Personal Evolution to Leadership
People evolve into leadership positions under different circumstances and at different rates of speed. Family background is often a decisive element. A great mentor is essential, and hard work always a necessity. In the case of Laura Gibson, Director of US Operations for artificial intelligence and machine learning company Featurespace, we find all three factors at work in her rapid rise to business leadership.
Laura was born in Pisa, Italy to a professional basketball playing father. “My Dad played for pro teams in Spain, Holland, Israel and Italy, so we were always on the move. At the conclusion of her father’s playing career, the family moved to Silver Springs, Maryland where he took a job as a coach. The family of five settled nicely into life in the greater Washington, DC area. “I have a sister and people would always say ‘here come the Gibson girls,’” an oblique reference to the illustrations of attractive young females by artist Charles Dana Gibson at the beginning of the 20th century. “I took it as a compliment, but we were more than that,” she says. “I loved sports as much as my father and had a partial athletic scholarship for basketball, volleyball and softball.”
Attending college at Gardner-Webb in North Carolina, in addition to having been a tri-athlete, Laura also worked as a waitress while pursuing a combined program of fine arts, communications and psychology. While in college, the ever busy Laura also worked part time for an instructor of project management, Janie Mines. “I was fortunate to meet Janie. She was a great mentor to me and as the first black female to graduate from the US Naval Academy, someone I could definitely look up to.”
After working for Janie Mines for some time, Mines came to Laura and gave her some advice on what she should do and introduced her to navigating the corporate world. “Janie told me that I had the skills and was capable of being a strong project manager,” Laura said. “She recommended jobs for me and assisted me with the application process.”
Lucky she did. Because of the certification and guidance from Janie, Laura was put into the pipeline of people to be considered for employment at Bank of America in Charlotte upon graduation. Starting as a Technical Project Analyst, she first focused on technical change management and was soon managing enterprise releases containing approximately 150 projects each quarter. Laura was then put in charge of building a $5 million master control room where 50 to 60 people could monitor changes and releases.
Next, Laura began working with the merger and acquisition team on integration of acquired companies. “Initially, I was responsible for rectifying troubled in-flight programs and putting structure in place which was difficult". "Upon my engagement, we had to identify the best path forward, then execute” she says. Having exposure to help manage a $100 million program was challenging but gave her a deeper appreciation for effectively managing financials.
In 2009, Laura moved to Wachovia to manage customer satisfaction projects, but the acquisition by Wells Fargo that soon followed changed her work to projects monitoring social media trends. This new job required her to travel to San Francisco so much that she could not continue at Wells and accepted a position at the new Ally Bank as an IT Project Manager.
When Laura joined Ally Bank in 2010 as a Project Manager, they only had 60 employees. Today they have over 6,000. “At first, all projects, and many bank functions, were outsourced which required me to play more of a vendor management role. Then we began insourcing a little at a time, which gave me opportunities to build solutions from scratch” she says. Laura was given an opportunity to manage new product development, participating in both the business and technical aspects required to launch the bank’s first CD, IRA and numerous regulatory and compliance enhancements. On the financial side she had to manage a financial portfolio of over 15 projects with a value of $40 million and report out to executive leadership. “One thing I always tried to do, and I certainly did this at Ally, was to take the initiative to start doing the work expected of higher-level positions before I had the job I wanted. I developed a reputation for being hands on and responsible and senior executives knew that they could trust me,” she says, “and I was made a Sr. IT Project Manager.”
Management expectations of Laura changed dramatically at this point. For example, being put in charge of managing and integrating the customer service and customer contact interface for the call center was huge. “You have to remember that Ally Bank had no physical branches, so interaction with the call center reps was vastly important to our brand,” she says.
After completing a number of similarly important projects, Laura was promoted to Program Director but not without standing up for herself first. “I discovered that I was doing more and being paid less than others. Now, I’m not a complainer,” she said, “and I wasn’t sure that I should even point this out. Fortunately, a great job offer from Duke Energy gave me the courage to ask for a promotion and pay increase. “I learned to have difficult conversations,” she said, “and received the new position as pay increase within 24 hours.”
