Roxanne Petraeus: Co-Founder & CEO of Ethena

Episode 323

Roxanne Petraeus, Co-Founder & CEO of Ethena, makes “compliance” something you won’t want to forget. Much more interesting, easy, engaging and of course effective. Roxanne shares all about her journey graduating from Harvard’s Reserve Officer Training Program, her years in the U.S. Army serving a combat deployment to Afghanistan plus her experience at McKinsey & Company – all before disrupting an industry with founding Ethena. Hear how she came up with the idea for Ethena, started it and scaled it and so much more! Her story, her wisdom lessons and tips in conquering fears are inspiring. This is a great episode that you won’t want to miss. On this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down. But just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara golden show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, its Kara golden from the Kara golden show. And I am so excited to have my next guest. Here we have Roxanne betrayus, who is the co founder and CEO of Athena. And if you’re not familiar with Athena, perhaps you need to listen very, very closely because Athena is such an amazing company. And what they’ve done for compliance has made it not only much more interesting and doable, but also much more relevant than anything in today’s day and age. So like I said, it all has to do with compliance. It’s a compliance training platform with intuitive and powerful admin tools built to make training easy, engaging and effective. And after graduating from Harvard’s Reserve Officer Training Program, Roxanne was commissioned into the US Army where she served on a combat deployment to Afghanistan and in training missions to Cambodia and Mongolia. After leaving the military service, she worked at McKinsey and Company, and then she decided to go into the startup world and go and do this amazing, amazing company called Athena. So I can’t wait to hear more about her very, very interesting journey to entrepreneurial life and about CO founding and scaling Athena. So welcome, Roxanne, thank you so much for having me. Super excited to get into this a little bit more. But let’s start at the beginning. Would you share with us how? How would you describe Athena to people who are not familiar with it?

Roxanne Petraeus 2:12
Yeah, I think thankfully, most people are familiar with compliance training. And so usually I kind of asked like, Have you ever had to take mandatory training, harassment prevention code of conduct, whatever. And usually people’s eyes kind of glaze over? They say like, yeah, it was terrible is boring. Sometimes they have stories that are kind of similar to if you’ve ever seen the offices episode about I think di training where it’s like, actually just kind of, like a whole HR issue in and of itself, the training is that bad. They will tell me a story about oh, yeah, we had this lawyer come in and ask everybody to like share a time they’ve been harassed. And actually, that was like a really kind of like ham fisted way to do something. And everyone got uncomfortable. And it’s like, Yep, so we tackle that same problem. But we asked the design question, how would you design training if you intended it to actually work instead of just check a legal box, and then build it out from there. So we made it about education instead of just quote, you know, training, we do digestible, so short bits over time, we bring in great artists to do graphic novels and podcasts because the topics that our training addresses are inherently interesting. It’s stuff that you know, hits the New York Times. But historically, it’s just been treated like such a check the box perfunctory activity that the training itself is really doing a disservice to employees trying to actually build an inclusive and ethical workplace.

Kara Goldin 3:32
Very, very interesting and definitely needed, especially in today’s day and age. So let’s back up a little bit. You were in the military in combat, which still to this day is probably not as common for people for especially for women to go in, what made you decide to join the US Army?

Roxanne Petraeus 3:52
Yeah. Today, I have a newsletter called a people person. And I’m actually writing about this. What made me join was very simple, which is I got into Harvard and didn’t have the money to pay for it. So I needed a scholarship. And so problem meat solution, what caused me to stay in the military was very different, which is like, I really liked the people. I liked the mission. I liked the camaraderie I liked, being surrounded by really great leaders and having this challenge that I figured if I could essentially make it in the army, I could kind of tackle just about anything else. But yeah, I mean, the initial like, reason I joined was a rather common one, which is I needed money, and they had a great scholarship.

Kara Goldin 4:30
So when you think back on those combat days, obviously, you were in Afghanistan, are there a lot of similarities between being in combat versus like starting a company? I mean, where you’re putting a team together, motivating a team, you know, directing people, what are the big similarities that you saw or that you see today?

