For more than 30 years in Silicon Valley, Mari Baker developed an expertise for scaling companies and creating products that disrupt the status quo.
To mention only some of her professional highlights, she built the Quicken business while at Intuit, Inc., serving as senior vice president; she led BabyCenter, Inc., which was acquired by Johnson & Johnson, as company president, and now currently serves on the boards of John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (NYSE: JW-A), Blue Shield of California, and GoShip.
Baker’s reputation as a strong leader, mentor and strategist extends past just the tech world. Since 2005, she has served as an advocate and leader within YPO, seeking out and supporting women leaders and welcoming them into our global community. The most recent example of which is that she is the lead global champion for the Athena pilot program to increase gender diversity within YPO.
It’s a role she is happy to fill, and one where she knows she can make a difference.
“I didn’t believe the glass ceiling was real. Afterall, if I could make it, couldn’t anybody,” says Baker. “And then I joined the board of the Gender Research Institute at Stanford University and became familiar with the data around unconscious bias and the business benefits of diversity. My personal mission became increasing the number of women in leadership roles as a path to make the world a better place.”
“As a female CEO, you get used to being the only woman in the room but that doesn’t mean it’s not exhausting at times,” she says. “You often shrug off comments that are made or little slights that happen because you can’t focus on that stuff; you have to just move forward. But it does kind of eat away at you a little bit.”
Born and raised in a small town in Oregon, the sixth child of a high school math and science teacher, Baker says, “it never really occurred to me that the food and clothes you saw in the store were part of these big organizations and companies that had CEOs, and that that could be an interesting job opportunity.”
In the early 1980s, at the age of 16, she entered Stanford University, just as the personal computer industry was starting to boom. And while she didn’t dive into computer programming right away — she earned degrees in economics and sociology — she saw the promise of the budding industry and fell in love with its potential.
“I was fascinated by computers and realized my sweet spot was in being able to understand the technology and understand the customer and their needs; that made me the one who could translate customer needs to the engineering teams to build the products.”
She parlayed that skill into a successful tech career, making late-to-the-market Quicken the dominant player in personal finance software, defeating efforts from Microsoft and Computer Associates. It was at Intuit where she first heard about YPO; the company’s Founder and CEO, Scott Cook, a YPO member, encouraged her to join when she qualified, which she did in 2005, with Scott as her sponsor.
Bringing in more women
Baker admits that throughout the first year as a member, often she was greeted as a spouse rather than a member, which was frustrating but not all that uncommon for her in professional settings. She stuck with it and built meaningful connections and relationships within her chapter. A few years in, she was approached to become membership officer of her chapter in the San Francisco area, redesign the membership process and increase gender diversity.
“I figured, OK, I’ve been handed the keys to the kingdom here. I can make this happen,” she says. She started digging in to published lists and awards of “Most Successful Women” in the San Francisco Bay area and reached out to these accomplished female leaders. But she ran into roadblocks quickly from women who were unsure if the timing was right to being concerned about adding another ‘thing’ to their already crowded schedule.
“From the women who I could get to actually talk to me, I’d hear, ‘I am so busy being CEO, being a mom, being a wife. I can’t imagine having time for something like YPO.’ I found this reaction fascinating,” she says. “Meanwhile I was getting a flood of applications from male CEOs, most of whom were dads and husbands, wanting to join, and who didn’t have the same concerns.”
She took this challenge to a colleague with whom she served on the board of trustees at Stanford, and they encouraged her to join the join the board of the Clayman Institute on Gender Research at Stanford University. There she dove into the reasons women leaders were hesitant, looking at all the “second shift” work that often falls on their shoulders, and the extra pressure that is felt from cultural stereotypes of women. For Baker, it made her realize and communicate more clearly to potential female members that YPO was not just another “thing” to add to the list, rather it was a community that could help them be more successful in their business and with their family.
It’s important to have a sense that there is a community of women like me whom I can learn from. YPO is the only place where you can find people who struggle doing a job at being a CEO, a wife, mom, running your household and being a community member and know what that is like. ”
— Mari Baker, Director at Blue Shield of California share
On top of that, she knew that YPO was the place to create space, not competition, among her female peers.
“Here you don’t fall into that ‘Queen Bee Syndrome,’ where women think there’s only one spot at the table, so they don’t encourage other women for fear of losing the one spot,” she says. “In YPO, we want as many women to be at the table as we can, and we support each other in making room. I just wish more women out there could get a chance to experience this because it’s really, truly unique.”
Building a strong community of women
“It’s important to have a sense that there is a community of women like me whom I can learn from,” says Baker. “YPO is really the only place that you can find that. You can go into groups in your community, from volunteering to school associations, but you typically aren’t connecting with women executives. YPO is the only place where you can find people who struggle doing a job at being a CEO, a wife, mom, running your household and being a community member and know what that is like.”
For Baker, building stronger connections among women YPO members was just as important as bringing more women in. When any one chapter might not have a high concentration of women, she began reaching across chapters in her region to set up lunches, and casual get-togethers. This would lead to easy touchpoints like WhatsApp groups that would take off and build a stronger community. Along the way she would serve multiple years as the Pacific U.S. regional chair for the Women’s Business Network, serve as the network’s forum moderator, and lead events such as the High School Girls Only Leadership Retreat, among other YPO leadership roles both within her chapter, region and globally.
“It’s amazing, the positive receptions we’ve had and the amount of energy we’ve built,” says Baker. “It’s the simple things that make a difference, it doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, just bring people together and make the one-on-one outreach so they know it’s personal. The feeling is, you’re in an environment of peers where people understand you and are only here to support you.”
“If it’s one woman, oftentimes she’s viewed as one of the guys, if it’s two women, you get a little bit better. But when you get to three, the magic starts happening,” she says. “Women can feel much more comfortable voicing their thoughts with a sense that there’s enough people here who might see the world the way they do, that they get more comfortable speaking up. There’s enough of them there to be seen. And that can affect even how the men think and react to things.”
Strengthening all leaders
Baker is quick to point out that bringing in more women to the YPO community is not only beneficial for the women leaders, but for all leaders in the organization.
“YPO members have some 20 million employees globally, and after getting to know professional women in their chapter and forums, the men in YPO will become better leaders, husbands and fathers, and develop more appreciation for the potential of women on their executive teams and boards. YPO can serve as a real way to drive that type of change. That’s what really drives me. I want more women to join, but I also want our male counterparts to gain more experience with these amazing female leaders and see them as peers.”
In return, she touts the benefits of women leaders of not siloing themselves but finding opportunities to learn from their male counterparts. While she will hear from women about wonderful women-only conferences and associations, YPO still stands out to her.
“If you are a CEO and running a business, you will be working with men. Over 80% of the world’s largest companies are still run by men! You’ll do deals and partnerships, and you need to be able to build your network and learn how to navigate their world,” she says. “Throughout my time in YPO, men have been so supportive in giving me insights about how they think about things, whether it is business negotiations, raising capital, negotiating compensation, parenting, or personal relationships. Nowhere else would you get that – it’s invaluable.”