Rebecca Masisak ’90 is co-CEO of TechSoup Global, a nonprofit organization that helps NGOs and nonprofits acquire and use technology. After joining TechSoup in 2001 to launch its technology product donation program in North America, Masisak developed an international expansion model that today serves NGOs in more than 23 countries. Under her leadership, TechSoup Global has connected over four million donated and discounted technology products with more than 83,000 organizations.
TechSoup’s mission is to work “toward a time when every nonprofit and NGO on the planet has the technology resources and knowledge they need to operate at their full potential.” In your position, do you get to see firsthand how technology empowers nonprofits?
Absolutely. I come across cases all the time that illustrate how technology changes people’s lives. Some months ago, when I was visiting NGOs in China, I met a woman in her early 30s — a cancer survivor and single parent — who had enrolled in a Microsoft Excel course at a technology-training center for the disadvantaged that our program has benefited. She described Excel to me this way: “It’s like magic.” That may sound funny to us, but Excel changed her life. It taught her a whole new skill set and gave her a sense of excitement about the possibilities in life.
On a holistic level, I’m inspired every day by the fact that we are doing something that is game-changing. We’ve developed a whole new way for those who have technology resources — whether it’s cash, expertise or donated products — to connect with social-benefit organizations. These nonprofits can log on to our site and select from among hundreds of products, learn about what other organizations are doing, ask questions and really develop a solution for how technology can heighten the impact of their mission.
TechSoup has experienced extraordinary growth during the past decade. From a leadership perspective, what’s the most challenging aspect of this expansion?
Balancing change that’s necessary for growth with our fundamental culture is a big challenge for me. We have a very innovative and entrepreneurial culture that people are very attached to. Our employees feel a great degree of ownership and have definite opinions as to how things should be done. This is great, but as we grow the picture becomes more complex, and it may be hard for every individual to understand exactly why certain changes need to be undertaken. There’s an aspect of management that can feel hard and cold — that doesn’t necessarily fit the way that people feel. Communicating why certain changes are necessary is a big part of managing our expansion.
Daniel Ben-Horin, your fellow co-CEO and the founder of TechSoup, has reportedly begun exploring the idea of a “technology peace corps,” with TechSoup matching skilled volunteers with nonprofits in need of technical help. Is this project likely to gain momentum anytime soon?
We’re not quite in the planning stage yet, but this is an idea that has been talked about in our organization for several years. The feeling is that there’s an emphasis right now nationally on volunteerism and civic engagement. This may be the right time to pursue this. And we’ve already got an international network in place: we’re already working with representatives from NGOs in each country who are passionate about technology and social change and who are connected to the most influential on-the-ground people who care about this area and know what a difference it can make. We tend to like big ideas. We usually have a few of them in development at any given time.
As a woman at the helm of a technology company, are you conscious of being a minority? Do you have any advice for other women taking on leadership roles in this or other traditionally male-dominated fields?
It’s true that when you get to a very senior level, especially in technology, there aren’t that many women in these roles. In prior jobs, I think I’ve experienced what feels like the “good old boy network.” Sometimes women try to fit in by trying to be one of the guys, which can be frustrating.
I’ve found that the way men interact and build relationships can be different from how women typically go about it. I think of this more as a cultural, rather than a gender-based, difference. In my experience, women tend to be very task-oriented; they focus on being organized and getting things done efficiently. My advice would be to really invest in building relationships and take the time to try to understand your colleagues, both in business and social settings. You’ll realize that these relationships will pay off later.
How did your Columbia experience shape where you are today?
My experiences at Columbia were life-changing. I left there feeling confident that I could approach any business situation. I remember an operations professor, Martin Starr, who would say that you don’t have to know everything there is to know about a particular industry — you can always learn those details later on — but that you do have to have a basic understanding of a process and its inputs and outputs. I found this extremely useful, especially in technology, where there’s something new to learn every day.
It’s so important in this industry not to be afraid of technology or technical things — one can always learn them, at any age. I recently went home to see my 80-year-old mother, who always has a list of questions for me. This time, the first question on her list was, “What is Twitter?”