The level of responsibility and expectations soon changed respective to the pay increase. Laura was now interacting constantly with C-level leadership. "When navigating a corporate environment, it is important to have advocates that will help you get the career catapulting opportunities", Laura said. To get the next opportunity there were folks external from her direct team that endorsed her for her next position.
Laura’s internal mentor during this time was a woman named Susan Green, the Head of Operations for Ally, who as a business champion for many of her projects, helped her navigate the usual politics that exist throughout most of the corporate world. “Susan was a fair leader who pointed out when I needed to "step it up", recognized my accomplishments, and was an advocate for me internally". It took over two years, working on multiple businesses cases and then the program itself, but they launched successfully, and Laura was promoted to IT Program Director for the great work she had done.
“Over the years I have had several rewarding projects and developing a credit card business with TD Bank cobranded credit card was one I was most proud of,” she says, ”and I learned a lot about the various aspects of operations. In addition to all the technical and logistical aspects to setting up a new line of business, I had to think about the back office and how the business processes would work in this unique relationship.” The card launch went well and quickly grew to 50,000+ accounts.
After 9 years of working for Ally, Laura contemplated her next career move and was looking for progression and growth. While attending a conference, Laura networked which resulted in meeting the CEO of British artificial intelligence and machine learning company Featurespace, Martina King. "I reached out to Martina for mentorship and guidance. "Martina is an amazing leader with qualities I want to emulate "said Laura. Throughout my career I have looked to align myself with leaders I believe in and can support my professional growth". Laura also had the opportunity to meet Dave Excell, the founder of Featurespace. "Dave is an extremely intelligent and focused leader" she said. "Not only is he one of the greatest minds in machine learning, he understands what it takes to run a business". Laura quickly realized that there could be an opportunity to work with Martina and Dave and identified a role to lead Operations for the companies US presence.
Laura went back to Ally to give them the news that she was leaving. It was decided that two full time employees would be needed to replace her, but that this arrangement would only work if part of her work load was also divided amongst six additional people. “I learned a lot at Ally and it was a great experience,” she says, “but I also feel that my contributions were an important part to their meteoric success.”
Laura found an apartment in Midtown Atlanta in December 2018 and moved here in January 2019 to start at Featurespace. As the Director of US Operations, she is focused on expanding in US markets. Wearing multiple hats, Laura is naturally making sure that operations run smoothly, but also involved in customer service, staffing and assisting with sales. “My job is to act as a servant leader, removing impediments to success for as many people as possible,” she says. “I’m proud to say that we very much have a servant leader culture at Featurespace, where we take care of our employees so that all employees together can take care of customers.”
The exciting new company was founded at the University of Cambridge. Working in the Cambridge Engineering Department, founder Dave Excell taught machines to act and to think like humans. Called Adaptive Behavioural Analytics technology, it was first used commercially in 2008, when a company called Betfair asked Featurespace to build the first system to outwit fraud attacks by thinking like each one of their customers. Now Featurespace leverages AI and machine learning to enable fraud and Anti-Money Laundering analysts to prioritize alerts and detect suspicious activity in real-time, with explainable anomaly detection. The company has a number of credit card payment processors as clients to combat fraud. It’s no wonder that they chose to approach the US market from Atlanta .
Featurespace has grown from 12 to 45 employees in Atlanta in two years and expects to double that headcount before the end of this year. In terms of hiring, they are always looking for people with banking and payments experience. “I appreciate what Featurespace is doing to fight fraud and I also appreciate what the company has done for me. Everyone here feels like they are valued and that they can grow,” she says. “We all feel that we can stretch our leadership muscles.”
“I’m very lucky to be where I am today,” says Laura. “Yes, I worked hard, but everyone works hard, and – frankly – hard work is table stakes. My family life and connections to sports discipline was something that helped me every moment of my life, even though I didn’t always think about it,” she says, “and my mentors have been invaluable. My journey to now has been wonderful and I wouldn’t trade anything for the experience.”