How a career shift vaulted Lexi Brownell Reese '92 to the C-suite
There's something seismic happening to Silicon Valley and its reputed "bro culture."
Lexi Brownell Reese ’92 is one of the reasons why. The Harvard MBA and former Google vice president is part of an ever-expanding circle of top tech executive women, not just in the Bay Area, but in the country, that is shaking the ground. This group of C-suite trailblazers is changing the corporate values system and opening up windows of opportunity, from the boardroom to the diverse mix of customers their businesses serve.
Reese is the chief operating officer of Gusto, an all-in-one human resources platform that helps small and medium businesses pay and take care of their teams. Gusto was recently valued at about $2 billion (having raised $316 million of private capital).
Reese also just joined the board of directors for Gap Inc. According to Board Monitor, women only hold 22.2 percent of the total board seats on Fortune 500 companies.
Asked about her thoughts on the shake-up of the bro culture in Silicon Valley, Reese says, “I think it is real. A notable proof point is that talent from underrepresented backgrounds is choosing to join companies where there is an undeniable focus on diversity and belonging.”
Reese shared that one of the key drivers that led her to join Gusto’s leadership team and Gap Inc.’s board of directors is that both companies are deeply committed to diversity and belonging—in how they recruit and scale, as well as how they design products.
“Gusto’s mission is to create a world where work empowers a better life. This mission applies not only to the small businesses we serve, but also the people who work here. Our customers come from all walks of life, and so must we. We want our team to reflect our incredibly diverse customers to build the best product and service for them. We hire people from a wide variety of backgrounds, both because it’s the right thing to do and because it makes our company stronger.”
Gusto has made admirable strides in gender diversity. More than half (56 percent) of the company’s employees are women, according to Reese, who adds that 26 percent of its engineers are women. Among the company’s employees, or Gusties, as they’re nicknamed, is Lauren Humphrey ’02, who helped launch Gusto’s health insurance offering.
“We still have work to do relative to our aspirations on ensuring our workforce composition reflects our customer set, but equally important is ensuring that when people arrive at Gusto as an employee, they feel equally heard and included. That is the core of belonging. That is the core work of great innovation,” says Reese.
The title of chief operating officer comes with great expectations for the highly-scheduled mother of two, who empowers Gusto’s sales, marketing, customer experience, and insights and operations teams. Reese explains that she is primarily responsible for three things: “Cost-effective growth, scaling while maintaining extraordinary customer service, and navigating this growth while maintaining our core values.”
Since Reese joined Gusto, the company has grown significantly across every dimension—customers, employees, and, of course, revenue. It now serves over 60,000 small and medium businesses in the United States. And the company has close to 800 employees in offices in San Francisco and Denver. Its cloud-based computing platform was built with mobile users in mind, with “three out of four customers running payroll in 10 minutes or less,” Reese says.
Gusto’s clients run the gamut, from the popular San Francisco ice cream purveyor Humphry Slocombe to Houston-based start-up Homebase, which creates time-tracking software. Most would rather spend their limited time and energy growing their business and recruiting investors than dealing with the tangle of red tape associated with processing payroll, tax compliance, and providing cost-effective health care to their employees.
“About half of small businesses don’t offer health care to employees,” Reese says, “so we want to change that.” The private company has attracted marquee investors such as CapitalG (formerly known as Google Capital), as well as the founders of Instagram, PayPal, Yelp, Dropbox, Stripe, Nest, and Eventbrite. “It was a space that was ripe for disruption,” Reese says. Reese didn’t vault to the C-suite of Gusto by staying in her comfort zone, however.
In 2015, she left a plum executive post at Google as vice president of global programmatic platforms for Gusto. She had worked for the tech giant for eight years, helping Google open its Cambridge, Massachusetts, office and pioneering the marketing of Google’s AdWords platform to small and medium-sized businesses at a time when traditional television and print advertising was still a main avenue for companies to reach consumers.
“Eleven years later, the rest is history,” she says. “I loved Google. I love the mission of Google. But I wanted to get back to something that was smaller and was still in the building stage.” By the time Reese left Google, the company had 50,000 employees.
“Gusto represents the Venn diagram about what I’m passionate about, what I think I’m good at, and what I think is good for the world,” Reese says.