Roxanne Petraeus 4:52
Yeah, I think obviously, like, you know, the stakes are different. And so whenever I hear someone say like, I’m a wartime CEO, kind of like, are you Yeah, just because, like, you know, thankfully, like what we do here is not life and death, but it’s still really important. It’s people spend the majority of their lives at work, like, it’s really important that they have a place that they, you know, feel empowered and can do their best work and, and I want to build a really great company. And that’s incredibly hard. But I always want to be clear that like, the stakes are different. But I think a lot of what I learned is like super applicable to what I do as CEO, I’m sure like this will resonate for you because you do the same thing. For example, like staying calm in a crisis, I think of the best officers I served with and the best soldiers when the temperature turned up, because like something went wrong, because something got scary. They kind of turned the temperature down. It’s like, okay, deep breath, and like, what are we going to do, versus kind of that more like, panicky and just flailing and I’m just gonna yell more something else I think about as empowered leadership. So I would add, like really trusting kind of the lieutenants, the people below you. So remember seeing really great officers who may be in some sort of like war room type thing, like command command center, if one of their units was in some sort of a firefight, or something was was going wrong, they were never the type of Commander who’d be like, give me an update. How about now? How’s it going? How’s it going? Because it’s just like, Look, man, I’ll tell you no, like, I’m trying to, you know, just kind of, like, get through this. And if leadership is consistently kind of micromanaging it, at best has no impact doesn’t help. And at worst, it can be incredibly distracting to be frustrating. And so I think a lot about that, when I think of, you know, wanting to maybe check in on something, but recognizing, like, you know, if I can’t help the situation, right now, I’m just gonna give everybody some space. And, you know, trust that my team can figure figure this out, and that they’ll call me if they need me, instead of me being like, that really annoying voice in their heads when they don’t, when they don’t need it.

Kara Goldin 6:57
So did you always know that you wanted to start a company? Um, I don’t think

Roxanne Petraeus 7:01
so. I mean, I think it’s funny, like, when I think back, you know, I always had little hustles going in school, like, I’d sell magnets when, you know, printers came out. And I would like, print out little cartoony things and stick them to the desk and had a little virality going on selling it to my friends until the teacher found out. So like, I always had little entrepreneurial like ventures going. But I think by the time I got to college, I think I probably did what a lot of women do, which is just look at who ran companies and like men ran companies, men started companies is like at Harvard when Facebook was taking off. And again, I just didn’t look like that I wasn’t a coder. I didn’t wear a hoodie. Like I wasn’t a dude. And so I think I just sort of assumed that I would be like in business, but not running a business. For no reason other than I just hadn’t seen a lot of like women who had started their own companies. And so I just never really thought of it as like, a door that was open to me.

Kara Goldin 8:01
Interesting. So how did Athena actually, like, how did you take the leap to go and do this? I mean, where did you get the ideas? You’re at? McKinsey. You’re learning lots. But what was sort of the moment when you said, Okay, I’m going to go and do this?

