into the tech industry with, you know, sort of that streamline into MIT sort of strategy. She’s a member of Canadian Women and Food, the nutrition business leader of the Year 2023 winner, best tech manager, winner, and top CEO of the year. You know, the RBC Women of Influence nominee 2020 for their International Business Awards. I could go on all day. We could just do a podcast of me talking about your accolades. I think so. we’ll cut it there, and I just want to thank you again for being here. Maybe we can kick it off with a little bit of, you know, if you could share a little bit of your journey into the tech industry from your inception of MenuSano, Field Eagle, what you’re doing at Konverge, and what motivated you to pu pursue a career in tech.

Sonia:   Yeah, I got into tech by complete accident. My background has actually been in accounting for a very long time. Then, I got into manufacturing, and I got into operations management. So I sort of took that in with my accounting background, and that’s just what I did for many, many years. So, in the manufacturing environment, I learned how to take very traditional processes and figure out how to automate them, whether it was with machines or people, in order to make the development process faster in the manufacturing setting. Then, I got recruited into a tech company by accident for accounting and all that stuff. And I get bored very easily so I can’t do the same job over and over and over again. So, within that organization, I saw that there was a need for operations and accounting to be tied together. They were very separated, and I didn’t feel like they had very much operations, they weren’t operations like-minded. For example, like, you know, when there weren’t a lot of projects, they had people sort of sitting around waiting for the next project to come along, which I didn’t think was efficient and didn’t go co-side with all of the financials we, had put together. So, I saw a need to sort of branch those two departments together. I started asking questions. I started creating little, little scenarios that caused chaos so that they could see that there was really a need, to put this together. I got into those roles, and in the role of operations, I really learned tech. I think my success in tech has been around learning every single role and physically doing the role. So if a project manager left in the process of hiring a new project manager, I’d be like, I want to step in, and I’m going to do the project management for this project until we hire someone new. And I did the same thing with business analysis and I did the same thing with QA, and I did the same thing with all the different roles. So, number one, when we were hiring, I knew exactly what we were hiring for and what we needed. But I also knew how to do the job. And in doing those roles, I really learned the process of building a product, testing a product, taking it to market, and all that stuff. Marketing came in later when we failed MenuSano completely and had to learn from that failure. I learned the value of marketing that sort of came to us the hard way.

Leadership Principles and Strategies

Ryan Davies: But that’s a way that everybody seems to learn, especially like the founder journey and whatnot. You’re never going to master everything, but you get on a roll with stuff, and you think I can do this, too. I’ve done that, and then, something might not happen. And I think it’s, that ability to learn and adapt and grow. That really is what you know; it sets leaders apart, right? So, as a highly results-driven leader yourself, I want to talk about kind of the principles that guide your approach to leadership and how you’ve been able to foster a culture of, as we mentioned, you’re a master of getting things done with your team. So how have you been able to kind of, you know, foster that culture? What’s your guide and approach to leadership?

Sonia: Yeah. So first, I just want to say that I’m the middle child of five, and I’m in the middle, I have two older and younger. I do think that’s where the result, the results-driven personality, comes from. I’m scrappy, right? And so I’ve always had to like, find my way through my life because I was always fighting against being too old and too young. I’m also an immigrant in this country, which makes it harder because I didn’t grow up in an environment that was like, you’re going to go off to university, and you’re going to build a career. I sort of grew up in an environment where was like, after school is done, you’re going to go and get a job. It wasn’t a career. And so, at a very young age, I knew I wanted to do more. So, I sort of instilled a mindset in me where I always thought I was going to do more than what was expected of me. And I think that’s sort of what led me to the place where I am now. I also think that, like in tech, I find that there’s something that’s missing that I bring to the table, which is what I like to call common sense. I think that when a problem is presented, sometimes people seem to overcomplicate it. I talk to founders and other companies that we help all the time. And I’m like, ok, guys, you have a little tiny river that you’re trying to get across. You wanna build a bridge, but you’ve built a rocket ship, right? So, like, can we use some common sense here because you’re overcomplicating it? I do think that’s what I value to my team, to the products that we’re building. If I bring in a sense of, can we please bring it back? Can we use common sense? Like we’re not the users of these products. Can we think like the users, can we act like users, can we speak like the users so that we can build something that they can use? And that’s where you know, my whole common sense thing comes in like I usually, when I go into a board room with a group of people, I’m the one stepping things back and saying, OK. We need to, like, let’s push it back and can we please just talk about how we’re going to solve this with common sense and not building a rocket ship that doesn’t solve the problem necessarily?

