The Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research is committed to empowering women’s voices and leadership on the Stanford campus and beyond. To promote this goal, the Clayman Institute is publishing profiles of our Advisory Council, women and men who have volunteered their time and energy to creating greater gender equality. Over the course of the year, student writers will interview council members-- representing many communities, including financial, legal, non-profit, and entrepreneurial. We hope these profiles will inspire, as well as begin a dialogue with our readers about what it takes to exercise voice and influence in the areas that matter to you. We will ask each of the council members to share their histories, paths to success, and career advice.
When Mari Baker, past President and CEO of PlayFirst, Inc. - an online and mobile games company with over 550 million downloads - arrived at Stanford as a freshman, she had never touched a computer. How did she go on to become the software and internet industry powerhouse that has landed her on Fortune’s list of Silicon Valley’s Most Influential Women? “I’ve always been comfortable learning new things,” Baker explains, “I was a double major in economics and sociology, but when I ran into a couple of guys in my dorm developing software, I was fascinated. I got involved, asked questions, contributed where I could, and learned as quickly as possible.”
Throughout her career Baker opted for learning opportunities, even when they weren’t the most obvious or immediately lucrative choice. Early in her career, she had an offer from a well established company that had all the perks of a developed business, and at the same time she also had an offer from Intuit, which at the time was a young company of only 30 employees. “The well established company was definitely the safer choice,” Baker says. As she was deciding between the two options, she was asked at which company she thought she would learn more. “The answer was clearly Intuit,” she recalls, “so even though they offered less money and weren’t nearly as established as the other company, I went for it.”
Baker started with Intuit as Product Manager on Quicken, and within 10 years she was Senior Vice President of the company, which had grown to 3,000 employees, gone public, and was valued at over five billion dollars. The take away? “Money isn’t the most important thing,” Baker says, “if you base your career path decisions solely on the amount you’ll initially get paid you’ll miss other important factors like learning opportunities, mentorship and company culture.”
As a CEO and manager, what Baker values most in employees is a willingness to ask questions, come up with ideas, and an openness to trying out new roles and responsibilities. “That type of creative motivation is extremely valuable and often opens up opportunities,” she explains, “in today’s knowledge market you’re hired because the employer believes you can add value to the company - so don’t be afraid to show what you can do!”
Also key is coupling that openness with hard work and not taking rejection personally. “I learned this lesson about rejection early on,” Baker recalls, “I spent an entire summer internship cold calling clients to build a broker’s clientele list. It taught me not to take rejection personally because most calls ended in rejection of some sort or another but I had to just keep making the calls.”
Baker encourages the ongoing creation and taking of opportunities. “In my freshmen year when I first got interested in computers, I didn’t know how to code, but I could write well," she recalls. "So I started writing documentation to go along with the software. That translated to value, which meant I could stick around and learn the rest.”
This knack for creating and taking opportunities is a consistent thread through Baker’s career. After 10 years at Intuit, Baker had been in an executive role for some time and was missing the closeness to product development and customer experience. While out on maternity leave with her second child, she started helping out at a friend’s company, BabyCenter, a small San Francisco start up. Baker enjoyed being back in the context of a small, collaborative company, and eventually transitioned to BabyCenter full-time to offer executive leadership.
During Baker’s tenure, BabyCenter grew successfully and was acquired by Johnson & Johnson. “The Johnson & Johnson acquisition was another opportunity to expand my experience” she recalls, “I had never worked for a Fortune 50 company before, and it offered the opportunity to work as a company president within one of the world’s largest corporations that could provide a platform and infrastructure to bring our product to global markets.”
Baker admits that her career looks atypical, but says each position gave her opportunities to blend work and “life” together. “For example, at Intuit I learned about financial management and investing. During my time at BabyCenter I had my second child and I devoured our parenting and health content. At PlayFirst, I helped create games that are appealing to girls and women, and my kids could test out new games before they were released.” Baker’s daughters are old enough to enjoy the games from PlayFirst, and Baker says she values how the company’s products keep young girls interested in computers and technology. “I don’t really believe in ‘work/life balance’”, says Baker, “there is one life and I was intentional about managing my career so that work blended with my personal life and values instead of against them” she says.
For recent and upcoming grads, Baker advises that “it may take a few jobs to figure out, but know the type of management and company culture that will allow you to develop your strengths and expand your potential.” Baker explained that her exposure to varied business environments provided her with a wide knowledge base, and her pursuit of company cultures that fostered openness and creativity provided the platform to transform her know-how into business opportunities. And it doesn’t just matter how you enter and perform at a job, it matters how you exit it as well, Baker says, “it’s a small world and you’ll never regret being respectful and considerate when moving on from a job.”
Currently, Mari Baker is Director at John Wiley and Sons, a publisher of scholarly journals and educational resources, as well as Director at Velti, a leading global provider of mobile marketing services. Baker also serves on the Advisory Council to Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. She is a Trustee Emerita on the Stanford Board of Trustees.
Sharon Jank is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at Stanford University as well as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. She is also a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team.