Roxanne Petraeus 8:17
Yeah. I mean, I think I had certainly thought about training a lot. I was in the army, we do a lot of training there. I did foreign military training. So I trained militaries in Cambodia and Mongolia, then I was at McKinsey, and was taking like their kind of annual risk training. It’s their annual compliance training. And I was like, Oh, that’s so fascinating. I assumed that bad check. The box training was just something that government did, because the government does a lot of things that don’t always, they aren’t always the most efficient. Because like, Hmm, that’s like, really interesting that this is happening here. And it’s happening around the time that McKinsey was in the press a lot for conflicts of interest and kind of other like reputational risk things. So I thought, like, man, that’s really strange that something that’s kind of a big problem for this organization, is being treated with training that is not very effective. Like I didn’t walk out of that training been like, now I know how to identify a conflict of interest. And I know exactly what to do. I, you know, instead was on my phone the whole time and clicked next whenever I could. And then I thought about me, too, and how that had really changed how we think about the costs of sexual harassment companies started to do some research. And I found that more CEOs, maybe the year after me two happened, were removed for sexual harassment and personal misconduct than they were for failing to meet like financial targets is like, okay, that’s also pretty interesting. Like, even if you don’t care about these sorts of issues now from a dollars and cents perspective, like there’s a real business argument to be made, that companies that have fewer of these issues are just like better positioned. I care about these issues and want the workplace to be better, but I just sort of recognize that like, not everybody is on that journey with me. And so making sure that there’s a business case was important. And so I went went to a senior partner at McKinsey using the insurance practice. And I was like, Hey, I’ve like kind of this idea about how you can make training more effective. I had been on this project where one little task I had was to send emails to everybody in this project, and I got really competitive about my boss having the best open rate, I wanted to show that he did like, clever subject lines, you could just get more people to engage. And you know, I did, and I’d be the person, whatever. So I was like, I just kind of got this idea for like, how to make training kind of like that, like something that people actually want to engage with. And insurance partner was like, Yeah, you should definitely do that. Because he had seen how the cybersecurity insurance market had really changed once there was effective versus check the box training. And kind of going back to the point about, like, the importance of believing in yourself, and that, you know, for women entering business, I think it was really important for me that he was like all Angel invest. It was like, Oh, that’s interesting, like you who know a lot about this general space, like, see me as someone you’d put money behind you’d bet on. And I think that, you know, it was a small interaction prior to 15 minutes total. But I think it really gave me a lot of confidence that like, hey, my idea is not, you know, dumb and like I could do it. Yeah, yeah, it was just like one of those small but really meaningful interactions that happen. So

Kara Goldin 11:21
he was your first to actually invest in Athena? Yeah, he

Roxanne Petraeus 11:25
was probably like in the first four checks. Like he, you know, he said it at the time. And I was like, I wonder if he’s just kind of like saying it. And then I came to collect as like Sava, that check. And he wrote it? Like, yeah, one of the first checks. And so funding

Kara Goldin 11:37
a company, especially for female entrepreneurs can be super tricky. Not impossible. But I’d love to hear your experience and how you funded Athena to date.

Roxanne Petraeus 11:47
Yeah, so we’ve, I think, raised about four rounds of capital of 50 million total, which Yeah, you’re exactly where I like is sadly, not a very common experience for women in particular teams that look like mine. So my co founder is also a woman. And teams like ours get like somewhere between two and 3% of all venture capital, which is a stat we’ve been talking about for a long time, it hasn’t changed. And then you had Malin yen on the podcast. And like, I think operator collective and groups like that are doing, you know, January ventures, there’s a bunch of different organizations that are trying to move the needle, but man is still stuck exactly where I was five years ago. Yeah. And so like, we did it through raising venture capital from kind of traditional places you would go, we have incredible angel investors all the way through, like larger VCs. And I think that something I got better at as I went on, was telling the story in Division, I did this TechCrunch live thing with Hunter walk, because he initially passed and then regretted his decision and kept buying up. And he said that when he first talked to me, I kind of like just pitched the business, not this, like big vision. And I think that’s kind of a something that like women tend to be socialized to do is like, don’t be bombastic. And you know, don’t like shoot for the moon just kind of be like really good operators, and very, like show your scoreboard. And I was sort of doing that in the early days and learned that that’s not how my male peers in general were pitching their pitching, where it changed the world. And then it’d be like how some specific b2b SaaS and you’re like, Oh, you’re telling, like, this Amazon story for like, something that my business could be to I just, it took me a while to get comfortable saying, like, look in 10 years, like, this is what we’re going to do. Yeah, we’ve only done two years back, but like, you know, you got to you got to dream with me.

Kara Goldin 13:34
So interesting. So what is your competition? Like out there? And how do you think about competition?