Client-Centric Product Development

Ryan Davies: I love that analogy. I think in tech, that happens all the time: feature over solution, over thinking. Well, if we’re doing this, we might as well solve 23 other problems that don’t exist at the same time. And it’s like, but we don’t need to solve those, right? And it happens nonstop that people get carried away with these solutions, and then tech is so fast moving that all that does is drag these timelines on to like these just exponential amounts. And you’re like, we could have solved this problem forever ago. And now, we’re not there. We’re not there yet.

Sonia:  Yeah. And there’s the other side of it, which I personally have friends and witnessed where you have founders who are like, I want to build this, I want to take it to market. I want to make money. But then they get stuck in that place where, oh, well, we’re going to build this. So we’re going to build that. And I have a friend who’s been seven years in, and I’m like, buddy, like, when are you going to launch this thing? Like you have not missed the bolt like it failed. And he’s like, oh, like now I need to pivot, and I’m going to go into this space, and I’m like, oh, it’s going to be another seven years before you get there, and like, you’re not going to learn to me. I’m also a big believer in learning. I’ve spoken about failures and how failures are amazing because you have to learn, and if you don’t launch your product quickly, you’re not going to learn because you can do case studies, you can do market analysis, competitive analysis, but it’s only until you actually launch and you start getting feedback from actual clients or potential clients that you’re going to see. Oh, I need to change this. Oh, I need to modify that. That’s what you need to do. So when they get stuck in that mindset of building the rocket ship to cross the bridge, they’re never going to get there.

Ryan Davies:  It’s such a great comment. I absolutely love that. You talk about your love of learning, your passion for learning, and things like that. You also touched in the beginning about the role that you have right now on the board of hacker gals and kind of leveling up girls into the tech industry and things like that. Tell me and tell our audience a little bit more about maybe that and how again, how you prioritize learning or at least pull that learning experience and can put that to you. So many people, you know, they fail, and they go, oh, I learned from that failure, and then they’re like, no, you didn’t, you just, you failed, but you didn’t take anything out of it. You tried to, you know, you’re pushing this immovable object. So I’d love to get your take on, that and the importance of kind of this learning, continuous learning aspect.

Sonia:  Yeah. So Hacker Gals is a charity that helps young girls get into tech, and it’s obviously something I’m passionate about. So I got put on the board, which I was so excited about, and I just want to help them bring on more girls by raising funds so that they can be put into these programs. And also, work with some of these girls to share some of my knowledge in those failures and things like that, failures, you know, I’ll give you an example with MenuSano when the original board of founders, we had a group of founders in, that product, they built, it didn’t do all the work that was necessarily needed to be done. And then one by one, they left, and I was the only original founder of that group that, that was left. I knew I needed to launch it number one. So I did. And then, when we finally launched, it failed. Nobody wanted it, and we started knocking on people’s doors and like, we don’t want this, like, we don’t want people to know what they’re eating. If people know what they’re eating, they’re not going to want to come back here and eat, and we’re like, oh, well, we really screw that up. And then, you know, we kept trying to sell it. But a good leader who learns from their mistakes has to say, ok, how much money I’m going to keep putting into this before I learn my lesson? And so what I did was I’m like, no, take it off-shelf. And everyone’s like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Like, we’re just scrapping this idea. I’m like, no, we’re going to shelf it. We’re going to stop trying to knock on people’s doors and bang our heads up against the wall, we’re going to shelf it, and we’re going to go back to the drawing board and figure out a way to either pivot or what we’re going to do with it. But let’s take what we’ve learned from knocking on doors and see where we can go with it. What I ended up doing was doing a little bit of research. We discovered that in Ontario, particularly the government, Ontario was trying to figure out a solution to the diabetic pandemic. Its diabetes was the cause of the health bill has been over budget that particular year, and they were looking for, you know, innovative ways to see if they could reduce that. And so I started doing some digging, and we discovered that they were thinking about doing a pilot project. So we reached out to public health, and it just turned out that they were looking for something like MenuSano.