Reese was looking for a company with an inspirational mission, a $100 billion growth opportunity, and high-integrity founders. “My code for that was no a-holes,” she says.
It wasn’t the first career reboot for Reese, who has been profiled by Fortune magazine and Huffington Post since joining Gusto.
The first chapter of Reese’s career started as a documentary filmmaker after graduating from the University of Virginia. One of the projects she worked on chronicled the plight of adolescent prostitutes in Nicaragua. “I was not as good of a filmmaker as I was an advocate for the girls we were filming,” she adds.
Reese then went to work as a paralegal in the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan district attorney’s office, followed by two years of advocacy work on Capitol Hill for microfinance funding to help lowincome individuals and business owners get access to loans. “We all were trying to say to Congress and the World Bank, ‘This is why microfinance is important,’” Reese recalls.
But Reese still hadn’t found her niche. Not until Michael Chu, the former head of the microfinance nonprofit Acción and a Harvard Business School professor, told her she lacked “hard skills.” That’s when the signal went off for her to enroll in Harvard’s MBA program.
“I didn’t know how to take that. It felt a bit like a ‘complisult’ (half compliment, half insult),” she remembers. “He said, ‘No matter which path you choose, you need to figure out some of the language of how this all happens.’” It was an epiphany for Reese professionally as well as personally.
“What I loved about Harvard Business School is they have a social enterprise program,” Reese says. The practice of companies measuring their social impact along with financial performance, known as the double bottom line, was just starting to come into the mainstream. “That’s now happily a lot more widely known and supported,” she says.
It was at Harvard that Reese met her husband, Corby, in the hockey locker room, where she played on the club hockey team of the business school, the Blades. The couple has two daughters, Scout, 9, and Sejal, 6.
Reese says striving to integrate life in and outside of work is a huge focus. She is well-known for being extremely structured in managing her time so that she can show up well for work, but also for her family and friends. “The people I love have been hugely supportive in big and small ways,” she says. “My parents, for example, when they contact me now, try to put everything they’re saying in the subject line of an email so I can read and respond faster.”
When Reese is off the clock, she enjoys hiking and other outdoor activities with her family, as well as hosting visiting Tafties in the Bay Area.
“I think Willy Mac would say I’ve been a bit overly programmed from the early days,” referring to Taft Headmaster Willy MacMullen ’78, “so I would share the ‘work-life balance’ question has been and always will be a work in progress.”
Before Google, Reese worked for another blue-chip company: American Express. She helped launch what is now known as OPEN, the small-business branch of Amex, which offers credit cards to small businesses to help manage expenses. “I thought they had an awesome values-driven brand,” Reese says.
Reese’s name is now mentioned in the same breath as leading technology executives such as Belinda Johnson of Airbnb, Francoise Brougher of Pinterest, Sarah Friar of Evernote, and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. “We’re here to be of service and to have an impact,” Reese says, adding that the mantra was instilled in her at an early age while at Taft.
Reese has a checklist that she says applies to companies such as Gusto that are trying to disrupt an industry: “How do we grow at an accelerated pace cost-effectively? How do we do it while maintaining extraordinary service? How do we do both of those things while maintaining a culture that’s valuesdriven and values-based?”
A critical component of leadership for Reese is disciplined planning, as well as stating goals and non-goals. Reese says the traits she looks for in new hires are similar to those embraced by Taft. “You work hard, and you don’t do it for public acclaim,” she says. “You develop your talents by being passionate, curious, and persistent.”
Reese advises young professionals to be true to themselves. “You can take advice from other people, but you know your passions, skills, and interests,” she says. “You’re trying to line those things up.”
Job titles and company names aren’t the true measure of success, either. “I see lots of ‘tumbleweeds’ [people who don’t have a clear direction] or people who go for ‘shiny apples,’” Reese says. “So they never really get deep experiences. Or you get the planners who are so busy planning their life that they miss what’s happening in front of them.”
After all the twists and turns of her career, Reese says she’s learned that it’s important to focus on the present.
“Do good in this life. Think about this minute. These people. What good can you do? Remember, time and life are not linear. It’s never that simple and it never works out that way. Don’t solve for accomplishments. Solve for meaning.”
Neil Vigdor ’95 covers politics for The Hartford Courant.