Roxanne Petraeus 13:40
Yeah, I mean, it’s a very established space. So like, compliance training, like came up with all sorts of like, corporate bad behavior. And so it’s absolutely like a very established based law firms do IT consulting. firms do it, there’s a bunch of like, established players, some that started to more recently, like it, you know, we’re very much are in a rip and replace legacy space early, what we kind of, we just looked so different from anything that was out there. Even will say like, you know, if you’re going to check a box, don’t you want to get something out of it? And people were like, I never really thought you could get anything out of this. And it’s like, yeah, like, if we’re gonna have the whole organization sit down for two hours a year, like, you’re telling me you don’t want that to be impactful. And people are like, No, I I do I just like literally never thought that that’s, that’s what I could get out of compliance training. And it really took like seeing our some of our early customers. So we had amazing companies like Netflix and send asking these, like, really innovative early adopters. And when I would talk to prospective buyers at companies like that, their eyes would light up and they’d be like, I thought someone was gonna make this company like five years ago, you know, and I just like, never saw it in the market. And so it sort of felt like they they were kind of rooting for us and cheering us on. And so when I think about the competitive landscape, not in a in a cocky way, but I just I think like we’re doing something really different, like we set out from Day Zero to make this about an impactful, like employee first experience, and everything we built in our DNA is around that, versus what the field had traditionally been. And so we just like feel really confident and kind of, I don’t know, it’s like everyone else went, laughed, and were like, we’re gonna go right, and that that just like, feels right,

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Kara Goldin 16:10
Obviously, you guys are the underdogs out there. As you said, you know, it’s a pretty established industry. And I’ve always believed that in every industry, there’s an opportunity to disrupt and change and think about things differently. And especially when compliance is so important to companies that maybe people who are getting hired by these companies think we don’t need to change, right? We just yeah, you know, and you guys are really doing things differently and and kind of shaking things up and in a very good way. So I think it’s super, super great, what you have come up with and the courage to do it as well. What are some of the big surprising things that you’ve seen in terms of like what’s needed by companies? Like what are the the hot issues that are out there that you feel like, are really kind of painful for people still, right now,

Roxanne Petraeus 17:01
there’s so many pain points. So it’s kind of like when we went and I started the company, we were aware of kind of the employee pain point. So employees hate it. What we didn’t understand is like, why that mattered. So one of the big pain points that that we consistently see is like a pain point I participated in as an employee, please don’t do their training, because they don’t want to do it. Because they think it’s dumb. They think it’s not relevant, and they’re not wrong, like often it is irrelevant to what they do. It’s really long. It’s like, often longer than what they need. So one big pain point we just see is that HR or legal teams, people teams, kind of has to act like bounty hunters at the end of the year going around and being like, do your training like Jim, like, I know, you’re behind, like, you know, what’s your deal? Like, go do your due training. This is like one that kind of blows my mind. But the check is often so bad that then Jim will be like, I did it. But it crashed, like minute 55. And I don’t know me, I’m like, interesting. Yeah, do you and you’re like, wow, like my, my co founder or CTO, you know, that was really surprising, kind of going maybe like one level up something we really see from companies. Again, we train these like incredible innovative companies, both public tech companies, and then kind of the next gen of great companies like figma and notion. So we see that there are a bunch of reasons why it really matters now to be an ethical and inclusive company that, you know, 510 years ago didn’t. And so we’ll hear things like, Hey, I’m presenting to our board about kind of like ESG related things. So you know, we kind of fall under the social part, like our board is asking, like, what are we doing to be more inclusive? What are we doing to be ethical, and I don’t have a lot of like metrics to show the board what we’re doing. And so we found that, or the way we train is like overtime, short, digestible, that so we if we’re training, you might have like, you know, say five interactions throughout the year. And so that’s a bunch of little opportunities to get data from you on like, do you think your company acts in an ethical way? Has that changed? Since you got a new manager? Do you know how to report an issue? Do you know your dating policy, like all of these questions that we can actually show a pretty interesting picture to our admins that they can then show to, for example, like their board or a regulator about, hey, like, when we first started a year ago, only 65% of people were comfortable raising an issue to management. And we’ve now increased that by like 1520 percentage points. And so I’m finding that space super interesting. And and you’ve seen this in running a company for a while, but like, there’s just a lot more expectations of companies to do the right thing. And there’s a lot more touch points where either regulators, or just like shareholders, or even employees are kind of saying like, Hey, what’s going on here? Like, you know, there’s all of these requests for ethics and inclusion being a key part of a company that just don’t feel like 10 years ago, that was sort of front and center.