And we worked on a one-year pilot project in Ontario, particularly Toronto and Ottawa. That allowed us to be part of this pilot project, not just to be part of it and get exposure, but we learned from government dieticians over 50 restaurants that we were working with during this pilot. And it allowed us during that one year to pivot the product and make it better. So at the end of that one-year pilot, we now had created, through this pilot, a demand for our products because legislation went into place, and people who had originally said no to us were demanded to provide this information. So we created a need for our product. With that being said, COVID hits, and restaurants are not really operational. They’re kind of closed. So we had to pivot again, and we’re like, ok, like we’re not going to get restaurant business. What do we do? There’s a whole business of manufacturing out there that needs this product, which is nutrition labels, compliant nutrition labels. So we started going after that market, and we realized that we needed to change our product a little bit in order to, cater. And, of course, I’m very involved in the actual. I don’t code, but I’m involved in the development of the product because I’m out there talking to people and understanding. Then I come back with that common sense of all we need to do is add this little thing, and all this little feature needs to do is that not a rocket ship, just go do that. And then I look at it, and I’m like, perfect. Let’s go. So we really blew up our business during COVID, and now about 70% of our businesses are food manufacturers all over the US, which is our biggest market. We are global; we have a global presence. We have countries all over the world, Japan, the Philippines, Europe, and of course, our home, Canada, and now we’re competing against one of the biggest companies out there since the eighties who is not so innovative and a lot of their clients want something that’s a little more interactive that has some AI built in and that’s a better tool and the most important thing, easy to use cannot say that enough.

Ryan Davies:  That’s UX UI is everything, right? When you’ve got it out there, it has to be what, not necessarily what you think is what people want. And I see a lot of that missed up in tech as well. Hey, this is what I think people want, and no, this is what I’m hearing. Let’s again, let’s pivot off of maybe what our vision was and do that. You’ve used that word a lot. Pivot. This wasn’t even on my list of questions, but you’re obviously so good at the ability to recognize when it’s time and how to do it. Again, it comes from practice, I’m sure a lot of it and things like that and that scrappy nature of OK. If this isn’t working, let’s go. But what advice do you have for people in that realm? Because I think that is so huge as well from a leadership perspective, like you said, this isn’t working; it’s OK to let it go or shelve it and come back to it. How do you recognize it? What’s your kind of, you know, thought process around it? Because obviously, this is something that you’re so fine-tuned on.

Sonia: I think you have to really understand number one, the industry that you’re in you’re going into, and not forget about tech; you’re just a tech company. Nobody cares. Let’s just pretend it’s all about the industry that you’re going into, the problem you’re trying to solve, and how many other people are trying to solve that problem. And are you all trying to solve it the same way? So this is technically like a competitive analysis, right? Are your competitors doing the exact same things you are? Well, what’s going to differentiate you from everyone else? How are you going to pivot? Really pivoting is either you are failing, and you need to change it up and come to market with something bigger and better, or you need to look at whether your product is exactly the same as 10 other products. And that really doesn’t bring any value to your clients. So what we’ve done at MenuSano, well, what I’ve done at MenuSano is every client that signs up to use our product. They become part of our client board. I call it a client board. And what that means is our road map development is based on the feedback that we get from our client board. So our clients are saying your product is fantastic. We love it. But in a year or two down the road, this is what I really need to help me run my business. I really need you guys to be able to build something that does this and does that. We don’t charge our clients for it, but we put it on our roadmap as a priority from the board, which is the client board. So, I’m constantly listening to our clients. What do you want? Because your clients know you, their industry, you don’t know their industry. You’re in tech. You’re just building the tech. But if you stop building tech and you listen to the people that are actually running those industries, know those industries are ingrained in those industries have been in it for years. Going to give you so much valuable information that you can literally take your product and pivot just based on what you’re hearing, whether your product is failing, anand you could pivot on that feedback or whether your product is doing really well. And now, it’s time to take it to the next level. How do you do that? I’m going to build an AI because it’s a buzzword. But is that really valuable to your clients? Do your clients really need AI? I think it’s those conversations.

Ryan Davies:  No, that’s, that’s just such an incredible, like a great take on it from that, perspective. Is understanding again, you read case studies, you hear case studies all the time and you know what business are you really in? And it’s like, oh, you know, Amazon’s in this, no, they’re not in that business. They’re in the data business, and that’s the business that they’re in. Like everybody, whatever you are, you have to narrow it down to what business you are actually in. So you say I’m in tech, I mean, technically, I guess from the standpoint of what you do on a day-to-day basis, but your industry doesn’t necessarily relate to tech, right? So you’ve got to be able to drive those strategic initiatives and things forward. You know, I guess, as you mentioned, it’s a very competitive tech landscape. You’re going up against giants sometimes and things like that as you grow. So it’s very important to be able to be that one where it’s I can be quick, to adapt, and I can do things, the others are laggards to try and get to, and things like that. And I think that’s where founders really can take those next levels and make those, you know, 6 to 7 to 8 to 9 figure jumps in terms of revenue, and they’re doing here. And I mean, you’ve been instrumental in driving initiatives, strategic partnerships, and international growth. So are there particular, again, like strategies, focus that you go towards and it, as you said, I love the client board idea, things like that, is it really just that open culture and nature of, look, the business is my clients, and you need to be that liaison. Do you layer on a little bit more, and don’t give me your secret sauce. Don’t give it all away.

Sonia:  But no, I don’t think there’s a secret sauce. I think it’s a combination of everything. It’s also your team. You know, you’re only as good as your team. I may have a great idea, but I can’t execute it without having a good team. So I always make sure that my team understands that I don’t want to be a yes, ma’am. I don’t want to have a yes, ma’am team. Meaning if I say something, they’re all like, yes, ma’am. No, I want you to challenge me if I’m asking you to do something, and it’s a terrible idea. Tell me just because I’m a leader doesn’t mean that all my ideas are great. So, I always hire a team, and I’m always pushing them to understand what they want; I want them to challenge me. I want them to contribute to the growth of development and ideas. I also always try to hire people who have a higher education than me, who have MBAs who are smart. And sometimes, you know, most of, like, my team is not scrappy, but that’s the part that I bring in that I’m really good at, and I can take their ideas and be like, ok, well, that’s fantastic. But we’re going to add this, and I’m like the sprinkler. I Sprinkle a little salt and a little spice on everything that they do. But I sort of let them come up with the ideas. So if someone comes to me with a problem, I’m like, great. What’s your solution? Give me a couple, and we’ll walk through it and strategize, and I’ll help you come up with a good solution. Still, I’m trying to challenge them to also come up with those solutions so that they can be part of the team and help me succeed and get to where I need to be because if this were the one-woman show, I would never be able to get it to where it’s been.

Empowering Women in Tech

Ryan Davies:  We’re both in Canada. I’ll use the analogy that all Canadians use: you know you’re not going to win the Stanley Cup with a team of all goal scorers or, you know, only people who could hit or something like you need to have a playmaker. You need to have someone who can see, see the vision on the ice, pass the puck, and do all of that when it’s important. And I mean, I think obviously that’s something you bring to the table. You know, you’re really, again, a big prominent figure in the industry that people are looking up to, and I would be remiss not for asking the question around, you know, ad tech advocacy for women in this space, too, right? Because I mean, the gender gap in tech is extreme. Again, you know, VCs, 2% of funding goes to women, 98% still goes to men. That’s absolutely ludicrous. But how do you see the landscape evolving for women in the tech industry again? You know, you’ve got hacker gals, something that you’re very passionate about making sure that there’s growth here and how do you see the role of women evolving and shaping the future of the tech industry?

Sonia:  Yeah, 17 years ago, when I got into this space, it was way worse. It has had a little bit of progress. I’ve personally seen a lot of change. I think it’s really about women empowering women, men empowering women. I know some fantastic CEOs and founders who are great friends of mine and they’re always trying to make that, trying to make sure that they have like a good, you know, dynamic of percentage of males and females. So I think it starts with young founders, young leaders who go into running their businesses with that in mind. I realized that in tech, particularly, a lot of the women that are in the space have either started their own companies, and that’s why they are leaders in the space, or they’re leaders in like marketing and accounting and not necessarily in the bigger roles that they, they want to be. I would say, do what I did, which was like, I’m in this role, but I don’t want to be. I want to be in that role and be scrappy and find problems in the roles that you want to be in and go to the leaders and say, I found this problem, and here’s the solution. What do you think? And people are going to start listening to you, and people are going to be like, oh, I think she’s onto something. Well, what do you suggest? We do? Well, I got like five different suggestions here, this in this, and I think this one will work because I actually did this in my previous company, and these were the results, right? And that’s just one strategy to go about it. Obviously, it starts with leaders making change and young girls like, just like hacker gals getting into the space, you know, it is still very male, and it’s going to be for a couple of years. But I think it starts really at the school level, the older generation. Yes, we can make a lot of change, but it’s really going to start at the school level when schools and, you know, hacker girls are fantastic. But what are schools doing to get women into those spaces, into leadership, into running their own businesses, or going to MIT to learn how to code or be an engineer? What are they doing? And I think that’s really where the school curriculum can and needs to change in order to adapt and start teaching. Not just listen. It’s not just girls; some spaces are female-dominated, right? And I think it starts at the school level. I remember being in school, and the expectation was that if I wanted to work in an office, I had to be like a secretary. That’s what I thought back then. I don’t know why, but that’s what I thought. Oh, I’m going to be a secretary, or I’m going to be an accountant like that was just what ran in my mind. But why was that? Because that’s what I was being taught, right? So, I think if at the school level, it at a very young age in school level, if you start teaching those things, you know, take away some of the toys that are regular toys for kids and start bringing in things that are going to encourage them to get into these different spaces.