Kara Goldin 19:51
What about managers that are women versus men or or diversity too? I mean, do you when you look at some of those issues, do you see that there’s Like definitely a difference.

Roxanne Petraeus 20:02
I’m going to try to remember which direction went. But it was there was some regulator who said, it was like the EEOC, or I can try to find it after. But they said something like, If there’s sexual harassment happening at a company, they kind of assume that there are other areas of misconduct that are happening at a company as well, like financial, you know, things like that, I thought that was a really interesting connection, because it’s sort of like, regardless of the space, like if you’re kind of doing the right thing, you’re doing the right thing and a bunch of like, is like the how you do anything, is how you do everything. And so I certainly anecdotally see that companies that for example, like prioritize inclusion in all of its forms, I can just kind of tell like you talent, who you talk to at the company, and you you can tell them, like how they talk to each other. And this kind of mutual respect, I can just kind of tell if like employees are empowered at that company, even by like, you know, how the purchasing process works, and all of that. I can also see it in I think that the role of what was traditionally called HR and now, you know, often people operations, like how important that person is at a company, you can kind of see that and you can you can sort of infer like, is it we value employee experience in kind of name only? And like for marketing purposes? Or is it like, oh, no, really like your people teams are like, deeply engaged? They’re considered a key part of the business, or is it kind of this, like their back office? And so I’ve just like sort of picked up on little trends like that, I’d say, in general, it’s not surprising that the early adopters of our approach for like, super culture forward companies, I remember one early buyer said, I literally haven’t been doing this training, because I find the traditional options, so insulting to my team, that I would rather be like, quote, out of compliance than put like garbage in front of them. And I was like, Man, that’s, that’s like, you know, an innovative person right there. So yeah, I we definitely tend to see him more innovative, like really forward looking, wanting to invest in these types of things, especially in our early years.

Kara Goldin 21:59
My guess is, is that compliance needs to start sooner rather than later. But if you’re thinking about like, do I need compliance? I mean, how big do you need to be like, is there a is there a general guide for people that they should start doing? Even the beginnings of compliance?

Roxanne Petraeus 22:14
Totally, I mean, I think it’s hard because compliance, like needs a reran, it’s such a boring word that I think anyone who’s building evidence is like, I don’t think compliance, I need to just like get my business off the ground, which I totally understand. But yeah, I mean, the regulations in New York, for example, one or more employee are required to train on sexual harassment annually. California, I think it’s five employees or more of Chicago, like one or more. So you know, essentially, like, if you have a business, there are some obligations you kind of already have for a compliance training. And then regardless of whether you have them, it’s just considered a best practice to be doing these these types of things. And they’re sort of both like, kind of legal reasons. And then again, also, just like, what you said, is totally true. Like, if you instill these topics really early, it’s much easier than trying to like turn a aircraft carrier. We have Francis Frey, who’s a Harvard Business School professor as an early advisor. And she, I kind of view her as like, usually a company, person, that companies who are trying to write things after they’re quite large call. And yeah, she absolutely says like, if you build this in from the early days, it’s still a lot easier. And that doesn’t mean that as a company, you’re never going to have issues I wrote about, I wrote an op ed, I think, for TechCrunch, about like, my company will have harassment issues, like everyone, any company of any size will have all sorts of issues over the course of their existence, because you put people together and like things will happen. And so it’s really important to instead of kind of having this like zero de factor ostrich mentality of like, okay, there’s nothing bad is ever going to happen at my company. 15 years were in existence, instead of having a very proactive, like, it is about when not if, and therefore I need to train everybody to recognize when you know, someone makes a joke that they thought was funny, but the impact it had on a colleague was actually pretty detrimental. And like, how do we navigate this situation, or someone makes an angel investment and they don’t understand that actually, it’s pretty important to share that with your legal team because you know, your company is considering going public in the next couple of years. And like, like all of these kind of things that feel very gray area and just just raising an awareness about like, hey, you’ve got people on your team, who you can go to to ask these questions, is like really helpful to do kind of from day one versus doing it in a really like reactive knee jerk sort of way.