Final Thoughts and Advice

Ryan Davies: Yeah, I agree. I think again, like you just said, showcase all of the opportunities that are out there and, you know, I think I even look back, the same thing when I was a kid. It was like, I’d watch cartoons, and it was like, yeah, every person would be this way or that way. Every, you know, all the boys were the superheroes, and the women were getting rescued, and this is it like, ok. And then now it’s like, ok, we’re finally advocating, seeing a lot of the change and stuff like that. And as you said, it just carries through, and I think a lot of that also is with, you know, women and leaders, men and women just like you that have an eye on this, that are passionate about it and want to shine a spotlight on it and help you know, help address that moving forward. So, as we’re concluding here, I think we could talk forever. But as we’re concluding here, maybe a final message, a piece of advice, or something to share with our tech business founders’ audience around the context of leadership and advocacy that a little last piece of wisdom to hand out that maybe we didn’t touch on.

Sonia: Yeah, I mean, anybody out there, whether you’re male or female or any other if you have a passion about something and you don’t know where to start, seek people out, send them a message, ask a question if you want to build a company. Like a lot of developers who start developing their product, but they don’t know the business, and then they bring on VCs. And it’s so sad to see that a lot of these people who are the creators of these companies get kicked out of their own companies. I actually had a conversation the day with a young girl from Hacker Gals. And I told her the only piece of advice that I can give you is when you’re going to these schools to learn architecture and all this stuff, learn a little bit of basic business, basic bookkeeping so that when you do get to that level, you will learn. Still, you all already know the principles of how to run a profit and loss or a standard accounting sheet, you know how to reconcile, you know, what’s a credit, and you know what I mean? Like just some basic stuff, some basic accounting, some basic marketing, just some basic business. And then it’ll also help you in hiring the right people. But I think it’ll set a really good direction for taking your business and your idea to where you want it to be, but also not losing it along the way.

Ryan Davies:  An absolutely amazing way, too, kind of summarizes everything together just to tie it up nicely. You said for somebody to tap someone knowledgeable on the shoulder, and maybe that’s a great invite to reach out to you, Sonia. So, for our listeners, how can we learn more about you? Get in touch with you all about that.

Sonia:  Yeah. So, I’m on LinkedIn as Sonia Couto. My Instagram is Techie Sonia C, and you can follow me and message me directly, or you can email me, which is sonia.couto@konverge.com. I always have conversations. It might take a little longer, but I always get back to you. So please feel free to reach out.

Ryan Davies:  This is a great, great way to get kind of again some of those questions answered, get that push or, you know, maybe that answer that you’ve just been too scared to ask or didn’t know who could answer it for you. I think we found a great source here. So, Sonia, thank you so much for your time today on this podcast. I hope that we can have you back on again because I think there, I don’t know, about 30 or 40 other topics that we may have uncovered today that we could talk about. I am really looking forward to hopefully a future conversation with you, but thank you so so much for being here today.

Sonia:  Thank you for having me.

Ryan Davies:  Amazing. So, with that, thank you to Sonia Cuoto for this amazing podcast on tech advocacy and leadership. And I also want to thank our listeners. We can’t do what we do without you. So until we meet again with another amazing TBR episode, I’m your host, Ryan Davies. Thanks, everybody. Take care out there.

About Our Host and Guest

Director of Marketing – Ekwa.Tech & Ekwa Marketing
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Managing Director of Konverge Digital Solutions & Founder of MenuSano
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” It’s all about the industry that you’re going into, the problem you’re trying to solve, and how many other people are trying to solve that problem. And are you all trying to solve it the same way? So, this is technically like a competitive analysis.”

– Sonia Couto –