Kara Goldin 24:36
What’s been the toughest thing for you about starting your own company, maybe something that you didn’t expect maybe some challenge that has come up along the way but what’s been really the hardest piece?

Roxanne Petraeus 24:47
I think the hardest piece is like around if you have this but just like putting it away like it is I’m so emotionally connected to it. The company’s three years old, my kid just turned to sort of like face He was pregnant with him, you know, in the earliest days. And I really view this company as like a my baby like, it’s just something I poured like my whole heart into. And so what can be really hard about that is like just putting it away, you know, and saying like, okay, the day is done, my work is done and like, I’m gonna step away for a little bit, and not ride the highs and not ride the lows. And it’s certainly something I’ve been working on getting better at, I reached out to other CEOs for for like advice on this, but I think that just feels like kind of the weirdly the hardest part because it’s more of like a fuzzy emotional thing. But you know, yeah, where people with fuzzy motion.

Kara Goldin 25:37
I think that that’s a really, really valid point. Because I think people just don’t really realize how many hours and typically there are way easier ways, as I say, to make money, that it’s just, it’s a lot of hard work. It’s a passion. But it’s also that, you know, you’ve got the vision, right to actually figure out how to move forward. And, and you’ve got to be leading the team and leading the efforts. And I think it’s great that you have a co founder, as well, because I think that when you’re an individual a single founder, that’s that’s really, really tough.

Roxanne Petraeus 26:10
I found it so hard. Yeah, like leading on her on my team. Yeah,

Kara Goldin 26:14
it’s super, super important. So last question, What’s the best advice that you ever received? Either from another entrepreneur or leader? I mean, you’ve had such amazing experience. I would love to hear, you know, is there one thing that you think back on on those, like challenging days that help you move forward? Yeah, I

Roxanne Petraeus 26:33
think probably, it’s about like leadership. And I got it. My early days in the army, I was a cadet and this officer who I looked up to, and was just kind of like asking him, like, how do you be a good leader? Just, you know, sort of a huge question. But he said, leaders just give a shit, which is actually like, really good advice. You know, and I, I’ll like, sometimes reframe that to, like leaders care. But I find that really nice, because sometimes, like maybe, you know, we’re having some sort of problem. And I’m like, not sure how to navigate it. And then just kind of remembering that like, being a good leader is just like that, that I’ve, as long as I really care about the people who have the privilege of leading, like, I’ll get to the right answer. And instead of feeling like, oh, I don’t I don’t know what it is, and at five different options, like how am I going to figure it out? Just kind of having that Northstar of like if I care, which is very different than like cuddling, you know, that’s not saying like you ever want to pass and you just like, be a cheerleader like caring is I think really about like holding people accountable, really being really clear about standards and believing that they can be excellent, and like believing that for them and wanting that for them and holding them accountable to it. But I find that kind of nice, because it’s just like a sort of simple Northstar that is not complicated, but it’s like hard to operationalize

Kara Goldin 27:48
really, really great last moments of advice. So thank you so much, Roxanne. I’m really, really excited for everyone to hear this episode. And thank you for all the insights and more than anything, motivation. Hopefully, you’re helping people to know that they can go and start big things. And you know, they didn’t have to think that they were going to be an entrepreneur from day one, they can go disrupt industries that are very established. And they can also be in the military as a woman in combat and do all kinds of amazing things for their country as well. So thank you for all of that. Thanks all for listening to this episode. We hope you enjoyed it. And I want to thank all of our guests and our sponsors. And finally, our listeners, keep the great comments coming in. And one final plug. If you have not read or listened to my book undaunted, please do so you will hear all about my journey, including founding, scaling and building the company that I founded. Hint we are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks everyone for listening, and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of Pentwater Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara golden and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara golden Thanks for listening